Red Love: The Story of an East German Family
This piece was submitted by Maxim Leo as part of the 2014 PEN World Voices Online Anthology.
Maxim Leo’s events: Moving Beyond the Wall: A Talk with Author Maxim Leo, Tales of Two Germanys: Maxim Leo and Yascha Mounk Discuss Their Memoirs, Red Love and Stranger in My Own Country, and Literary Quartet: Two on Two
I’m the bourgeois in our family. That’s chiefly because my parents were never bourgeois. When I was ten, my father walked round with his hair alternately dyed green or blue, and a leather jacket he’d painted himself. He barked when he saw little children or beautiful women in the street. My mother liked to wear a Soviet pilot’s cap and a coat that my father had sprayed with black ink. They both always looked as if they’d just stepped off the stage of some theatre or other, and were only paying a brief visit to real life. My mates thought my parents were great, and thought I was a lucky person. But I thought they were embarrassing, and just wished that one day they could be as normal as all the other parents I knew. Ideally like Sven’s parents. Sven was my best friend. His father was bald with a little pot belly, Sven was allowed to call him Papa and wash the car with him at the weekend. My father wasn’t called Papa, he was called Wolf. I was to call my mother Anne, even though her name was really Annette. Our car, a grey Trabant, was washed only rarely, because Wolf thought there was no point washing a grey car. And he’d painted black and yellow circles on the wings so that you could see us coming from a long way off. Some people thought the car belonged to a blind person.
As a child, I identified people according to their cars. I didn’t know my parents’ friends by name, but I knew if they drove a white Wartburg Tourist or a Lada 1500. Most of them drove Trabants, so they were hard to tell apart. Sometimes I remembered the colour or particular fittings, but in fact Trabant drivers weren’t particularly interesting. A blue Skoda with added foglights and a fake leather cover on the steering wheel, on the other hand, made a huge impression on me. As did a red Moskwitsch with a fluffy duck on the rear-view mirror. But my absolute number one was a light-brown Citroën Pallas GSA. It belonged to Gerhard. This car was like a Ferrari in the GDR. My greatest joy was when my grandparents came to visit and I was allowed to sit in the Citroën while the rest of the family had a cup of coffee. I would sit behind the wheel for hours, imagining I was Erich Honecker’s chauffeur. No idea how I hit on that one, perhaps it was because the car was so unbelievably luxurious and could only be really worthy of a head of state. Sometimes Gerhard sat next to me and we played pilots. I was the captain, which was why I was allowed to turn on the engine and move the lever that made the car glide soundlessly upwards. My Communist grandfather could not have given me a stronger argument for the superiority of capitalism.
In the Citroën era, which was only briefly interrupted by a Peugeot phase, my grandparents were living in Paris. Gerhard was working there as a correspondent for Neues Deutschland. I only ever saw him at Christmas and in the summer holidays, when he brought us boxes of Lego, jeans and velvet jumpers. Gerhard was the Western grandpa, who could fulfill almost all desires. Wolf always got presents too, which is why I couldn’t understand why he thought Gerhard was so stupid. There were a lot of arguments about Gerhard in our house. Wolf said he was a Stalinist, and when I asked what that was, Anne dismissed the question and changed the subject. I sensed that something wasn’t right, but I didn’t understand what the actual problem was. Sometimes I heard my parents arguing in the kitchen, and when I walked in they fell silent. When I asked what they were arguing about, Anne said it was about politics. At the time, I thought politics must be a pretty stupid thing if it put everybody in a bad mood. Eventually Wolf stopped even coming when we visited my grandparents. I saw less and less of Gerhard too. When we met he seemed absent and remote. We stopped playing pilots or Erich Honecker’s chauffeur. There were fewer presents as well. That was the time when I lost my grandfather. I only knew my other grandfather from Wolf ’s stories. When Wolf was twenty, he broke off all contact with his father. There were no letters, no signs of life, nothing. I knew his name was Werner, that he often beat Wolf, and that he liked other women more than Grandma Sigrid.
When Wolf talked about Werner, he was sad and slightly helpless, which was why I was always glad when we were able to talk about something else again. Werner was a weird, shadowy figure as far as I was concerned. An evil stranger. That was also why I wasn’t particularly keen to meet him. Werner wasn’t one of us, and there was no reason to change that.
