Crossing the Danube
Victor Grossman, an American Communist Who Defected to East Germany
May 13 2013
Victor Grossman in his library, with some of the books he published in East Germany. Photo by Uli Kohls. Photos courtesy of Victor Grossman.
Between World War II and the fall of Communism, many fled Soviet-controlled East Germany and headed westward. The stories of these dissidents, defectors, and hardworking citizens who were simply looking for a better life have been exhaustively documented. But much less is known about the histories of the few who headed against the tide, from west to east, repulsed by capitalism. Victor Grossman was one such person.
Born Steve Wechsler in New York City in 1928, Victor’s political ideology was shaped by his experiences living in America during the Great Depression and the events of the Spanish Civil War. After earning an economics degree from Harvard, his communist ideals led him to earn a simple living as a factory worker. In 1950, in the beginning stages of the Korean War, Victor was drafted and while stationed in Germany, his left-wing past was uncovered by the military. Fearing a court-martial for his beliefs, he sought refuge in the Soviet bloc, changing his name to Victor Grossman and settling among like-minded comrades in the German Democratic Republic.
For 30 years, Victor thrived in the GDR as a journalist and author. He published numerous books on US history and culture, lectured frequently, and hosted a popular radio show that introduced East Germans to the antiestablishment folk songs of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs, and Bob Dylan. Despite his criticisms of the GDR establishment, Victor still felt that he was seeing his ideal—“an antifascist state with economic security for everybody”—transformed into utopian reality. By the late 80s, however, it became apparent that the Soviet system could no longer sustain itself and would soon collapse under its own weight. Victor came to the bleak realization that he would have to “start over from zero.”
In 1994, he returned to the USA for the first time, where he was officially discharged from the army, 44 years after being enlisted. He remains today in Berlin and continues to write prolifically in German. In 2003 he published an English-language autobiography, Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany. Regardless of what you think about his political convictions, Victor’s ideological steadfastness is impressive. In a way he seems to be a man out of time, which made me think that speaking with him could provide not just a window to the past, but a different context for viewing the present.
Victor near his apartment on Karl-Marx-Allee.
VICE: When did you first become disillusioned with capitalism? Was it a gradual progression or was it one event?
Victor Grossman: The 1930s were a left-wing period. My first recollection from a newsreel was the big sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, which broke General Motors. I remember that and [what was happening in] Spain, the soup lines and college graduates selling apples on the corner to make a living. My father was an art dealer. Who buys art in depression times? It was often tight, but we never went hungry. We were never really down and out, especially because we had a bungalow in New Jersey in an experimental single-tax community called Free Acres. It was very simple; it had running cold water and no electricity. And it was wonderful, just wonderful. We ran around barefoot all day. It was like Huckleberry Finn. A lot of people living there were bohemians from New York and left-wingers. Some of the nicest people in that place were left-wingers who really determined my thinking.
You went to Harvard, but after graduation you started working in a factory. Why?
When I graduated Harvard, the Communist party secretary from Boston came to us and said, “You’ve got a Harvard diploma, but our party is supposed to be a workers’ party, and we don’t have enough workers. Have any of you considered becoming workers?” I was one of three people who said yes. I was provided with an address in Buffalo. I hitchhiked there and walked to this black neighborhood. I came to this rundown wooden house, and on the porch was a middle-aged black lady in a rocking chair. I said, “I’m looking for Hattie Lumpkin, do you know where I can find her?” She said, “That’s me.” She was the head of Buffalo’s Communist Party.
Hattie’s place was Buffalo’s left-wing hub. The family her daughter had worked for had been leftists; they had asked her to sit at the table with them to eat. This was absolutely unheard of. She became a Communist. At first, Hattie had told her to get the hell out with her atheist ideas, but they argued and Hattie was convinced. Hattie’s place became my home away from home when I worked the awful graveyard shift at the factory.
Victor’s Harvard yearbook photo, 1949.
