I just finished reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. The student who brought me the book to read also told me I must listen to an interview in Brainpickings with Gaiman. In it the author tells this story of his 97-year-old cousin, Helen, a Polish Holocaust survivor: “She started telling me this story of how, in the ghetto, they were not allowed books. If you had a book … the Nazis could put a gun to your head and pull the trigger—books were forbidden. And she used to teach under the pretense of having a sewing class… a class of about twenty little girls, and they would come in for about an hour a day, and she would teach them maths, she’d teach them Polish, she’d teach them grammar….
“One day, somebody slipped her a Polish translation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind. And Helen stayed up—she blacked out her window so she could stay up an extra hour. She read a chapter of Gone with the Wind. And when the girls came in the next day, instead of teaching them, she told them what happened in the book.
“And each night, she’d stay up; and each day, she’d tell them the story.
“And I said, ‘Why? Why would you risk death—for a story?’
“And she said, ‘Because for an hour every day, those girls weren’t in the ghetto—they were in the American South; they were having adventures; they got away.’
“I think four out of those twenty girls survived the war. And she told me how, when she was an old woman, she found one of them, who was also an old woman. And they got together and called each other by names from Gone with the Wind…”
Gaiman concluded, “We [writers] decry too easily what we do, as being kind of trivial—the creation of stories as being a trivial thing. But the magic of escapist fiction … is that it can actually offer you a genuine escape from a bad place and, in the process of escaping, it can furnish you with armor, with knowledge, with weapons, with tools you can take back into your life to help make it better… It’s a real escape—and when you come back, you come back better-armed than when you left.”
Nelson Mandela once described Chinua Achebe, the most widely read African writer and author of Things Fall Apart, as “the writer in whose presence prison walls fell down.” Achebe’s words sustained him in prison. I once heard Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie say, “Fiction does matter. It can make literal prison walls fall down, but it can also sustain prisoners where they are.”
While people in our world tend to think of the art as the painted fingernails instead of the marrow in our bones, ISIS gets what a threat the arts can be to freedom. Consider that CNN ran an article in March titled, “Why ISIS destroys antiquities.” It tells of the numerous historic sites that ISIS has smashed. One of these was the Museum of Islamic Art in Egypt, which contained more than 100,000 pieces. The museum, having recently undergone an eight-year, multi-million dollar renovation, had to close again after its reopening because ISIS planted a car bomb that caused catastrophic damage. The writer of the CNN piece concluded, “The smashed artifacts of the Mosul Museum and the destruction at Nineveh and Nimrud . . . are the material record of humanity. They are not just for scholars, they are for everyone. They are the text of the past that helps define our future.
T. Anderson, the YA author of Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad told a group at Calvin College last week, “We think of the arts as dessert, but they change the way we live.”
His historical-fiction novel demonstrates this truth vividly as he recounts in it the story of how Leningrad (i.e., St. Petersburg, Russia) was surrounded by Hitler’s troops during WWII and held under siege for three years. Did you catch that? The beautiful city starved out for three years. Hitler’s experts had predicted that everyone would be dead after the first winter. Yet the people lived on and on.
Two great factors in Leningrad’s survival were the arts and community. Logically speaking, those who survived should have been the ones who stayed in their beds to conserve energy. But those who did so actually tended to die first. In actuality survivors were more likely to be the librarians who held reading groups in twenty-below-zero rooms or the teachers who searched out flats to find orphaned children. In the midst of it all, the famous composer Dmitri Shastakovich created a symphony that retold the story of what the Nazis had done, and the spirit of defiance in that music gave the Russian people hope. The score was smuggled out to the US, where people heard it and came to the aid of Leningrad. Art saved lives.