by Jerry Waxler
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In her book Orwell and the Refugees, author Andrea Chalupa tells how the history of her family intersected with the history of the world. Her grandparents fled the Soviet Ukraine, where, in the 1930s, Joseph Stalin was killing millions of people. The family lived in exile at a time when many people in the West still thought of Stalin as an ally. That’s where George Orwell comes in. His book Animal Farm was an attempt to expose the truth about Stalinist Russia. A copy of Animal Farm reached the refugee camp where Andrea Chalupa’s uncle read it as a boy. Years later, her grandfather wrote a memoir about those events. This entire saga is described in a book published by the granddaughter in 2012. As a memoir enthusiast, I love seeing history through the eyes of these three writers. George Orwell exposes Stalin’s cruelty. Chalupa’s grandfather puts a human face on the millions of refugees. Finally, through the granddaughter’s eyes, I see how Stalin’s madness ripped through history, like a tsunami crashing upon the shores of modernity, and then receding as people grew, recovered, and entered new phases of their lives. To learn more about the creation of this extravaganza of history and literature, I interviewed Andrea Chalupa.
Jerry: Animal Farm was a powerful influence in my high school reading list, so when I read your story, I relate it to the feelings I had about it as a young man. Considering how Stalin affected your family, I am curious to know what if any effect the book had on your younger years. What are your memories of Animal Farm? Did you read Orwell in high school? When you read it, did you resonate with any personal sense of history about it?
Andrea: I don’t remember reading Orwell in school, but I grew up hearing the stories from my family that Orwell allegorizes in Animal Farm. But I didn’t read the novel until I was 26 and looking for inspiration and energy while working on a screenplay about Stalin’s famine in Ukraine. When I finally read Animal Farm, I felt incredibly grateful that someone “pop culturized” exposing Stalin and the Soviet Union. It had a massive impact in paying tribute to the countless victims.
Jerry: It’s interesting that you didn’t know about the actual physical existence of the Orwell manuscript hidden in your family archives. So I know you didn’t know about the original copy of the book. Do you remember anyone talking about the book when you first read it?
Andrea: No, no one. It was such a surprise and makes me wonder what other priceless possessions are in my family!…
Jerry: When you grew up, how aware were you of your grandfather’s past? Do you remember any incidents about how his past entered into your childhood awareness, say in passing comments or stories around the dinner table, or even hushed tones or avoiding WWII movies, or whatever?
Andrea: I grew up very aware and sensitive to what my family had escaped, their stories of survival. My parents and grandparents spoke openly about these things when the mood hit them. In sixth grade, I made a presentation to my class about Stalin’s 1933 famine in Ukraine and started crying. The stories I heard from my grandfather of surviving nearly being starved to death, seeing entire villages slowly wither and disappear, the stories of people driven to madness from hunger left a big impression on me at a very young age. The famine had only to be merely mentioned to get me to finish my dinner as a kid and eat every last bite, a tactic my parents sometimes employed. But I didn’t learn of the extent of my grandfather’s time as a political prisoner during Stalin’s purges and the torture he endured–I just knew that he was in prison, a victim of the KGB; but that was something that no one spoke openly about. Though one time, my parents had a party and one of the guests was a doctor. When he met my grandfather–whose hands slightly shook–he asked him, “Parkinsons?” My grandfather responded, “No, KGB.”
Jerry: Had you heard about the existence of your grandfather’s memoir when you were younger? When did you first learn about it?
Andrea: I didn’t learn about his memoir until my last year of college when I was working on a history thesis about underground religious movements in Soviet Ukraine. My mother brought it up as something that might be useful to my research since my grandfather witnessed religious persecution by the Soviets, and fearless monks continuing to practice and heal people. He wrote his memoir shortly before he passed away, and she held on to it for almost ten years before giving it to me. His memoir primarily focuses on his time as a political prisoner, the torture he endured, and miraculously surviving and being released from prison–all these things were too painful for my mother and the rest of my family to talk about. That’s why I had to essentially “go looking” in my own way, by studying Soviet history in college.
Jerry: Did you read it? If so, what was that like?
