During a class discussion on Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, one brief moment in our conversation stuck out to me. We mentioned that there was a huge disconnect between the memoir’s lead character and her experiences compared to that of her ‘friends’ in the West–but we didn’t go too far into the conversation and mostly left it as an observation.
Specifically we talked on the surface about how the story’s heroine, Marji, had seen the real, visceral atrocities of war whereas her Western counterparts were much more distanced and saw war only through the lens of their privilege. They talked a big talk, but when it came down to it it was quite apparent that they had no idea what they were spewing on about and really had no interest in truly knowing what the reality was that Marji had faced throughout her childhood. This disconnect culminated into such ridiculous situations as her befriending an Anarchist group–a group she thought was prepared to start a revolution that could work toward changing the horrors she had seen–that only got together to play tag and eat sausages on the beach.
But what I really wanted to talk about is the fact that this disconnect isn’t just found in stories, and it isn’t something that happened only in this particular situation. The disconnect is real and perpetuating even today–think of how simple our lives are right now while our nation is at war in another country. Sure, we take time to thank our troops and people send care packages and dote bumper stickers on their vehicles and wave our American flags and share posts on Facebook about how someone who is ready to die for their country should make more than someone carrying a football.
But this isn’t war.
Unless someone has been in combat, or has lived in a war zone, they don’t know what it’s like. I know I don’t, and I admit my ignorance. Admitting this ignorance is what separates me from those Marji dealt with, just as it distances me from my great grand parents.
You see, my grandmother came to America from Europe. She was originally from Latvia, where she had to flee when she was only 13. She had worked for a Latvian diplomat and when the Nazi’s started rising to power, this diplomat and anyone associated with him had targets on their backs. She had to leave her family, her friends and her beloved pets and run. She remembers sleeping in ditches next to roads, being far away from a local town when an explosion occurred only to return to that town and see people and animals she knew and recognized dead in the streets. She remembers getting to the coast and being put on a large ship with far too many strangers than could fit comfortably and taking the trip to Germany.
There, she was lucky she had blue eyes and no one knew her. She eventually found work in an ice cream parlor owned by an American soldier during the war, and when she was 18 this soldier sponsored her and several of the other girls she worked with’s trip to America. She and her family now had an ocean and the Iron Curtain between them. She never saw them again.
In Grand Rapids, where she and these girls ended up, she met my grandfather and they got married. Meeting the family, however, was not a joyful experience. On the surface my great grandparents wanted to know this girl my grandpa was going to marry, but when my grandma tried to open up to them they denied her history. They dismissed her and her story and said that she was making it all up.
Eventually this took a toll on my grandmother and she stopped telling the story. She received a few letters and an even rarer image from her brother who had gotten past the Iron Curtain as he fought in the war, but she kept all of these things close to the vest. My mother and her siblings never really knew the story, only that they couldn’t contact their grandparents where they were.
The story, as it were, didn’t reemerge until I had an oral history project to do in middle school.
I called my grandmother. I had absolutely no idea what I was about to hear, and had to reassure her several times that I was still on the line because I didn’t want to interrupt her nor could I find the words to say to do so. She told me the story, and I took frantic notes in between tears. Decades had passed and she still remembered so much–including the complex she had gotten from my grandfather’s family. She tried to dismiss what she was saying, tried to tell me that it probably sounded silly or that it wasn’t a big deal, etc. I had to tell her it was far from it and that I really wanted her to tell me anything she was willing to share.
The call lasted over two hours and to date is probably the longest conversation I’ve ever had with my grandmother, who is naturally soft spoken and still speaks with a noticeable accent.
I will never know what it was like to grow up the way she did, and I will never claim that I do. I will, however, share her story that rarely got told for the rest of my life, and hope that it will reach a few in a way similar to the way Persepolis has reached so many, and possibly give some a new perspective.