In retrospect, I realize what I liked most about my seventeen years on the Oberlin College faculty (1969 to 1986) was the opportunity I had to interact each spring term with a prominent writer from a German-speaking country. The Max Kade German Writer-in-Residence program brought West German, East German, Austrian, and Swiss authors to our campus every year for a residency of about three months duration. In my first year at Oberlin, my department chairman gave me the assignment of looking after celebrated playwright Tankred Dorst, with whom I had lots of contact and many rewarding conversations. I was intimidated at first, since he was the first live writer I had ever met, but I soon got over that and came to enjoy interacting and socializing with him and the authors who followed in his footsteps. Without question, our visiting writer program prepared me well for the scholarly projects I would undertake during my first sabbatical leave and later in my career, since those initiatives brought me into direct contact with a large number of East German authors. While at Oberlin College, I had the pleasure of co-hosting twelve Max Kade German writers-in-residence, and I was instrumental in bringing five East German writers to our campus: Christa Wolf (1974), Ulrich Plenzdorf (1975), Jurek Becker (1978), Bernd Jentzsch (1982), and Karl-Heinz Jakobs (1986). But I also had two very disappointing experiences, both of which involved women writers from the GDR—Sarah Kirsch and Helga Schütz—persons I was eager but unable to bring to Oberlin. I have written elsewhere about Helga Schütz (see GDR WRITERS IN OHIO, “Helga Schütz”), explaining why the GDR Writers’ Union initially would not allow her to visit Oberlin and why she eventually was permitted to do so after I had moved to Delaware. Sarah Kirsch was another matter altogether.
The first East German writer-in-residence at Oberlin College was Christa Wolf, who spent six weeks with us in the spring of 1974. She was accompanied by her husband Gerhard, a well-known literary scholar and editor who had connections to many contemporary GDR authors and publishers. The Wolfs were prominent figures in the East German literary scene; both were highly influential, albeit in different ways. Yet they were modest individuals; their comportment was unpretentious and down to earth, not self-absorbed or self-assertive. It was obvious that they viewed themselves as their country’s goodwill ambassadors. I spent a lot of time with the Wolfs while they were in Oberlin, and they introduced me to the GDR literary scene through carefully selected readings and instructive conversations that were truly fascinating. Christa and Gerhard unveiled and led me into another, discrete world of German literature, one I had for some reason not been introduced to in graduate school. When I told the Wolfs that I would be taking a one-year sabbatical leave in 1975-1976, they encouraged me to think about doing a project on GDR writing in the 1970s and promised to assist me. During the course of our discussions, the outline of a possible project gradually emerged. The focus would be on new directions and trends in East German literature during the period of “thaw” that occurred shortly after Erich Honecker replaced Walter Ulbricht as leader of the Socialist Unity Party in 1971. To my delight, another prominent East German author—Ulrich Plenzdorf—came to Oberlin as visiting writer in the spring of 1975. He helped me shape and finalize plans for my first sabbatical leave, a good portion of which I was hoping to spend in the GDR.
According to the plan I had developed with the Wolfs’ and Plenzdorf’s help, I was to prepare a book that would explore and document how East German writing had been evolving during the regime of Erich Honecker, which unexpectedly began with a short-lived period of liberalization for literature and the arts in the GDR. The so-called “no taboos” period lasted for approximately five years; it ended abruptly in November 1976 when dissident writer/singer Wolf Biermann was expatriated by the GDR authorities. The objective of my book project was to introduce readers to the leading East German writers of the day, especially to those who were shaping the new sociocritical direction of writing during the 1970s.
The Wolfs made good on their promise to assist me, long before I actually began working on my project. Christa sent a letter to the GDR Writers’ Union in early 1975, endorsing my undertaking and asking them to let me proceed and also provide assistance. This set the stage for the initial meeting I had in September with several Writers’ Union functionaries at their East Berlin headquarters. Without the Wolfs’ involvement and intervention on my behalf, especially at the outset, I doubt that the GDR authorities would have permitted me to conduct interviews with writers and gather other materials for my book.
While I was in East Berlin that September, the Wolfs introduced me to two well-known writers in their circle of friends, Volker Braun and Sarah Kirsch, and also paved the way for meetings in November with three members of the GDR’s literary aristocracy, Stephan Hermlin, Günter Kunert, and Franz Fühmann. Ulrich Plenzdorf introduced me to two of his close friends, prose writers Klaus Schlesinger and Martin Stade, persons I would see frequently during the next few years. When I returned to East Berlin in November, Plenzdorf lent me a portable tape recorder to use for the interviews with authors I was scheduled to visit.