Andrea: I did read it. It was written in Ukrainian, which I can barely read; so I went to Ukraine after college and found a translator. I got to read his memoir for the first time while I was backpacking through Ukraine. It was incredibly moving, his spiritual descriptions of relying on God in “this hellish machine,” as he described the Soviet Union. The first time I read it, I was overwhelmed and cried. I had to remind myself of the many happy years he had helping raise me in sunny and beautiful California. Orwell said it best, the horror of a totalitarian regime is “unimaginable.”
Jerry: Have you considered making your grandfather’s memoir available to other readers?
Andrea: I would love to. His memoir certainly was an inspiration to me, and I know it would be to anyone who reads it. It opens with him as a little boy watching the Bolsheviks battle the Czar’s army on his family’s farm, and he describes growing up as the Soviet Union grows up. So he gives a lot of wonderful, historically valuable insight into this dramatic time. But the richness and power of his writing comes through most during his arrest and his life in a secret KGB prison. I have done preliminary research into finding a publisher for it. The same time I received his memoir, I began researching and dreaming up an idea for the screenplay about Stalin’s famine that led me down a different rabbit hole. But now that the script is with a production company, I want to focus on getting my grandfather’s memoir published.
Jerry: What impulse originally stirred you to write this book Orwell and the Refugees?
Andrea: The ebook stemmed from a talk I gave on this little known history to the National Press Club. I had been invited to give a talk at the National Press Club after giving a presentation about Orwell’s refugee camp edition of Animal Farm to the U.S. Ukraine Foundation–I think I just brought the book in to their office one day and it turned into an impromptu presentation! In preparing my talk for the National Press Club, I wrote a longer speech than I had time to give; I decided to present all my research in an ebook–an outlet that could fit all the research I kept gathering.
Jerry: When did you decide to publish it as an ebook?
Andrea: As a journalist and writer, I had been following the ebook trend for some time, watching it evolve from a “kiss of death” that turned off publishers to an attractive mainstream option. Journalists were just turning to ebooks to showcase longer, in-depth stories. It was an incredibly exciting project for me, because I had just spent two years pitching my screenplay to anyone who would listen, only to get it into the hands of professionals who would take another x amount of years just to produce it; I was hungry for the immediacy of sharing an ebook. My ebook explores the history I dramatize in my screenplay; so it felt like a relief to finally get it out into the world and in front of an audience versus a few producers.
Jerry: What feedback have you received from other people who were affected by these events in history, say descendants of refugees like yourself?
Andrea: I’ve made new friends and learned so much from people who reached out to me after I gave a talk or after they heard me share this history on NPR. People have written to me through Facebook just to share their story or send me their memoir or pages of other invaluable information, or helped piece together missing links I couldn’t find elsewhere. It’s really been a highlight of this experience and gave me a sense of community.
After I gave my talk at the National Press Club, during the Q&A, about a dozen people in the audience raised their hands with comments that I had captured their childhood growing up in the displaced persons camps of Europe. The looks on their faces were very touching and humbling. It was an unforgettable experience for me.
Jerry: In my view, your writing voice in Orwell and the Refugees spans nonfiction genres, combining essay and history in a first person perspective. But that’s just me as a reader. What was it like for you as a writer? Where do you see this voice evolving in your own writing path?
Andrea: Orwell and the Refugees was originally intended to be a 25 minute lecture. There was just too much good information that couldn’t fit into a 25 minute talk. So the research, intended for a speech, is presented as it was written–to be spoken. At the time, I had been reading a lot of Orwell’s essays, and he had a wonderful, frank voice and I think that also influenced my writing style.
Jerry: What’s next?
Andrea: I have a fantasy of one day writing and producing a screenplay about the displaced persons camps of postwar Europe. I had interviewed a lot of people about their experiences, people who were children at the time. And they made life in these refugee camps seem like an endless summer camp. They acknowledged, of course, that this wasn’t so for the adults, who had to worry and act for the sake of the future.
In the meantime, I want to arrange for the publication of my grandfather’s memoir, so it can be shared in its entirety. In Orwell and the Refugees, I only published the sections that show my grandfather living through the horrifying events Orwell satirizes in Animal Farm. I wanted to show the real Animal Farm through the eyes of a survivor.
If you are intrigued by the relationship between literature and life, check this essay I wrote on the subject.
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.