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Diplomats, politicians and ex-dissidents honor 'victims of communism'
Diplomatic Pouch / June 19, 2014

By Larry Luxner

The year 1989 will long be remembered for two momentous world events — one tragic, one joyous: China’s Tianenmen Square massacre and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Speakers recalled the 25th anniversary of both events at an emotional ceremony held June 11 at the Victims of Communism Memorial, located two blocks from Union Station and within view of the U.S. Capitol.

As traffic whizzed by on Massachusetts Avenue, diplomats from 18 embassies ranging from Albania to Sweden laid wreaths at the memorial, which was inaugurated in 2007 by President George H.W. Bush. The memorial itself is a 10-foot-high bronze replica of the Goddess of Democracy statue erected by students during the Tianenmen Square protests, which culminated in the massacre of June 3-4, 1989.

Former Czech President Václav Klaus, who led his country from 2003 to 2013, offered remarks — criticizing Russia’s recent aggression against Ukraine in the strongest terms. Lee Edwards, chairman of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, then presented the nonprofit group’s 2014 Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom to Myroslav Marynovych, vice-rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv and founder of Amnesty International Ukraine.

That event, attended by some 200 dignitaries, diplomats, journalists and war veterans, preceded a luncheon at the Library of Congress organized by the Austrian and Hungarian embassies in Washington, and sponsored by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. Organizers also hosted a panel discussion and reception later that evening.

Austria and Hungary figured prominently throughout the day’s events, because it was the 150-mile-long border fence between those two countries which was dismantled in May 1989. That marked the first visible cracks in the Iron Curtain.

“It is a great honor to be seated next to Vacláv Klaus,” said Austrian Ambassador Hans Peter Manz. “It was a very difficult time, and this transition was not smooth. It did not seem inevitable. It took a lot of work, and we must give credit to the people who made it happen.”

Hungarian Ambassador György Szapáry recalled how, as a teenager, he dreamed of a time when communism would be overthrown, and all of Eastern Europe would be free. For his country, that moment finally arrived on June 27, 1989, when the foreign ministers of Austria and Hungary cut through the border fence — a symbolic act that ultimately allowed more than 70,000 East Germans vacationing in Hungary to flee to Austria, and eventual freedom.

“For the first time, the border was open. Hundreds of Hungarians took advantage and fled for freedom, and so did tens of thousands of East Germans. Eventually the Berlin Wall fell, and soon the communist regime in Czechoslovakia was toppled,” said the ambassador, adding: “We wish Ukrainians success in their struggle for freedom.”

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Europe, spoke at the lunch only 24 hours after returning from a four-day visit to Ukraine, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. The main purpose of his trip to Ukraine — his third in the last six months — was to attend the inauguration of President Petro Poroshenko in the midst of tensions with neighboring Russia.

“As we watch Russia’s newfound interest in re-establishing control in Eastern Europe, there’s a temptation to fight fire with fire. But we mistake what the Cold War was all about, and why that ‘picnic’ happened,” he said. “Temporarily, a hole was made in the dike that allowed the water to flow over the transom. For decades, the West had set an example and showed all those living on the other side of the Iron Curtain what life could be like if you lived in a democracy. The force of that example was too great for any chain-link fence to resist.”

“Play the long game,” Murphy advised. “If we continue to send a clear message about the benefits of aligning yourself with the West, then Russian aggression will run its course.”

Rep. Dennis Ross, a Florida Republican whose grandparents emigrated from Hungary, said all Americans owe those who endured communism in Eastern Europe a great debt of gratitude.

“We did not see Romanians, Bulgarians, East Germans and Poles as a separate class of people looking for Big Brother. We saw them as a people united for freedom and liberty. And today, as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the crumbling of the Wall, we must do whatever is necessary to offer communism’s victims relief from the oppression under which they live — to allow them to escape those atrocities going on today, whether it be in North Korea or China. And God help us, let’s hope it never happens again in Ukraine.”

Edith Lauer, one of the founders of the Hungarian-American Coalition, is a member of the board of the directors of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.

She said her organization wants to raise $80 million to $100 million for a proposed museum to victims of communism. The proposed museum would ideally be located on the National Mall, either in a new building or in a nearby existing one.

“There is no specific timetable,” said Lauer, who escaped the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary as a 14-year-old girl. “I admire the Holocaust Museum and what Jewish-Americans have done in every single city in the United States to commemorate the Holocaust [in which six million Jews were killed by the Nazis]. They’ve raised funds and made the effort. Of course, we say communism has had more than 100 million victims.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican and possible 2016 presidential candidate, made a surprise appearance during the Library of Congress luncheon.

“I salute you for standing up and chronicling the face of evil,” Cruz said after regaling his guests with a story about how his father — then a rebel fighting alongside Fidel Castro — quickly turned against the revolution, was tortured by Fidel Castro and eventually fled Cuba, ending up in Texas. “Let us hope not to repeat the atrocities once again.”

At the luncheon’s conclusion, Edwards was presented with Hungary’s Order of Merit by a representative of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

“Power is not everything, even in totalitarian regimes. Friends and allies matter. Leadership matters,” Edwards said. “The Soviet Union and its satellites were led by aging tyrants like East Germany’s Erich Honecker, who predicted that the Berlin Wall would stand for another 100 years. That very same year, it came tumbling down.”

He added: “We in this room cannot, we must not, forget the victims and the crimes of communism. We will continue to tell the truth about Tianenmen Square, the Gulag, the Isle of Pines, the killing fields of Cambodia, and the boat people of Vietnam. Let us resolve that never again will we allow so evil a tyranny as communism to subjugate the peoples of the world.”

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