This piece was submitted by Yascha Mounk as part of the 2014 PEN World Voices Online Anthology

Yascha Mounk’s event: Tales of Two Germanys: Maxim Leo and Yascha Mounk Discuss Their Memoirs, Red Love and Stranger in My Own Country 

I never thought to question why my family might be so small, or so scattered. In Munich, there was my mother—Ala—and me. Relatively close by, in Frankfurt, there was my grandfather Leon. Far away, in southern Sweden, there was my grandmother Ewa, my uncle Roman, and my cousin Rebecka. There was also my great-uncle, a man by the name of Herrmann, but he lived even farther away, in San Francisco. As I was told whenever his name came up, he was, in any case, not much of a family man. I saw him just twice in my life.

That was it. Six of us. Seven, if you counted generously. It seemed natural to me, of course, just as most children, even those who grow up in circumstances they later recognize to be unusual or downright bizarre, think that their reality is normal, natural, even inevitable. I simply assumed that families everywhere come in small sizes, that a reunion of three full generations never amounts to more than seven people. Only much later did I understand that none of this was natural; that, on the contrary, it was the result of historical forces I might be tempted to call abstract, had they not had such a tangible effect on the world I grew up in.

No, it was not natural that my family was so small, for Leon and Ewa should have had parents who might still have been alive when I was born. Leon should have had seven siblings, not just Herrmann. Ewa should have had an older sister, as well as many cousins, aunts, and uncles. Even Roman and Ala should, I eventually learned, have had a big brother.

Nor was our dispersal, a good two decades after the death of so much of my family, natural. It was the result of a second manmade tragedy—a much smaller tragedy, to be sure, but one that, in its own way, dispensed with my grandparents’ lifelong hopes and aspirations in just as comprehensive a manner.

Ever since they were teenagers, Leon and Ewa had devoted their lives to an ideology that promised to rid the world of ethnic persecution: communism. But, in the event, the Communist government of Poland ended up throwing them—its most loyal aides—out of their homeland for no better reason than that they were Jews. It was in the wake of this second tragedy that my family dispersed to the United States, to Israel, to Sweden—and to Germany, where I was to grow up.

Leon first considered moving Ewa, Ala, and Roman out of Poland in 1956.

With an unprecedented speech to the Soviet Communist Party, Nikita Khrushchev had just denounced the terrible abuses of Stalinism. In Poland, the effects of this speech were immediate. The hard-line policies of the last years softened a little, making it much easier for Jews to obtain exit visas. At the same time, a significant part of the population used their newfound political freedom to give voice to the same old anti-Semitism.

A prominent political faction, the so-called Natolin Group, publicly stoked the anti-Semitic mood of the day with thinly veiled attacks on “Zionist traitors” who supposedly remained at large in Poland. Even Władysław Gomułka, the newly appointed secretary general of Poland’s Communist Party, began to flirt with anti-Semitic sentiments, encouraging anybody who wanted to stick to his Jewish identity—anybody who expressed solidarity with Israel, or merely wore a yarmulke in public—to leave the country.

Not surprisingly, many Polish Jews proved unwilling to sacrifice their identity in so radical a way. Between 1956 and 1958, half of the seventy thousand Jews who still remained in Poland fled the country. But Leon was not one of them.

Leon had been born on Christmas Day, 1913, in Kolomea, a little shtetl in the easternmost stretches of the fading Austro-Hungarian Empire. The faces of his childhood are the faces you see in those old photographs that chronicle the lost world of traditional Eastern European Jews: bearded men in dark jackets; women in modest, flowing robes; joyful children, momentarily forced to sit stock-still, visibly impatient to escape the photographer’s lens and get back to playing.

Leon grew up in just such a traditional family, together with his parents and grandparents and seven brothers and sisters. But he found his shtetl’s way of life outmoded and considered its poverty a terrible injustice. And so he was particularly receptive when older children started to talk to him about the ideals of communism—about a world in which all the prejudice of tradition would be done away with, a better world in which everybody would be equal and nobody would have to go hungry. When he was no older than sixteen, he ran away from Kolomea.

The Communist movement became his home and his educator. Leon moved to nearby L’vov, where he found work as a printer’s apprentice—the most intellectual of manual jobs, for it consisted of reading texts and then setting them in type, letter by letter. But his main interest was his after-hours work as an organizer for the Polish Communist Party, an illegal activity for which he was even prepared to go to jail. Far from discouraging him, his repeated stints behind bars only made him a more fervent activist.

And so, when the Nazis broke their pact with the Soviet Union and moved on L’vov in late June of 1941, it was only natural that Leon should turn east for help. In double danger—because he was a Jew and a Communist—he managed to flee L’vov on the last train for Russia before the Germans arrived. For the rest of the war, he was put to work in a makeshift ammunitions factory in Siberia, where he performed dangerous tasks for interminable hours, subsisting on scraps.

That harsh treatment made Leon the luckiest member of his family. Both his parents perished in the gas chambers or were shot dead in some Eastern European ditch. Of his eight brothers, only one, my great-uncle Herrmann, survived.

With most of his family dead, Leon, like so many others in the same situation, must at times have thought it impossible to go on. In those desperate moments, it was his faith in communism that provided a bridge between his prewar and his postwar self. He now thought it more imperative than ever to create a new, better kind of society.

