Lest We Forget: History and Memory

Richard Zipser has written Memories of Life in East Germany: Snapshots as a
companion piece to his recently published Remembering East Germany. From
Oberlin to East Berlin. Both are rooted in the experiences of the author as a young
associate professor from Oberlin College on sabbatical leave in communist East
Germany, writing a book about GDR literature while dodging interference from
state security officials. Like its predecessor, Snapshots offers us the unique
perspective of an American who, as an outsider living in the GDR, gained unusual
insider knowledge and experience of that totalitarian society. Nevertheless, the
“sibling” memoirs are structured in very different, beautifully complementary,
ways. The former is catalyzed by the documentary evidence of Zipser’s secret
police file, as he rediscovers his younger self through the eyes of the Stasi
handlers and informants who spied on him. In the latter, however, it is his gaze,
rather than theirs, that founds the memoir.

As the title Snapshots suggests, it is as if we are in a picture gallery. Before
us are short prose pieces which, like the snapshots of a skilled photographer,
capture telling moments, people, and experiences. These are word pictures,
created by a meticulously engaged and insightful observer. Zipser explains that,
in composing these, his memories were triggered by a list of topics—a word bank,
so to speak—that he compiled as he read his secret police file and wrote
Remembering East Germany. In fact, that earlier work may be seen as the first of
a two-volume memoir, so utterly integral to his project is this second, snapshot
volume. Having seen himself through the eyes of the Stasi—and having himself
seen through the Stasi—in Remembering East Germany, he comes to Snapshots
with a transformed perspective, his memories unleashed for a more personal,
more subjective memoir of life in East Germany.

He seeks to “partially recreate this bygone world” he experienced at first
hand in the 1970s and 1980s, for the benefit of English-speaking readers today;
he includes a brief history of East Germany, 1949-1989, for readers too young to
remember its 40-year existence. The snapshots are grouped, as in a gallery
exhibition, into categories by theme—two series of snapshots focusing on the
East German police state, two focusing on GDR writers, four focusing on various
encounters with people and aspects of everyday life in the GDR, and a final series
tracking watershed moments of East German history.

The book’s epigraph starkly reminds us: “The German Democratic Republic
was neither democratic nor a republic. It was a repressive dictatorship.” The initial
two series of snapshots ground us in that truth. These are also the closest
“siblings” to the previous memoir. In the grouping POLICE AND SECRET POLICE,
Zipser’s snapshots provide an informative description of the police state and
explanation of the role of the Stasi, with long shots and close-ups illuminating
each other. State realities are translated into personal terms, the pervasive
hierarchical state spy network crystallized in the specific acquaintances who
informed on him. As we read the snapshot In Search of My Stasi-File, we see
Zipser obtaining his file through a historic process created after the reunification
of Germany—a law creating a new government agency responsible for preserving
GDR State Security records and giving victims of Stasi surveillance the right to
access their files. Like the files of hundreds of thousands of East Germans, Zipser’s
was classified as a victim’s file (“Opferakte”). The informants’ reports are not
reproduced in this memoir, putting the focus even more squarely on the file’s
very existence and the memories stirred while reading it. Learning that the Stasi
had classified him as “enemy of the state”—a person who from the State Security
Service’s point of view had given indications of hostile activity—put his scholarly
work on East German literature into a new perspective.

Zipser had initially become interested in GDR literature during the visit to
Oberlin of noted East German author Christa Wolf in spring 1974. A recent Johns
Hopkins PhD in German, he had developed, with Wolf’s encouragement, his first
sabbatical project, focusing on contemporary literary trends in the GDR. He spent
that sabbatical, and a subsequent 1977-78 stay in East Berlin as an International
Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) grant recipient, meeting with many writers
and collecting samples of their work for inclusion in a book to be published in the
US. He became friends with a number of writers critical of the communist state,
interacting with them professionally as well as at social gatherings, for which he
occasionally made runs to West Berlin via Checkpoint Charlie to obtain items
unavailable in East Berlin. The lives of these writers were made difficult by secret
police surveillance, withholding of travel visas, Writers’ Union censorship or
ostracism, and even, in the case of famous writer/singer Wolf Biermann,
expatriation. Zipser himself, given his work’s potential impact on the GDR’s image
abroad, faced some heavy-handedness on the part of state Writers’ Union
officials. Despite obstacles, they all continued.

