84. Invitation to Helga Schütz

Acting on my recommendation in the fall of 1984, the German faculty at Oberlin College decided to invite GDR prose writer Helga Schütz to be the 18th Max Kade German Writer-in-Residence during the spring semester of 1985. I had visited her a few times at her beautiful villa overlooking Gross Glienicke Lake, toured the DEFA (Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft, the first film production company in post-War Germany) studios in Potsdam-Babelsberg with her, and was certain that she would interact well with our undergraduate students and Oberlin’s German-speaking community. Since I was on sabbatical leave that fall, the acting chair of the department—Dr. Peter Spycher—issued the official invitation to her. Helga Schütz was not a controversial or oppositional writer, so I did not expect her to have any difficulty securing permission and a visa for the trip to the US, but the unexpected happened. In mid-January 1985, just a few weeks before the beginning of the spring semester, Peter Spycher received the following heartwrenching letter from her, which he later passed along to me. The letter, which bears testimony to the cruel and inhumane nature of the GDR Writers’ Union functionaries and higher authorities, is cited below. The original text appears in its entirety, followed by my translation of it into English.

Helga Schütz, DDR-136 Berlin,

Franz-Mett-Strasse 12

Berlin, den 31. 12. 84

Sehr geehrter Peter Spycher,

heute geht ein Jahr zu Ende, ein erlebnisreiches Jahr, ein Jahr voller Hoffnungen und Pläne, so dass ich – in diesen Zeiten beinahe anrüchig zufrieden und fröhlich gelebt und gearbeitet habe. Pläne hatte ich vor allem für Oberlin, für die Monate bei Ihnen am College. Alles schien mir vorwärts zu gehen und gut zu sein – bis zu dem Tage vor Weihnachten. Ich fand ein Telegramm im Briefkasten, dass ich beim Schriftsteller-Verband vorsprechen sollte. Auch da ahnte ich noch nichts böses. Ich glaubte, es fehlte vielleicht eine Unterschrift oder ein genaues Reisedatum. Ich hatte Ihre Einladungen ja immer gleich nach dem Eintreffen vorgelegt und mein grosses Interesse erklärt. Es kam anders – mir wurde beschieden, dass man an meinem Aufenthalt in Oberlin nicht interessiert sei und das Ausreisevisum nicht erteilen würde. Die Begründung verlor sich in einem nebelhaften Wortwechsel, dem grade noch zu entnehmen war, dass Sie sich für Oberlin immer die falschen Schriftsteller aussuchen würden (Wolfs, Plenzdorf und Jurek Becker, Bernd Jentzsch) und dass sich der Schriftsteller-Verband mit der Entsendung meiner Person nach Oberlin keinen Gewinn für die DDR verspräche. Ich war fassungslos, bedauerte bald, mich in einen Wortwechsel eingelassen zu haben, wollte grade gehen, da erteilte mir der Herr vom Verband den Rat, die Absage meines Aufenthalts bei Ihnen mit Krankheit zu begründen. Ich kann Ihnen meine Gefühle in diesem Augenblick nicht beschreiben. Wie ein armes Insekt bin ich anschliessend durch die Strassen geschlichen und habe mit dem Rest meiner in den letzten Monaten gesammelten Laune das Weihnachtsfest für die Familie vorbereitet. Hab mich dann zu den Feiertagen hingesetzt und einen Brief an den Kulturminister geschrieben, in dem ich ihm versucht habe zu erklären, um wieviel wichige Erfahrungen ich gebracht werde und dass ich mich geistig monatelang auf Oberlin vorbereitet habe. Zudem wollte ich in der Fremde, mit fremder Sprache ringsherum und neuen Bildern und gewiss auch Einsamkeit an meinem Romanmanuskript arbeiten. Ich wollte einige Kapitel – mich an zu Hause erinnernd – frisch und von ferne bedenken. Ich dachte, die Studenten daran teilhaben zu lassen. Es wäre ein Versuch, ein Wagnis, aber vielleicht doch, in einer nicht vorher zu beschreibenden Weise, möglich gewesen. Ich war sehr neugierig auf diese Situation.

        Unter den neuen schäbigen Bedingungen weiss ich nicht, wie ich das Manuskript nun anpacken soll.Für die von mir herbeigewünschte und ausgedachte Konstellation gibt es eigentlich keinen Ersatz.

        Beim Briefschreiben an den Minister wurde mir klar, dass ich im besten Falle auf Verständnis stossen könnte, aber dadurch ja nichts mehr zu retten sein würde. Sollten die grauen Mächte ihre Entscheidung revidieren, wären gewiss wieder Wochen nötig, ja Monate und das Semester in Oberlin hätte angefangen – der Start hier würde nervös, ohne die notwendige Gelassenheit und schöpferische Vorfreude. Ich weiss nun nicht einmal, was ich mit meinen Beschwerden erreichen will. Für einen bedauernden Händedruck wären mir meine Kräfte fast zu schade.

      Ich möchte Sie nun in meiner Lage rundheraus fragen, ob Sie – falls es eine Korrektur und ein Einsehen gibt – die Möglichkeit haben, dass ich später – im Herbstsemester oder im nächsten Jahr – zu Ihnen kommen kann. Denn nur dann hätten meine Revolten einen praktischen Sinn.

