I am amazed how this fairly unassuming book has managed to send me reeling. You may wonder what is so interesting about an adult man in Berlin who attempts to write a memoir about his parents and grandparents by asking them hard questions. An adult who tries to recall what kind of homework he had in school, what was boring and what was exciting at recess. In a sense, the nostalgia for one’s childhood is universal. There were good stuff, bad stuff, your parents did things that didn’t make sense at the time, you were clueless, things change, get over it.
The land of your childhood has disappeared for everyone, but it takes a whole new meaning when the actual land has actually disappeared. Like, for real.
Maxim Leo’s childhood land was the German Democratic Republic (as in: on the bad side of the Berlin wall) and it has really ceased to exist overnight, the morning after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. He was 19.
The book is highly intimate and complex, but it reflects how the history of Germany during the 20th century has shaped a family through 3 generations at least. His maternal grandfather was a boy raised into a secular Jewish family when Hitler rose to power: his family flew to France in 1933 and he grew up to join the French resistance, escaping death by a hair’s breadth. His paternal grandfather wasn’t exactly a member of the Nazi party, but what happened in Germany during those years didn’t exactly disturb him, he supported them to the point that he hung swastikas flags at his own windows. While the other grandfather was in the Resistance and later on the winners’ side, this one was in the Wehrmacht and later a prisoner of war in a camp. The paternal grandfather was loyal to the Communist party that had saved him. He rose to a high level position in the party, so that Leo’s childhood was fairly protected and not deprived. The maternal grandfather did also find his place in the new Soviet country by supporting the ideology and starting anew.
Leo’s parents had a fairly more complex relationship to the regime that oversaw their own childhood’s and adult’s life in minute details. They were told what to think, what to do from an early age, but Leo’s mother had a hard time with that, trying to keep her mind free while remaining loyal. Leo’s father was a rebellious artist and didn’t follow the expected lines.
Leo himself is the product of this conflicting history and what his parents made of it, each in their own way. When he sets out to get answers from them, it is both heart-breaking and eye-opening, like an intimate tragedy. I held my breath for most of the book. I remember the 1980s and I remember the struggles and the divided loyalties. I remember those days in 1989 where we sat in front of the television and tried to make sense of those events. We were only sure of one thing: that the world would never be the same.
The book spoke to me because I am about the right age and because I found parallels with my own family’s background, but I’m sure that it would also interest anyone interested to see how a century’s worth of conflicts and ideologies translate into personal lives.