GDR Writers at Oberlin College

During my seventeen years as an Oberlin College faculty member (1969 to 1986), I had the pleasure of co-hosting and interacting with twelve Max Kade German writers-in-residence, always during the spring semester. Five of these writers were East Germans: Christa Wolf (1974), Ulrich Plenzdorf (1975), Jurek Becker (1978), Bernd Jentzsch (1982), and Karl-Heinz Jakobs (1986). Typically, the visiting writer would arrive in mid-February and depart in mid-May. During their residency, the writers would live in an apartment located in a dormitory on campus or in a house owned by a professor away on sabbatical leave. Their official duties were minimal, since we wanted them to have plenty of time to write and participate in the life of the college community. All the writers had some formal responsibilities during their stay in Oberlin, but these were not very time-consuming and meant to bring them together with students, members of the German-speaking community, and some colleagues from other colleges and universities in Ohio. Each writer was asked to do the following: 1) conduct an informal two-hour colloquium once a week on a topic of their choice; 2) have a few office hours each week so that interested students could stop by and chat informally with him/her.  Each author was also asked to prepare and deliver a public lecture (in English, if possible) at a special event to which we would invite guests from a number of German departments in Ohio. In addition to the lecture, there was another session that featured the writer reading from his/her works. This half-day special event provided an opportunity for our department to showcase the visiting writer and share him/her with interested individuals in our community and colleagues from other institutions, some of whom were understandably envious.

The first East German writer to visit the US was Günter Kunert, who was writer-in-residence at the University of Texas from September 1972 until January 1973. He was forty-four years old at the time and one of a handful of GDR authors who had achieved an international reputation that stretched beyond the Eastern European Bloc into the West. Hence, his residency at the University of Texas was viewed by many as quite a coup, which it indeed was. The person who engineered this initiative was A. Leslie Willson, who at the time was chairman of the Germanic Languages & Literatures Department at UT. Willson’s reputation as an innovator and entrepreneurial spirit was enhanced by Kunert’s visiting professorship, as was the already fine reputation of his department.

In the spring of 1973, Oberlin College awarded me an internal H. H. Powers Travel Grant for a 30-day study trip through the GDR that was to take place in the summer of that year. This was an exciting and important professional opportunity for me, as I was going to spend an extended period of time in ‘the other Germany,’ so as to learn more about its culture, people and their way of life under socialism. The thirty days I spent touring East Germany that summer provided a fascinating introduction to that country, as I absorbed as much as I could while sightseeing at an exhausting pace and engaging in cultural activities of every imaginable sort.

Early in the fall 1973 semester, I learned at a meeting of the German faculty that the prominent West German author we had invited months earlier to be our writer-in-residence in spring 1974 had declined our invitation. This was a regular occurrence, since we always aimed very high with the initial invitation and then, if necessary, lowered our sights and invited a second- or third-tier writer who would be likely to accept. Mindful that Günter Kunert had just been visiting writer at the University of Texas, and eager for more rewarding East German experiences, I proposed that we invite GDR writer Christa Wolf. With the 1968 publication of her novel The Quest for Christa T., the work that firmly established her reputation as a prose writer, Wolf had gained international recognition. Soon after it appeared in print in East Germany, Christa T. was translated into multiple languages and became the object of critical acclaim everywhere. As a result, Christa Wolf acquired celebrity status almost overnight. Such was her fame in 1973 that my colleagues doubted that she would be willing or able to visit Oberlin. Furthermore, there was the obstacle the East German authorities posed—i.e., even if she wanted to come to our college for a residency, would they permit her to leave the GDR? I shared my colleagues’ misgivings and understood their hesitancy, but persuaded them that we should give it a try. If we got lucky and Christa Wolf did come to Oberlin, it would be a major coup. The fact that Kunert had been able to spend four months in Texas proved to be a persuasive argument and, in the end, decisive. We proceeded to issue the invitation, agreed to shorten the length of the stay to suit Christa Wolf’s spring schedule, and she accepted! I was delighted, of course, as were all of my colleagues!