I just finished reading Red Love: The Story of an East German Family by Maxim Leo. What a compelling, intense and poignant journey this has been.
The moment I started reading Red Love, I was drawn into the inner dynamics, turbulent emotions and revealing stories of Leo’s family. The latter included his grandfathers’ experiences during the Second World War and the effects which lingered throughout the three generations.
Red Love examines the relationships between Leo’s family members as well as each individual’s connection to the German Democratic Republic (GDR). This is more than just a family memoir; it is also a journey through the history of the short-lived sovereign state, seen through the eyes of someone who was born into it, grew up in its shadow and saw it vanish overnight.
Leo brings the reader back in time by piecing together the narrative of his family through intimate interviews, old photographs and letters, diaries as well as surveillance files left behind by the Stasi – the secret police of the GDR, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
I enjoyed reading Red Love very much, especially Leo’s honest and thoughtful recollection of what life was like – not just for himself, but also for his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.
One of the most touching moments in the book describes an evening in Berlin that Gerhard (Leo’s maternal grandfather) spent with his dad, Wilhelm. The latter, who was Jewish, had been temporarily released from a concentration camp:
Wilhelm puts on a tuxedo and Gerhard the dark-blue suit that he only wears on very special occasions. It is only when they are in the car driving along Unter den Linden that Wilhelm reveals they are going to the opera. Wilhelm says this visit to the opera was actually planned for a few years later, as an introduction to the world of adults. “But we haven’t got much time, so you’ll be growing up today.” Wilhelm looks at his son with serious eyes. Then he smiles and says they’re going to enjoy themselves hugely.
Another poignant passage examines how Leo’s grandfathers – one fought in the French Resistance Army while the other was a German corporal turned prisoner of war – related to the GDR:
I think that for both my grandfathers the GDR was a kind of dreamland, in which they could forget all the depressing things that had gone before. It was a new start, a chance to begin all over again… They could never unmask the great dream as a great lie because the lies they needed to live would have been exposed at the same time.
I had read the beginning of the book on Amazon when the English translation (Haltet euer Herz bereit: Eine ostdeutsche Familiengeschichte in German) was first published by Pushkin Press in 2013, and knew immediately that I had to readit. If you’ve not read it yet, I would highly recommend to get your hands on a copy of Red Love.
By the way, have you watched The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen in German)?
After reading Red Love, I was reminded of this excellent film whose protagonist is a Stasi captain assigned to spy on a prominent playwright-actor couple. Awarded the Oscar for “Best Foreign Language Film” in 2006, The Lives of Others provides an accurate portrayal of life in the GDR, including the omnipresent repression, fear and sadness.
It is utterly heartrending and I had to control myself lest I sobbed buckets (I was watching it during a flight). If you’ve yet to watch this film, I would strongly recommend doing so.
Having read Red Love, I think I might watch The Lives of Others again.