What a trip! I had last visited my American home country three years earlier; some things hadn’t changed much, some things had. As ever, piled high, were many contrasts and contradictions.
My first goal was my class reunion (the 65th!!!), partly in the Harvard Yard, sober and dignified even when filled with thousands of new graduates, proud parents, alumni and alumnae. We heard a commencement speech by New York’s billionaire ex-Mayor Bloomberg, full of contradictory views, both good and bad, I found, and then saw honorary doctorates awarded to contradictory personalities like Aretha Franklin and George H. W. Bush! Among my fellow alumni (as ever always polite and friendly even to a heretic radical like me), clear differences were reflected. After all, Harvard traditions range from an early president like Increase Mather with witch trials, or Abbott Lawrence Lowell with the fatal Sacco and Vanzetti decision, to courageous men like Henry Thoreau, W.E.B. Du Bois, and John Reed. At a symposium one alumnus defended the so contrary incomes of billionaires and the working poor as OK, another decried “cheaters” using food stamps but taking “Caribbean cruises.” Both views were politely but decidedly rejected by the majority.
After the quiet streets, varied churches, or the pleasant clapboard houses of the Boston suburbs (which I had unconsciously missed in Germany) I landed in the middle of Manhattan, lucky enough to have a good cousin with a 37th floor apartment not far from Times Square. What a contrast! The din of hooping horns, traffic whistles, and an ear-shattering blare of police cars, fire engines, and ambulance sirens overwhelmed my unaccustomed ears. I descended into the maelstrom: surging tourist crowds and countless men and women serving them, pushing bus, boat, and bike tours, fetching taxis for luxury hotel guests, luring people to an astounding variety of international restaurants, cafes, or holes-in-the wall. Men of all nations sold fruits, drinks, frozen yoghurt, hamburgers, franks, and other delicacies, some kosher or halal, some not, tempting, aromatic, probably anything but healthy. The health relevancy of certain other, later services remains as ever controversial. I observed those busy clearing garbage and the streets and saw, too, some sad relicts who could work no longer, the losers in a mad, noisy, ever-hastening race to make out, to move upwards — or simply to survive.
Appalling to me was the increase in commercialism, more than three years ago, I felt. Even the old New York Times building where I once cheered the descent of the bright New Year’s symbol was full of varied advertisements to its very peak! And, not only in the theater district where I was living, I was engulfed by shiny ads assuring me that their musical was the funniest, or most gruesome, but of a certainty the best on Broadway! All were out of my range, in available time, above all in ticket price. When I lowered my sights and hunted for a movie on 42nd Street I could not find one which attracted me. It was the wrong week, I fear — nothing but horror or heavily-armed adventure. I knew there was better fare, but somehow not there and then. In 25 years since the demise of the East German Democratic Republic I have had time enough to get used to advertising and commercialism, but downtown Manhattan surpassed everything!
Other aspects contradicted the negative impressions, above all the wonderfully mixed character of the people. I saw those of varied European descent, the many, many African-Americans, those of Latino background with a dozen melodious dialects, people from East Asia or from the Indian subcontinent, with their gradually westernizing apparel, from saris to jeans, from tall Sikh turbans to reversed Yankee baseball caps. Was I imagining it or, even more than on earlier visits, were people mixing less self-consciously across differences in color, language, and religion? I had a pleasant little hint of it in Somerville near Boston when a young African-American hastened to catch up with me and share his umbrella during an unexpected downpour!
Another plus: the traffic-reduced, greener, less commercial stretch of Broadway. And, better yet, my pleasant morning in Central Park, especially in that wild and wooded section, the Ramble, where I learned to love birding 70 years ago and now rejoiced to see old feathered friends I had truly missed in all those years in Germany — even common ones like robins, blue jays, grackles, a catbird, a downy woodpecker, and that beautiful bird which had been my wife’s favorite, the bright red cardinal.
Then, on a more clearly political note, there was the annual Left Forum, this year with more than 5,000 participants, including me with a panel contribution (in competition with forty other panels at the same time). But more on that later.
