60. Next Two Years at Oberlin College: Summer 1978 to Summer 1980

I returned to Oberlin in mid-June 1978, not knowing that it would be almost six years before I would again visit East Berlin. Over the next two years, while teaching full-time at Oberlin College, I worked on four projects related to the GDR.

The first project involved the preparation of a four-part publication on Jurek Becker, who—as I discussed earlier—had spent the spring 1978 semester at Oberlin College. The four-part package, which was published in the literary journal DIMENSION (Volume 11, Number 3, 1978, pp. 402-423), consisted of the following pieces: New Yorker Woche / A Week in New York, seven short prose texts Becker wrote during his first week in the US, which were translated into English by A. Leslie Willson; Jurek Becker: A Writer with a Cause, my short essay on Becker designed to introduce him to an English-speaking audience; Interview with Jurek Becker, an interview I conducted in May 1978, covering three major phases of Becker’s life and career (1945-1960: Life and Experiences in the Years Following World War II, 1960-1977: The Launching of a Literary Career, 1978- : Jurek Becker Living on Foreign Soil); and My Way of Being a Jew, an essay Becker had written before coming to Oberlin and presented as a public lecture in April 1978. The interview and the essay were translated into English by Claudia Johnson, a student at Oberlin at that time, and me.

The essay caused quite a stir because of Becker’s assertion that he did not consider himself to be Jewish, even though his parents were Jews. He explained his position, which later in life he modified, as follows:

I maintain that belonging to a group of people called “the Jews” can be perceived only as a voluntary act; it is a choice that can be made in one way or another, in the last analysis an intellectual decision. I have encountered considerable opposition to this view, and at times I have wanted to defend it as fiercely as possible. I do not want to develop this idea beyond saying: The opponents of such a view come from all over—from the ranks of the believers, such as the Zionists, but also from the ranks of the most embittered anti-Semites, the authors of the race laws, for instance, who during the Third Reich did not want to leave the individual any freedom of choice whatsoever, whether he was Jewish or not. (p. 419)

Another controversial statement in this essay would prompt a major scholarly journal in the US to censor Becker. In an effort to explain his lack of identification with the Jewish religion or people, Becker asserted:

Being a Jew does not arouse a feeling of good fortune because I, willingly or not, belong to an extended group of people who, like other groups of comparable size, accomplish things, both admirable and miserable. I do not feel a surge of pride because Kafka was a Jew, although I suspect that his writings were very significant for me. I do not feel upset because Max Frisch is not a Jew, although he is of similar importance to me. I do not feel ashamed that the Jews in the Near East have established themselves as a master race (Herrenmenschen) and are practicing a type of politics that I can only describe as predatory. I just feel angry that people deal with people in such a way.

This last assertion was unacceptable to the editors of the scholarly journal that had eagerly committed in advance to publishing the four-text package Becker and I agreed to prepare for this periodical—without reviewing or revising it. Despite their commitment, which had been put in writing, they demanded that Becker remove the reference to a “master race” and the word “predatory” from his essay, otherwise they would not publish it. I refused to ask Becker to do this and was incensed. After all, Becker had left East Germany at the end of 1977 to escape censorship, only to find himself now being subjected to censorship in this country. How ironic—and how sad!

Since I had negotiated with one of the principal editors of this journal (a prominent Germanist who shall remain anonymous, since he many years later apologized for engaging in editorial censorship) to publish the four texts as a package, I was infuriated when the journal refused to proceed unless Becker would remove the references they considered offensive to their readership. Becker, who was accustomed to being censored from his years as a writer in the GDR, shrugged it off with his typical good humor. In a letter to me dated September 22, 1979, he wrote:

Lieber Dick,

Danke für Deinen Brief, es steht ja viel drin. Die Geschichte mit der New German Critique regt Dich offenbar mehr auf, als sie mich aufregen kann. Wahrscheinlich liegt es daran, dass Du schon so lange der Überzeugung bist, Amerika ist ein demokratisches Land, ich nicht. Das ist aber ganz in Ordnung so—ich habe umgekehrt ja auch viele Jahre fest geglaubt, die DDR ist ein demokratisches Land, und Du nicht. Es ist nicht schön, dass wir uns beide geirrt haben, aber wir sind alt genug, damit fertig zu werden.

Dear Dick,

Thanks for your letter; it provides lots of information. The episode with the New German Critique apparently upsets you more than it can upset me. That’s probably because you’ve been convinced for so long that America is a democratic country; I haven’t. But it’s entirely okay like this—I also believed firmly for many years, in reverse, that the GDR is a democratic country, and you didn’t. It’s not nice that we both were mistaken, but we are old enough to deal with that.

I returned to I proceeded to place the four-text package with DIMENSION, a journal devoted to contemporary German arts and letters, and today I am actually glad that I—like Becker and so many GDR writers—have directly experienced the sting of editorial censorship. While this was my first censorial experience, there would be other such experiences in the years that followed due to my point of view on the repressive GDR state, its rigid cultural politics, and its harsh treatment of writers and artists who dared to voice opposition.

The second project was my three-volume book, DDR-Literatur im Tauwetter (GDR Literature During the Thaw), which I continued working on as time permitted while teaching at Oberlin College. The voluminous amount of material I had gathered needed to be organized, edited, and assembled in a format suitable for publication. In the spring of 1978, I decided to ask my friend and colleague Karl-Heinz Schoeps, professor of German literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, to collaborate with me on this undertaking. Karl-Heinz, a specialist in twentieth-century German literature with a scholarly interest in GDR literature, agreed to team up with me. In the summer of 1978, we met and decided how to divide the tasks that remained to be done—e.g., writing an introduction, a task we shared equally, preparing bio-bibliographical sketches on the 45 writers, arranging the interview materials, and so on. Karl-Heinz translated the foreword I had written in English into German, also my half of the introduction, and anything else that needed to be translated. To this day, I remain immensely grateful to him for his able assistance, without which I never could have completed the project.

The third project involved preparation of a bilingual special issue of the journal FIELD on contemporary East German poetry in the 1970s. I had collected poems from the fourteen GDR writers who would be represented, but those works had to be translated into English, a job that fourteen professors, students, and poets would carry out. Also, I needed to write an introduction to the anthology as well as a bio-bibliographical sketch for each of the poets. All work on this project was completed in the summer of 1980, and the special issue was published in the fall of that year. It received excellent reviews, including one by distinguished Germanist Peter Demetz (Yale University) in the Washington Post.

The fourth project was to apply for a National Fellowship at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, California. By the fall of 1979, a little over a year after my return to Oberlin, I realized that I needed a concentrated period of time to bring these various GDR-related projects—especially DDR-Literatur im Tauwetter—to their conclusion. At that time, the National Fellows Program allowed established scholars holding a doctoral degree, who were under the age of forty, to devote a full year to research and writing at the Hoover Institution. There was a preference for candidates whose proposals embodied empirical studies of significant public policy issues, which is difficult to design in the humanities. Nevertheless, I managed to give my proposal a public policy slant and was fortunate to be awarded a fellowship for a full year at full pay, from mid-August 1980 to mid-August 1981.