Hospital Stay

According to the visa in my passport, I travelled to East Berlin from Vienna on March 22, 1976, to continue work on my book project on GDR literature during the thaw. For this visit, I had booked a room in Interhotel Berolina, where I had resided in November 1975. This hotel was centrally located and had convenient parking, which made it an ideal place to stay while carrying out the next stage of my project. However, due to illness I had to cancel most of my appointments with East German writers and return to Vienna prematurely.  

I have very unpleasant memories of this visit to East Berlin. When I became ill, I foolishly continued working on my project, which caused my health problem to worsen rapidly. Eventually, the Plenzdorfs took me to the emergency room of the Friedrichshain Municipal Hospital for treatment. After examining me, the doctor recommended that I be admitted immediately to the hospital, since I needed an operation and was not strong enough to drive back to Vienna. What a situation! I had no choice in the matter, so I entered the hospital without returning to my hotel and remained there for a week.

Three writers were especially kind to me in this time of need. Ulrich Plenzdorf let Christa Wolf and Jurek Becker know that I was in the hospital, and he also called all the writers I was scheduled to visit and cancelled the appointments. Christa Wolf went to Interhotel Berolina and was permitted to pack my clothes and belongings, which the hotel stored in a secure place. A week later, when I was feeling somewhat better, Jurek Becker came to the hospital and drove me to Hotel Berolina, where I settled my bill, retrieved my belongings, and then headed for West Berlin. In West Berlin, I stayed with a relative for a few days before driving back to Vienna, where I would soon undergo an operation.

Friedrichshain Municipal Hospital had been built in the nineteenth century and was Berlin’s first municipal hospital. The construction began in 1868 and was finished in 1874, the year in which the first patients were admitted. It was more than a hundred years old when I was admitted as a patient, truly a relic, and it was in dreadful physical condition and filthy. The hospital had survived the passage of time and World War II, but when I saw it from the inside, I wondered if I would emerge from it alive. This was my first hospital experience since early childhood, and I was terrified. I have three memories of that one-week stay, which I have named isolation, sadism, and death.

Isolation: Friedrichshain Municipal Hospital had extremely limited visiting hours. Visitors were permitted to enter the hospital, as I recall, on Sundays only, and only during a two-hour period in the afternoon. There were no telephones, so direct communication with the outside world was not possible. I could not call my wife in Vienna to let her know what had transpired, so that she would not be trying to reach me at the Hotel Berolina. So there I was, very ill and trapped in the hospital, with an awful sense of isolation.

Sadism: My hospital stay, traumatic as it was, would have been even harder to endure if I had not had a roommate. His name was Siegfried and he had suffered a workplace accident that had led to major abdominal surgery. He had occupied our hospital room by himself for a couple of days before I arrived. The nurse who looked after us during the daytime was ill-tempered and sadistic, as Siegfried and I would discover, and we were at her mercy. One morning this nurse came to our room, said she had some free time and offered to give Siegfried a backrub with alcohol. As Siegfried was trying to sit up, she deliberately spilled alcohol on his incision, which was healing but still an open wound. As Siegfried screamed in pain, the nurse laughed and then left the room.

Death: There was a very frail old man on our floor who needed a gall bladder operation. But the doctors had determined that his heart was so weak that he probably would not survive the operation. They told him that they were not going to perform the surgery, and he related this to Siegfried in the corridor, as we were taking a short stroll. The next day we saw a hospital bed in the corridor, stripped of bed linen and mattress, just a metal bed frame. The old man had died the night before and it was his bed. Siegfried and I resolved to look after one another and not let them (the doctors, nurses, and hospital) do us in. Both of us were determined to leave that horrible place on our own two feet—and we did!