As the Iron Curtain descended upon Europe and Poland found itself under Soviet hegemony, Leon’s political dream finally came true: the new Poland would be Communist. The contacts Leon had made in a lifetime of political activism now stood him in good stead. After a few years in Lodz, where Ala, his first daughter, was born in 1947, he moved to Warsaw, quickly rising through the ranks of the Communist regime to become the technical director of RSW Prasa, postwar Poland’s largest printing conglomerate.

But even though Leon had been a Communist his whole adult life, and was now a moderately important man, he wasn’t blind to the injustices of the Eastern bloc. One sunny afternoon in March of 1953, when Ala was five, she came home from school crying.

“What happened, Alushka?”

“It is father Sta—” Ala had trouble speaking between sobs. “It is Father Stalin. Father Stalin has died.”

Leon’s face hardened. “You, my daughter,” he demanded, “will not shed a single tear for that swine.”

Leon was, after all, nothing if not a good man. Like his wife, Ewa, he had become a Communist out of idealism, not opportunism. And yet his fervently held ideals made him doggedly loyal to a regime whose cruelty was getting more apparent by the day. Like the tormented, self-delusional intellectuals described in Czesław Miłosz’s The Captive Mind, Leon had, for a long time, contorted his conscience, ultimately tolerating far too much.

There were the severe Stalinist repressions that swept Poland during much of the postwar era. There were the political show trials. There was the all-encompassing censorship, of which, as the technical director of RSW Prasa, Leon must have been keenly aware.

All of that he had tolerated. In his mind, giving up on his beliefs because Communist reality didn’t yet match Communist ideals would have meant abandoning a lifelong commitment. Better, he concluded, to keep the faith.

And so, when Gomułka asked Polish Jews to shed their identity, Leon did what he had gradually grown accustomed to doing. Grudgingly, he obeyed.

In the years after 1957, open hostility against Poland’s Jews briefly subsided. Superficially, my family’s situation improved.

But beneath the surface, the most fervently anti-Semitic members of the Communist regime were busy preparing the ground for an even bigger pogrom. In 1960, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the highest-ranking political operative in Poland’s Ministry of Defense, compiled a list of “racially unclean” military officers. In 1964, the Ministry of Internal Affairs followed suit, amassing a list of all Jews still in Poland—a few of them religious; most, like my family, merely of Jewish ancestry.

These preparations bore their poisonous fruit in the late 1960s, when the leaders of the Communist regime found themselves in a rapidly deteriorating position. Abroad, Czechoslovakia’s Alexander Dubček was promising to institute a form of “socialism with a human face” that would largely dispense with government censorship and allow more private economic initiative. At home, Poland’s planned economy was stagnating. Moderates within the party, emboldened by Dubček’s success, were pushing for liberalizing reforms. Popular discontent with the regime was growing palpable.

Then, on March 8, 1968, 1,500 students took to the streets of Warsaw to protest repressive government policies like the recent suspension of Forefathers’ Eve, a patriotic play by Adam Mickiewicz that included allusions to Russian domination of Poland. Within a few days, the protests exploded in size and spread to universities all over the country. A general strike loomed.

Challenged in their orthodoxy both at home and abroad, Gomułka and his men were gripped by fear. Their hold on power seemed to be slipping. To diffuse popular resentment and rescue their authority, they settled on a classic political ploy: divert the attention of the population from real grievances to imagined enemies within the country. Poland’s remaining Jews were quickly scapegoated. In a clever top-down campaign, the population’s latent anti-Semitism was whipped up into open hostility.

First, government propaganda seized upon the fact that many of the leaders of the student protests, like Adam Michnik, had Jewish ancestors: “Jews,” leaflets handed out at the University of Warsaw emphasized, “have no right to teach Poles patriotism.” Show trials against Michnik and other Jewish protest leaders were hastily arranged. A state-controlled newspaper dutifully reported that, at their trials, “the accused behaved with the insolence typical of people of Jewish extraction.”

Then, with the help of the Interior Ministry’s list of Polish Jews, a campaign of systematic harassment commenced in earnest. In a state-run economy, most livelihoods could easily be destroyed by a directive from above. Within a few months, Jews were purged from positions in the civil service, the Communist Party, and the army. Jewish doctors, academics, and schoolteachers were also fired. So, too, were some simple workers. All four of my grandparents were booted out of their jobs.

Acts of intimidation, some planned by public officials, others carried out with impunity by ordinary citizens, were a daily feature of this bleak time.

One cold winter day, in the early months of 1968, Ala was walking home to the apartment she shared with Leon, Ewa, and Roman when she saw a car parked on the street. In the car, she could make out three plainclothes police officers. On the car’s roof, there was a searchlight that was shining a bright beam straight at her family’s apartment. It was to remain lit, day and night, for close to a week.

A few weeks later, Ala—who was only twenty years old at the time—was on her way to Warsaw’s Music Conservatory. As usual, she was running late for class. She rushed up seven steps, pushed the conservatory’s heavy doors open, glanced at a huge banner in the atrium, kept running toward the classrooms, suddenly stood still, returned her gaze to the banner, then stared at it, aghast. It read: GOTTLIEBS, WEINS, COHENS: LEAVE FOR ISRAEL! (Her surname was Gottlieb.)

All of this sent one message loud and clear. Jews, even those who had long since abdicated their Jewish identity, were no longer welcome in Poland. By 1970, nearly all of them had left the country.

This piece was excerpted from Stranger in My Own Country: A Jewish Family in Modern Germany, published in 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.