by Jerry Waxler
Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.
This is the second post inspired by Andrea Chalupa’s Orwell and the Refugees. Click here for the first.
When I began to write my memoir, I realized how little I knew about my grandparents. I never asked them what it was like to leave their homeland in Russia and travel to a new life in America. Nor did I ask my parents what it was like to grow up in Philadelphia as the children of immigrants. My ignorance was uncanny. Did I really have so little curiosity about them? How could I be so self-involved?
Recently, I met a woman whose ancestors grew up in the same part of the world my grandparents did. Unlike me, Andrea Chalupa knows about them because her grandfather wrote a memoir. And because she knows and cares so much about those events, she wrote a book that captures the spirit of those times. Chalupa’s book, called Orwell and the Refugees, tells about the great historical forces that shaped her family’s life.
In the 1930s, a couple of decades after my grandparents escaped, Joseph Stalin felt threatened by separatists in the Ukraine and decided the best solution would be to murder its entire population. The resulting famine-genocide was one of the great horrors of the twentieth century, but it was hidden behind the iron curtain of Stalin’s propaganda machine. In fact, many people in the west saw Stalin as a good guy and a bulwark against fascism.
When George Orwell decided to expose the cruelty of the communist regime, he had to overcome the resistance of those who didn’t want to hear anything bad about Russia, so he couched his frightening story in an allegory about farm animals. In 1945, after Animal Farm was published, it was translated and smuggled into the refugee camps in Eastern Europe, where Chalupa’s grandfather was trying to raise his children. In fact, Chalupa’s uncle still owns the copy of Orwell’s Animal Farm that he read in the refugee camp.
The presence of that book in the camps is the most fascinating thing about this whole story. Within those crowded makeshift communities, people maintained their dignity and hope by educating their children. These are the dramas that bring out the magnificent side of history — not the horrifying actions of murderers, but the pervasive attempt of ordinary people to stay balanced and strong in the midst of horror.
Thanks to her grandfather’s memoir, Chalupa provides a personal perspective on history, showing the human drama taking place during those turbulent times. The book by the grandchild weaves a rich tapestry of interlocking stories. The book’s title Orwell and the Refugees reminds me of one of the important authors who informed my own teenage search for meaning. Inside Orwell and the Refugees, I learn about that author’s attempt to spread truth and hope. And the very existence of Orwell and the Refugees provides yet another dimension. It shows me how, like a magic camera, our grandparents extend our vision a few more decades than we can see for ourselves.
When I first read George Orwell’s Animal Farm in the 1960s, it filled me with terror. Was the world really this dangerous? To get a better handle on my intense questions I turned to dark confusing novels by authors like Ferdinand Celine, Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett. Their fictional perspective felt so real, it undermined my trust in humanity and filled me with anxiety and dread.
It never occurred to me to ask my parents and grandparents to tell me what they remembered. I didn’t know that out of horror, springs courage. Years later, after the horror is in the distant past, we can look back at the whole sequence. My own grandparents, by explaining their escape, their courage, and their eventual success, could have offered me balm for the poisonous cynicism that overpowered me.
I wasn’t so fortunate. When I was a child, the prevailing opinion seemed to be that it wasn’t appropriate for adults to tell about their early lives. However, according to research by child-psychiatrist Daniel Siegel, parents who don’t tell their stories contribute to their children’s limited understanding of their role in the world. It certainly appears to have been the case for me. The way my parents and grandparents presented themselves, it felt like they dropped from the sky.
By passing her grandfather’s story along to us, Chalupa performs an act of social generosity, reminding us that the stories of individual lives contribute to the wisdom of society. Thanks to the explosion of interest in memoirs, more of us are writing our own stories and asking our parents for theirs. As a result, from now on, our children will be able to see beyond the stories in history books or the stories at the dinner tables. They will be able to draw conclusions about the way the world works from the lives and experiences of their own ancestors.
Remember that to you it was just ordinary life. To your children and grandchildren, it is something they only know from history, fiction or dinner table stories. You can help them understand your life in a much more authentic way by telling your story. What history would you pass on?
Read more of my essays about your parent’s memoir by clicking the links below:
Is this the year to write your parent’s memoir?
Answering Parents’ Objections to Writing Their Memoir
Parent’s Memoir Part 3a, Guiding a Ghost Writer’s Interview
Parent’s Memoir Part 3b, Guide for Ghost Writer’s Interview
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.