Carlos and the Cockroaches–for Richard’s eyes only

In the fall of 1977, with the support of an IREX (International Research and Exchanges Board) grant I had been awarded in the spring of that year, I returned to East Berlin for a two-month period in order to continue work on a major book project I had initiated in the fall of 1975. The project involved interviewing GDR writers and gathering literary texts and other materials from them; hence, this phase had to be carried out in the GDR. My stay in East Berlin and work as an IREX scholar had the approval of the GDR Ministry of Higher Education and the sponsorship of the Humboldt University. I was really excited about returning to East Germany and resuming work on the project that later on would become a three-volume book on GDR literature in the 1970s.

The Humboldt University provided me free of charge with a very modest studio apartment in a post-WW II high-rise building located in an area known then as the “Hans-Loch-Viertel.” It was situated in the neighborhood of Friedrichsfelde, in the district of Lichtenberg, a good distance away from the center of East Berlin, “Mitte.” But the Friedrichsfelde subway station was nearby and I had wisely purchased an older Volkswagen in West Berlin, to ensure that I would not be wholly dependent on public transportation.

Berlin, Neubaugebiet, Wohnblocks, Nacht
Typical Plattenbau housing, photograph from GDR archives. Original caption: “1967 Berlin: Evening over the Hans-Loch-Viertel. Where only a few years ago low arbors stood, today modern buildings announce the socialist construction in the city of the VII. Party Congress of the SED.”


The address of this drab concrete apartment house, which is called “Haus Friederieke” today, was and still is Volkradstrasse 8. It had seventeen floors with one-room apartments that were occupied by retired individuals and couples, as well as persons who were still working, some of whom had children, and students from socialist and so-called (if I may use the politically incorrect Cold War term) third world countries. This building, erected in the mid-1960s, was an example of East German Plattenbau housing. A Plattenbau (Platte + Bau, literally ‘panel/slab’ + ‘building’) is a structure constructed of large, prefabricated concrete slabs. In the GDR, Plattenbau areas were designated as Neubaugebiet (new development area). Virtually all new residential buildings since the 1960s were built in this style, as it was a quick and relatively inexpensive way to curb the GDR’s housing shortage, which had been caused by wartime bombing raids and the large influx of German refugees from countries farther to the east. After reunification, there was there was far less demand for housing in the communist-era Plattenbau buildings, due in part to their rapid deterioration as a result of cheap and quick construction methods. They were frequently derided as dreary and depressing, and many were demolished or reduced in size.

The students living in this apartment building were all housed on the top two floors. Most of them had full scholarships and were enrolled in graduate-level academic programs at a university or school of advanced studies in East Berlin. The East Germans referred to them as “Aspiranten,” since they aspired to achieve a doctoral degree. Soon after my arrival at Volkradstrasse 8, I got to know one of the aspirants, a Chilean by the name of Carlos who was a doctoral candidate at the Advanced School of Economics “Bruno Leuschner.” He occupied a studio apartment on the sixteenth floor, diagonally across the hall from mine. During the course of my two-month stay, Carlos and I became friends. We often would get together for a beer or a glass of wine in the evening and talk about life in Chile and the United States and our experiences in East Germany. Carlos felt very much like an outsider in East Berlin; he had not gotten to know any East Germans and was isolated. I enjoyed his company and our conversations, and I learned a lot from him. Indeed, it was Carlos who introduced me to the writings of Pablo Neruda, the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet.

I also learned some practical things from Carlos. For example, he told me to be careful around the middle-aged East German woman who occupied one of the apartments on our floor. “She is not a student,” he said, “she is a watchdog whose job it is to observe and listen and make sure no one on the two top floors is doing or saying anything subversive.” This woman was indeed a minder and probably a secret police informant as well, and—because she had a great deal of power—the foreign students were afraid of her. As aspirants with financial support from the GDR they were all at her mercy, whereas I was not. (I should mention here that, as an IREX scholar, I had been assigned a “Betreuer”or minder by the name of Anneliese Löffler, a professor of GDR literature at the Humboldt University and SED Party loyalist. Löffler was rumored to have close ties to the Stasi, and several East German writers warned me to be careful in conversations with her and not to trust her. I followed their advice and avoided her almost completely during my stay. When the Stasi archives were opened in the 1990s, it was confirmed that Löffler had collaborated extensively with the secret police in various ways.)

Carlos also taught me how to deal with cockroaches, a valuable lesson I remember well. As one entered my apartment there was a hall leading to the one main room where I worked, ate, and slept. On the left side there were two small rooms, first a kitchenette, and then a bathroom. Since I was out and about all day long, living in these cramped quarters didn’t bother me much. What did disturb me, however, were the cockroaches that would start running for cover in the kitchen whenever I turned the light on. They were everywhere—on the counter and stove, on the floor, even in the cupboards. But they were not in the mini-refrigerator, so that was where I kept my food safe from the tiny predators.

I told Carlos about the cockroaches and asked him if his apartment was also infested with these filthy insects. He replied that it was initially, but from his experience in Chile with similar creatures, he knew how to get rid of them. I asked Carlos to share the remedy with me and, mercifully, he did. We entered my apartment and Carlos turned the kitchen light on. This prompted the roaches to race helter-skelter in search of shelter. When all the roaches had disappeared from sight, Carlos told me this: “Cockroaches love darkness and hate the light. The way to get rid of them is to leave your kitchen light on all the time, during the day and night. That’s what I do and I never see any roaches.” And that’s what I did from that day on, and I never saw any more roaches!

What else did I learn from Carlos? He was the first person who made me think seriously about what it means to be an American—and what a privilege that is. In one of our many conversations, Carlos noted that throughout the world everyone refers to US citizens as “Americans.” This is not appropriate, he asserted, because in addition to North America we have South and Central America. As a citizen of Chile in South America, he too is an American. The use of the designation “American” should not be limited to citizens of the United States. I asked myself if we had managed, as the wealthiest and most powerful country in the Americas, to appropriate the “American” label for US citizens exclusively? And if so, did this signify that the other Americans on this continent are somehow inferior to us? Food for thought way back then and today as well.

More than forty years have gone by since I last saw Carlos. I’m glad that I got to know him and that he attended the farewell dinner party I had before returning to the US in mid-December, 1977. From time to time, and especially when Chile has been in the news for one reason or another, I have wondered what has become of Carlos. I’m confident that he was able to complete the doctoral program in East Berlin, but what does one do with an advanced degree in Marxian economics? More importantly, if he returned to Chile how did he fare under the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet with its inhumane practices? What’s more, whenever I hear or read the word “cockroach,” Carlos and his enlightened remedy come quickly to mind.