PRAGUE -- No matter what was happening outside their apartment walls, Kamila Bendova pulled her six children together every day and read to them for two hours or more.
It didn’t matter if the Communists had imprisoned her husband -- the late Vaclav Benda, a leading Czech dissident and Catholic intellectual. It didn’t matter that state officials had bugged their flat near the medieval heart of the city. It didn’t matter if a friend showed up after being tortured at the KGB facility a block away.
The Benda family faithfully observed the rites that defined their lives inside their second-floor apartment, a site the Czech Republic has marked with a memorial plaque at sidewalk level. Every day, they prayed together, studied together and found ways to enjoy themselves -- while doing everything they could to show others there was more to life than the rules of a paranoid police state.
”I was never good at playing with the children, so I read to them. ... That worked for me,” quipped Bendova, who, like her husband, earned a doctorate in mathematics. Father Stepan Smolen, a Catholic priest close to the family, served as a translator during a recent meeting with Bendova and two of her now-adult children.
The family had plenty of books to read. The walls of the Benda apartment, where Bendova still lives, are lined -- from the floorboards to the high ceilings -- with bookshelves containing 10,000 books and snapshots of her 21 grandchildren.
The Benda children were especially fond of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” for reasons the family considers obvious. They were the hobbits and, living in a totalitarian state, they knew that “Mordor was real,” said Bendova. The family also held monthly movie nights for church friends and other dissidents. “Casablanca” was a family favorite -- once again for obvious reasons.
During the years after 1968, when the Soviets crushed an early Czech push for freedom, members of the Charter 77 movement referred to the Benda apartment and two others as three “islands of freedom” close to the headquarters of the secret police, explained Filip Benda, one of the family’s four sons.
The dissidents talked about food, the weather or family affairs -- knowing that the police were listening. During these meetings, they exchanged crucial information through streams of notes scribbled on stacks of children’s writing pads that were passed around a circle of chairs in the Benda flat.
The movement’s leader was the famous writer and statesman Vaclav Havel, who would become Czechoslovakia’s final president and the first leader of the new Czech Republic. Vaclav Benda, meanwhile, rallied Catholics and other religious leaders and, in 1978, founded the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted. His famous “Parallel Polis” essay articulated the need for creative, independent efforts to build community, pushing back against the dominant Communist culture.
”Some people were brave and said, ‘We do not want to live that way.’ ... Other people were afraid, but they respected those leaders. They knew they could trust them,” said Filip Benda.
It’s crucial to understand that most Czechs, during the Communist era, “didn’t really believe what the state officials were saying. But they were willing to fake it,” he said. “The most important question is always the same: Who will take a stand and tell the truth?”
Traditional families now face threats that are harder to identify than those of the Communist era, said Kamila Bendova. Warning children about the secret police is one thing. In a way, it may be harder for today’s parents to convince their children to be truly countercultural in an age of social-media narcissism, gender confusion, online pornography and credit-card materialism.
Someone has to teach children to distinguish between lies and the truth, she said. Parents still need to pray with their children, read to them and show them what it means to live a faithful life. As in the Communist era, they may not be able to count on church leaders to “speak out on dangerous subjects,” she said.
”It took a lot of work,” Bendova said, “to transform the souls of some of the shepherds. ... It is always hard to face the problems of the age and to admit that they are real. There are always forces that try to prevent Christians from living Christian lives.”
(Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)