It was only after the fall of the Wall that Wolf thought it was time to talk to Werner again. Perhaps it was because everything was in a state of confusion anyway. All of life was starting over again, it was the end of final decisions, and even an ostracized father got another chance. I was quite excited when we climbed to Werner’s flat in Pankow one winter afternoon. Standing in the doorway was an old man who looked strangely familiar to me. Werner has the same eyes as my father. Amused, quick eyes that dart back and forth and register everything. When we went into the sitting room, Werner told Wolf to turn out the light in the corridor. I couldn’t help laughing. That damned sentence had accompanied me throughout the whole of my childhood. Wolf had always told us to turn the light out when we left a room. Because electricity is expensive, and because there’s nothing worse than wasting money. Now my father himself had become a child again, obediently turning out the light in the corridor. Werner showed us his workshop. Everything looked exactly as it did in Wolf ’s studio. The tools were neatly lined up, the paper was in the right-hand corner of the desk. I reflected that you probably never escape your father, however far you might push him away. I understood that I’d known Werner for ages. That he’s in my father and perhaps also in me. That you don’t decide who your father is.
My two grandfathers never met. I don’t know if they’d have had anything to say to each other if they had met. Still, they built the same state, they were in the same Party, perhaps they even believed in the same things at some point. And yet they would probably have remained strange to one another because their careers were so different, because fate had guided them in very different directions very early on.
When Gerhard is born in Berlin on 8 June 1923, the family sends out cards on handmade paper with their son’s initials embossed in gold. Gerhard has two older sisters who frame the son and heir like angels in the childhood photographs. The sisters wear ruched dresses and have enormous silk slides in their hair, and Gerhard is also wrapped in a white dress that makes his delicate face look even gentler. At this time Gerhard’s father, Wilhelm, and a partner run a big international law firm on the Kurfürstendamm. They have a nanny, a housekeeper and a chauffeur. Frieda, Gerhard’s mother, is in charge of the household. She is from the Hamburg seagoing family Barents, who trace themselves back to the Dutch seafarer Willem Barents, who in the sixteenth century discovered the route to the North Pole that was later named after him. They’re very proud of that in our family even today, which might have something to do with the fact that we’ve all got a lousy sense of direction. I constantly get lost even in my own part of town, and my mother would probably starve to death if she were left out in the city park. Perhaps our gift for orientation was used up to such an extent 500 years ago that there’s nothing left for us.
Wilhelm is from a Jewish family that moved from Warsaw to Berlin in the eighteenth century, and whose sons became either doctors or lawyers. The family converted to the Protestant faith very early, and otherwise tried to eradicate the traces of their Jewish origins as best they could. Even the original family name, Levin, was shed and replaced by Leo, which to my ears doesn’t sound particularly Prussian either. When Gerhard is three years old, the family moves to Rheinsberg, to a villa on the lake. Later Gerhard asks his father why they left Berlin, and Wilhelm says, “It was high time. I was well on the way to becoming wealthy.” But probably it’s most of all because his clients—mainly the chairmen of major companies—and the legal manoeuvres he had to carry out on their behalf were not congenial to him. William explains to his son that he’d rather deal with simple people and also escape the hurly-burly of Berlin, where he doesn’t even have time to play the piano. Wilhelm is an excellent pianist, and has often regretted not being a musician. In Rheinsberg, the family stands around the big grand piano every evening. They sing songs by Schumann, Schubert and Hugo Wolf. Once Gerhard asks his father why they’ve only got a normal car, while their neighbour, a confectioner, drives a huge car with chrome fittings. Wilhelm replies: “What matters are scientific and artistic merits, money doesn’t count.”
In Gerhard’s memory, Rheinsberg is a paradise. The little town with the famous rococo palace is surrounded by forests and lakes. In the summer they go for long hikes and boat trips. When Gerhard comes out of school, he goes to his father’s office and if he has time they have serious conversations. Gerhard is allowed to sit in the heavy leather armchair that is actually meant for clients. They talk about literature and music. Sometimes Wilhelm recites a poem, which Gerhard then has to learn by heart. In November 1927, a retired French general commissions Wilhelm to bring a case on his behalf. It isn’t a particularly big one. A relatively unknown far-right agitator called Joseph Goebbels claims that he was tortured in 1920 as a German patriot, in the basement of the French military headquarters in occupied Cologne, in the presence of the general. It was from those tortures, Goebbels announces in public speeches, that he got the club foot that people mocked him for at the time. The hearing is taking place in a Berlin court. Wilhelm is able to prove without much difficulty that Goebbels has had his club foot since birth. He presents a photograph of the little Goebbels lying naked on a bearskin rug. With a club foot. There is also a school photograph showing Goebbels in the front row with his club foot. Wilhelm also presents the judge with a certified copy of the military papers of the plaintiff, who was exempted from military service in the First World War because of his club foot. The court sentences Goebbels to pay a symbolic franc as damages to the French general. Once the ruling has been given, Goebbels’ lawyer walks up to Wilhelm and says in a menacing voice, “You, sir, will remember this day often and vividly.”
