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Summer of '68 echoed central teachings of Jesus

 

By Canon Walter Lewis

It was the Summer of 1968. Exams had finished and I was on my way to the University of Peace, in Belgium. It had been recently founded by Pere Dominique Pire, a Dominican priest and the 1958 Nobel Peace Prizewinner. I had been there a few years before and, again, this time I looked forward to the fortnight of study, reflection and meetings with the 40 participants and speakers from around the world, and from every religion and none. It was a magnificent experience.

On the last day of the gathering, the two participants from Czechoslovakia - Zeta and Jiri - informed us that the Russian tanks had just entered Prague, and that the 'Prague Spring' had been snuffed out. The democratic Prime Minister, Alexander Dubcek, had been removed from office. It was a dark day for enlightened rule in Czechoslovakia. It would be another 22 years before the people there would be free again.

I left Tihange-le-Huy and hitch-hiked south in the beautiful summer weather. It was my intention to go to Palermo in Sicily and, from there, into the hinterland to Partinico, to visit Danilo Dolci - a man internationally acclaimed for his work among the poor and marginalised in Sicily.

In Palermo, I was strongly advised to go no further into the territory of the Mafia, who were very active at that time. With great regret, I made my way back to Reggio Calabria, visiting beautiful Taormina, and eventually arriving at Trieste.

I had never been to a Communist country and decided to try entering Slovenia. In this I was helped by three friendly Slovenian farmers going in the same direction. They simply hid me under some covers in the back seat of the car and instructed me to remain motionless.

In the capital, Ljubljana, I was befriended by some students at the university. During my three days with them, I was shown generous hospitality. Their main concern was that I, from the West, should not be caught by the Communist officials in the halls of residence.

Soon it was time to leave and make my way back to London where I had arranged two student summer jobs - in the Institute of Bankers in the City of London during the day, and in Tiffany's Night Club in Shaftesbury Avenue in the evenings.

Still in Slovenia, in the early morning, I made my way north to Kranjska Gora, a beautiful tourist resort near the Austrian border. I waited optimistically by the roadside for a kind driver to stop and offer me a lift. I didn't have very long to wait. Soon, a yellow VW Beetle, laden with luggage, drove past. About 100 metres on, it stopped and the door opened. It seemed the driver was offering me a lift. "Where are you going to?", he asked in clear English. "London", I replied. He said, "I'm going to Frankfurt. Hop in!"

That day, we travelled about 300 miles. In the course of conversation, it transpired that he had been a German Nazi soldier in World War Two, and had been injured. That was obvious from his drastically inhibited mobility. We stayed overnight in a hotel and the next night arrived at his home in Heiligenstadt where he introduced me to his wife and 11-year-old daughter, Vera. All three insisted that I stay with them for a few days.

For me, that summer of '68 was enjoyable and eventful. Whether at the University of Peace or on the motorways of Europe, I met many people from many different places. We were able to talk and enjoy each other's company. For me, the importance of the central teaching of Jesus was confirmed - "Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself!"

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