Did anyone at the factory find out that you were Ivy League-educated?
I didn’t tell anybody. One of my co-workers, who was known as “the intellectual,” asked me if I’d ever thought of going to college. I had to be careful. Of course, people noticed I was a little different. Also, being Jewish was rare in the factory. Most of the workers were Polish, Italian, or German—and almost all were Catholic.
Then you were drafted into the army, which was a much more dangerous place for a Communist to be than a factory in upstate New York.
The draft began again in 1948 with the Korean War. At the same time, the Internal Security Act was passed, a law that said that members of the Communist party or its front organizations had to register with the police as foreign agents. For every day that you didn’t register, it was up to five years in prison. I got my draft notice in October of 1950. I quit my job and went back to New York. When you got drafted, you had to sign a statement: “I am not and have never been a member of the above organizations.” There were over 100 organizations listed—a couple of fascist and Nazi organizations, but 80 to 90 percent of them were left-wing organizations, some dating back to the 20s and 30s. I was in about a dozen of them. I thought, Should I sign this damn thing?
Would you have been excluded from the draft if you had admitted you were in those organizations?
Yeah, possibly, but I would have been liable. The whole atmosphere was extremely tense. Anybody with a left-wing view was considered an agent and a traitor. Many years later, I talked to this guy I had been with at Harvard who said, “You should have refused to sign.” He refused and said that it was against his constitutional rights. Years later, of course, the Supreme Court ruled the whole thing unconstitutional. But I was scared. I figured it was two years, and maybe if I kept my mouth shut, I would make it through. I was sent to Bavaria and given a job as a company clerk. It was an easy job, but then I made a mistake. When you go into the army, they give you tests to see what you’re good at. They had one for Morse code, and I did well on it. So I was given an offer to leave Bad Tölz and go to Munich to do radio work. I knew they might check me over, but of course it was hard to say no.
When I got to Munich, they didn’t put me on the radio work. I knew something was up, but I just had five or six months left and wanted to get through it. Then one day I got a letter telling me to report to a military judge because I was a member of six organizations. That’s when I panicked. I didn’t want to go to jail.
Victor interpreting for Jane Fonda at the International Documentary Film Week. Leipzig, Germany, 1974. Photo by Elke Thionke.
How did you cross over to East Germany?
I took the train to Austria, crossed over the border, and got in to Linz in the late evening and headed for the Danube. I didn’t dare ask anyone how to get to the river. I just kept walking in the direction that seemed right. Finally, I saw the river—it was about a quarter mile across. I threw my jacket and shoes into the water, because I thought I wouldn’t make it otherwise. I put my important papers in a pouch and started swimming. The tide pulled me in the right direction.
I expected Soviet soldiers to be waiting on the other side of the Iron Curtain, but it was totally empty. There was a road along the river. I waited until I was sure there was no one coming and started walking. I had no shoes and had torn my sleeves off to hide my military affiliation. In the afternoon, I was picked up by an Austrian cop. He took me to the police station. I said I wanted to speak to someone from Soviet command. They looked confused but called them anyway. A guy picked me up in a jeep. He asked me my name, where I came from, where I had been stationed, and delivered me to the Soviets. The first thing they said was, “What did you tell that guy that brought you here?” I told them. It turns out the guy who had brought me to the station reported me to the American side.
The officers drove me to the headquarters of the Soviet army. When I arrived, they locked me in a cell for two weeks. When they let me out, they took me to Potsdam and put me up in a very fine room—a really elegant place with a bed, a big desk, sofa, and opaque glass windows you couldn’t see out of. I was kept there for two months. A Russian cook would bring me meals, and a uniformed guard would walk me to the bathroom. There were other people there, too, but I wasn’t allowed to talk to any of them. One day a guy passed my room whistling, “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” It was almost certainly an American, I thought.
