I think I should start this review with a very brief explainer. I didn’t set out to review German books that haven’t yet been translated into English, but I completely fell in love with this book and just felt I had to write about it. So if you don’t read German, apologies for that – but fingers crossed this will find its way into translation very soon!
You may actually be familiar with Maxim Leo from his previous book Red Love: The Story of an East German Family, translated by Shaun Whiteside and published by Pushkin Press in 2013. In that book (which I must admit I haven’t read, though I will do soon!) Leo traced his family story through the Cold War, during which he lived in East Germany. In Wo wir zu Hause sind (Where We Are at Home) he goes back even further to the 1930s, when his grandparents’ generation was threatened by the rise of the Nazis. Although Leo himself had not really identified much with his Jewish heritage in the past, researching this story led him to really consider his own roots and the ultimate question that many of us face in life – what we consider to be home, and where we feel we belong.
Wo wir zu Hause sind, which falls into the category of non-fiction/memoir, focuses primarily on Maxim Leo’s great-aunt Ilse, her cousins Hilde and Irmgard, and their families. As the Nazis tighten their grip, the relatives leave Germany one by one to find safety. Ilse moves to France and ends up in an internment camp where she meets Heinz. When Ilse falls pregnant with their daughter Susi, they escape the camp and work underground for the Resistance until the end of the war. Hilde moves to England with her son André, while Irmgard and her husband Hans change their names to Nina and Hanan and move to Israel and join a kibbutz. Maxim Leo traces their roots back to England, Israel and France, meeting each branch of the Leo family, many of whom he has never met before. He forms close connections with some of his relatives, in particular Amnon, a cousin who later moves from Israel to Germany to study and work.
The book had quite a profound effect on me. The terrifying rise of anti-Semitism today throws the accounts of Nazi brutality into sharp relief, and the emotional pull of the Leo family’s story is strong. Although many of Maxim’s relatives survived the persecution, they only did so by abandoning their homes and starting over in completely different countries, learning new languages and often still putting themselves in danger to keep themselves and others safe. And even today the family is still scattered, many of the relatives are not in touch with each other, often not even speaking the same language. The displacement of Maxim Leo’s family has had a lasting impact right through to the present day. And yet, when they finally meet, the relatives feel drawn to one another. They share stories and memories and exchange experiences, and they discover new homes they never knew they had. Maxim Leo is intrigued by Israel, his Israeli cousins want to move to Germany, while his cousin Susi, who grew up in Vienna, feels compelled to move back to France where she was born. And Leo’s British cousin Andrew wants to embrace his German heritage and get a German passport to ensure he can move freely across Europe even after Brexit. A feeling that many of us might be familiar with…
Although this is first and foremost a family history, it is so firmly rooted in the present that readers can’t help but identify with it. The family photos add a nice touch, and the engaging and accessible narrative style reads almost like a novel. I think this is a very important book and one that would certainly do well in translation – so I can only hope that Shaun Whiteside is given the opportunity to translate this book soon so that you can all read it in English too!
Wo wir zu Hause sind was published in German by Kiepenheuer & Witsch on 14 February 2019.