I saw the movie "The Lives of Others" with a JP and Sasha this weekend and I'll have to say that I'm still thinking about it. If you're not familiar with the film, it's a German movie about a German secret police wiretapper/interrogator in 1984 East Berlin who is ordered to wiretap and eavesdrop on a couple, a high profile author/playwright and his actress girlfriend. The movie got all sorts of awards internationally, including the Best Foreign Film Oscar this year. Rightfully so, I think.
Still, when I see movies or hear stories about these kind of activities of paranoid and controlling governments, it makes me perhaps a little more uncomfortable than it might make others around me because it hits sort of close to home. This movie got me thinking about what my mother went through as a child in the Baltics in Europe.
My grandparents had an apartment in the capital city where they lived much of the time, but they also spent time out in the country on the family farms. My grandfather's and grandmother's family farms were near to each other and they had known each other since grammar school, which is where they met (apparently my grandfather used to dip my grandmother's pigtails in the inkwells). After my grandmother and grandfather both finished college, they got married in 1928. Since my grandfather's early life had been centered around agriculture, he went to school to study dairy bacteriology and went to England to get his master's degree. Unfortunately, World War II intervened and he had to leave the country to go home before he could defend his thesis, so the actual degree was never received even though he did all of his work and research.
When the Germans came and occupied my mother's country, my grandfather spent time in a prison camp because he was educated in England, but one of my grandmother's brothers was able to convince them that they had no reason to suspect him of anything subversive and win my grandfather's release (apparently, this great uncle was a pretty respected member of the military and could use his influence effectively).
The Russians also occupied their country and, because my grandfather had studied abroad and was considered a possible threat, the Russians had a KGB agent living in the house with them as a "precaution". Of course, the woman whom they'd placed there couldn't be there all the time, so she would have "talks" with my mother about who had come over when the agent wasn't able to be there and what they'd talked about. My mother was four years old at the time.
One summer day during the Russian occupation, they were at my grandmother's farm when the Russians came and took all the neighbors from the nearby farms away in buses, but by some stroke of luck or fate they didn't go to my grandmother's farm. My mother said that they saw the bus hesitate at the end of the long drive to the farm and then drive away. They're not sure what happened to the neighbors or why the Russians didn't come to take them away, too, but after sleeping in the woods during the night for a time in case of a nighttime raid, they finally packed up a horse cart with all they could carry and left the farm, trying to get to the coast to escape. In the end, they got cut off by the oncoming Russian front and ending up living as refugees in Germany before they could get sponsored to come to the US years later.
All in all, they ended up better off than many. Many of my relatives had been put on cattle cars by the Russians and were sent to Siberian labor camps. Several didn't even survive the trip there, including some relatives in their 80's and some children. My dad ended up in Berlin with his mother after his father was taken away when he was 7 years old. His side of the story is less clear, since he never talked about it when he was alive, but I do know that he had to survive the nightly Allied bombing by lying in trenches during the air raids and he finally got out of Berlin by clinging to the outside of a train for 11 hours with his mother, who had to struggle to keep him awake through the night so that he wouldn't fall off. I don't know much other than that.
Having heard about what my parents have had to go through, I see movies like "The Lives of Others" with a particular chill, not to mention a bit of added perspective about all the petty things in my life that have been bothering me lately. Those things can go on the back burner and, with any luck, stay there for good.
Oh, and my mother, through an offer by the present government of the country where they came from and lots of sweat, paperwork and red-tape, has now gotten both the family farms back. My grandparents would have been happy to see it.