        Lieber Peter Spycher, ich meine, ich hätte Ihr Verständnis für meine Situation am Telefon herausgehört, dennoch möchte ich Ihnen noch einmal sagen dass ich mich für das Verhalten des Schriftsteller-Verbandes schäme. Es ist schäbig, in dieser Art und so kurz vor Beginn eines Ihrerseits mit so viel Aufwand und mit so viel Liebe vorbereiteten schönen Unternehmens kalt und ohne Vernunft “nein” zu sagen.

        Bitte nehmen Sie meine besten Wünsche zum Neuen Jahr

Ihre

Helga Schütz

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Berlin, 12/31/84

Dear Peter Spycher,

Today this year is coming to its end, a year rich with experiences, a year full of hope and plans, so that I have lived and worked during this time contentedly and happily—almost offensively so. I had plans for Oberlin, first and foremost, for the months with you at the College. It seemed to me that everything was moving forward and going well—until the day before Christmas. I found a telegram in my mailbox, telling me to visit the Writers’s Union. There, too, I still did not sense that anything was wrong. I thought that perhaps a signature was missing or a precise travel date. I had always presented your invitations right after their arrival and expressed my strong interest. Things turned out differently—I was informed that there was no interest in my residency in Oberlin and that the exit visa would not be issued. The justification got lost in a nebulous exchange of words from which it was just possible to glean that you were always selecting the wrong writers for Oberlin (Wolfs, Plenzdorf and Jurek Becker, Bernd Jentzsch) and that the Writers’ Union does not expect sending me to Oberlin would benefit the GDR in any way. I was stunned, regretted right away that I had let myself engage in a verbal exchange, wanted to leave just then, as the man from the Union advised me to use illness as the reason for cancelling my residency with you. I cannot tell you how I felt at that moment. Afterwards I crept through the streets like a lowly insect and, with what remained of the positive mood I had stored up over the last months, I prepared the Christmas celebration for our family. I then sat down over the holidays and wrote a letter to the Minister of Culture, wherein I tried to explain to him that I was being deprived of many important experiences and that I had for months been preparing myself mentally for Oberlin. In addition, I wanted to work on the manuscript of my novel in a foreign setting, with a foreign language all around and new images and, of course, solitude as well. I wanted to think about some chapters, fresh and from afar, while reminiscing about home. I planned to let the students participate in that. It would have been an attempt, a venture, but perhaps possible after all in a way not to be described in advance. I was very curious about this situation.

        Under the new, shabby circumstances I now do not know how I ought to approach the manuscript. There is actually no substitute for the plan I devised and was longing to carry out.

        While writing the letter to the Minister I realized that in the best case scenario I might be able to encounter understanding, but through that nothing more would be salvageable. Should the gray powers revise their decision, it would surely again take weeks, even months, and the semester in Oberlin would have begun; the departure here would be nervous, without the necessary calmness and creative anticipation. I do not even know now what I want to achieve with my complaining. I would almost not want to waste my strength on a commiserative handshake.

        In my situation I would now like to ask you point-blank whether there is the possibility—in the event of a revision and an understanding—that I can come to you later on, in the fall semester or in the following year. For only then would my revolting make practical sense.

        Dear Peter Spycher, I think I could detect your sympathy for my situation on the telephone; nevertheless I would like to tell you once again that I am ashamed of the behavior of the Writers’ Union. It is outrageous to say “no” in this cold and unreasonable manner, and just before the start of a wonderful undertaking prepared on your part with so much time and effort and with so much love.

        Please accept my best wishes for the New Year.

Yours,

Helga Schütz

Eventually, the Helga Schütz story had a happy ending. The German faculty at Oberlin, appalled by the way she had been mistreated by the GDR authorities, resolved to keep inviting her and not to invite any other writers from the GDR until she had visited Oberlin. In the fall of 1985, we invited her to be writer-in-residence for the spring 1986 semester, but her visa application was again denied and she was unable to accept the invitation. We then invited Karl-Heinz Jakobs, a GDR writer who—following his vigorous public protest of Wolf Biermann’s expatriation—had been forced to move to West Germany in 1977. Two years later the GDR authorities finally relented, and in the spring of 1988 Helga Schütz became the 21st Max Kade German Writer-in-Residence at Oberlin College.

Why did the GDR Writers’ Union and, presumably, higher authorities treat Helga Schütz so harshly? In retrospect, I think they were very angry about our earlier selection of two outspoken dissident writers, Jurek Becker in 1978 and Bernd Jentzsch in 1982, who in their view did not in any way represent the GDR. They clearly decided to use Helga Schütz to punish us for selecting oppositional writers as representatives of the GDR, and that also would explain why they waited so long to deny her visa application. They knew we would have difficulty finding a replacement for her on such short notice, but fortunately we were able to do so. As I would learn in March 1985, the GDR Writers’ Union was determined not only to participate in the selection process but to select appropriate writers for residency in Oberlin. They wanted us to contact them when we were ready to have a writer from the GDR; they then would either make the selection for us or propose two writers for our consideration. This would enable them to reward loyalist writers and at the same time ensure that the GDR would be represented by authors who were supportive of the SED Party’s decisions and actions in the cultural domain.