Discover more from Rod Dreher's Diary
Portrait Of An Iron Lady
Kamila Bendova, still fighting totalitarianism, and living not by lies
Greetings from Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. I’m here to give a talk at a conservative conference. Imagine my shock and delight when I turned around while checking in and saw that the person checking in behind me was none other than Kamila Bendova, one of the main heroes of Live Not By Lies. To refresh your memory, these passages from the book:
Kamila Bendova sits in her armchair in the Prague apartment where she and her late husband, Václav, used to hold underground seminars to build up the anti-communist dissident movement. It has been thirty years since the fall of communism, but Bendova is not about to lessen her vigilance about threats to freedom.
I mention to her that tens of millions of Americans have installed in their houses so-called “smart speakers” that monitor conversations for the sake of making domestic life more convenient. Kamila visibly recoils. The appalled look on her face telegraphs a clear message: How can Americans be so gullible?
To stay free to speak the truth, she tells me, you have to create for yourself a zone of privacy that is inviolate.
She reminded me that the secret police had bugged her apartment, and that she and her family had to live with the constant awareness that the government was listening to every sound they made. The idea that anybody would welcome into their home a commercial device that records conversations and transmits them to a third party ishorrifying to her. No consumer convenience is worth that risk.
“Information means power,” Kamila says. “We know from our life under the totalitarian regime that if you know something about someone, you can manipulate him or her. You can use it against them. The secret police have evidence of everything like that. They could use it all against you. Anything!”
I first visited Kamila at the family’s Prague apartment in the spring of 2018 to pay my respects to the memory of her late husband. His ideas informed my own Benedict Option project, which aims at building strong Christian communities in the West’s post-Christian culture. She invited some of her adult children, and grandchildren, for the evening. We gathered in the parlor of her flat, with bookshelves bearing thousands of volumes reaching from floor to ceiling, framed family photos scattered around, and a huge plaster crucifix hanging on the wall.
That Sunday evening, I learned that Václav and Kamila had not only raised children who kept the Christian faith under communist persecution, but also that their brood stayed faithful after communism, even though the overwhelming majority of their fellow Czechs had turned their backs on God. What’s more, all the Benda grandchildren are also practicing Catholics.
The Benda family apartment is near the former headquarters of the StB (Státní bezpečnost), the communist era secret police. Under the dictatorship, people who had been summoned for interrogation would sometimes stop at the Bendas’s for advice about how to endure what was about to come without breaking, and to receive encouragement. Those same people would stop at the apartment for comfort after their ordeal. What the Benda family gave to the resisters was more than mere Christian hospitality.
Despite the demands of her job teaching at the university, Kamila made time to read aloud to her children for two to three hours daily.
“Every day?” I ask, stunned.
“Every day,” she affirms.
She read them fairy tales, myths, adventure stories, and even some horror classics. More than any other novel, though, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was a cornerstone of her family’s collective imagination.
Why Tolkien? I ask.
“Because we knew Mordor was real. We felt that their story”—that of the hobbits and others resisting the evil Sauron—“was our story too. Tolkien’s dragons are more realistic than a lot of things we have in this world.”
“Mom read The Lord of the Rings to us maybe six times,” recalls Philip Benda. “It’s about the East versus the West. The elves on one side and the goblins on the other. And when you know the book, you see that you first need to fight the evil empire, but that’s not the end of the war. Afterward, you have to solve the problems at home, within the Shire.”
This is how Tolkien prepared the Benda children to resist communism, and also to resist the idea that the fall of communism was the end of their quest for the Good and the True. After communism’s collapse, they found ways to contribute to the moral reconstruction of their nation.
Patrik says the key is to expose children to stories that help them know the difference between truth and falsehood, and teach them how to discern this in real life.
“What my mom always encouraged in us and supported was our imagination, through the reading of books or playing with figures,” he says. “She also taught us that the imagination was something that was wholly ours, that could not be stolen from us. Which was also something that differentiated us from others.”
