42. Jurek Becker in Oberlin: February – May, 1978

I first met Jurek Becker in November 1975, when I visited his home in Berlin for the purpose of doing a tape recorded interview for DDR-Literatur im Tauwetter (GDR Literature During the Thaw). In addition to being a very talented prose writer, Becker was a very likeable man; he had a marvelous sense of humor, a great deal of personal warmth and charm, and was one of the best storytellers I ever met. He was also candid, outspoken, and not afraid to express his views on controversial topics, such as problems in GDR society and his country’s oppressive system of government. His criticism of the SED leadership and their violation of human rights brought him into conflict with the GDR authorities on many occasions.

International recognition came to Becker following the publication of his first and, in my view, most powerful novel, Jakob der Lügner (Jacob the Liar, 1969), which was translated into many languages and made into a motion picture of the same title. His books are serious in theme and, at the same time, highly entertaining reading. The Swiss writer, Max Frisch, said of himself: “I try on stories like clothes,” an assertion that Becker could have made with equal force. Indeed, when it came to the not-so-simple art of telling a story, Becker was a master craftsman able to employ all the tools of his trade with uncommon skill.

During my visits to East Berlin in 1976 and 1977, I met with Becker on numerous occasions and over time we became friends. As I got to know him better, I became convinced that he was a perfect candidate for the German Writer-in-Residence program at Oberlin College. His outgoing personality, friendly and unassuming demeanor, and ability to relate to people—in addition to his talent and international reputation as a novelist—made him an ideal choice. And when he came to Oberlin for most of the spring 1978 semester, he dedicated himself to making his residency as successful as possible—and in every regard it was a memorable visit.

In December of 1977, Becker quietly moved from East to West Berlin. He was in possession of a unique two-year exit visa that enabled him to go back and forth from the West to the East, where his two teenage sons were living. At that time, he was the only East German writer to be permitted such freedom of movement. In November 1976, Becker had become embroiled in a human rights conflict with the government when he—along with eleven other GDR writers—publicly protested the forced exiling of dissident poet-singer, Wolf Biermann. In the ensuing months, he resigned from the GDR Writers’ Union, was thrown out of the SED Party, and then barred from making public appearances and publishing his writing in the GDR.

Becker’s decision to spend a semester as writer-in-residence at Oberlin College coincided with his decision to leave East Germany for a year or two. In June 1977, when Becker and many other writers were still preoccupied with the Biermann affair, I first discussed with him the possibility of coming to Oberlin. Following the expulsion of his good friend Biermann, a move Becker had protested more vociferously than most, his life had been a series of upheavals. “I’ve gotten out of everything,” he jokingly told me, “out of the Writers’ Union, out of the Party, and out of my marriage.” Upon separating from his wife, Becker exchanged a comfortable home on the outskirts of Köpenick for a modest, rear-building apartment (no bathroom or telephone) in a working-class neighborhood of Friedrichshain [Köpenick and Friedrichshain are districts of Berlin]. This not only provided an interim solution to the problem of where to live, it also enabled him to withdraw and devote himself full time to writing the novel Schlaflose Tage (Sleepless Days). Barred from reading in public, uncertain about his future, and in the midst of a midlife crisis of sorts, Becker sought and found refuge in his work.

Before the end of June 1977, Schlaflose Tage had been completed and submitted to the Hinstorff Verlag in the GDR and the Suhrkamp Verlag in the FRG. Initially Becker was assured by the editors at Hinstorff that the novel would be published. But later on, when he steadfastly refused to make certain recommended changes, it became clear that his novel would not appear in his own country. Becker, who maintained that he—unlike some of his colleagues—could not live and write in one Germany, only to be published and read in the other, was forced to begin contemplating possible solutions to his dilemma. In an interview printed the following month in the West German news magazine, Der Spiegel (The Mirror), he expressed a desire to remain in East Germany and the hope that his books would continue to be published there. “If it’s a question of keeping my mouth shut,” he remarked, “then I’d rather keep it shut in the Bahamas.” However, the airplane carrying Becker to the New World landed not in the Bahamas but near Oberlin, Ohio.

Becker, our third writer-in-residence from the GDR, arrived in Oberlin on February 20, 1978, just a few weeks before Schlaflose Tage was published in the FRG by the Suhrkamp Verlag. For the next three months he lived in a dormitory on campus, where the Plenzdorfs had lived before him, and dined with students at the Max Kade German House most of the time. Jurek spent almost every morning in his apartment, writing short prose texts, then made himself available in his office every afternoon to those who wanted to stop by and talk with him. His office in Rice Hall was across the corridor from mine, so we saw each other and conversed almost every day, often about GDR-related topics. When he had finished a draft of a “Splittertext” (splinter text), as he called these short prose works, he would come to my office and read it to me, eager to hear my reaction. In Oberlin I was his one and only link, and he was also my only link, to East Germany.

