‘I’m One of the Others Now': What Life Was Like for a Family in East Germany

“What had driven us apart? What was so important that it had turned us into strangers, even today?”

Maxim Leo | Pushkin Press | April 2014 | 17 minutes (4,200 words)

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For our Longreads Member Pick, we’re excited to share the first chapters from the book Red Love: The Story of an East German Family by Maxim Leo. Growing up with bohemian parents in the GDR, Leo recreates their lives as rebellious artists in an increasingly restrictive world. Our thanks to Pushkin Press for sharing the book with the Longreads community.

 

Prologue

When I stepped into the hospital room, Gerhard laughed. He said something. Weird, throaty words came out of his mouth. Then he laughed again. I can’t remember my grandfather ever being so pleased to see me. The doctor told me the stroke had damaged the language centre in Gerhard’s brain. All he could do now was express emotions. The rational side of him was blocked. I reflected that it had been precisely the other way around before.

Gerhard talked away at me. I pretended I understood. Eventually I told him that unfortunately I didn’t understand anything at all. Gerhard nodded sadly. Perhaps he’d hoped I might be able to free him from his speechlessness. Just as I’d sometimes helped him out of his emotional stiffness in the past. With a joke or a cheeky remark that shook his authority. I was the clown of the family, the one nobody suspected of evil intentions. I could overstep the mark with the hero of the family, the man no one else dared to contradict.

A clear spring light shone through the window of the hospital room. Gerhard’s face was slack and empty. We said nothing. I would have liked to have a conversation with him. I mean a real conversation. Usually conversations with Gerhard turned into monologues about his latest successes after ten minutes at the most. He talked about books he happened to be writing, about lectures he’d given, about newspaper articles people had written about him. A few times I tried to learn more about him. More than the stories everybody knew. But he didn’t want to. Perhaps he was scared of getting too close to himself. That he’d got used to being a monument.

It was too late now. This man, for whom language had always been the most important thing, has become speechless. I can’t ask him questions any more. No one can. He’s going to keep his secrets.

Gerhard was a hero even before he entered adulthood. At the age of seventeen he’d fought with the French Resistance, was tortured by the SS and freed by partisans. After the war he came back to Germany as a victor and built up the GDR, that state in which everything was to be better. He became an important journalist, a part of the new power. They needed people like him at the time. People who had done everything right in the war, people you could refer to if you wanted to explain why this anti-fascist state had to exist. They sent him to schools and universities. Again and again he talked about his fight against Hitler, about torture, about victory.

I grew up with those stories. I was proud to belong to this family, to this grandfather. I knew Gerhard had had a pistol at some point, and that he knew how to use explosives. When I visited my grandparents in Friedrichshagen, there was apple cake and fruit salad. Again and again I asked Gerhard to talk about the past. Gerhard talked about frightening Nazis and courageous partisans. Sometimes he jumped up and acted out a play with different parts. When Gerhard played a Nazi, he pulled his face into a grimace and spoke in a deep, gurgling voice. After the performance he would usually give me a bar of Milka chocolate. Even today I think of those monster Nazis every time I eat Milka chocolate.

In the presence of adults, Gerhard wasn’t as funny. He didn’t like anyone in the family to “go around politicking”, as he put it. In fact everybody who didn’t, like Gerhard, believe in the GDR, was politicking around the place in one way or another. The worst was Wolf, my father, who wasn’t even a member of the Party, but had married Gerhard’s favourite daughter Anne, my mother. There were lots of arguments, mostly about things I only really understood later on. About the state, about society, about the cause, whatever it happened to be. Our family was like a miniature GDR. It was here that the struggles took place, the ones that couldn’t be fought out anywhere else. Here ideology collided with life. That struggle raged for whole years. It was the reason my father went around the house shouting, why my mother secretly cried in the kitchen, why Gerhard became a stranger to me.

Gerhard and I sat together for a while on that spring day in that hospital room, which smelt of canteen food and disinfectant. It was slowly getting dark outside. Gerhard had caved in on himself. His body was there, but he seemed to be somewhere else. It may sound strange, but I had the feeling that the GDR only really came to an end at that moment. Eighteen years after the fall of the Wall the stern hero had disappeared. Before me there sat a helpless, lovable man. A grandfather. When I left we hugged, which I don’t think we’d ever done before. I walked down the long hospital corridor and felt at once sad and elated.

* * *

That day I wished for the first time that I could go back to the GDR. To understand what had actually happened there. To my grandfather, to my parents, to me. What had driven us apart? What was so important that it had turned us into strangers, even today?