These early career experiences comprised a crucial part of Zipser’s
professional formation, as well as his personal growth. Indeed, this is a memoir
interweaving his story with the story of a country not his native land, but which
nevertheless significantly influenced the direction and meaning of his life. The
memoir’s Bildungsroman aspect serves as a reminder that study of another
language, culture, and literature is a life-changing, coming-of-age sort of
experience, enlarging one’s world and expanding one’s worldview. It is not at all a
process of leaving behind one’s native land, but of allowing one’s native
perspective and the perspective gained abroad to inform each other. Living in
another country challenges and changes us in some way; as millions of study-
abroad participants can attest, it is transformative and enriching. Still, how does
that enriching experience play out in a totalitarian regime?

The two series of snapshots focusing on GDR writers are instructive. Just as
the snapshot collections on police and state security revisit and refocus Zipser’s
Remembering East Germany, the collections on GDR writers recapture and
refocus his DDR-Literatur im Tauwetter (GDR Literature During the Thaw), the
book he wrote on contemporary GDR literature in the 1970s. The 840-page DDR-
Literatur im Tauwetter included representative short works by some 45 GDR
writers and a biographical sketch of each, as well as the transcript of a recorded
interview with each writer discussing the evolving role of literature in the socialist
state and the social problems of greatest concern to the writer during that Cold
War time. Snapshots condenses the literary field to a representative photogenic
essence: the author’s eight favorite GDR writers and, with some overlap, the six
GDR writers who were invited and eventually allowed to travel to Oberlin College
as writers-in-residence. Their works are not anthologized here, but major works
of each writer are discussed. The accompanying bios are not “traditional”
biographies, but snapshots in a photo album of personal remembrances,
compiled post-Cold War, post-Stasi file. These are close-ups of friends and
professional colleagues, and the author is often included in the photo-shoot. Both
in Oberlin and in East Berlin, Zipser’s life was entwined with those of these
writers, and with their works.

As we have seen, it was Christa Wolf, the first East German writer to come
to Oberlin, who had inspired the 31-year-old Zipser’s interest in GDR literature
and helped design his first sabbatical project. Like all of the writers in Snapshots,
Wolf had suffered literary persecution. Her third and most famous novel,
Nachdenken über Christa T. (The Quest for Christa T., 1968), while a bestseller in
West Germany, had been attacked by the East German Writers’ Union and
eventually banned by government officials who saw beneath the surface story of
the young Christa T. a representation of life in a repressive, intolerant, conformist
society. Zipser’s presentation of Wolf’s heroine captures both the immediacy and
the universality of her quest: “[The] heroine searches with increasing awareness
to find herself. The search, not so much for self as for the right way in life, is at the
same time a search for truth. . . [T]he reconstruction of the past, even one’s own
past, gives rise to the question that concerns so many novelists: What really

This is a question worthily pursued by memoirist Zipser. It is not surprising
that he notes the strong autobiographical component of the novel, pointing to
“its insistence on finding oneself while at the same time serving society.” It was
an insistence he saw courageously shared by all the GDR writers he presents here,
whose works testify to their crucial but dangerous quest for truth-telling in a
society rife with repression and lies. Zipser’s snapshot bios of these writers go
beneath the banal surface of standard biographical profiles to try to reconstruct
what actually happened, documenting their literary lives as well as the cost paid
in a full gamut of persecutions endured—being banned from publishing in the
GDR, expelled from the Writers’ Union, denied other sources of income for
livelihood, put under house arrest, assailed through harassment of family
members, threatened with prison for protesting reprisals against fellow writers,
forced into exile or self-exile.

As these dissident writers insisted on finding themselves while serving
society, it must have been enormously heartening to discover at their side an
American colleague who admired their personal courage and the honesty of their
works, who was ready to stand by them and determined to bring their work to
the international attention so feared by GDR officials. Zipser persevered in inviting
these writers to Oberlin even when the GDR’s creation of the “delegation
principle” made that increasingly difficult. He joined their quest, with his
boundary-crossing scholarship and friendships. Now in his memoirs he continues
to seek the truth as he reconstructs the past—his own and that of the GDR he

