Eyewtiness 1964 / Diplomat at Kennywood focuses on Iron Curtain

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Participants in a "Captive Nations Week" program at Kennywood lit hundreds of candles to "Keep the Light of Freedom Burning" 50 years ago.

The candle ceremony was the symbolic climax to what had become an annual commemoration. The event at the West Mifflin amusement park was one of many across the nation calling attention to the plight of people living in countries and regions dominated by the Soviet Union, the Peoples Republic of China and other dictatorial governments.

The main speaker at the Kennywood event offered hope for a partial thaw in Eastern Europe when he addressed about 1,000 people.

"No one who knows the world today can deny that men and women behind the Iron Curtain are beginning to reach for greater freedom with some success," U.S. diplomat G. Mennen Williams told the crowd, according to a story in the July 20, 1964, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. As evidence he pointed to "the action taken by Hungary to permit Freedom Fighters to return to their homeland for visits and measures taken to assure free travel and exchange of information."

Williams, a former governor of Michigan, was assistant secretary of state for African affairs. He said it was important for "Americans and people in other free countries to support [people living in dictatorships] in their aspirations for freedom."

"Unless we share our blessings of freedom in a concrete and personal way with the people of Eastern Europe, we have failed to merit being called true American citizens," he told the crowd.

Ambrose Senyshyn, the archbishop of Philadelphia for the Ukrainian Catholic Church, delivered a prayer for freedom as participants lit the hundreds of candles.

Williams was partially accurate, but overly optimistic, in describing the changes that took place in Hungary in the eight years after the anti-Communist revolt of 1956. Hungarian leader Janos Kadar had permitted some economic reforms and improved human rights, but his government took steps to make sure the changes did not threaten the Communist Party's monopoly on power. The system, sometimes called "Goulash Communism," lasted for another 25 years.

It wasn't until 1988 that Hungarians truly were allowed to travel freely in the West. The following year the barbed-wire fence separating Hungary from Austria was taken down. The last Soviet troops left Hungary in 1991.

"Captive Nations Week" had first been commemorated in 1953. In 1959 Congress, in a joint resolution, designated the third week of July as the time to invite "the people of the United States to observe such week with appropriate ceremonies and activities." Every president since Dwight Eisenhower has been authorized to issue an annual proclamation.

That 1964 P-G story contains a name that is still familiar. Michael Komichak was secretary of the Captive Nations Week Committee, and he continued to serve that organization for many years.

In 1950 Mr. Komichak had begun hosting a Ukrainian radio program. Sixty-four years later, at age 94, he still hosts the show from 1 to 2 p.m. Sundays on station WPIT-AM.

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184.

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