In the fall of 1981, following my return from a one-year research leave at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, I resumed my teaching and other duties at Oberlin College. My most important service assignment was to function as chair of the German faculty in the Department of German and Russian, albeit without that official title. At our first department meeting of the fall semester, the German faculty members approved my recommendation that we invite former GDR writer Bernd Jentzsch to be the 15th Max Kade German Writer-in-Residence during the spring semester of 1982. Jentzsch, a well-known poet, prose writer, editor and translator, who also worked as a publisher’s reader, was delighted to receive our invitation and accepted immediately.
When I met Jentzsch in November 1975, he and his family—which included his mother—were living in Wilhelmshagen, a town situated on the outskirts of East Berlin. Jentzsch led a quiet life until the fall of 1976, when his fortunes took a dramatic and unexpected turn. That fall, when he was in Switzerland doing spadework for an anthology of Swiss poetry, he learned about the expatriation of prominent poet-singer Wolf Biermann and the expulsion of fellow writer Reiner Kunze from the GDR Writers’ Union on the order of GDR government authorities. Stunned and angered by the harshness of these actions, he spontaneously demanded that the regime reverse its decision; he wrote a scathing and detailed open letter to head-of-state Erich Honecker, submitting it for publication to several newspapers in the GDR, in West Germany, and in Switzerland, without considering possible negative consequences. The reprisals against Jentzsch, his family, his long-since widowed mother, and his friends were not long in coming. His open letter was not published by any GDR newspapers but turned over to the Stasi, which promptly indicted him for “hostile agitation against the State.” Faced with the prospect of a mock trial and two to ten years of imprisonment, he decided to stay in Switzerland. His wife, her brother, his son, and even his pensioned active socialist mother were harassed, humiliated, and ostracized by the GDR authorities.
In the spring of 1977 Jentzsch’s wife, Birgit, and their son, Stefan, were finally permitted to leave the country with a passport for stateless persons and joined him in Switzerland. His elderly mother, however, was repeatedly denied permission to visit him and his family; their correspondence was scrutinized, their occasional telephone conversations were monitored and disrupted; she was driven to despair and, ultimately, to suicide in the fall of 1979. Jentzsch himself was officially branded as a criminal fugitive from the GDR; his publications were banned, his name was removed from reference books, and his contributions were deleted from subsequent editions of anthologies. From 1977 on, the Jentzsch -family lived in Küsnacht near Zurich; Jentzsch was able to find work as a publisher’s reader, and his wife became director of a home for deaf-blind children.
It is worth noting that both of Jentzsch’s parents were social democrats in post-WW I Germany. During the Third Reich they lived and suffered under the constant surveillance and harassment of the Gestapo. After WW II, in 1946, they were automatically integrated into what would become the GDR’s Socialist Unity Party (SED). Bernd Jentzsch, born in 1940, was raised and educated in the eastern portion of Germany and embraced the GDR’s communistic brand of socialism while he lived there. However, he understandably became disillusioned and embittered while living in Switzerland, as a man without a country, and eventually had this to say about socialism in the GDR: “Everything that made socialism great has been liquidated. This is the terrible truth.”
Our decision to invite Jentzsch to spend three months at Oberlin College as German writer-in-residence infuriated government and Writers’ Union officials in the GDR, especially since the previous GDR writer to visit Oberlin had been outspoken regime critic Jurek Becker in 1978. Functionaries in the GDR Writers’ Union would soon formulate and seek to implement the “delegation principle” (Delegierungsprinzip), a procedure that would enable them to pre-select authors from the GDR for Oberlin College and other institutions with guest writer programs in the US, such as the University of Texas and the University of Iowa.
Bernd Jentzsch’s main literary activities have been those of writing poetry and short narrative prose fiction, including stories for children; translating poetry by outstanding poets of various nationalities; also, editing anthologies, with texts from different periods of German literature and works by individual authors. His anthologies are distillations of profound knowledge, sharp judgment, and refined taste. One of his most important achievements in the GDR was his editorship of a poetry series, Poesiealbum (Poetry Album), a monthly periodical which presented the public with new (and old) poets, both native and foreign, many of whose works had for political reasons not previously been accessible in East Germany; one hundred and twenty-two booklets appeared in large editions between 1967 and 1976.
During my seventeen years as an Oberlin College faculty member, I had the pleasure of co-hosting and interacting with twelve Max Kade German writers-in-residence, always during the spring semester. Typically, the visiting writer would arrive in mid-February and depart in mid-May, which is precisely what Bernd Jentzsch did. Of all the writers I experienced in Oberlin, Bernd was probably the most even-keeled and modest, also one of the least self-absorbed. He was an unusually good listener, genuinely interested in what others had to say and eager to hear their comments on his literary texts and various issues. His responses to these comments were always measured and thoughtful. He was less emotional and more cerebral than most of the writers we hosted, an intellectual in every respect, and both the small college setting and academic environment seemed to suit him well. My wife Ulrike and I spent many hours in his company each week. We enjoyed his presence at our dinner table on numerous occasions as well as the friendly conversations we frequently had on a wide range of topics.
In March, I scheduled a short trip to New York City to meet with Dr. Erich Markel, President of the Max Kade Foundation which supported our German writer-in-residence program, the on-campus Max Kade German House and its library, and the Max Kade Lecture Series that brought an eminent German scholar to our campus annually. I needed to secure Dr. Markel’s funding approval before inviting the next writer to visit our campus, and I also wanted him to meet Bernd Jentzsch. The three of us stayed at the Barbizon Hotel, right across the street from Central Park South. The highlight of our trip was without question our visit to the World Trade Center NY, a large complex of seven buildings located in the Financial District of Lower Manhattan. At the time of their completion in April 1973, the twin towers—the original One World Trade Center and Two World Trade Center—were the tallest buildings in the world. While most of the World Trade Center complex was closed off from the public, the Top of the World Observatory located on the 107th and 110th floors of tower two was open for all spectators. The Top of the World was an indoor and outdoor observation deck that delivered a spectacular 360 degree view of New York City, allowing visitors to see up to 50 miles away with clear skies. A photo Ulrike took of Bernd while we three were “on top of the world” provides a lasting memory of our visit and the twin towers that were destroyed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Another vivid recollection: That spring, as newlyweds, Ulrike and I were in the process of completing the construction of a new house on a quiet cul-de-sac close to the college campus. On a daily basis, we would check on the progress of work being done inside the house. Bernd would often join us and help us make decisions regarding aspects of the interior design. He also visited home furnishing stores with Ulrike and helped her select such items as floor tiles, wallpaper, lighting fixtures, etc. He marveled at the number of options available to us in every category, as he recalled how few choices he’d had in the GDR when renovating his family’s dwelling in the mid-1970s. We recognized that his artistic creativity extended to the areas of design and decor, so we welcomed his input. Bernd, who had not had an easy life since resettling in Switzerland, benefited greatly from his stay in Oberlin which I think was in many ways therapeutic, just as it had been for Jurek Becker in 1978.