Against the bleak backdrop of literary censorship and self-censorship in the
GDR, he tells of brave unofficial and illegal publications, including one samizdat
quietly entrusted to him by Luth Rathenow at the Leipzig Book Fair in 1985 and an
illegal anthology project, “Berliner Geschichten,” planned by his friends Ulrich
Plenzdorf, Klaus Schlesinger, and Martin Stade. He hails Joachim Walther’s
landmark 1996 study, Sicherungsbereich Literatur: Schriftsteller und
Staatssicherheit in der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik (Security Zone
Literature: Writers and State Security in the German Democratic Republic), which
chronicles with painstaking documentation the countless acts of harsh literary
repression committed by the GDR regime. Walther’s work, writes Zipser, serves as
a bulwark against attempts (by GDR loyalists even today) to suppress the truth
and rewrite history—a bulwark further strengthened by the publication of
previously suppressed literature, thanks to the efforts of Walther and his
colleague Ines Geipel.

To fully honor the truth about the writers, it is necessary to read the truth
of the writers. Zipser impels us to do that, following up Tauwetter’s anthology
with an extensive, insistent annotated bibliography in his literary snapshots. In
each snapshot of a GDR writer, Zipser gives an overview of that writer’s oeuvre,
discussing several works and their memorable protagonists—an army of
witnesses. After Wolf’s Christa T., he introduces us to blue-jeaned rebel Edgar
Wibeau in (blue-jeaned) Ulrich Plenzdorf’s famous Goethe parody, Die neuen
Leiden des jungen W. (The New Sufferings of Young W., 1972); ghetto-bound Jacob
in prose writer/filmmaker Jurek Becker’s internationally renowned Jakob der
Lügner (Jacob the Liar, 1969); rioting construction workers in Stefan Heym’s 5
Tage im Juni (5 Days in June, 1956) and a defiant Daniel Defoe in Heym’s Die
Schmähschrift oder Königin gegen Defoe (The Queen against Defoe, 1970); the
teenage daughter of Reiner Kunze’s minimalist masterpiece Die wunderbaren Jahre
(The Wonderful Years, 1976); Wilhelm Blach, the fearful hero of Karl-Heinz Jacobs’
Wilhelmsburg (1979); the disillusioned, displaced socialist idealist in Bernd
Jentzsch’s poetry volume, Quartiermachen (Securing Quarters, 1978); the
distinctive “Sarah-Sound” of Sarah Kirsch in her lyric poetry collection
Landaufenthalt (A Stay in the Country, 1967); the Empire State Building (translated
by Zipser for this snapshot) in Günter Kunert’s Der andere Planet: Ansichten von
Amerika (The Other Planet: Views about America, 1975); the animal tamer in
Sarah Kirsch’s Die Pantherfrau: Fünf Frauen in der DDR (The Panther Woman: Five
Tales from the Cassette Recorder, 1973); the torn young lovers in Volker Braun’s
Unvollendete Geschichte (Unfinished Story, 1975); the brave environmental
journalist Josefa in Monika Maron’s Flugasche (Flight of Ashes, 1981); the cats,
cows, dogs, and plants of Sarah Kirsch’s poetry in Katzenleben: Gedichte (Catlives,
1984). Zipser’s final literary snapshot of Recommended Readings includes many of
these, available in English translation.

Snapshots also brings into focus scenes from Zipser’s experience of
everyday life in a country with an authoritarian regime—a transformative
experience yielding valuable cross-cultural perspective. His snapshots in the
collections PEOPLE, EXPERIENCES, SHOPPING, and THINGS are sometimes
alarming, sometimes charming, always revealing. Anyone who has lived abroad
will smile at Zipser’s James Bond moment—using the hair-in-the-suitcase trick
from a John le Carré spy novel to detect possible invasion of his hotel room—, or
his stint as Marlboro Man in the eyes of East Germans taken with his shearling
sheepskin coat, blue jeans, leather boots, and Burt Reynolds mustache, or—less
flattering—his Maxwell Smart clumsiness while trying to switch license plates at
an East German border crossing. We can identify with occasions on which he
unwittingly gives himself away as a cultural outsider, as in Soap and Bananas,
where using the luxury soap but eschewing the luxury bananas convinces his East
German acquaintances that he is a clueless American, not a clever spy. He lives in
a drab, cockroach-infested apartment supplied by the state, he joins long lines of
people queueing for scarce goods, he experiences a frightening stay in a
substandard hospital—while always aware that, for him, alternatives are
available, that he has access to hotels for foreigners, to medical care abroad, to
shopping at the exclusive Intershop. He enjoys trips across the border to West
Berlin, often bringing back to friends coveted items such as blue jeans—or
necessities in short supply, such as toilet paper (some fifty years before the
American shortage). His one friend in his apartment building is another outsider,
Chilean grad student Carlos, who offers him practical advice on dealing with the
cockroaches. In Resistance and Solidarity, Zipser eventually wins the begrudging
respect of the building’s East German occupants when he posts a defiant sign
announcing his refusal to make a “voluntary” donation to the communist cause in
North Vietnam. In The Inventor he poignantly portrays an ambitious East
German’s eagerness to reveal his frustration to an American. While Zipser
laments in Bucket List the severely limited prospects available to those living in
the GDR, he does not fail to admire the brilliant photography of Roger Melis
(whose portraits of many writers appeared in Tauwetter), nor to point out the
enduring appeal of East Germany’s Little Traffic Light Man and the wonderful
ingenuity that created the beautiful Erika portable typewriter.

