Swimming to the other side, memoirs of Victor Grossman

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BOOKREVIEW

Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War and Life in East Germany

By Victor Grossman

University of Massachusetts Press, 2003

Softcover, 328 pp., $24.95

“Thinking of Germany in the night,” wrote the exiled 19th century poet Heinrich Heine, “I lie awake and sleep takes flight.” Indeed, who, pondering that nation’s history, by turns exalted and utterly tragic, has not had more than a few sleepless nights?

The wall separating East and West Germany went up in 1963, but long before that, Winston Churchill had rung down an Iron Curtain. I confess that as a child in central Kansas during that time, having one side of my family of German ancestry, I used to wonder: what was it really like there?

Longtime readers of the People’s Weekly World will be familiar with Victor Grossman’s reports from Germany, generally focusing on current political developments. But now we have a substantial volume of his memoirs, which not only satisfies one’s natural curiosity about a notable journalist’s life, but reveals a great deal of exactly how life really was in the German Democratic Republic during its entire existence.

Born Stephen Wechsler, he was the son of an art dealer in New York City during the Great Depression. When hard times hit, the art market sank, so the family frequently moved. There were happy years at the Free Acres community in the Wachtung Mountains of New Jersey, where everyone experienced a variety of progressive ideas, customs and folkways. His mother arranged his admission to the prestigious Dalton School in New York, followed by admission to Harvard, where he soon became involved with communist student circles. While he gained a decent education there, Wechsler always felt himself to be an outsider in a WASP enclave.

Wechsler moved to Buffalo, N.Y., where he found work in factories, and associations with local Communist Party USA friends, while suppressing his Harvard past.

One day, he recalls, “I witnessed a prank that would become legendary.” Men in the acid room of the plant “made a dummy with rubber boots, apron, and slouch hat, dozing defiantly in a chair. When shift boss Charley turned up, he circled the lazy worker — scolding, shouting and finally grabbing. Everyone watched with intense enjoyment, and Charley’s aggressiveness softened noticeably in the next weeks.”

During the Korean War, Wechsler was drafted into the Army, but was sent to Germany instead of Asia. There he received an ominous letter from the brass, summoning him for a political investigation. Instead, lonely and frightened, he decided to desert, and swam across the Danube to the Soviet Zone of Austria.

At first the Russians didn’t know quite what to make of him, and even suspected that he was a spy. But after a while, they found English books for him, and even boots that fit perfectly. Finally they took him to the GDR, the newly established socialist eastern part of Germany, where he began a new life, and where he received his new name, Victor Grossman.

There are amusing descriptions of his fellow exiles, some of them not “political” at all. And details of what it was like to work in factories, hauling heavy wooden planks. But Grossman, having done this kind of work before, was tough enough to make it.

Eventually he went to journalism school in Leipzig, embarking on a career of writing and translation. There are descriptions of tours by famous people like Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, but also details of German musical personalities. Ernst Busch, the great Brechtian singer and actor, “was known as a grump but I was pleasantly surprised to find him playing happily with a little son, caroling from room to room.”

And when our composer Earl Robinson (“I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night”) visited Leipzig, “at Bach’s grave in the Thomas Church he suddenly dropped to his knees and kissed the flat stone.”

From his radical student days in the U.S., Grossman was familiar with the whole folk music revival, and thus he was not only able to serve as a guide and interpreter for our musicians in the GDR, but also had a radio show devoted to folk music. When he wrote books, they were printed in editions of 10,000 for a reading audience he rightly calls “voracious.”

In addition to music and literature, Grossman presents a vivid picture of daily life in the GDR, including a complex assessment of its political culture. I came away from this book feeling like I had had a valuable opportunity to understand all the pluses and minuses of the GDR’s history.

Grossman remains a partisan of socialism, and he acidly observes that as soon as the Christian Democrats took over the eastern region, all the “libraries, clubhouses, polyclinics, vacation homes, sport and cultural activity” were ruthlessly trimmed. Gaudy advertising was plastered everywhere, papering over, as it were, unemployment, insecurity and anxiety.

There’s a valuable afterward by Mark Solomon, which locates the narrative’s context in recent scholarly studies and assessments of the GDR, which are further annotated in a bibliography. This is a book that should be taken up in school and college courses as well as progressive study circles, and by anyone who wishes to understand the history of German socialism in the latter half of the 20th century.