On Media / Pop Culcha

Jewish World Review Dec. 20, 2001/ 5 Teves, 5762


Till Death Do Them Part

By Robert Leiter

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THE human capacity for self-delusion appears to know no bounds. Take the example of novelist Stefan Heym, who died earlier this week. The headline on The New York Times obituary, printed on Dec. 18, trumpeted: "Marxist-Leninist Novelist Dies at 88 on Lecture Tour in Israel."

How could it be that a human being, a Jew especially, could have lived through so much of the 20th century and still have held to Marxist-Leninist ideas? I can understand someone wishing to adhere to the left; but, if nothing else, the past 100 years have managed to show the sterility of Marx's view of history and social struggle, to say nothing of Lenin's enterprise.

But there it was - and the obituary only deepened the confusion, the deep "why" behind this life. You could see, of course, that the central event of Heym's existance was his treatment by the Nazis as a young man. But in most cases, such tragedy did not lead to the black-and-white formulations that appeared to rule his life and thinking - except among true believers.

And that is clearly what the novelist was.

He led a nomadic life after the rise of the Nazis. He spent several years in Czechoslovakia and 15 years in the United States, before settling at last again in East Germany. He even began a political career four years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, when he ran as an independent socialist. Times reporter David Binder records that the novelist even managed to win election "as a Bundestag deputy from the Communist stronghold of Prenzlauer Berg, a borough of eastern Berlin" in the newly united Germany.

During his time in America, Heym joined the Communist Party USA in 1936 and was a member for three years. He worked as a printing salesman then, and wrote novels in his spare time. He even served in the U.S. Army, but in 1951 decided to leave the country as the House Un-American Activities Committee started searching for communists.

Once in East Germany, he formally protested the role America was playing in the Korean War by renouncing his American citizenship and sending his military decorations back to Washington.

At that point, Binder tells us, he became "a star propagandist for the Communist regime and its Soviet protectors." Among his many columns for the Berliner Zeitung, he praised Stalin as "the most beloved man of our time" and called the Soviet camps "settlements." When the Hungarian revolution of 1956 was crushed by the Soviets, Heym called it a "matter of ethics."

For these loyalties, Binder writes, the novelist was awarded the National Prize II Class and two literary awards by the Stalinist regime in East Berlin. Then, in the mid-'60s, he fell out of favor with the party, though it seems his devotion didn't waver.

As the Berlin Wall began to crumble and communism lost its hold, we are told that Heym and other prominent types went to Marx Engels Square in East Berlin, insisting to the crowd gathered there that "socialism, the right kind, not the Stalinist kind, is what we want to build for our benefit and the benefit of all Germany."

When was it going to dawn on this man that socialism has no human face - that the face it always comes with is Stalin's?

And isn't it the height of irony that he died in Israel, whose very existence is a refutation of all Heym held dear?

JWR contributor Robert Leiter is Literary Editor at the Jewish Exponent. Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, The Jewish Exponent