After two months, I was taken to Bautzen—a town where the Soviets sent Western deserters. That’s where I spent my first two years. I got a job hauling lumber. After six months, the Soviets came to me and asked if I would be the cultural director for their clubhouse. I said yes. I ran chess, ping-pong, and pool tournaments. I organized English classes, dances, and movies. The Americans and the others looked at me as being on the side of the German Democratic Republic. It was very difficult. Eventually I applied to Leipzig to go to the university. I was interviewed and got in.
You earned a journalism degree from Karl Marx University. What was it like to be a journalist in the GDR? Was there a lot of censorship and repression?
I approved of the GDR but not blindly. There were dogmatic people and careerists and idiots at all levels. In the whole GDR period, you had two elements: the progressive and the stupid. I got used to it.
In 1956, after Khrushchev gave his speech about Stalin, there was lots of discussion and disagreement. At the journalism school, we had a student newspaper full of critical articles. Then came the Hungarian events. The Soviets got very scared and started tightening the screws. The next issue was very tame. There were periods when everything was more open, but never 100 percent. In 1964, you had a whole series of very good and very critical novels. Then at the end of ’65, Khrushchev was gone, and Brezhnev tightened the screws against all kinds of people. They stopped 11 films, kept them out of circulation. Later things eased up again, but then came the Czechoslovakian events in 1968, and they were tightened again.
The people I was most close to generally approved of socialism and the GDR as an antifascist state, with economic security for everybody. I saw all of the things you didn’t see in the States: medical care, free education, childcare, job security. At the same time, I could see that they were unable to sell the Soviet system to their own people properly. The leaders were a mixture of careerists and dogmatists who were ready to turn anyone who criticized them into an enemy. They alienated people unnecessarily.
In the West, they were more clever. They learned to sell not just toothpaste but politics, too. They never learned how
to do this in the GDR, where they were still back in the 1930s, with the old dogmatic stuff. There were some people who tried really hard to break out of this. They often became foreign correspondents.
Victor with Hattie Lumpkin (far left) protesting nuclear weapons on a street in Buffalo, 1950.
In the years since, you were granted access to your Stasi [the GDR’s state security service] and FBI files? Who kept better tabs?
Yes, I’ve seen both, and I’m considering writing a book comparing them. In America, during the Second World War, if you heard something about the Nazis, you’d report it to the FBI. In the years that followed, if people heard about Communists, they reported them. The FBI had reports of things I said at a picnic. Now, it’s the Muslims.
The Stasi also watched me, obviously. In my lectures I used to be very openly critical of things I didn’t like, which was not so common. So they kept track of that. After a while, I wised up to the fact that they were keeping their eye on me. This sort of thing was very widespread, more widespread in East Germany than in the States, but it happened in the States too, and certainly in West Germany. It basically happens in every country, especially if that country feels threatened.
Having experienced McCarthyism, Stalinism, glasnost, and now post-Soviet-era capitalism, how do they all compare? Is socialism still a viable ideological possibility for the future?
I still believe there has to be a socialist answer. Capitalism just doesn’t work. The gap between the very wealthy and everyone else is increasing all the time. But when it comes to a really big crisis, there is no party leading the charge like the old Communist parties tried to do. At the same time, the danger is that when it comes to a crisis point, if there’s not a strong left, then it will just turn to the extreme right, as it did here in ’33.
There is a growing neofascist movement in Germany right now. Does that worry you?
I think that’s by design. A lot of our political leaders may not like these Nazis, but I think they’re keeping them in reserve, because of the view that it’s better to have them than the left. Like in Spain: better Franco than the Popular Front. In the former East Germany, they’re much stronger. There are whole areas where a foreigner or a person with dark skin can’t go, including parts of Berlin. I think the big danger is that it could turn to the right again.
I know I won’t live to see any more major changes. But I get a kick every time I see something like what happened in Tahrir Square, or the Indignados in Spain, or the Occupy movement. I hope we’ll see something like that in Germany.
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