Another writer I got to know well was Sarah Kirsch, who at that time was one of Christa Wolf’s closest friends. I met her in the fall of 1975 and visited her on numerous occasions that year as well as in 1976 while I was working on various book projects in the GDR. She and her young son Moritz lived in a modern high-rise apartment house on Fisher Island in the River Spree, in central Berlin. During my visits to East Berlin, Sarah and I got together from time to time for dinner at a restaurant or a glass of French red wine and cheese (also French) at her place, and by degrees we became good friends. She was a reserved, unassuming person who kept her own counsel and preferred to avoid the spotlight. We got along really well and I enjoyed her company immensely. Happily, she took a genuine interest in the work I was doing which involved—among other things—visiting, interviewing, and gathering texts and other materials from around fifty East German writers. She was always eager to hear reports on my visits with these authors, also to hear how I as an outsider from the US viewed each of them and their works. One evening, after I had finished recounting what I had experienced that afternoon during my hours-long visit with prominent GDR playwright Peter Hacks, Sarah said: “Dick, your eyes are tiny, but those eyes see everything.” What a compliment that was!
Sarah gained initial prominence in the 1960s as one of a group of GDR poets who challenged the official cultural-political dictate that literature should primarily reinforce the values and reflect the achievements of socialist society. In 1960, she married the controversial lyric poet Rainer Kirsch and then both were mentored by Gerhard Wolf. Sarah and Rainer Kirsch joined a group of other aspiring poets—Wolf Biermann, Heinz Czechowski, Elke Erb, Volker Braun, and Karl Mickel, among others—who collectively charted a new direction in GDR poetry. Their poems emphasized subjective approaches to reality as opposed to ideological affirmations of socialist society. In 1967, Sarah published her first solo collection of poems, A Stay in the Country (Landaufenthalt), in which she asserted formally and thematically a new poetic identity. Heinz Czechowski, the influential poet from Halle, commented: “With Sarah’s poems a new, previously unheard tone could be heard in German lyric poetry.” Some insiders referred to that tone as the “Sarah-Sound.” Her poems were grounded primarily in personal experience and emphasized subjective feeling, and they were often subtly critical of GDR conditions. The independent-minded poet Sarah Kirsch was recognized as an important talent, but also eyed with suspicion by the cultural authorities of the SED.
However, unlike a number of her colleagues—e.g., Stefan Heym, Günter Kunert, Reiner Kunze, Jurek Becker, and Wolf Biermann—Sarah Kirsch was not openly hostile to the SED regime and was never considered to be a troublemaker. Nevertheless, for stepping out of line on just one occasion she would become a nonperson in the eyes of the GDR’s cultural bureaucracy. Her sin was to protest, along with Christa Wolf and ten other leading GDR writers, the government’s expatriation in November 1976 of dissident songwriter/poet Wolf Biermann, while he was on a concert tour in West Germany. Her punishment for this transgression was extremely cruel and had dire financial consequences for Sarah. She was informed that her writings would no longer be published in the GDR, that she would not receive any more freelance translation work, the main source of her income at that time, nor would she be allowed to participate in public events of any sort. Since Sarah was divorced, and since she had a six-year-old son, her sudden inability to earn an income soon became a major existential problem. Her solution was to apply for a permanent exit visa that would enable her to move to the West. She did that, but the visa was not forthcoming. The government authorities had clearly decided to make an example of her, so other recalcitrant writers would not be tempted to follow in her footsteps.
I should mention that Sarah was romantically involved with a German writer who lived in West Berlin, a lover who would come to East Berlin periodically to visit her. This unusual across-the-Wall relationship contributed significantly to her desire to move to West Berlin, but for more than six months her visa application was ignored. Eventually, in the summer of 1977, Sarah was finally permitted to emigrate to the West and made the move to West Berlin. I visited with her that fall and asked how she had managed to get the visa. I was so desperate, she said, that I finally decided to appeal directly to SED Party leader Erich Honecker. I wrote him a letter and told him that I had applied for a permanent exit visa more than six months ago, but—despite my repeated inquiries—had not yet received a response. I said that I desperately needed his help and wanted him to intervene soon, very soon. I emphasized that this was an urgent life-and-death matter and concluded by asking him to keep in mind that my apartment was located on the seventeenth floor. Honecker then intervened, presumably because of her veiled threat of suicide, and her visa application was approved right away. In August 1977, Sarah Kirsch and her son Moritz relocated to West Berlin, without any fanfare.
In the fall of 1977, I spent two months in East Berlin with the financial support of an IREX (International Research and Exchanges Board) grant. During this time I made several trips to West Berlin in order to visit with Sarah, who was having some difficulty getting resettled and acclimated to life in the West. One day she told me about something that had happened to her shortly before she left the GDR, in all likelihood due to her participation in the protest of the GDR’s expulsion of Wolf Biermann, an incident that both repulsed and frightened her. She said she had returned to her apartment on the seventeenth floor one afternoon to find this painted boldly on the outside of the entrance door:
Saujüdin (Jewish Pig)
The irony here is that Sarah was not Jewish. In 1935 she was born Ingrid Bernstein in Limlingerode in the region of Thuringia, the part of Germany that following WW II became the GDR. She changed her first name to Sarah in order to protest against her father’s anti-Semitism and to show solidarity with Holocaust victims. From 1960-1968 she was married to East German lyricist Rainer Kirsch, which explains the change in surname.