All in all, while New York had much that repelled me, I still found a close attraction to this amazing city where everyone, or nearly everyone, spoke my language and I was no longer “the fellow with the funny American accent.” Ah yes, in the deeper regions of my heart this was still my hometown — or at least one of my two hometowns.
From there it was on to Washington, where I was to give another talk to a small, quite mixed and interesting group. It was arranged in the friendly home of a couple where I stayed — people who have endured very difficult years, due to their politics, and who proved to be perhaps the most fascinating, knowledgeable people on the whole trip. That is saying a lot, for I met a host of intelligent, knowledgeable, very friendly people. Washington, though the temperature was hotter than in New York, was less crowded, less noisy, even pleasanter. But then, Congress was not in session! And here, too, were oases within the city limits; my host showed me the wonderful, green and hilly Arboretum.
Especially moving for me in Washington was an exhibition in the Smithsonian American Art Museum of paintings by Ralph Fasanella, who had been a volunteer with the Lincoln Battalion in Spain (a subject I devoted a book to). He never took art lessons but simply painted the world around him, especially that New York of years long past which was part of my own background. He stressed simple, hard-working people, their joys (including baseball) and tribulations like those of his father, who, with minimal reward, toted heavy ice blocks to pre-fridge homes. His later works, with many symbols and allusions, showed the growing pressures of the McCarthy years which had determined my own life, the death of the Rosenbergs, which had hit so hard even in my new home in far-off East Germany. His last painting, “Farewell Comrade/End of the Cold War” — mourning the defeat of socialist ideals stretching back to Eugene Debs, Jack London, John Reed, the women of the Lawrence “Bread and Roses” strike, the Russian Revolution — hit close enough to evoke a few bitter tears.
At my next destination, Milwaukee, I saw a fine exhibition of the art of Vassily Kandinsky in the beautiful modern museum there. But great and important as he was, I guess I am too old-fashioned or conservative in my tastes to be moved by his colorful works. I have never decried painters (or composers or poets) who may be revolutionary in their art but tell me little about the world I know. Yet, I cannot help it, my heart belongs to those like Fasanella, who advised: “Remember who you are. Remember where you came from. Don’t forget the past. Change the world.” Those who are near Washington before August 4th can see — and judge for themselves.
Another contrast was provided by the weekly Jazz in the Park in Milwaukee, a joyous occasion with thousands on blankets or beach chairs enjoying (or sometimes defying) the very loud music. How different from the Pops Concert in Boston in dignified Symphony Hall. I confess to leaving both before the end; in the case of the Pops my yawns and heavy eyes were caused (somewhat) less by the music, not exactly my favorite genre, than simply by the effects of jet lag.
Milwaukee provided more contradictions. Nearly forty percent are African-American, yet a great majority at Jazz in the Park was, surprisingly, white! My computer says that discrimination between communities is still a big problem there. Yet the Methodist church service I attended with my host was not only a mix of colors but rejected all racism and antipathy to newer immigrants. This though the pastor was himself least of all an immigrant — being partly Native American.
I was happy to visit the Turner Society, founded in 1855 by refugees from the German revolution of 1848-1849 with principles of “Liberty, against all oppression; Tolerance, against all fanaticism; Reason, against all superstition; Justice, against all exploitation!” Those revolutionaries helped elect Abe Lincoln and were largely responsible for a Socialist congressman and three Socialist mayors. And I met some who honored Mathilde Franziska Anneke. A skilled horseback rider, she herself took part in the fighting in Baden in 1849 before fleeing to Milwaukee, where she was a leader in the fight against slavery and for women’s rights. Somewhat better known today is heroic Mildred Harnack, a leftist literature expert from Milwaukee who married a German student at Madison and was secretly active in resisting the Nazi dictatorship. Caught by the Gestapo, she was sentenced to six years in prison. Then Hitler had her sentence altered; she was beheaded by the guillotine on February 16th, 1943. Her last words, reportedly, were: “Ich habe Deutschland auch so geliebt” (“I loved Germany so much”).
