Jewish Communist expats in East Germany recall heady 1950s

For Victor Grossman and Michael Hamburger, the annual Victims of Fascism Day is of equal importance to Holocaust Remembrance Day

American expat Victor Grossman as a young man in East Germany, early 1950s (photo credit: Courtesy)
American expat Victor Grossman as a young man in East Germany, early 1950s (photo credit: Courtesy)

BERLIN — In the early 1950s, Victor Grossman and Michael Hamburger left the comfort of their homes in the United States and Britain to build a young state born out of the ravages of war, with enemies on the border ready to attack.

Though they faced food shortages, poor infrastructure and often unbearable living conditions, finally the flag of their new homeland — the symbol they had waved in activist youth groups and marches — was proudly raised high upon official buildings and border crossings.

However, that flag was not blue and white, but red. And the city was not Jerusalem, but East Berlin.

Today, Grossman, 86, and Hamburger, 83, are among the last of the Jewish Communist immigrants to the other side of the Iron Curtain. Both are still living in former East Berlin.

On a recent Sunday, Germans from reunified Berlin gathered by the Brandenburg Gate to demonstrate against the recent rising anti-Semitism throughout the country. German President Joachim Gauck and Chancellor Angela Merkel attended.

While Sunday’s rally focused on opposing the contemporary anti-Semitism that plagues Germany, for Grossman, Hamburger, and Genin, the day marked Victims of Fascism Day, the equivalent of Holocaust Memorial Day for the Eastern Bloc. Ahead of the memorial day, these idealistic survivors of an extinct era shared their unique stories with The Times of Israel.

Karl-Marx-Allee, once known as Stalinallee, was the showcase boulevard of Communist East Berlin. Designed by the great Bauhaus architect, Hermann Henselmann, the boulevard evokes Soviet Moscow with its Social Realist murals, former milk bars, and monumental buildings. The neighborhood is eerily clean and well kept, giving the impression of an Eastern Bloc time warp.

Victor Grossman lives across the street from the space age modernist Cafe Moskau. Formerly known as Stephen Wechsler of the U.S. Army occupation forces in Germany, in 1951 he daringly swam across the Danube, defected to the Soviets in Austria and took on the new name and identity of Victor Grossman in East Germany.

Victor Grossman, formerly Stephen Wechsler of the U.S. Army occupation forces in Germany. (CC-BY-SA, via wikipedia)
Victor Grossman, formerly Stephen Wechsler, of the US Army occupation forces in Germany. (photo credit: CC BY-SA, via Wikipedia)

Grossman greets me with a New York accent and warmly offers me a glass of sherry. The walls in his small apartment are lined with books — a biography of Pete Seeger, a recent novel by Philip Roth. If it weren’t for the window to the Berlin view, we could be in New York’s Upper West Side.

Indeed, Manhattan is where Grossman’s story begins, where he lived the dream of an American leftist, complete with Socialist summer camps, Ethical Culture high school, Harvard University (class of ’49), civil rights campaigning, Woodie Guthrie concerts in Greenwich Village, and hitchhiking across America. To spread the progressive cause to workers, he even joined the blue collar labor force.

While at Harvard, with the scribble of a pen and 50 cents to cover the cost of membership, Grossman made the most fateful decision of his life and joined the Communist Party. For Grossman, as for many other Americans, joining the party was not subversive, but a natural choice: It was a party whose platform claimed unequivocal opposition to racism, exploitation, and most importantly — Nazi Germany.

In the US, membership involved stimulating lectures, fun social events, and ideologically laden folk music. Grossman warmly reminisces about his time in left wing youth clubs in Greenwich Village where he’d go every second Saturday for square dancing and folk singing. There he was introduced to the music of Seeger, Guthrie, Leadbelly, Paul Robeson and Ernst Busch.

However, soon after World War II, the atmosphere of peace and brotherhood dissipated. African Americans continued to be segregated and discriminated against, America had entered a new war in Korea, and big business only got bigger.

The Cold War was in full swing. Accusations of being a Communist sympathizer could lead to loss of employment and the right to travel, and a life of misery and alienation. The Rosenbergs were threatened with the death penalty and Joseph McCarthy ruined people’s lives. The future in America looked grim for the Jewish progressive.

Grossman remembers how the American Communist Party flew a big Israeli flag in 1948 and enthusiastically recalls his initial days in East Germany.

“There was virtually no anti-Semitism here. I felt happy in 1953 to see a big black steam engine coming into the station… and on it in big white letters ‘Freedom for the Rosenbergs,'” says Grossman.

