Stefan Heym

In June 1976, I met with prominent German-Jewish writer Stefan Heym at his villa in Berlin-Grünau. The purpose of my visit was to conduct a tape recorded interview and gather some materials for a book on East German literature in the 1970s, DDR-Literatur im Tauwetter (GDR Literature During the Thaw). Heym, an internationally acclaimed novelist and essayist, was not only East Germany’s most famous writer but its most controversial one as well. In response to a letter I had sent him in February 1976, Heym had graciously invited me to meet with him at his home. Of course, I was very eager to do so.

At the time of my visit in June 1976, Heym was living under open Stasi surveillance. A secret police vehicle occupied by at least two officers was always parked on the street right in front of his residence, so he would know they were monitoring the coming and going of all persons to his house, and to discourage people from visiting him. Inside the house, his informant housekeeper (code name “Frieda”) was able to overhear and report on his conversations with visitors, photograph documents that might be of interest to the Stasi, and keep a watchful eye on her employer whose telephone was most certainly bugged. The fact that he was constantly being observed must have bothered Heym, but he was not easily intimidated and seemed to consider it a badge of honor, a tangible sign of his success as a SED regime critic and human rights advocate.

After we and his wife Inge had coffee and cake in their elegantly appointed living room on the first floor, Heym guided me to his study on the second floor where we proceeded to do the interview. In retrospect, I can say that Heym was one of the very best interview subjects I encountered in the GDR. At that point in his life, he probably had more experience with interviews than any of his writer colleagues and nothing fazed him. He was extremely cooperative and answered my questions in a straightforward manner, with no hesitation. He came across as self-assured and confident, but without any hint of arrogance. I felt comfortable in his study; we were surrounded by books which reminded me of my office at home. When we finished the interview, Heym handed me a typewritten copy of a prose text he had written earlier that year and a portrait photo, along with his written permission to publish both in my book. I had the sense that he really liked my project and also was pleased to have an American Germanist with an interest in GDR literature visit with him.

My Richard (Mein Richard) is the title of the short story Heym gave me that day. The story takes place at a time when the GDR, after a few years of relaxed domestic politics in the earlier 1970s, was once again utilizing harsh methods of repression. The text deals directly with two topics that were taboos in the GDR: flight from the Republic and the Berlin Wall. For that reason, this piece of fiction could not have been published in East Germany, as Heym and I both knew. In the story fifteen-year-old Richard and his friend have crossed over the Wall into West Berlin fourteen times through a window in Richard’s house, which is located right next to the wall. But they were not planning to remain in the other Germany, they only wanted to go to the movies there. After doing just that, the boys always returned home promptly from their illicit excursion. Eventually, the East German secret police found out about these illegal acts; the boys were arrested, put on trial, and sent to prison. At the very end of the story, the boys’ lawyer comments on the bizarre irony of the situation, addressing the prosecuting attorney: “If I were you, comrade, I would have awarded the two boys a gold medal. . . . Because they have, as is now known to the court, demonstrated their absolute loyalty to our Republic fourteen times in a row.” Heym’s fictional commentary is all the more effective because he utilizes the literary conventions of socialist realism, the officially sanctioned style of writing in the GDR during the 1950s and 1960s.

The name of the protagonist in My Richard is Richard Zunk; the name of his seventeen-year-old friend is Richard Edelweiss. So Heym has given us two Richards, which in Germany is an uncommon first name, one whose last name begins with the letter Z. Is this a strange coincidence, or is it possibly related to the fact that my name is Richard Zipser? I think the latter is likely, and this might have been the author’s humorous way of personalizing his Wall story and indirectly dedicating it to me. Thank you very much, Stefan Heym!