Wilhelm doesn’t take these words particularly seriously. Only a few years later, in autumn 1932, when the Nazis set about taking power, does he remember the trial. Once Gerhard listens in on a conversation that his parents are having in the drawing room, in muted voices. Wilhelm says, “They’ll take their revenge as soon as they can.” The conversations over dinner, which until then had been light and cheerful because Wilhelm liked to amuse the family with funny anecdotes, become serious. All of a sudden his parents are talking only about politics. It’s all about whether the Nazis are going to take over the government or not. Wilhelm calls the Nazis “Teutons”, “barbarians” or even “the lawless ones”, which is the most serious condemnation as far as he’s concerned, because he places the law above everything else. Wilhelm has often told Gerhard that man is different from the animals primarily because he deliberately applies laws and thus creates a just coexistence. Wilhelm can’t imagine that people who openly declare that they’re not going to adhere to the constitution could ever enter government.
On 30 January 1933, Hitler is appointed Reich Chancellor. Only a few days later, some boys in Gerhard’s class are wearing brown shirts and swastika armbands. A schoolfriend tells Gerhard rather embarrassedly on the way home that he isn’t allowed to play with him any more because Gerhard isn’t racially pure. “Your mother is Aryan, but your father is a Jew.” Gerhard doesn’t understand what his friend means. He’s heard of Jews, but what does Aryan mean? Perhaps, Gerhard thinks, the boy’s got mixed up. Does he mean Arabian? Gerhard has just read a book of adventure stories in which Arabian warriors gallop through the desert and defeat everyone who tries to stand up to them. He runs home, charges into his father’s office and says he wants to be Arabian, like Mutti.
Wilhelm interrupts his work, invites Gerhard to take a seat in the heavy armchair and listens. Then his father tells him that the Nazis want to bring back times long past in which people were burnt on pyres for their origins or convictions. “Now nothing will be as it was,” says Wilhelm, and for the first time Gerhard sees something like fear on his face. Gerhard must promise to tell his father anything that strikes him as strange. He should be extremely careful in conversations with teachers and other children. He is nine years old.
The night after the Reichstag fire, on 28 February 1933, a truck of armed SA men stops outside the family’s house in Rheinsberg. Gerhard wakes up because he hears voices and shouts. He opens his nursery window and sees his father being beaten up by men in uniform and dragged through the front garden to the truck. He sees his mother, with tears running down her face, standing by the steps to the front door. Gerhard screams into the night. It is a desperate, piercing cry that sounds very strange, even to him. He will see the pictures of that night before his eyes often in years to come. They are the pictures which shook him out of childhood, which will later show him time and again what is right and what is wrong. In his memoirs, which Gerhard wrote in the late Seventies and which, now that he himself can no longer speak, are my most important source for finding out things about his life, Gerhard writes: “Since I saw my father being abused by SA men as a child, the cruelty of the regime, its crimes against humanity, are my chief motivation for anti-fascist resistance.”
I found the first version of his memoirs in a green file in the Federal archive in Berlin-Lichterfelde. Two hundred and ninety-eight typed pages, thin, yellowish copy paper that smells of dust when you turn the pages. My grandmother Nora probably typed it all out. For many long years she was his secretary and companion. I don’t know if she wouldn’t have liked to do something for herself. Whether he ever asked what she wanted. Nora was there when Gerhard needed her, she looked after the children and the household. She lived her whole life in his shadow, and she says today that that was fine. But then what is she supposed to say?
Gerhard always wrote by hand. He said he couldn’t feel the text otherwise. His memoirs are archived in the files of the Central Party Control Commission. That was where the Party watchdogs sat, making sure that a comrade was still on the right path. The Commission also decided who was excluded from the Party, which for convinced comrades amounted to a death sentence. I would like to know how Gerhard’s manuscript ended up there. Did he deliver it to the censors himself? Most of the text is identical to what was published a few years later under the title Early Train to Toulouse. But some passages have disappeared. Above all, the one about the relationship between the German Communists and the Social Democrats in France. Gerhard describes cordial cooperation, but later on, that didn’t fit with the historiography of the East Berlin comrades. The violent debates among German émigrés in Paris about the non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin in 1939 don’t appear in the book either. Gerhard writes about how shocked the German Communists were that Moscow should enter into a pact with the Nazis. But afterwards nobody wanted to remember that, because the German Communist Party had spoken in favour of the pact. And of course the Party never made a mistake.
In his account of his childhood and early youth, Gerhard still displays feelings. He writes about his anxieties, his doubts, his weaknesses, his curiosity. Later, when he writes about his illegal work in France, when he himself must already have been a comrade, he just writes coolly and pragmatically. As if at some point something in his attitude had frozen and he could no longer change it. An attitude based entirely on appearance, which made even the most difficult decisions simple. Because it was no longer about him, but about the great cause whose servant he had become. I wonder whether he would still write it like that today, whether his attitude would have held. If he could still speak.
This piece is excerpted from Red Love: The Story of an East German Family, published by Pushkin Press in 2014.