While the West German leadership included former Nazis, the East German political and cultural leadership was filled with former anti-fascists fighters and Jews. “There was Gerhart Eisler, Konrad Wolf, Anna Seghers, Helene Weigel, Klaus Gysi, Albert Norden, Hermann Axen…Every place you went there were Jews in leadership positions!”

Do the ends justify the means?

This rightward political shift spread throughout the Western Bloc. The anti-Soviet credentials of former Nazi war criminals were enough to welcome them into the US-backed West German government, Australia attempted to ban the Communist Party under the government of Robert Menzies, and in Britain, the old elites were returning to power while its army fought bloody colonial wars.

Michael Hamburger, a student of philosophy at the University of Aberdeen, was disillusioned with Britain’s turn right. He briefly considered aliyah to a kibbutz in Israel, but was turned off by what he perceived to be the militant side of Israeli life.

In August 1951 he visited the World Youth Festival in Berlin. There, young people of every creed and color came together, committed to building a safer, better world. Hamburger experienced something drastically different here than the aggressive climate back home in Britain.

Speaking in an English accent that would never suggest over 60 years in East Berlin, Hamburger recalls, “I wanted to be somewhere where things were happening. I wanted to be in the middle of political life. And in Germany, particularly in Berlin, you had all this…

“You had the confrontation of two world blocs. You had a country which was trying to build up an alternative society, alternative to what Nazism had been, and an alternative to West Germany, where it was obvious that many Nazis were back in power. [I thought] I’d like to be somewhere where you could make yourself useful where new social experiments are being made,” says Hamburger.

The trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg spurred dozens of Jewish Americans to flee the United States for East Germany. (public domain via wikipedia)
The trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg spurred dozens of Jewish Americans to flee the United States for East Germany. (photo credit: Public domain via Wikipedia)

By November 1951, Hamburger had left his studies in Aberdeen and was an East German citizen, studying at Karl Marx University in Leipzig. Hamburger became a prominent dramaturge and theater director at East Berlin’s legendary Deutsches Theater.

There, however, he soon realized that many of the freedoms he had taken for granted in Britain did not exist in Communist East Germany. Free speech and the right to organize was limited; political dissent was stifled. A leading actor was arrested and imprisoned for a year and a half because a copy of the West German Der Spiegel periodical was found in his cupboard. East German citizens were shot at as they tried to cross the Berlin Wall.

At first Hamburger reluctantly accepted these human rights violations. While West Germany received millions of dollars in economic support from the US Marshall Plan, East Germany was paying reparations to the Soviets. The whole Western Bloc sought to undermine East Germany’s existence and the state needed to struggle to maintain itself.

“I believed in [Karl Marx’s] 11th Feuerbach Thess, that philosophers have interpreted the world, and now it’s time to change the world. I also realized that changing the world also meant a certain amount of violence — and injustice.”

Then came the Prague Spring in 1968.

A dream becomes a nightmare

Czechoslovakian leader Alexander Dubček introduced a reformist brand of socialism that allowed for more freedom of speech and limited involvement of the state in people’s personal affairs. Visiting Prague, Hamburger witnessed the happy, optimistic atmosphere of what was known as the Prague Spring. Hamburger, along with many other socialists, saw the Prague Spring as their great hope to achieve what Dubček called “Socialism with a human face.”

This dream turned out only to be a dream. In August 1968, Soviet tanks rolled into Prague and crushed whatever hopes there were for reform. This was the turning point for Hamburger.

‘My belief in the future of socialism was shaken and I never recovered the same conviction that socialism could be successful’

“My belief in the future of socialism was shaken and I never recovered the same conviction that socialism could be successful, certainly not in my time,” says Hamburger.

Hamburger sought to change things from within East Germany. Using theater as a subversive space, he pushed boundaries and — usually in a veiled way — engaged with issues that the Communist government proscribed as taboo. Hamburger suffered.

Some of his productions were banned and he lost favor with the establishment. Yet he stayed and continued to work for a better Socialist East Germany and up until the state’s final days, was an activist in the reformist New Forum. Today, Hamburger is still a leading cultural voice in united Germany.

As for Grossman, he calls the fall of the Berlin Wall “a terrible setback.” For Grossman, it’s another challenge to build a progressive and better society. Grossman spends his days writing progressive newsletters and speaking at Marxist events.

“I take hope whenever I see people fighting back… in Venezuela, in North Carolina’s Moral Mondays… in the McDonalds and Walmart people fighting for a decent wage,” says Grossman.

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