EAST BERLIN -- Drafted, the letter said. Victor Grossman didn't want to kill Koreans. More important, much more important, there was the statement. Every GI was supposed to put his signature under a list of about 120 organizations to which good American boys did not belong, not in Joe McCarthy's America.
In his young life, Grossman was already a member of a dozen of these groups, student communists, college kids for Negro rights, high school kids taking sides in the Spanish Civil War -- all at the time of the McCarran Act, loyalty oaths and trials of American communists.
And now at the age of 22, he faced the biggest question of his life. Sign the paper -- lie -- and hope the Army never looked into his past. Or stay true to his beliefs, refuse to sign and face the consequences of being a leftist in America in 1950. Perjury or prosecution?
He decided he could not lie. He went to Fort Devon in Massachusetts, marched into the room where the boys lined up to sign the form. Nobody was even looking at the thing, just take the pen, where to sign sir, next please.
Now Grossman. Come on, keep moving. He froze. No, no, can't linger, they'll get suspicious, just hand it back. The seconds refused to pass.
"And I signed," Grossman says. "I signed. Be inconspicuous. Keep my mouth shut. Hope to get through the two years without any reason to check on me. I signed."
"I did break the law," Grossman says. He is perched at the edge of the couch, one shin dragging on the carpet in his seventh-floor apartment on East Berlin's Karl Marx Allee, formerly Stalinallee, a nice address, big buildings in halfway decent shape, right downtown.
"I consider myself a patriotic American, though I know people will disagree. I know some people would think I'm anti-American. But I think of Tom Paine, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass -- I think I've been true to this tradition, the tradition of little people who worked to make the U.S. a better country."
Victor Grossman is a writer now, East Germany's Mr. USA. He is a heavy, pear-shaped man, with a white moustache and droopy eyes, a walrusy face and a distinct New York accent in both German and English. He wrote the East German textbook on the States. It's not what you read in high school; it's accurate, but heavily weighted toward the excesses of the robber barons, the rift between the races, the pains of poverty.
Grossman, 62, has not set foot in the United States for nearly 40 years. He jokes that since the Berlin Wall opened last fall, he must be the only man in East Germany who has not stepped across to West Berlin -- where U.S. troops still patrol -- to see for himself.
Now Grossman -- probably the only man in the world with undergraduate degrees from Harvard and Leipzig's Karl Marx University -- wants to go home, perhaps for a visit, perhaps to live. He would like to hop on a plane, land in New York and not be arrested. Sounds easy, but in this case, it's not clear what would happen if this American set foot on U.S. soil. Maybe nothing. Or maybe jail.
Grossman, returning from a 10-day furlough in Scandinavia, was surprised to hear his name called out by the Army mail officer. And it was his name, because "Victor Grossman" is the invention of a Soviet officer. But that's getting ahead of the story.
He'd been spared Korea and assigned to a U.S. base in Bavaria, lots of free time, a little clerical work, training as a radio man, then working in the spare parts section of the auto shop.
On furlough, he went to Copenhagen, met a girl, took her to the amusement park, had a terrific turn in the Tunnel of Love. When he got back to camp on a Sunday, the mail officer was waiting for him.
"Wechsler! Registered letter for you!"
He had to wait a day to see it, but he knew. He was right. It was from the judge advocate-general in Washington, informing Stephen Wechsler that although he had signed a form swearing that he did not belong to any un-American organizations, he in fact was a member of seven such groups, including the American Youth for Democracy, the Anti-Fascist League, the Southern Negro Youth Conference.
Appear at military court, Nuremburg, in one week, the letter said.
"I panicked," Grossman says. "My knees trembled, literally. At the end, I saw Leavenworth, breaking rocks. And a Red in Leavenworth! Imagine. I panicked. I wasn't married. I had no real ties. And it was true, I had signed the form. It was hopeless.
