What a journey we’ve had over the past one month! Like a true flaneur, Uttaran Das Gupta juxtaposed memories and observations and interviews in a form which evaded all classification. It was a journey inward as much as it was to the physical spaces outside - from Anhalter Banhof in Berlin to Brigade Parade ground in Calcutta. As we said in the introduction of the first installment, Gupta’s formlessness reminded one of WG Sebald’s ‘Rings of Saturn’. In this fifth and final installment we spend some time with the American soldier we met last week, who defected to the Eastern Bloc during the early years of the cold war.
A young American soldier was loitering near the bank of the Danube at Linz, about 180 km west of Vienna, on August 17, 1952. It was a Sunday. The name of the soldier was private Stephen Wechsler, and he was 24 years old. He was looking for a boat to take him to the other side, controlled by Soviet forces. Finding no vessel and fearing that his time was running out, Wechsler waded into the current of the river and began to swim across. “Many decades later when I visited the same place with my son, I found that there was a signboard forbidding people from swimming in the river,” he told me. “It was dangerous, but I did not know it when I swam across.” In the water, he thought of Ruth, a Danish girl in a red coat he had fallen in love with during a recent trip to Copenhagen. There were pictures of her in his expensive camera, but he had to abandon it in the river. He also lost his shoes and a box of coins from his travels around Europe.
The current carried him more south than he had hoped. When he finally reached the opposite side, he still had the letter from the US army’s highest legal authority, Judge Advocate General. This letter prompted his flight to the East. Wechsler had received it at Fürth, in south Germany, where he was posted after being drafted into the army at the beginning of the Korean War in 1950. At the time of joining, he was required to sign a form listing banned organizations—mostly Leftist except the Ku Klux Klan and imperial Japanese groups. The form declared that he had never been a member of any. Wechsler had been a member of a number of these, including the Young Communist League, the American Youth for Democracy, the Labour Youth League, and the Southern Negro Youth Congress. He had signed anyway. Two years later, he had received summons to present himself at the army court in Nuremberg. The army intelligence had found out that Wechsler had been a communist.
I found out about him from Stephan Ottenbruch, the manager of the Kino Babylon cinema in Berlin. We were chatting one afternoon about German filmmaker Franz Osten, who directed several Hindi films in the 1930s, when I happened to tell him about my interest in ostalgie. “Then you must meet Stephen Wechsler,” he said. Ottenbruch knew Wechsler’s son and set up the meeting a couple of days later. It was a sunny morning in mid-June when I rang the bell at the Karl-Marx-Allee address I had been given. But the occupant of the three-bedroom flat on the eighth floor was not Wechsler but Victor Grossman. “I never really liked this name,” he said, welcoming me into his book-lined living room. “But I had to protect my family back in America from the fallout because of my desertion. The Soviet officer in charge of me asked me to choose a name but when I could not come up with one, he suggested this. I did not know I would be stuck with it for the rest of my life.”
My interlocutor was a tall man with thin, white hair and a thick moustache. He was 90 years old and needed hearing aids to hear me. But his memory needed no aid. “We moved into this building in 1961,” he recollected, “a few months before the Wall came up.” By then, he had already completed his journalism degree at the Karl Marx University in Leipzig. “I was perhaps the only person then to have studied at both Leipzig University and Harvard University (where he had majored in economics),” he said. By the time Grossman reached Berlin, he was already married to Renata, whom he met while working at an automobile factory in Bautzen. Most of his other colleagues were western deserters. He would continue with his le Carré life, working as a journalist and a translator but always remained fearful that he would be captured by American spies. Even when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, he did not return to the US. He would eventually do so in 1994 for a reunion of his class at Harvard. He was told by the US army that the case against him had been closed though no reason was provided for it.
His flat was perfect for our interview. From his window, we had a good view of Karl-Marx-Allee. “All the GDR rallies used to happen here,” said Grossman, “also cycle races. Those still take place.” The GDR was never a utopia for him: “I don’t miss the bad things — I was critical of them even then. But our lives were not full of deprivation as many in the West thought, thanks to the anti-GDR propaganda. There were some shortages, but we always had what we wanted.” I asked him about the Stasi. (I had heard rumours that Grossman, too, had been recruited as an informant.) “We all knew who they were, there was one who lived right in this building,” he said. “But the surveillance was nothing like what that clever film, The Lives of Others, made it out to be.”
Despite the humourless Iron Curtain, funny incidents were not uncommon. In 1970, during unveiling the famous Lenin monument at Leninplatz (now United Nations Square), only half the draping fell from Russian sculptor Nikolai Tomski’s red granite installation. “It was like the unveiling scene in Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. The mishap was telecast live, with the bigshots orating and the band playing. Finally, someone found a ladder and ended the comedy of errors,” recalled Grossman. The statue was demolished in 1992; the names of many roads have been changed since Reunification.
As I left Grossman’s flat, armed with a copy of his book Crossing the River (2003) and a promise to return it the next day, I stopped at a zebra crossing. It had started drizzling. I looked at the traffic signal — it was red for pedestrians. But the red was a little faded; there were droplets of water on my glasses.
Uttaran Das Gupta is a New Delhi-based writer and journalist. He has published a book of poems (Visceral Metropolis, 2017) and a novel (Ritual, 2020). He teaches journalism at O P Jindal Global University, Sonipat. The travel and research for this essay were made possible by the Robert Bosch India-Germany Media Fellowship.