Heym had led a most unusual and eventful life. Born in Chemnitz in 1913, he fled the Nazis in 1933, moving first to Prague, and from there emigrating to the US in 1935. He completed his education at the University of Chicago, where he received a master’s degree, and then for two years was editor-in-chief of the German-language weekly, Deutsches Volksecho (German People’s Echo). From 1939 to 1942, Heym worked as a printing salesman in New York City while trying to establish himself as a freelance author, writing in English. His first novel, Hostages (1942), was a bestseller, and his novel The Crusaders (1948) climbed to sixth place on The New York Times list of best sellers. He became a US citizen and served in the US Army during World War II. For his meritorious service as Technical Sergeant in 1944 and 1945, he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal. In 1952, he wrote a letter to President Eisenhower, protesting the Korean War and the fascistic policies of the American government. Heym claimed to have sent his Bronze Star and his US Army commission to Eisenhower, but he remained a US citizen. He moved back to Prague with his American wife and requested political asylum in communist East Germany, where he hoped to find the personal rights that he said were lacking in the US. In 1953, the GDR government restored his former German citizenship, enabling him and his wife to move to Berlin, where he had been a student in the early 1930s.

SED Party officials would soon come to regret their decision to repatriate Heym, as he would demonstrate time and again to their chagrin that he was a rebellious, fearless dissident, a thorn in the side of the authoritarian government. His first major conflict with the GDR authorities occurred in 1956 when his novel about the June 17, 1953 mass uprising of workers in East Berlin, 5 Tage im Juni (5 Days in June), was rejected for publication in the GDR. The novel was published in West Germany and in English translation, but the fact that it was banned in East Germany underscored how dangerous Heym’s fictional recounting of history was in the minds of the GDR’s leaders.

Heym began publishing his books in the West, both in German and in English, and these publications earned him large sums of hard currency that GDR authorities were eager to share in accordance with a formula the state had established. Heym resisted, and in 1969 he was convicted of violating the GDR’s currency exchange regulations after publishing his novel Lassalle in West Germany. In 1979 he was again convicted of breaching the GDR’s currency exchange regulations, this time in connection with the publication of his novel Collin in West Germany, which loyalist GDR writers described as “anti-communist rubbish.” This violation resulted in his expulsion from the GDR Writers’ Union and a major confrontation with government officials that would eventually involve eight prominent writers who supported Heym and, for so doing, would also be expelled from the Writers’ Union. Facing prosecution for alleged currency offences, Heym wrote to me (in English) in late April of 1979: “If you’ve been following the news, you may have noticed that there’s trouble brewing in this place—I am going to be prosecuted on a trumped-up charge of violation of foreign currency rules, in reality, because I refused to ask the GDR authorities for permission to have my books printed abroad if they’re forbidden here.” A few months later, Heym was tried and fined 9,000 West German marks for having published his novel in the West without securing authorization from GDR officials and for neglecting to report the income he had received in foreign currency.

Heym had written many of his works in English and welcomed the opportunity to converse with me in that language when we met. He told me proudly that he subscribed to The New York Times and read it every day. Unlike other East German writers, Heym as a US citizen was able to leave the GDR and take trips abroad, such as his two-month visit to the US in the fall of 1978. He was extremely pleased when I invited him to visit and give a talk at Oberlin College as part of his lecture tour. He came to Oberlin for two days and on November 17, 1978, he gave a memorable hour-long lecture to a huge audience on the inherent conflict between writers (he called them “practitioners of literature”) and cultural policymakers in the GDR. I am pleased to report that the tape recording of this special event is still in my possession today.

Many GDR writers were eager to visit Oberlin College and give a lecture or public reading from their works. They were not only interested in travelling to and around the US, but also in becoming closely identified with their internationally famous colleagues who—as all of  them knew—had been guest authors in residence at Oberlin College: Christa Wolf (1974), Ulrich Plenzdorf (1975), and Jurek Becker (1978). Some of the GDR writers who unabashedly asked me to invite them were outed as Stasi informants in the 1990s—e.g., Hermann Kant, Fritz Rudolf Fries, and Uwe Berger. I was also pressured by the GDR Writers’ Union and the GDR Embassy in Washington, DC to invite certain writers of their choosing, whose honorarium, travel, and other expenses would be fully covered by the GDR. But during my seventeen years as a faculty member at Oberlin College (from 1969 to 1986), Stefan Heym was the only GDR writer to receive an invitation to come and speak on our campus. The five other GDR authors who visited Oberlin prior to my move to Delaware in 1986 were Max Kade German Writers-in-Residence.

Heym Stefan photo ready
photo: Christian Borchert
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