After finishing my screenplay with its new ending, I had dinner at the home of my uncle Vitalji Keis, a retired literary professor for Rutgers, and told him about my project. He had escaped the Soviet Union with his family through the Eastern Front and spent years in the DP camp Heidenau. His first six months in Germany, he lived in a hospital in Hamburg, because he didn't know how to live in the peace and quiet of peacetime. Nine years old, he had developed a constant nervous tick and had to be rehabilitated.
His response to my screenplay pitch was nonchalant, "I have that book. I first read Orwell in the DP camp. We still have it somewhere." My aunt, Tanya Keis, a retired librarian for Barnard College, had also escaped Soviet Ukraine. She jumped up from the table, went into their library, and came back with a copy of Orwell's bootlegged Animal Farm. "Here, this is for you," she said, handing me this thin yellowed delicate pamphlet with a stapled binding. The title read in Ukrainian Kolhosp Tvaryn—the collective farm—an obvious reference to Stalin's forced collectivization enforced by the terror famine. The cover was an earthy red, green, and brown illustration of an exhausted, run-down Boxer the horse pulling a cart in the background, and in the foreground rested a menacing pig, whip in hand. The Orwellian image of one class exploiting the other.
The scene Hitchens had painted about Orwell and the refugees seemed like the literary equivalent of the tale of Prometheus. Orwell, this Englishman—a god-like symbol of Western comfort—handed the suffering the light of truth, illuminating their humanity. But as I discovered from research and interviewing members of my family, despite the constant fear of repatriation, a renaissance flourished in the Ukrainian DP camps.
My uncle had first learned about Kolhosp Tvaryn and Orwell in school, where his favorite teacher told his class to read it. So my uncle picked up a copy in the canteen.
But Orwell's masterpiece was just one of many that were bootlegged and distributed in a cultural revival that included traveling theater and ballet troupes, Shakespearian performances in Ukrainian, opera and piano instruction for children, public art galleries with classes and lectures, crafty masquerade balls and dances, pan-DP camp artistic conferences, publications of political and literary journals and libraries full of anti-communist ideology, and a strict school system with scheduled study hours. By the time my uncle immigrated to New York at the age of fourteen, he had already learned calculus, Greek and Latin philosophy, introductory physics and chemistry, botany, and zoology. His DP camp courses were recognized by the state of New York, which required him to only take American history, English language classes, and gym.
"You can't keep intellectuals down," he said. "There were so many artists and creative people [in the Ukrainian DP camps]. Immediately, they started producing."
After five years of living in Heidenau—living the life of an "endless summer camp"—he and his family immigrated to the East Village, and one of the first things they did was help open a literary press.