The GDR has been dead for ages, but it’s still quite alive in my family. Like a ghost that can’t find peace. Eventually, when it was all over, nothing more was said about those old struggles. Perhaps we hoped things would sort themselves out, that the new age would heal the old wounds.

But it wouldn’t leave me be. I went to archives, I rummaged in cupboards and boxes, I found old photographs and letters, a long forgotten diary, secret files. I asked my family questions, one after the other, for days, weeks. I asked questions that I’d normally never have dared go near. I was allowed to do that, because I was a genealogist now. And all of a sudden our little GDR was there again, as if it had been waiting to emerge again, to show off from every angle, correct a few things and perhaps lose some of the rage and grief that were still there.

On that journey into the past I became reacquainted with Gerhard, Anne and Wolf. And I discovered Werner, my other grandfather, whom I’d barely known until then. I think something was set in motion after that day with Gerhard in the hospital. A speechless man made us speak.

 

The Shop

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.

Sven’s parents had a colour television, a three-piece suite and cupboards along the wall. In our house there were only bookshelves and a seating area that Wolf had cobbled together from some pieces of baroque bedroom furniture. It was quite hard on the bottom, because Wolf said you didn’t need to be comfortable if you had something to say. Once I drew a plan of our flat the way I’d have liked to have it. A flat with a three-piece suite, a colour television and cupboards along the wall. Wolf laughed at me when he saw it, because the policeman’s family that had lived there before had furnished it exactly as it was on my plan. He told me it was stupid and sometimes even dangerous always to do what everybody did, because it meant that you yourself didn’t have to live at all. I don’t know if I understood what he meant at the time.

At any rate, from the beginning I had no other choice but to become a sensible, orderly person. At the age of fourteen I ironed my shirts, at seventeen I wore a jacket and tried to speak proper German. It was the only way I had of rebelling against my parents. It’s their fault that I became a good, well-dressed revolutionary. At twenty-four I got my first job, at twenty-eight I was married, at thirty the first child came along. At thirty-two a flat of my own. I’m a man who had to grow up early.

When I stand on my balcony and bend over the railing, I can see the shop where I was born. The shop is only two houses away, on the right down on the corner. You might say that I haven’t moved much in my life. Thirty yards in thirty-eight years. I have no memory of the shop, we moved away when I was a year old. Wolf says they often put me in the street in my pram because the air in the shop was so damp. The shop was Wolf ’s first flat of his own. 26 Lippehner Strasse, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin. His studio was in the front, towards the courtyard at the back there was a dark connecting room and a little kitchen. The winter of 1969, when Wolf and Anne met, must have been quite a hard one. The snow was three feet high in the street, and the tooth mug was full of ice in the morning. The first time Anne came to visit, Wolf had heated the stove in the bedroom and put a coffee bean on the bedcovers, like in a hotel. Because the rest of the flat was cold, they ended up in bed pretty quickly. Two months later Anne was pregnant. She always says I was an accident. And the way she says it, it sounds more like Chernobyl than a happy chance. Maybe they wanted a bit more time on their own, just the two of them.

Today there’s an engineering office in the shop. Whenever I walk past, a grey-haired man is sitting motionlessly at his desk. You can just see his head and his feet, because the big shop window has a broad strip of frosted glass in the middle. Sometimes I think the man is a dummy. An engineer who stops at the waist. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never dared to ask if I could take a look at the shop.

The house next door used to be a butcher’s shop. The butcher lady used to slip my father packets of bacon pieces, because she knew he didn’t have money for things like that. An aristocratic lawyer from southern Germany who bought the house a few years ago sometimes plays saxophone in the empty room, still tiled as it was in the old days.

Diagonally opposite was a soap shop whose lady manager recorded exactly which women went in and out of Wolf ’s house and sometimes confronted him about it. Today it’s a design office, run by an American with an asymmetrical fringe, who listens to nothing but opera.

In the photographs that Wolf took of the street in those days, you see grey, broken walls and kerbstones with no parked cars. Wolf ’s scooter stands outside the shop. Everything looks empty, forlorn. Today the street is a dream in pastel colours. Gold leaf gleams from stucco facades, and it’s hard to find a parking space. The people who live in the flats are couples in their late thirties who feel more as if they’re in their late twenties. They are men with expensive sunglasses and women who wear tracksuit jackets with short skirts. They push buggies with sports tyres, buy their meat at the organic butcher’s and emanate that feeling of complete effortlessness that always implies a lot of effort. I live here, and to be quite honest I fit in pretty well.

