The opening report in my Stasi-file, dated June 6, 1973, amuses me. It begins with a one-sentence summary: “US-American, who has a doctorate in German studies, intends to spend four weeks as a tourist in the GDR, in order to become better informed in general.” As I read through the report, the memory of that border crossing resurfaces from the depths of my mind. I am astonished by the level of detail it contains: factual information about me and my first wife, Marjorie, who accompanied me on this trip, our travel route, and plans to visit friends in Hannover after leaving the GDR. How did they know all of this? According to the report, the border guards gathered details in casual conversation with us, as I was switching license plates, replacing the oval international customs number from West Germany with a rectangular GDR plate.
The report concludes with information about my person: “Zipser speaks good German with a slight accent, makes an intelligent, bright impression, but appears to be somewhat helpless mechanically (inept performance while changing the license plates). He was clean and appropriately dressed for the trip. When asked questions, he provided information readily after a brief hesitation.” “Somewhat helpless mechanically!” Should I feel insulted? On the contrary, I am delighted to read that I needed help switching license plates, for now I have written proof of my notoriously poor mechanical ability which has always been a joke among family members and friends.