Early in 1985, I received a telephone call from Cynthia Miller, USIA Public Affairs Officer at the US Embassy in East Berlin, who was serving as cultural attaché. (USIA is the acronym for the United States Information Agency, which existed from 1953 to 1999. It was an independent foreign affairs agency devoted to public diplomacy, much of which was carried out through US embassies.) Ms. Miller invited me to come to the renowned Leipzig Book Fair in March and preside over a special exhibit the embassy was putting together on “The Best Books in America: 1983-1984.” This was the first time our embassy had participated in the Leipzig Book Fair and it wanted to make the exhibit as impressive as possible. Prizewinning books in every category—fiction of all kinds, poetry, biography and autobiography, children’s books, documentaries of various sorts, photo essays, etc.—would be on display. Ms. Miller explained that my job would be to preside over the exhibit, which simply meant that I was to be present most of the time and prepared to converse with the attendees from the GDR in a friendly way. The embassy wanted the presider to be someone who was knowledgeable about the GDR and its society, fluent in German, and not affiliated with the US embassy or the US government. The expense of my roundtrip flight, hotel rooms, meals, and incidental expenses related to this assignment would be covered by the embassy. It sounded like it would be a great experience and—best of all—it would reconnect me with the GDR and many East German writers. I accepted the invitation with great pleasure and anticipation.
I flew to West Berlin on March 5, 1985 and—according to the stamps in my passport—entered East Berlin on March 6 via Checkpoint Charlie, in a US Embassy automobile which picked me up at West Berlin’s Tegel Airport. The embassy chauffeur, a GDR citizen, took me to the Hotel Metropol where I stayed for three nights before heading for Leipzig. I remember that day very well because I had a terrible bout of food poisoning that started not long after my lunch in the hotel restaurant, where I had foolishly ordered beef tartare. However, I recovered within 24 hours and was able to meet with Cynthia Miller on March 7, as planned.