Despite the publicity that had accompanied Jurek’s departure from East Germany and his trip to the US, few people at Oberlin were aware of the tremendous upheaval that had occurred in his life during the previous fifteen months, and very few—if any—were in a position to appreciate the impact that these violent changes had had upon him. From the outset, Jurek found himself both isolated and insulated by his new, unfamiliar environment. He had been a celebrity in West Berlin, but in Oberlin he was for most people a nobody, and at first he had difficulty adjusting to his new status. He had been removed, suddenly and physically, from the problems that had consumed so much of his time and emotional energy in Berlin, from the problems that had led him to write a book like Schlaflose Tage, and now he was in Oberlin, a tranquil college town in northern Ohio with a population of 8,000.

Jurek, a gregarious man who liked and related well to young people, welcomed the daily contact with Oberlin students. He took an interest in their lives and concerns, suppressing for a time all thought of those difficuties and decisions awaiting him in Berlin. On Tuesday evenings he held a two-hour colloquium in the German House lounge. Sometimes, eager to get a response, he would read the latest of his prose texts, or he would simply talk about whatever happened to be on his mind (e.g., Jurek Becker, New York City, the so-called American way of life, similarities between the US and the GDR), or he would ask questions so that he could listen and learn. On Thursday evenings he always held an open house for anyone who cared to come, an opportunity to get to know the writer Jurek Becker as a flesh-and-blood human being and a chance for him to become better acquainted with persons who were interested in him.

While in Oberlin, Jurek learned to love Baskin-Robbins ice cream and, to my amazement, the game of baseball (“not at all boring, you just have to know the rules”). He was amused by his own appearance in an OBERLIN sweatshirt, unafraid of his second-hand Ford Pinto—despite our warnings—and fascinated by the AAA and all its services. He came to like the “apolitical” climate in Oberlin, and joined the rest of us in complaining about the nasty weather. Oberlin was good for Jurek, and he was good for us. He had time to write, to think, to take stock of the past, and to prepare for what the future had in store for him. After leaving Oberlin in late May of 1978, Jurek spent seven weeks touring the US—Miami Beach, New Orleans, Taos, and San Francisco—and visiting some of his new friends.

One of Jurek’s friends at Oberlin was 18-year-old Hannah Zinn from Hayward, California, who was a first-year student when he met and began dating her. Hannah, a beautiful and highly intelligent young woman, was a student in my Elementary German class that spring. She lived in the Russian House and dined at the Russian Table in the dining room of the German House, where Jurek frequently ate lunch and dinner. I introduced him to Hannah, and soon thereafter they began dating. It was the beginning of a romance that lasted for more than five years. In the summer of 1978, Jurek visited Hannah in California and met her parents. Infatuated with Hannah, he contemplated staying in the US, but eventually decided to return to Germany and invited her to join him. He flew back to West Berlin in July of that year, but without Hannah who wanted to complete her college education. However, at the end of the fall 1978 semester, she dropped out of Oberlin College, flew to West Berlin, and moved into Jurek’s apartment. They lived together until the fall of 1983, when Jurek broke off the relationship.

After spring break, two journalists from Germany—Eva Windmöller and Dirk Sager—descended on Oberlin to do articles on Jurek. Windmöller’s article, “Jurek Beckers Urlaub von der DDR” (“Jurek Becker’s Vacation from the GDR”), appeared in a July 1978 issue of Stern (Star) magazine (No. 29, 116-120). It is illustrated with photos of Jurek interacting with students in the German House lounge and dining room, talking on the phone in his dormitory apartment, and chatting with a sheriff at the Midway Mall. Nice memories! Dirk Sager, whom I had met on several occasions in East Berlin, was a correspondent for the German TV channel ZDF. He interviewed Jurek for his weekly news program Kennzeichen D [literally: License Plate G (G for Germany)], and he kindly included a short conversation with me in the segment—my first and only appearance on television.

For me, Jurek Becker’s visit as German writer-in-residence was the most enjoyable of any I experienced during my seventeen years at Oberlin College, probably because I knew him well and regarded him as a friend before he arrived. I know he regarded me as a friend as well, not only because he gave me a pre-publication copy of Schlaflose Tage with the following inscription: “Für Dick in Dicker Freundschaft [For Dick in close friendship], Jurek Becker, Oberlin, Feb. 24, 1978.” After leaving Oberlin and touring the US, he returned to West Berlin in late July, and when his special visa expired he decided to remain in the West. He lived in West Berlin until just before he died of cancer at age 59, much too young to depart this world, on March 14, 1997. [In preparing the section above on Jurek Becker in Oberlin, I relied heavily on my essay, “Jurek Becker: A Writer with a Cause,” DIMENSION, Vol. 11, No. 3 (1978), 402-406.]