No tragedy was involved with another German-American hero of mine: Baron Friedrich Wilhelm August von Steuben, whose noble “von” title was invented by his grandfather, whose high rank of Prussian lieutenant-general was invented by Benjamin Franklin (to impress Washington and the other colonials), whose gay orientation was discreetly overlooked — and who played a crucial part in forming the army which defeated the British. Milwaukee boasts a proud equestrian statue of him.
In Madison I admired a more modest little monument, dedicated to other courageous fighters: volunteers from Wisconsin in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion in Spain. I thought again of Fasanella.
But I must not overstress military actions, justified as they then were. Indeed, a very hopeful impression I received on my trip was: most Americans have had more than enough of war. There may be relatively little knowledge of distant events — the media stresses weightier matters like the loves or crimes of celebrities or warns of dangers from a dark-skinned Obama and other “Muslims.” Yet most Americans, it seemed to me, now want their hard-earned money or the taxes thereon spent for needs closer to home, often very desperate. I read that 21 percent of Milwaukeeans exist under the poverty line — over 30 percent of those under 18. Such issues cannot be swept aside, and Wisconsin is facing a hard fight to rid itself of a key perpetrator, its Governor Walker. I also found that Milwaukee has a hard-fighting black Congresswoman, Gwen Moore, who recalls the spirit of those two great German-American women, Mathilde Anneke and Mildred Harnack!
I was brought face to face with today’s problems when I needed to fill a doctor’s prescription for insulin. In Berlin this costs 5 euro. The pharmacy here wanted $350!! Luckily, I am insured and will soon get my money back. How many Americans cannot yet say the same? And what do they do?
For me, it has always been hard to escape politics. So I felt very much at home at the Left Forum in New York, with its hundreds of panels on myriad themes and speakers like Harry Belafonte, Angela Davis, Cornel West, and Kshama Sawant, the young woman, a socialist, who won a seat in the Seattle City Council in connection with the fight for a $15 minimum wage. At the Forum was a big, enthusiastic crowd with mixed backgrounds and languages but closely-related purpose. Surprisingly optimistic, many were searching, yes, yearning, for some forceful combination of the many splintered progressive groups and goals in the USA, from “Oust Walker” groups in Wisconsin and “Moral Monday” rallies in Raleigh to the growing fight of miserably underpaid workers at fast food and major retail giants, and including those brutally exploited in a giant prison system or those torn from their families and deported to Central American poverty and violence — and all those opposing dangerous, aggressive interference abroad, from Cuba and Caracas to Kabul and Kiev.
One main speaker was Bernd Riexinger, co-chair of my Left party in Germany, DIE LINKE. He was a symbol of how a unified left, with its own party, could win influence — in this case 64 seats in the Bundestag — and pressure enough to force all other parties to move leftward, in words if not in deeds, in fear of losing out to growing dissatisfaction with the economy and opposition to involvement outside national boundaries. I also knew of all the problems, disputes, and fissures within such a party and of constant pressure to dilute, weaken, or destroy it. But despite all attacks it remains a force that cannot be ignored! Other countries need not try to copy it, but it should and can serve as an inspiration and source of mutual solidarity.
Luckily, the homeland visit was not purely political. Despite a few unhappy hints of issues like racism, creationism, immigration, and guns, my final week was spent happily in huge, arid, but incredibly beautiful New Mexico, with my wonderful relatives and astounding sights like the White Sands National Monument and the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, where my niece and I rejoiced in the sight of red-tailed hawks, wild turkeys, herons, and egrets galore, a beautiful black and white avocet and countless tiny, amazing humming birds — a constant delight unknown in Europe.
These last peaceful and relaxed days strengthened me for the cramped flight over the Atlantic, the confused, hasty swap of planes in that ghastly airport Heathrow, and a return to an accustomed but by no means boring life in my second hometown of Berlin.
July 8, 2014
Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).