Leipzig Book Fair

Early in 1985, I received a telephone call from Cynthia Miller, USIA Public Affairs Officer at the US Embassy in East Berlin, who was serving as cultural attaché. (USIA is the acronym for the United States Information Agency, which existed from 1953 to 1999. It was an independent foreign affairs agency devoted to public diplomacy, much of which was carried out through US embassies.) Ms. Miller invited me to come to the renowned Leipzig Book Fair in March and preside over a special exhibit the embassy was putting together on “The Best Books in America: 1983-1984.” This was the first time our embassy had participated in the Leipzig Book Fair and it wanted to make the exhibit as impressive as possible. Award-winning books in every conceivable category would be on display—fiction of all kinds, general nonfiction, poetry, biography and autobiography, history, philosophy, religion, science, contemporary affairs and contemporary thought, current interest, children’s books (fiction and picture), documentaries of various sorts, photo essays, most original book, first novel, etc. Ms. Miller explained that my job would be to preside over the exhibit, which simply meant that I was to be present most of the time and prepared to converse with the attendees from the GDR in a friendly way. She wanted the presider to be someone who was fluent in German, knowledgeable about the GDR and its society, and not affiliated with the US embassy or the US government. The entire cost of my roundtrip flight, hotel rooms, meals, and even incidental expenses related to this assignment would be covered by the embassy. It sounded like it would be a terrific experience and—best of all—it would help to reconnect me with the GDR and many East German writers I knew. I accepted the invitation with great pleasure and anticipation. Almost seven years had passed since my last stay in the GDR, so I very much looked forward to this completely unexpected reunion.

I flew to West Berlin on March 5, 1985 and—according to the stamps in my passport—entered East Berlin on March 6 via the crossing point known as Checkpoint Charlie, in a US Embassy automobile which picked me up at West Berlin’s Tegel Airport. The embassy chauffeur, a GDR citizen, took me to the Hotel Metropol where I stayed for three nights before heading for Leipzig. I remember that day very well because I had a terrible bout of food poisoning that started not long after my lunch in the hotel restaurant, where I had foolishly ordered beef tartare. However, I recovered within 24 hours and was able to meet with Cynthia Miller on March 7, as planned.

Shortly before my departure for Berlin, Ms. Miller asked me to provide her with the names of some GDR writers I would like to see again before heading to Leipzig. She was planning to have a cocktail party and buffet dinner in my honor at her residence in Berlin Niederschönhausen, an upscale neighborhood where many diplomats lived. According to the formal invitation still in my possession, the social gathering was scheduled for 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, March 7, 1985. The party would not only give me an opportunity to reconnect with some writers I knew well, it would also give Ms. Miller an opportunity to expand her contacts with writers in an informal way. Invitations to events held at the US Embassy were viewed with suspicion in those Cold War days, so East German writers and artists were always hesitant to attend. I imagine that all the writers were surprised to receive Ms. Miller’s invitation and, even more, to be invited to an event taking place in her private house. That was simply unheard-of!

Among the writers attending the party was my friend, Ulrich Plenzdorf, with his wife Helga and their son Morten; Fritz Rudolf Fries and his wife; Martin Stade and his wife; also, Eberhard Scheibner, a functionary from the GDR Writers’ Union. Because the invitations were sent out only a short time before the event, several invitees were unable to attend. The reception lasted for about two hours and was an extremely awkward affair. The East German guests were obviously uncomfortable being in the residence of a diplomat from a Western and capitalist country, and I imagine they assumed they were under surveillance by the GDR’s secret police. The conversations, including the ones I had with writers I knew well, were for the most part small talk, probably because none of the East Germans wanted to be overheard discussing anything of political or cultural importance with Cynthia Miller, her husband who was also a diplomat, or me. For everyone who attended, the party turned out to be a disappointment.

On March 8, 1985, Cynthia Miller and I were chauffered in a US Embassy automobile to Leipzig, where arrangements for the exhibit of the best books published in the US during 1983-1984 were already underway. That evening I met US Ambassador to the GDR Rozanne Ridgway, who had kindly invited the book fair team from the embassy to a gala dinner. Ambassador Ridgway also invited Cynthia Miller and me to ride with her to the restaurant in her US Embassy vehicle. It was a black four-door Cadillac sedan, long and luxurious, with American flags fastened to the sides of the front headlights. As we drove around Leipzig’s Ring Street with the flags fluttering proudly and attracting lots of attention, people stopped what they were doing and stared at the Cadillac. Undoubtedly, most of them had never seen an automobile like that. Another nice memory!

The next morning Ambassador Ridgway, Cynthia Miller, and I attended the book fair’s opening ceremony and the reception that followed; there I met and chatted briefly with Klaus Höpcke, the powerful Deputy Minister of Culture in the GDR. Over the next several days, as I was ‘working’ at our stand in the multi-story building that housed the book fair, I would encounter many GDR writers I had first met in the 1970s, as they made their way through our exhibit area, and I would also meet some GDR writers I had known only by name. Most gratifying, however, were the conversations I had with the East German citizens who visited our large public display each day. Their level of curiosity and interest was extremely high, as this was for virtually all of them the first opportunity to experience the US in the way it wanted to present itself. Many persons spent several hours perusing the books, looking primarily at the cover designs, illustrations and photos, taking notes, asking questions, obviously delighted to be in attendance. They were not shy about asking me questions on topics that were not directly related to our book exhibit, e.g., about aspects of my life and our society in the US and what I thought about the GDR. The secret police were undoubtedly among the visitors to our display, but the likelihood of their presence and ongoing surveillance did not seem to disturb the other attendees.

For me, presiding over “The Best Books in America: 1983-1984” exhibit was a unique and very memorable experience, without question one of the highlights of my professional life. It was an honor to be invited to serve my country in that special role and I enjoyed every minute of it! Happily, the memory lingers on. . . .