78. Bernd Jentzsch in Oberlin: February – May, 1982

When he met with his Stasi-handler Gerhard Hoffmann in late November, 1981, IMB “Pedro Hagen” did not know that the German faculty at Oberlin College, acting on my recommendation, already had invited former GDR writer Bernd Jentzsch to be the 15th Max Kade German Writer-in-Residence during the spring semester of 1982. Jentzsch, a well-known poet, prose writer, editor and translator, who also worked as a publisher’s reader, accepted our invitation and arrived in Oberlin in February 1982.

When I met Jentzsch in November 1975, he and his family—which included his mother—were living in Wilhelmshagen, a town situated on the outskirts of East Berlin. Jentzsch led a quiet life until the fall of 1976, when his fortunes took a dramatic and unexpected turn. That fall, when he was in Switzerland doing spadework for an anthology of Swiss poetry, he learned about the expatriation of prominent poet-singer Wolf Biermann and the expulsion of fellow writer Reiner Kunze from the GDR Writers’ Union on the order of the GDR government. Stunned and angered by the harshness of these actions, he spontaneously demanded that the regime reverse its decision; he wrote a scathing and detailed open letter to head-of-state Erich Honecker, submitting it for publication to several newspapers in the GDR, in the Federal Republic of Germany, and in Switzerland, without considering possible negative consequences. The reprisals against Jentzsch, his family, his long-since widowed mother, and his friends were not long in coming. His open letter was not published by any GDR newspapers but turned over to the Stasi, which promptly indicted him for “hostile agitation against the State.” Faced with the prospect of a mock trial and two to ten years of imprisonment, he decided to stay in Switzerland. His wife, her brother, his son, and even his pensioned, staunchly and actively socialist mother were harassed, humiliated, and ostracized by the GDR authorities.

In the spring of 1977 Jentzsch’s wife, Birgit, and their son, Stefan, were finally permitted to leave the country with a passport for stateless persons and joined him in Switzerland. His mother, however, was repeatedly denied permission to visit him and his family; their correspondence was scrutinized, their occasional telephone conversations were monitored and disrupted; she was driven to despair and, ultimately, to suicide in the fall of 1979. Jentzsch himself was officially branded as a criminal fugitive from the GDR; his publications were banned, his name was removed from reference books, and his contributions were deleted from subsequent editions of anthologies. From 1977 on, the Jentzsch family lived in Küsnacht near Zurich; Jentzsch was able to find work as a publisher’s reader, and his wife became director of a home for deaf-blind children.

Our decision to invite Jentzsch to spend three months at Oberlin College as German writer-in-residence infuriated government and Writers’ Union officials in the GDR, especially since the previous GDR writer to visit Oberlin had been outspoken regime critic Jurek Becker in 1978. GDR authorities would soon formulate and seek to implement the “Delegierungsprinzip” (delegation principle), a procedure that would enable them to pre-select writers from the GDR for Oberlin College and other institutions with guest writer programs in the US.

During my seventeen years as an Oberlin College faculty member, I had the pleasure of co-hosting and interacting with twelve Max Kade German writers-in-residence, always during the spring semester. Typically, the visiting writer would arrive in mid-February and depart in mid-May, which is precisely what Bernd Jentzsch did. Of all the writers I experienced in Oberlin, Bernd was probably the most even-keeled and modest, also one of the least self-absorbed. He was an unusually good listener, genuinely interested in what others had to say and eager to hear their comments on his literary texts and various issues. His responses to these comments were always measured and thoughtful. He was less emotional and more cerebral than most of the writers we hosted, an intellectual in every respect, and both the small college setting and academic environment seemed to suit him well. My wife Ulrike and I spent many hours in his company each week. We enjoyed his presence at our dinner table on numerous occasions as well as our conversations on a wide range of topics.

A nice memory: That spring, as newlyweds, Ulrike and I were in the process of completing the construction of a new house on a quiet cul-de-sac close to the college campus. On a daily basis, we would check on the progress of work being done inside the house. Bernd would often join us and help us make decisions regarding aspects of the interior design. He also went to home furnishing stores with Ulrike and helped her select such items as floor tiles, wallpaper, lighting fixtures, etc. He marveled at the number of options available to us in every category, as he recalled how few choices he’d had in the GDR when renovating his family’s dwelling in the mid-1970s. We recognized that his artistic creativity extended to the areas of design and decor, so we welcomed his input. Bernd, who had not had an easy life since resettling in Switzerland, benefited greatly from his stay in Oberlin which I think was in many ways therapeutic.