'Mary Became a Concentration Camp Girl Guide'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In response to Juleyka’s callout for stories of living under authoritarian rule, reader Annika flags an episode of the Reply All podcast (embedded above). She writes:

Even if you don’t post it, I definitely recommend giving it a listen or at least looking through the transcript at the bottom of the page. It starts off on another tangent but ends up settling on a truly amazing story about how a group of Western adults in China during the time of the Japanese invasion kept their kids relatively protected from the worst of the horrors by turning the experience into an extended Girl Guides (Girl Scouts) camp as best they could.

This growing collection of stories makes me think of one we posted for our adulthood series, from a reader who grew up during the Communist dictatorship in Albania. Here’s a reposting of Valbona Bajraktari Schwab’s note:

Adulthood happened very early for me—the change, that is; that moment in time when you stop seeing the world around you as a big playground and you realize that it’s a minefield.

It was April 1985 in communist Albania. Our dictator, Enver Hoxha, had just passed away. I was 11 years old, in 5th grade, and as part of the youth leadership group of my middle school, I was asked to participate in the wake for our leader.

This meant waking up at 6am, lining up in the main boulevard of our capital city, Tirana, and walking slowly the line that snaked through the road all the way to the official building that houses the body of the dead dictator. I was there with a few teachers and a group of students ages 10-18. We knew we had to be serious and sad and cry often, but we didn’t know how long it would take and what a wake involved.

It took us a few hours before we got close to the building, but we didn’t realize that we would walk around the actual body of the dead. I remember in a blur the low lights, the big mound in the center of the room, flowers piled everywhere, but mostly the smell—sharp, chemical, rotting flowers and the faint smell of rotting flesh. I walked quickly in a daze, looking for the escape of the sun and fresh air outside.

As I am leaving a building, a reporter catches my eye and stops me. He said he wants to interview me and ask me questions about my impressions of the wake and my reaction to the death of our leader. I was confused and asked him what he wanted me to say. He said: “Well, say something about how you have met him when he was alive and how you’ll miss him now that he is gone and how he will live forever in our hearts and conclude with ‘farewell comrade Enver.’” Wanting to leave and join my friends, I quickly blurted out the lines in front of the camera and left.

When I arrived home about an hour later, I learned that my interview had been broadcast on the sole national TV channel. My grandmother said, “You spoke nicely but you didn’t look sad.”

I didn’t think much of it. I was anxious to see my mother, as I was tired and hadn’t seen her since early that morning and she was late from work. My mother came home three hours late. I ran to meet her but she stopped me before I had a chance to hug her, held me firmly by my shoulders and said, in the loudest voice I’d ever heard from her, “Never, ever go on national television again and never ever talk about political things with anyone.” She then hugged me tightly and started crying.

I learned that after my interview had been broadcasted on TV, everyone had seen it, since it was obligatory to follow the ceremony, even while at work.  The representative of the communist party in my mother’s work place had seen it and had not been impressed by the fact that I didn’t cry. I didn’t show appropriate emotion for our leader’s death.

So, the natural answer was that my mother was a bad parent who hadn’t taught her daughter the appropriate emotional sentiment for the esteemed members of the party. He had called a political meeting right then and there, where the subject was my mother and her adherence to the communist principles as seen via her parenting skills. The meeting lasted three straight hours.

I thought she would be sent to jail or to a work camp and that I’d never see her again. Luckily, she was the first female surgeon of Albania and a very skilled one at that, so they spared her.