Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Your Stories of Living Under Authoritarian Rule
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Readers share their stories and their family’s stories of what it was like living under a violent oppressive government. To contribute your own, please email hello@theatlantic.com.

Show 1 Newer Notes

'Mary Became a Concentration Camp Girl Guide'

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.

Responding to Juleyka’s callout for stories of family members living under authoritarian rule, reader Colleen touches upon the experience of her Dutch stepmother:

She spent four years in a Japanese POW camp in Indonesia—from age 12 to 16, and her brother from age 9 to 13. When they were liberated they went back to Holland as displaced persons.

The experience was NEVER talked about. No counseling. Nothing.

When she reached 18 she joined the Dutch Royal Navy, immigrated to Canada in her mid 20s, then to the U.S about age 28. She met my father and, for some unknown reason, married him. They had two daughters, who are now 53 and 52 (I’m 73).

My step-mom was a lovely, funny, gracious, manipulative control freak. Her mother taught me how to cook. Oma [“grandmother” in German] did not speak English, and I did not speak Dutch or German, but we flowed through the kitchen with smiles, laughter, and words that neither understood. Needless to say my step-mom had a wonderful effect on my life.

If you have a family story of living under a despot or during wartime occupation, please send us a note. For more context on Colleen’s note, here’s a bit of background on the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies, which lasted from March 1942 to the end of World War II:

The period was one of the most critical in Indonesian history. Under German occupation, the Netherlands had little ability to defend its colony against the Japanese army, and less than three months after the first attacks on Borneo, the Japanese navy and army overran Dutch and allied forces.

Initially, most Indonesians joyfully welcomed the Japanese, as liberators from their Dutch colonial masters. The sentiment changed, as Indonesians were expected to endure more hardship for the war effort. In 1944–1945, Allied troops largely bypassed Indonesia and did not fight their way into the most populous parts such as Java and Sumatra. As such, most of Indonesia was still under Japanese occupation at the time of their surrender, in August 1945.

A poster that was required to hang in every Dominican home during the Trujillato. It reads, "In this home Trujillo is a national symbol." "Rectitude. Liberty. Work. Morality." "1955: Year of the Benefactor of the Motherland" (Wikipedia public domain)

The Dominican Republic, where I’m from, is among the countries in the Americas that had authoritarian rulers for multiple decades. Almost all of my uncles and aunts, and both my parents, were born during Rafael Trujillo’s reign of terror, which began in 1930 and ended with his assassination in 1961. His influence on the country, and on my own life, is still felt today.

When I was growing up, adults in my family talked politics all the time, almost as much as they talked baseball. But in our family, politics was personal because my father’s father briefly worked for Trujillo, as an assistant of some sort. At our weekend family gatherings, some aunt or uncle could be found surrounded by nieces and nephews like me, breathing in a fresh retelling of a hand-me-down story from my grandfather’s past—in hushed whispers, of course. My grandfather himself never uttered a single word about his work with the dictator, and he took that part of his life to his grave a few years ago.

In some versions of my relatives’ stories, my grandfather was the official food taster, to whom his boss’s meals would be presented for inspection and sampling. (To this singular culinary task my family attributed his strict adherence to mealtimes and table manners.) Other renditions described him as a personal secretary of sorts, handwriting dictated letters to society families whose daughters were “invited” to lavish balls thrown at the executive palace, where many young ladies were summarily deflowered by the head of state in well appointed bedrooms.

(Having studied Dominican history, I am highly suspicious of the circumstances that may have led to my grandfather working for such a man. The autocrat was known for conscripting people into his service or else.)

I am partially a product of the codes and mores established by my grandparents, who raised most of their children during the Trujillato. I was raised to accept and respect strict hierarchies in my own family and in organizations in general. I was expected to prefer and defer to men for decisions, control, and public leadership—all things I slowly unlearned and relinquished as an immigrant in 1980s New York City, where the only valid code was hard work.

Dominican author Junot Díaz has said that all Dominicans are Trujillo’s children. I interviewed him in 2007 just before his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was published. Much of the plot takes place during the Trujillato, which the novel presents as a cosmic curse that befalls the island nation. This is what Díaz told me about Trujillo’s place in his own life:

The evil of the father lasts. The consequences of those kinds of patriarchal traumas last to the point where the person no longer has contact with the origins of that evil. I had no concept that I was Trujillo’s son. I had no concept until I was reading, got older, went traveling, and I was like, OK, my dad was a total copy of Trujillo. I mean he grew up in the military, during the Trujillato. He thought Trujillo was a great f* man, and we had in my family—and this is very common in many Third-World families—a dictatorship in the house. La dictadura de la casa. And everyone has different dictaduras, but the one that I lived under was a dictadura that would’ve made Trujillo very, very comfortable, because he helped design it.

The idea of having a genetic link to Trujillo—an evil force so pure that it warped an entire country—has stayed with me ever since. His legacy sometimes cautions me when I encounter limited thinking, when I consider untapped reasons for choices I’ve made, and as I raise two sons whose worldview I hope to make more capacious and expansive than mine.

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Did you grow up under an authoritarian regime? Did your parents or other close family members? Please share your stories with us at hello@theatlantic.com and describe how you think the dictator’s legacy shaped you.