I deeply want to have that great lady on camera telling the world, in her quiet voice, how she gave her children Tolkien to strengthen them against totalitarianism — and how you should do the same for your kids.
This afternoon, Kamila and I had a brief conversation before we spoke at a pro-life rally in the old city center here. Her English is frail, so it was a kick to hear her speaking in Czech to the crowd later, with a voice more fiery than you would expect from a 76 year old mathematician. I told her that we are going to make a docuseries version of Live Not By Lies, and that we hope to interview her on camera later this year in Prague.
She perked up at the news. Kamila told me that it is so very difficult now to explain to people who did not live through Communism how dangerous current events are. She brought up the current cancellation of Russell Brand. Kamila is an elderly Czech lady who is a very, very conservative Catholic. She’s not the sort who would have anything much good to say about Russell Brand.
But she passionately defended him when she talked with me.
“Back in the 1980s, there was a famous Czech musician, who was very popular. Suddenly, one day, he was gone. You could not find any of his music, anywhere. He disappeared from the newspapers and the radio. It was like he never existed. That’s what they are trying to do to that man in England [Russell Brand]. He doesn’t have the chance to defend himself! The things they say he did were from so many years ago. It’s wrong what they are doing — but we saw this happen before. They are now destroying people again based only on accusations.”
I told her that we are eager to raise money to start production while men and women like her, who lived through totalitarianism, and who know how it works — and how it’s working now — can give their testimony and their warnings on camera, to reach many more than readers of Live Not By Lies. She wished us luck.
“Every week I go to another funeral of a Charter 77 member,” she said, referring to the anti-totalitarian activist group she and her late husband Vaclav Benda were part of. “There are so few of us left.”
Kamila is now using a cane to walk. She told me that the apartment where she lives, and where she raised her family, is the last apartment of its kind in the entire country. It was a central meeting place for the Czech anti-communist resistance. Beneath its high ceilings, and under its large crucifix, and walls covered with books, the Czech intellectuals, including future president Vaclav Havel, met to plan their fights for freedom. After Communism ended, the Bendas kept it just like it was. I’ve been there twice now, and it’s like a time capsule. I desperately hope the Czech state, or a private foundation, will offer to buy it after Kamila dies, and preserve it as a monument to the brave men and women of that generation.
The Live Not By Lies documentary series will be another monument to them — not only a monument, but a call to action to prepare ourselves to resist the present and future totalitarianism. Kamila told me today, about Communism, “They justified everything they did by talking about how much better it would be in the future. Now they’re doing it by saying that everything will be so much better once we have all been made compassionate. It’s the same kind of thing.”
Yes, it is. Please consider joining our Live Not By Lies crowdfunding campaign. Click here to go to the page where you can participate. For those who live outside of the United States (donations are limited to Americans, for tax purposes), or who for whatever reason don’t want to take part in this formal way, please write to our team at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn how you can make a direct donation.
We have nine more days left in the campaign. To see Kamila on Sunday, and to hear her speak with passion about the ongoing cancellation of Russell Brand as a throwback to the bad old Communist days, and then to hear her lament the passing of the last of those who risked their lives to stand against totalitarianism — well, it gave me a burst of passion for this project.
Please help us to get the funding together so we can get the witnesses to history like Kamila on camera before it’s too late. We do not have forever.
Facebook Hates ‘Live Not By Lies’
The production team came up with four simple memes to promote the fundraising campaign. For example:
Facebook rejected them. Wouldn’t let us buy advertising for these memes. We have no idea why.
Tells you something, doesn’t it? It’s almost like they’re determined to make the book’s point for it.
(I’ve sent this missive out to the entire list, but paid subscribers can comment. Won’t you consider subscribing? The comments section is really great. I’m sending this out on Sunday, because I’ll be at a conference all day Monday, and may not have time to write a newsletter.)