[Marxism] Crossing the River

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue May 18 11:50:39 MDT 2004

Victor Grossman. Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the 
Cold War, and Life in East Germany. Edited with afterword by Mark 
Solomon. Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003. 
328 pp. Select bibliography. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 1-55849-385-9.
Reviewed by David E. Marshall, Department of History, University of 
Published by H-German (May, 2004)

Victor Grossman's autobiography is a partly critical, partly apologetic 
account of life in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). An American 
communist who fled the McCarthy witch-hunts in the 1950s and found a new 
life in the GDR, he was probably the only person to have ever studied at 
Harvard and Karl Marx University and labor as a steelworker in Buffalo 
and in a lumberyard in Bautzen. He married, raised a family, and 
developed into a relatively prominent writer and intellectual. He 
experienced the events of 1953 in East Berlin, saw the 1968 Prague 
Spring and numerous Cold War shenanigans, and worked hard to build a 
society which he was proud of, in spite of its many shortcomings. 
Although never a member of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) or a 
dissident, Grossman offers readers useful insights into everyday life in 
the GDR. He was one of the overwhelming majority of East Germans who 
accepted their fates while the Wall existed and conditions were 
reasonably stable. While he would have preferred to preserve the GDR, he 
recognizes why it was unable to establish the loyalty necessary for 
survival once Soviet support was withdrawn and the SED leadership fell.

Crossing the River is divided into two parts. The first discusses 
Grossman's life in America, when he was still Stephen Wechsler, his name 
before he fled to East Germany. Born in 1928 to a Jewish family in New 
York City, he was raised during the Depression. Had it not been for his 
fear of McCarthyism, he might have lived his life in the United States. 
His formative years were strongly influenced by time spent in the 
mountainous New Jersey community of Free Acres. The family drove there 
every summer, mixing with an eclectic group of conformists and 
nonconformists, some of whom were communists. Grossman was exposed to a 
wide variety of literature, music, politics, cultural and ethnic groups. 
The Second World War was also significant, not only because Grossman was 
approaching draft age as the war ended. He honed his debating skills 
arguing the Soviet side in the war's early years (while his brother, in 
the merchant marine, sailed the Atlantic) and was horrified by the 
crimes of the Nazis. By 1945, when he was about to begin at Harvard, he 
was a dedicated pacifist and anti-fascist, ready to change the world.

Grossman spent the late 1940s first at Harvard and then among the 
so-called working class while the United States experienced the "Red 
Scare," which eventually drove him from his homeland. He drew on his 
experiences from these years to criticize the alleged freedom of the 
United States. Political activism at Harvard and afterwards, e.g., at a 
1949 Paul Robeson concert in Peekskill, frequently encountered violent 
suppression. Serious racism was common. Work in the steel mills of 
Buffalo was difficult; workers responded to layoffs, firings and pay 
cuts with strikes and struggled constantly for survival. Those who 
declined "optional" overtime found themselves unemployed. Such 
experiences convinced Grossman that life in the United States was 
sometimes less free than even in the GDR. The overall climate 
contributed to his eventual decision to flee in 1952, a year after he 
was drafted and stationed in Europe.

The transition was not easy, and he would always feel some homesickness, 
though several factors eased his adjustment. As an American communist 
and refugee from political persecution, Grossman was granted a special 
status. He developed into a self-described "court jester," able to speak 
his mind, but not too loudly. His expertise on American culture was also 
welcome and assisted him in making a living. He met and married a woman 
whom he loved deeply and with whom he raised a family. While there is no 
reason to question Grossman's integrity--in fact he often reflected on 
the choices and compromises he made--his status, relative comfort, and 
happy life should not be forgotten when evaluating his perspective on 
the GDR.

full: http://www.h-net.msu.edu/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=272441084898390

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