That’s what Wolf thinks too. He sometimes laughs at me for needing so many things to be happy. Because I’m one of the others now. The Westerners. He can’t believe what’s happened to his son and his street. I wonder about that too. I don’t know how it happened, how the Easterner in me disappeared. How I became a Westerner. It must have been a creeping process, like with one of those highly infectious tropical diseases that spread undetected in your body for years, and eventually take control. The new age has changed my street, and me too. I didn’t need to move, the West came to me. It conquered me in my own home, in my familiar surroundings. It made it easy for me to start a new life. I have a wife from France and two children who don’t even know that there was ever a Wall in Berlin. I have a well-paid job on a newspaper, and my chief concern at the moment is whether we should have floorboards or a stone floor in our kitchen. I don’t need to take a position on anything, I don’t need to be committed, I don’t need a point of view. Politics can be a topic of conversation if you can’t think of anything else. Society isn’t the main subject of my life, I am. My happiness, my job, my projects, my dreams.

That sounds so normal, and perhaps it is. Nonetheless, I sometimes have a bad conscience and feel like a turncoat. Like someone who’s betrayed his past. As if I were still a bit guilty for my first life, as if it were forbidden to leave the things from those days alone. Now, that life in the GDR strikes me as strange and unreal. It’s as if I’m reporting from a distant time that has hardly anything to do with me. I feel like one of those old men who sit in a pink television studio telling Guido Knopp about the siege of Stalingrad. I’ve become an eyewitness, a man who experienced something a long time ago. Like my grandfather, like all the others who were someone else in their youth.

But in fact the East isn’t far away at all. It clings to me, it goes with me everywhere. It’s like a big family that you can’t shake off, that people are always asking you about, that’s forever calling you up. Even in my little family, the East is always there. I sense him when I visit Wolf, who’s now living a few streets away, in an attic that was once his studio. He moved there after he split up with Anne five years ago, when bourgeois coupledom became too constricting for him. Apart from his study area there’s a bed, a circular dining table, two chairs, a home-made shower and a toilet separated off by a curtain. Wolf says it’s enough for him. He’s opposed to all that luxury, consumerism, dependence on money and status. He wants to live modestly and be free, as he had been right at the start in his little shop. Anything else would actually have been difficult, because he didn’t earn that much money after the Wall came down, and only gets 600 euros’ pension a month. Financially speaking, he says, things in the GDR were much more straightforward than now because things like the flat and food were almost free, and only luxuries really cost any money. Again and again we urged him to prepare for his old age. But Wolf refused to worry about the future. “I hope I’ll be dead by the time I’m sixty, I don’t want to rot away in some old people’s home,” he said. Now he’s sixty-six and fit as a fiddle.

I don’t find it easy to be with Wolf in his attic, so I usually invite him to ours. Compared to his poverty, our affluence looks completely ridiculous. I have this constant nagging feeling that I should be justifying myself. I probably find it harder than he does, because Wolf is really content with very little. He has quite a young girlfriend now, and all the time in the world. He says he hasn’t felt so great in ages.

Wolf had lots of time in the GDR as well, or at least that’s how it always seemed to me. He made good money, and was able to work just for a few months a year. The rest of the time he made art. And took holidays. We had a little house with a big garden in Basdorf, in the north of Berlin. We spent our two-month summer holidays there, and usually our one-month winter holidays as well. My little brother Moritz, Wolf and Anne and me. We went on cycling, canoeing and skiing trips. Today the whole of my childhood seems like an endless holiday. Wolf was good at football, climbing trees, building huts and high-diving. So I wanted to be a bit like him. As free and strong as that.

Anne’s a lot calmer and more sensible than Wolf. She doesn’t take herself so seriously, either, probably a good start if you want to live with a man who thinks he’s the centre of the world. When I think back to my childhood, I see a woman in front of me, sitting in the corner with a book and a glass of tea, emanating such deep calm and contentment that you’d have to feel pretty important to risk dragging her from her absorption. Anne says she didn’t really know what to do with me at first. She was twenty-two when I was born, and in the photographs from those days she looks like a fragile princess who shouldn’t be exposed to too much reality. There’s a photograph of her holding me in her arms. Her pretty, pale face is turned slightly away from me, and her dark eyes gaze longingly into the distance. It was only when I started to read that she really started getting interested in me. I got the books that she’d been keen on when she was a child, and she was delighted if I was as keen on reading them as she had been.

