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Great Escape

What Neil Gaiman and My Secret Agent Grandmother Taught Me

It’s all about the power of narrative

Art: renald Louissaint

Neil Gaiman has a story about his cousin Helen. Helen was a Jew living in the Warsaw ghetto during Nazi occupation. Despite the desperate circumstances, Helen was determined that the children living in the ghetto would receive whatever education she could offer them. Under the pretense of participating in a sewing class, 20 girls would gather at her cramped apartment every day to learn math and grammar. But that wasn’t all Helen taught them.

You see, Helen had a secret. Books were forbidden, and possession was a death sentence. But Helen managed to keep a clandestine copy of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Every night, Helen would read a chapter. The next day, when the girls arrived to study arithmetic, she would narrate the chapter from memory. When Gaiman asked Helen why she would risk death for a story, she responded, “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.”

Only four of those girls survived the war. Helen managed to track one down many decades later. When the two old women reunited, they called each other by the names of characters from Gone with the Wind.

Stories are space-time machines. Through them, we can explore distant galaxies, visit the ancient past or the far future, and peek inside other people’s hearts and minds. Gaiman concludes, “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.”

Helen’s story moved me deeply, in part because my own Dutch grandparents narrowly escaped World War II. My Jewish opa married my Protestant oma shortly before the invasion and against their parents’ wishes. Opa was a diamond cutter, and when the Nazis started sending Jews to the camps, he built a secret compartment to hide in during raids. It was the size of a coffin, and he recruited a neighbor who was a wallpaper man to help him conceal it. When soldiers searched their building, he squeezed in and tried not to sneeze. He would be one of the only members of his family to survive the Holocaust.

Meanwhile, Oma joined the Dutch resistance and became a secret agent. She ferried people, supplies, and information, risking her life every single day to rescue total strangers even while she, her husband, and their infant children lived on the brink of disaster. She would go on to earn a medal from the Dutch queen and be named one of the Righteous Among Nations by the state of Israel.

Whenever I face adversity, I think of my oma. I have never encountered anything close to the danger and darkness she wrestled with daily, and hopefully I never will. Her story is a wellspring of inspiration for me, a reminder of the better future she risked so much to build for her children and grandchildren, and it rests like a polished pebble in my heart.

“The magic of escapist fiction is that it can actually offer you a genuine escape from a bad place.”

But the Nazis who persecuted Helen, my grandparents, and so many millions of others were also inspired by stories. Theirs were stories of militant nationalism, will to power, racial superiority, and the return to a mythical past, stories that are disturbingly resurgent today. The Allies and the Axis both had stories they were willing to die for.

Anything worth dying for is powerful, and power is a double-edged sword. Stories transport us. Stories inspire us. Stories change us. The next time you devour a novel, listen to a podcast, or settle in for a Netflix binge, enjoy the ride and return with whatever insights you can glean. And then, once you’re back on terra firma, take a moment to consider what that story means, what larger narratives it fits into. Is it something you would die for? Is it something you would die to prevent? Who might suffer, and who might be empowered, if it were to come true? By becoming more thoughtful storytellers and audiences, we can make sure we’re using the right edge of narrative’s sword.

Novelist: Veil, Breach, Borderless, Bandwidth, Neon Fever Dream, Cumulus, Exit Strategy, Power Play, and Version 1.0.

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