Friday, January 8, 2010

Berlin Pt.2: Victor Grossman

Author of "Crossing the River", Victor Grossman in his home on Karl Marx Allee in East Berlin.

"It's really a bunch of bullshit." said Victor. I didn't really want to come out and ask him right off the bat what he thought about the 20th anniversary hooplah. But I was glad the conversation moved with little prodding. He continued "The unification of Germany resembled more of a West German annexation. Everyone lost their jobs."

"In DDR times, this was the nice china. It was hard, it was a task to collect a full set."

We met over tea in his small apartment on the Karl Marx Promenade formerly Stalin Promenade. From his apartment building you would have the best seat in the house for the giant parades with tanks and marching soldiers. Parades meant to show the muscle of the Soviet nurtured East German muscle. His sitting room filled with hundreds of books. From the titles I read, it seemed the bookcase was leaning quite heavily to the left, more politically than physically. Victor Grossman, originally Stephen Wechsler was a former US Army serviceman who facing court martial for participation in Communist groups while at Harvard University in the US, defected by way of swimming across the Danube into Austria from his army post in Germany.

Victor Grossman and myself in Berlin. 2009. Photo by Djamila GrossmanVictor Grossman and I in Berlin, 2009. Photo by Djamila Grossman

As we walk down the rebuilt promenade, he quickly opens up. He must have known I was curious.

"I guess I don't know if I did the right thing. When I was drafted during the Korean War, I was asked to sign a document stating that I had never been a part of a dozen and a half communist groups. I signed that I hadn't although truthfully I had been in about half of them. I didn't think they were going to check. They did."

His unique situation and life became immediately apparent as I thought about him in a sopping wet US Army uniform, asking Austrians in broken German where he could find the nearest Soviet embassy. Most people find a political preference that will fit in with their country. Now carrying the name, Victor Grossman, he found a country to fit in with his political leanings instead.

"I've always been a leftist." he states as he attributes his being raised in the socialistic style commune on Free Acres, New Jersey , a socialist commune style community, as something that nurtured his political preferences. Being the son of lower working class parents, then himself a factory worker also contributed to his socialist sympathy.

In October of this year, Victor published "The Fall of the Wall" in the independent socialist magazine, Monthy Review. As differently as I was raised, there is hope in the thought of an ideal where poverty and facism don't exist. Victor was very pragmatic and a true conversationalist. That and the pleasant cool air as we walked along back streets towards Alexanderplatz made me less nervous as I told him what my father did while I lived here in Germany. He laughed and said, "Well he probably knew me, there weren't too many of us. (Ex-US military defectors) I wished my father could be there at that moment. They probably would have chatted each others ears off. What was perhaps the U.S.'s Cold War "enemy" was now a kind and cheerful man who was about to buy me dinner.

After being sent to East Berlin by the Soviets in 1952, where he become a proponent for socialism and an outspoken radio journalist, Victor rose to what his family calls, "celebrity status." He was after all a symbol the GDR wanted to show off the young man, from the dimming capitalist land of exploitation, who voluntarily leaves for the sunrise of socialist communism in reconstructed East Germany.

We ended our walk and fitting with our historical conversation, he took us to Zur Letzen Instanz, (The Last Appeal); regarded as the oldest restaurant in Berlin. His German although fluent, carries a thick and unmistakable New York accent and as he asked for a table, the accent caught the waitress. I felt like they considered him an American trying out his grammatically sound German whilst on vacation. Little did they know he was among the GDR's most famous immigrants.

Through the kitchen window, the neu-bau buildings of the former GDR.

To hear Victor's voice as he is interviewed by Emily Harris, as part of the series, Americans Abroad by NPR.


Read the review of Victor's autobiography, Crossing the River, by David Marshall from the Department of History at UC-Riverside.