"I spent the week figuring out how to escape. I decided to leave on a Sunday, the day before I was due in court. Austria was divided into four zones then. The border between the U.S. zone and the Soviet zone was the Danube. I decided to go to Linz, look for a boat and cross the river. I couldn't tell anyone. I had no advice, no one.
"Before I left the States, I'd worked out a code with my father. He always liked guessing games. If I sent a letter that started unusually, he would examine it closely. I sent the letter. Years later, it turned out he hadn't even noticed."
Grossman would never see his father again.
His parents were leftists in a vague, wholly intellectual, New York '30s kind of way. All talk, no action. Dad was an art dealer; Mom a social worker, later a librarian. They spent summers in a bungalow colony, a bunch of well-read intellectuals lounging on the Jersey Shore arguing about justice.
The boy was sent to Bronx High School of Science, a hotbed of radical politics, and then to Fieldston, an expensive private school teeming with the offspring of prominent leftists.
Grossman officially became a Communist at Harvard. In September 1945, a kid from Chicago sidled up to Grossman and said, "You're a leftist, aren't you?"
"I said, 'Yeah, why?' He said, 'Sign here.'
" 'What the hell is that?' It was an application form for the Communist Party-USA. My first thought was, do you have to be a member? My second thought was, 'I'm going to ruin my career.'
"He said, 'Are you or aren't you?' I thought, Ah well, gave him 50 cents and signed. That, in many ways, determined the rest of my life."
The Harvard secret cell was not an impressive organization. It was 30 kids who spent four years "scared silly." They laughed a lot. They sang, taught each other Marxism-Leninism, picketed, ignored their classes.
In his last semester, Grossman's grades slipped below the B average he needed to keep his scholarship. But he managed to graduate. Then a party official told him there were already too many intellectual Communists. What the party needed was workers.
Of the 10 members of the Harvard cell graduated in the class of 1949, three, including Grossman, did the party's bidding and went off to work in factories. Grossman ended up in Buffalo, at a Fedders air conditioning plant, pushing copper and bronze across the floor on the 3:30-to-midnight shift.
"My mother was shocked," Grossman says. "She just couldn't fathom it. Anything intellectual would be okay. But this... . "
For a year and a half, he stayed in Buffalo, living an excruciatingly lonely existence, getting laid off and rehired, taking the ferry across to Canada to try to meet girls at the beach, being a worker because the party told him to. And then he got drafted.
Grossman was nearly hallucinating. He was seeing people following him. He couldn't stop the sweats.
He had left camp a day early, Saturday, because somehow he had drawn kitchen duty on the day before he was to appear in court. Leaving in uniform, he carried only a metal box stuffed with family photos, some money and a camera. He tucked the registered letter -- his ticket to the Soviet Union -- inside his shirt.
By the time he reached the Danube, it was early morning, a sunny, lovely day. No boats. He looked across, expecting to see Soviet guards, but there was no one. He took off his Army jacket, ripped the insignias off his shirt, threw away his shoes. The coins in his box were rattling, so Grossman threw out the whole box, dumped the camera in the Danube, and swam across to the Soviet zone.
There he sat, waiting to be found by fellow Communists and taken to his new life.
Sunday morning passed. Not a soul in sight. Afternoon too. Finally, an Austrian cop came along and took Grossman to the Soviets, who put him in a cell, a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling, and left him there for two weeks. His guard spoke no English; Grossman knew about eight words of Russian.
"Anna Karenina!" Grossman would say through the door.
"Ah, chorosho!" the guard would reply. "Good!"
Grossman grew morose. What if the rumors of a gulag were true? Why haven't they welcomed me? Soon, officers came and grilled him. Where had he spent his day along the Danube? Whom had he spoken to? Grossman offered two references, a Soviet filmmaker he had once met on a ship, and a Harvard leftist who had moved to Austria.
Finally, the Soviets took him from his cell, measured him for clothing and shoes and gave him a full supply of drab garments. There was one extra touch. The captain handed him a suit, raincoat, underwear, socks and finally, he said, "For you, a red tie."