When she first gets to know Wolf, Anne’s impressed by his rough, rebellious manner. He’s so entirely different from the men she’s met before. He’s cheeky, he’s an artist, he breaks the rules that she always respects. And he’s a handsome man with merry eyes and a goatee that gives him a slightly raffish appearance. The first time they go out together, they walk through the snowy park that starts at the end of my street. The paths are slippery, and Anne is wearing the wrong shoes, as always. Wolf takes her by the hand and leads her through the park, and somehow she knows she’s found a protector. Someone who won’t let go of her again.

They talk about politics, about the country they live in. Wolf tells  her how terrible he finds this GDR, how uncomfortable he feels, how much he hates having these old men speaking on his behalf. Anne says she’s in the Party. Then Wolf stops, lets go of her hand and falls silent. “Everything couldn’t have been right all at once,” he said later. It’s the start of a long love and a long argument. With my parents, the two things always went together.

Anne talks about her father Gerhard, the Communist who fought the Nazis in France. She paints the picture of a tender hero who loves his Party and his daughter. Wolf talks about his father Werner, the little Nazi who became a little Stalinist. A man he doesn’t know much about, a man he fell out with. Wolf says he wished he could find a new father back then. He likes the tender hero Anne tells him about.

Before Wolf is invited to Anne’s parents for the first time, they ask Anne if the new boyfriend is in the Party as well. When Anne says he isn’t, her father’s face darkens, and her mother advises her not to take it too seriously each time she falls in love. Wolf says today that it was all quite clear already, before he even saw her parents. Anne says that’s overstating the case.

At any rate she’s got a birthday, and there’s a dinner at her parents’ place in Friedrichshagen. Anne barely slept the night before, because she’d been summoned for a Socialist auxiliary unit on the railway, along with some other students. A set of frozen points had to be cleared of snow. But in fact all they did was stand around, because there weren’t enough shovels. Anne thinks it’s stupid that she has to join units like that as a student. Gerhard is annoyed. He says: “If there’s a problem in Socialism, everyone has to help.” His voice is unusually harsh. Anne doesn’t understand why he reacts like that. They defend themselves, one word generates another. Wolf looks on in silence and wonders whether this is really the man Anne has said so many good things about. Eventually Gerhard says, looking at Anne, “When it comes to the crunch, you’re on the other side of the barricade.”

I heard that sentence often later on, mostly from Wolf, who quoted it time and again as proof that it was Gerhard’s fault if the family never really came together. When we were doing the French Revolution in school, my history book had a picture of a barricade in the streets of Paris. I imagined my parents on one side and my grandparents on the other. I didn’t know which side I was supposed to be on. I just wanted everyone to make sure we were a real family. Without a barricade.

Anne grabs her clothes, takes a fat blanket and moves into Wolf ’s shop-apartment. For a while her mother tries to talk her out of her new love. She says Wolf is a wayward artist, not someone you can depend on. And he isn’t intelligent enough for her, either. It’s only when her parents discover that Anne’s pregnant that they give up the fight. The marriage takes place at Prenzlauer Berg register office. In the wedding photograph Anne wears a short floral dress, her belly swelling slightly beneath it. She has her hair up and looks like a girl. Wolf wears a dark suit and grins into the camera. Gerhard stands beside him wearing a serious expression.

The wedding is celebrated at Anne’s parents’ summer house. A French friend of the family grills marinated meat, there are roasted snails, baguettes, olives and claret. The guests speak French and English, they wear expensive suits and make jokes about the GDR. Wolf is impressed by the party. He’s never been to a barbecue before. He doesn’t know you can eat snails. He sees his first pepper mill, takes out the peppercorns and then doesn’t know what to do with them. The others laugh, he blushes. Anne introduces him to her parents’ friends, writers or journalists who lived in exile in France, America, Mexico or Shanghai during the Nazi era. Wolf listens to their stories about fighting, fleeing and suffering. They are people unlike any he’s ever met before. Heroes, survivors from the big wide world who have found their new home in the little GDR. Because they aren’t persecuted here, because they are safe here. Their stories are so different from those of his family. It’s all so strange. Wolf wonders if he can ever belong among these people, this family, this woman he’s just married. Gerhard raises a glass to him without looking at him. They drink to a happy marriage and a long life.

* * *

Reprinted with permission of Pushkin Press. English translation © 2013 Shaun Whiteside. Purchase the book.
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