Acting on my recommendation in the fall of 1984, the German faculty at Oberlin College decided to invite GDR prose writer Helga Schütz to be the 18th Max Kade German Writer-in-Residence during the spring semester of 1985. I had visited her a few times at her beautiful villa overlooking Gross Glienicke Lake, and had also toured the nearby DEFA (Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft, the first film production company in post-War Germany) studios in Potsdam-Babelsberg with her. Helga’s personality and warm smile were very engaging, so I was confident that she would interact well with our undergraduate students and Oberlin’s German-speaking community. Since I was on sabbatical leave that fall, the acting chair of the department—Dr. Peter Spycher—issued the official invitation to her. Helga Schütz was not a controversial or oppositional writer, so I did not expect her to have any difficulty securing permission and a visa for the trip to the US, but as luck would have it the unexpected happened. In mid-January 1985, just a few weeks before the beginning of the spring semester, Peter Spycher received the following heartwrenching letter from her, which he later passed along to me. The letter, which bears testimony to the cruel and inhumane nature of the GDR Writers’ Union functionaries and higher authorities, is cited below. (I translated it from German into English.)
Dear Peter Spycher,
Today this year is coming to its end, a year rich with experiences, a year full of hope and plans, so that I have lived and worked during this time contentedly and happily—almost offensively so. I had plans for Oberlin, first and foremost, for the months with you at the College. It seemed to me that everything was moving forward and going well—until the day before Christmas. I found a telegram in my mailbox, telling me to visit the Writers’ Union. There, too, I still did not sense that anything was wrong. I thought that perhaps a signature was missing or a precise travel date. I had always presented your invitations right after their arrival and expressed my strong interest. Things turned out differently—I was informed that there was no interest in my residency in Oberlin and that the exit visa would not be issued. The justification got lost in a nebulous exchange of words from which it was just possible to glean that you were always selecting the wrong writers for Oberlin (Wolfs, Plenzdorf and Jurek Becker, Bernd Jentzsch) and that the Writers’ Union does not expect sending me to Oberlin would benefit the GDR in any way. I was stunned, regretted right away that I had let myself engage in a verbal exchange, wanted to leave just then, as the man from the Union advised me to use illness as the reason for cancelling my residency with you. I cannot tell you how I felt at that moment. Afterwards I crept through the streets like a lowly insect and, with what remained of the positive mood I had stored up over the last months, I prepared the Christmas celebration for our family. I then sat down over the holidays and wrote a letter to the Minister of Culture, wherein I tried to explain to him that I was being deprived of many important experiences and that I had for months been preparing myself mentally for Oberlin. In addition, I wanted to work on the manuscript of my novel in a foreign setting, with a foreign language all around and new images and, of course, solitude as well. I wanted to think about some chapters, fresh and from afar, while reminiscing about home. I planned to let the students participate in that. It would have been an attempt, a venture, but perhaps possible after all in a way not to be described in advance. I was very curious about this situation.
Under the new, shabby circumstances I now do not know how I ought to approach the manuscript. There is actually no substitute for the plan I devised and was longing to carry out.
While writing the letter to the Minister I realized that in the best case scenario I might be able to encounter understanding, but through that nothing more would be salvageable. Should the gray powers revise their decision, it would surely again take weeks, even months, and the semester in Oberlin would have begun; the departure here would be nervous, without the necessary calmness and creative anticipation. I do not even know now what I want to achieve with my complaining. I would almost not want to waste my strength on a commiserative handshake.
In my situation I would now like to ask you point-blank whether there is the possibility—in the event of a revision and an understanding—that I can come to you later on, in the fall semester or in the following year. For only then would my revolting make practical sense.
Dear Peter Spycher, I think I could detect your sympathy for my situation on the telephone; nevertheless I would like to tell you once again that I am ashamed of the behavior of the Writers’ Union. It is outrageous to say “no” in this cold and unreasonable manner, and just before the start of a wonderful undertaking prepared on your part with so much time and effort and with so much love.
Please accept my best wishes for the New Year.
Eventually, the Helga Schütz story had a happy ending. The German faculty at Oberlin, appalled by the way she had been mistreated by the GDR authorities, resolved to keep inviting her and not to invite any other writers from the GDR until she had visited Oberlin. In the fall of 1985, we invited her to be writer-in-residence for the spring 1986 semester, but her visa application was again denied and she was unable to accept the invitation. We then invited Karl-Heinz Jakobs, a GDR writer who—following his vigorous public protest of Wolf Biermann’s expatriation—had been forced to move to West Germany in 1977. Two years later the GDR authorities finally relented, and in the spring of 1988 Helga Schütz became the 21st Max Kade German Writer-in-Residence at Oberlin College.
Why did the GDR Writers’ Union and, presumably, higher authorities treat Helga Schütz so harshly? In retrospect, I think they were very angry about our earlier selection of two outspoken dissident writers, Jurek Becker in 1978 and Bernd Jentzsch in 1982, who in their view did not in any way represent the GDR. They clearly decided to use Helga Schütz to punish us for selecting oppositional writers as representatives of the GDR, and that also would explain why they waited so long to deny her visa application. They knew we would have difficulty finding a replacement for her on such short notice, but fortunately we were able to do so. As I would learn in March 1985 while attending the Leipzig Book Fair, the Writers’ Union was determined not only to participate in the selection process but to select appropriate writers for residency in Oberlin. In accordance with a newly established “delegation principle” (Delegierungsprinzip), they wanted us to contact them when we were ready to have a writer from the GDR; they would then either make the selection for us or propose two or three writers for our consideration. This would enable them to reward loyalist writers and at the same time ensure that the GDR would be represented by authors who were supportive of the SED Party’s decisions and actions in the cultural domain. Needless to say, my colleagues and I at Oberlin College rejected the delegation principle, but some other US institutions of higher education with visiting writer programs of various types welcomed this “input” from the Writers’ Union.
photo: Wolfgang Gregor