The cross-cultural perspective of the memoir is enhanced by the snapshots
in which Zipser recounts experiences of the East Germans in Oberlin and their
reactions to American culture—the counterpart to Zipser’s experiences, and their
own, in the GDR. He clearly enjoys recalling the visits of the writers-in-residence
and the time spent together in the US. His office was always near the office
assigned to the writer, conducive to daily back-and-forth. Zipser and his wife
hosted many meals, just as Zipser had been a frequent dinner guest at the homes
of friends in East Germany. Zipser’s snapshot of Christa Wolf incorporates her
delightful, insightful first-person account of her stay, in which she shows a good-
natured accommodation to culture shock as she touches on topics ranging from
American white bread to Midwestern tornadoes, from kitchen gadgets to
bicycles, from Richard Nixon to medical care to the college classroom. Ulrich
Plenzdorf, “even more opposed to smoking than the [US] Surgeon General,” was in
1975 ahead of his time, inspiring Zipser to remove ashtrays and declare his home a
no-smoking zone. Writers’ reactions to life in the US are implicit in elements of
Zipser’s snapshots throughout: the Plenzdorfs’ purchase of a car to “see the USA
in their Chevrolet”; Jurek Becker’s love of Baskin-Robbins ice cream and his
defense of baseball; Stefan Heym’s American citizenship, Bronze Star service in
the US army in WW II and later return to discontent in East Germany. We have
much to learn from looking at our society through their eyes.

Zipser’s final collection of snapshots captures watershed moments of his
shared history with the GDR, from his first visit to East Berlin—an undergraduate
study-abroad excursion in 1963, just two weeks before President Kennedy’s
famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in West Berlin—all the way to the fall of the
Berlin Wall in 1989 and German reunification in 1990. The story of his early career
intersects with the story of East Germany, and Zipser is deservedly recognized and
celebrated today for the cultural and geopolitical significance of his
groundbreaking scholarship, his courageous solidarity with dissident writers, and
his career-long commitment to building community across boundaries. A
signature legacy of his own formative experiences abroad may, indeed, be seen in
the extraordinary panoply of study abroad programs and opportunities created
for students of languages, literatures and cultures during his distinguished tenure
as department chair at the University of Delaware.

The day in January 1999 on which Zipser’s Stasi file arrived in his mailbox in
Delaware was another watershed moment of shared history, as it was his reading
of the file that inspired the writing of these memoirs. On the back cover of
Remembering East Germany, Zipser quotes Timothy Garton Ash, another GDR
memoirist: “But what a gift to memory is a Stasi file. Far better than a madeleine.”
The evocation of Proust’s madeleine beautifully epitomizes the experience of
rediscovering a lost time. The Stasi file was, indeed, a gift for Zipser, both
triggering and transforming memories. While his younger self informed who he is
today, his present self nevertheless sees through transformed eyes. Likewise, the
Stasi file is a gift to us, via Zipser’s memoirs, which put before us that “lost” time
and place, offering us increased understanding that can inform—perhaps
transform—our perspectives, as we strive to meet the challenges of free speech,
disinformation, censorship, and surveillance today, and continue to face crises of
oppression and aggression that threaten democratic society worldwide.

Bonnie Arden Robb
March 2022

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