Stefan Heym, R.I.P.

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Stefan Heym, who died recently in Israel at 88, was one of the most provocative, indomitable writers I ever met. Born in 1913 with the name Helmut Flieg in Chemnitz, Germany (later Karl-Marx- Stadt), he emigrated to the U.S. in the mid-1930s, took an M.A. from the University of Chicago and began publishing fiction in English. Joining the U.S. Army under his new name, he served in a battalion filled with literary men as they broadcast through loudspeakers and over radio, in addition to writing leaflets in various languages, urging the Axis soldiers to surrender. Among his colleagues in this battalion was Hans Habe, a Hungarian who returned to Germany to become a conservative polemicist; Eugene Jolas, who had edited the Paris-based, avant-garde literary magazine Transition; and the writer and publisher Peter Wyden, born Wydenreich, incidentally the father of the current senator from Oregon.

Military service secured U.S. citizenship for Heym. Returning to New York, he wrote novels significant enough to be mentioned in more than one history of 1940s American fiction. In 1953, hounded by the FBI, so he told me, he emigrated to East Berlin with his American-born wife, where he continued writing novels, first in English for deposit at the Library of Congress (to secure international copyright, no fool was he), then translating them himself into his native German. He received support from the East German literary authorities (whose approval was necessary to publish there) and his wife established a publishing imprint (Seven Seas) for communist classics in English, until he wrote a novel sympathetic to the 1953 workers’ revolt in East Germany. Banned from publishing in his new country for more than two decades, Heym repeatedly smuggled his manuscripts to West Germany where they became best sellers, and deposited his western royalties securely in Switzerland, where he vacationed. Fined at home for publishing abroad without permission, he told me that he took his bankbook to a court that simply deducted the requisite sum. He knew his prominence in the West made him immune to further state punishment. Every time he left East Germany, as he often did, usually to publicize his books or give interviews on West German television, he incurred the risk that the authorities would do to him as they did to his friend the poet Wolf Bierman – simply not allow him to return home. Courage Heym had in abundance.

“Why don’t you live in West Berlin?” I asked him two decades ago at his house in East Berlin near the river in Griinau (the site of the rowing races memorialized in Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia). “I don’t want to live in an American colony.” Why did he want to live in the East? The experience of living in a country that was socialist in name but not in fact inspired his fiction, as indeed it apparently did. One repeated theme was the conflict between strong individuals and larger powers – an Ayn Randian theme incidentally reflecting his own life.

“Who can tell me about your last days in New York?” I asked.

“The FBI,” he replied in perfect American English.

“Are you sure?”

“Did you ever get your FBI files under the Freedom of Information Act?”

“I’m no longer a U.S. citizen.”

“I suspect you still are.”


“Did you ever take East German citizenship?”

“I wouldn’t do that.”

‘It’s hard to lose U.S. citizenship,” I replied, advising him to write my Greenwich Village swimming pool buddy, the lefty lawyer Leonard Boudin, who had experience helping sometime Reds negotiate with the U.s. government. Heym must have done so, because I remember reading in The New York Times about a large package of paper arriving directly from Washington in his Griinau house. Enjoying the image of some FBI shlubs in headquarters gathering pages with lots of black-outs, I hoped he put those files to the best literary uses. Too bad neither the Nazis nor the Stasi were vulnerable to the FOIA, because those state policing agencies reportedly had files on him too.

His Cornell-educated stepson, Dave Gelbin, came to live in East Berlin in the mid-50s and stayed when he married an East German woman. Their daughter, whom I met in the East Berlin synagogue on Yom Kippur, spoke fluent American English even though she had never visited a “nonsocialist country,” as she put it, because her “parents spoke American at home.” She got some of her first jobs from East Germans who had spent the war years in English- speaking countries and out of nostalgia liked to speak English with her. To East Germans, the Heyms would always be ex-Americans. Eventually, once freed of communist control, she obtained the U.S. citizenship that her step-grandfather had inadvertently retained.

When the Wall came down, Heym, still no fan of Western capitalism, became active in the remnant of the East German Communist Party, now devoid of Soviet-backed functionaries. Running (or standing, as the British would say) for a seat in the all-German parliament, he won. It turned out that the Bundestag had an established rule permitting the oldest member to. give the opening speech each year. Accepting the privilege, Heym was as provocative as ever, not only in his words but in his presence as a communist, a Jew, and an American – a triple threat, as we say in American .football. I read in an obituary that soon afterward he resigned from the Bundestag when his colleagues voted themselves (including him) a 50% pay raise.

The tragedy was that novels popular in Germany didn’t succeed here, for reasons I find mystifying, as they are not difficult, acknowledging stylistically such American models as Sinclair Lewis and Howard Fast, and often had Jewish subjects; but anyone who studies contrary receptions of the same figures in different countries often comes across such inexplicable anomalies. I admire him now as a writer of libertarian temperament, who made some wrong political choices, but who should be remembered for his heroic courage.

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