Great Escape

What Neil Gaiman and My Secret Agent Grandmother Taught Me

It’s all about the power of narrative

Eliot Peper
3 min readAug 15, 2018

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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.

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Eliot Peper

Eliot Peper is the bestselling author of eleven novels, including most recently, Foundry. He also consults on special projects. www.eliotpeper.com