I returned to East Berlin in the middle of May, 1978, to complete the work that could only be done in the GDR on two projects that would culminate in book publications: Contemporary East German Poetry (a bilingual anthology) and GDR Literature During the Thaw (a documentary). With Sarah’s permission, I published a selection of her poems in both of these books, as well as her written response to my interview questions in the book focusing on the period of thaw. We got together a few times in May/June of 1978, but little did I imagine that I would never see Sarah again—yet, that is what happened! In the summer she departed for Italy, where—thanks to a grant from the government—she was able to spend the next half year as artist in residence at the German Academy in Rome at Villa Massimo. The stay at Villa Massimo enabled Sarah to devote herself to writing again, after several years of emotional and mental turmoil, and it marked the beginning of a new chapter in her personal and professional life.
In 1979, after Sarah Kirsch had returned to West Berlin, I proposed to my Oberlin colleagues that we invite her to be our German writer-in-residence for the spring 1980 semester, and members of the German faculty were eager to do so. But, as I would learn, Sarah’s life had gone in a new direction. She had met a young German composer at the Villa Massimo, Wolfgang von Schweinitz, and become romantically involved with him. She and Wolfgang had decided to move away from Berlin and its many distractions that made it very difficult for Sarah to write. When I contacted Sarah and issued the invitation, she told me they were preparing to relocate and embrace a different style of life in the rural township of Bothel in Lower Saxony. There, while living in the peaceful countryside with Wolfgang, son Moritz, and her mother, Sarah wrote the powerful collection of poems that were published under the title Cat Lives (Katzenleben , 1984).
Sarah’s closest neighbor, Johanna Amthor, has written and posted online her “Memories of Sarah Kirsch in Bothel from 1980 to 1983” (“Erinnerungen an Sarah Kirsch in Bothel von 1980 bis 1983″). She recalls how much Sarah loved the flat, marshy landscape and country life. She also provides a description of Sarah which coincides with my recollection of Sarah, so I have translated it and am including it here. “Sarah was petite and slender back then. She had straight hair, tinted red, and wore eyeglasses with thick frames. She liked to wear flared pants and Norwegian sweaters. She also did knitting and later on knotted lovely carpets. But not before [moving to] Tielenhemme. Sarah seemed very modest in her demeanor, almost shy, one could say. She had a pleasant alto voice, smoked a lot, was a good cook, had a nice and also sometimes earthy sense of humor.”
In the fall of 1982, during my first semester as chairman of the German and Russian Department at Oberlin College, I contacted Sarah and invited her formally to spend the spring 1983 semester in Oberlin, as German Writer-in-Residence. Below is my translation of the letter she wrote in response to my second invitation to visit Oberlin. It reflects her determination not to spend time travelling and reading from her works, but rather to do what she wanted and needed to do most—watch the flowers bloom, be there for her son, and write!
Bothel, 16 October 82
Many thanks for the long telegraphic invitation, but I can’t and don’t want to leave this place; everything that is here needs me, and I also wouldn’t get to see my flowers bloom. Seriously, I’m able to work really well here and have granted myself a two-year break from public readings, otherwise one gradually comes to dread this activity. It was very nice that you thought of me several times, that you still think I have to visit Oberlin. Coming from the GDR that would have been something really different; there one seized every opportunity to be able to travel.
I hope that you are doing well along with those close to you, that your work is still a source of pleasure. Moritz, meanwhile, is almost as tall as I am, 13 years old, he is thriving here. Recently, he travelled by himself for the first time to visit a friend in Berlin-W.
Many good wishes from both of us!
More than anything, Sarah craved the solitude of nature which stimulated her creativity more than anything else. In 1983 she moved with partner Wolfgang and son Moritz to Schleswig-Holstein. They moved into a former schoolhouse in Tielenhemme (district of Dithmarschen), a rural municipality with a population of about 170 persons, located near the Danish border. Sarah was fascinated by the barrenness and expanse of the unspoiled landscape surrounding them. Joey Horsley, in her biographical essay on Sarah Kirsch, tells us: “Here she kept sheep, cats and a donkey, observed and absorbed nature and the world, and wrote daily for the next 20 years. She also took up painting; her watercolors appear in some of her publications.“ (FemBio “Sarah Kirsch,” p. 6). Sarah died on May 5, 2013 after a short illness; her ashes are buried in the garden of her house in Tielenhemme.
After moving to the West in August 1977, Sarah published a collection of forty new poems under the title Flying Kites (Drachensteigen, 1979). These poems reflect, among other things, her separation from the GDR and her happiness at being in Italy with a new lover. My translation into English of the first poem she wrote after leaving the GDR, “The End of the String” / “Der Rest des Fadens,” appears below.
Flying kites. Game
For endless plains without trees and water. In the open sky
A paper star
Drawn toward the light, higher, out of sight
And onward, onward
All we have left is the end of the string, and the fact that we knew you.
photo: Roger Melis