He was going on a trip, no idea where. Perhaps Moscow, that would be good. Anywhere but Germany, he thought; he'd had enough of those people, and Germany, East or West, was no place for a Jewish defector, he figured. Two officers and two soldiers took him in a minibus, through Austria and Czechoslovakia, past Prague. They sang the Red Army songs Grossman had learned at Harvard. They had a grand picnic at the side of the road, meatballs and tomatoes, vodka and beer. They stopped to pick blueberries.
And then they reached the border of the German Democratic Republic, East Germany. Their destination, it turned out, was the Soviet community at Potsdam. There, they put Grossman in a villa, took his clothing and his watch, gave him pajamas and locked him in a bedroom with frosted glass clouding the windows.
He got an hour a day in the garden and weekly interviews with a Soviet officer who spoke excellent American English. For 10 weeks, that was it. The monotony was broken only by the German books he studied to teach himself the language. Grossman heard bits of conversation that convinced him other American and British defectors were being held at the house, but he never saw them.
A Soviet officer suggested that the defector change his name. Grossman -- then Stephen Wechsler -- agreed. It might save his family back home some trouble. But he could not think of a name. He asked the Soviet for help. He got "Victor Grossman."
"I didn't especially like it," he says now. "I really didn't like it. But I had nothing else."
Disillusioned, Grossman watched his ideals about Soviet life crumble. One guard was a drunkard; impossible, the young communist had thought. "The Soviets had been presented to me as saints," he says. "To hear them joking profanely about Soviet heroes and statues was a shock."
One day in November 1952, an East German tailor came to Grossman's room and provided him with a shoddy wardrobe. Emboldened by the idea of impending freedom, Grossman explained to his guards that it was Election Day back in the States. Could be please borrow a radio to hear the returns on Armed Forces Radio?
Of course, the guard said, but you've been here all these weeks, why didn't you ask for a radio before?
Along with three Welsh soldiers who had gotten drunk, blundered East and somehow been persuaded by the Soviets to defect, Grossman found himself on the road to Bautzen, a small East German town in the southeast corner of the country, far from the West German border.
He would spend the next two years here, working as an unskilled laborer, hauling lumber.
There were about 40 defectors in Bautzen -- Americans, British, French and Moroccans, almost all of them soldiers who had deserted. There were black Americans who had had affairs with German women and gotten in trouble for it. And white Americans who had been ordered to break off their relationships with East Berlin women, but refused.
Eventually, Grossman was put in charge of a little community center the East Germans set up for the foreigners. He spent 1953 arranging German classes, Ping-Pong tournaments, bingo games and movie nights. The idea was to help the defectors assimilate into the society, then let them leave Bautzen and start new lives.
It didn't work. Nearly all of the defectors went home sooner or later.
Grossman had hit bottom. He was neither captor nor captive. He was part of the town establishment but still a foreigner. He was miserable.
"I just went on a crying jag," he says. "I hardly did anything but cry for two weeks. It was a breakdown. For four or five years after that, I was terribly nervous." He finally climbed out of it with the help of Renate, a half-German, half-Sorb who lived in Bautzen.
The East Germans weren't sure what to do with Grossman. They sent him to trade school to learn to use a lathe. A year later, they asked him to go to college in Leipzig.
Before he left to study journalism, Grossman asked Renate to wait for him. She refused. He left. A week later, he returned and asked her to be his wife. They are still married.Grossman, who left home because he was a member of the U.S. Communist Party, never got into East Germany's Communist Party. He attended party meetings in Leipzig as an honorary member, but when he tried to get in as a full member, party officers decided he was too undisciplined.
In his heart, Grossman remained a Communist. Although dismayed by some government actions, he supported many others right up to the end. And he not only supported the East German regime, he worked on its behalf.
Grossman launched his journalism career at Democratic German Report, an eight-page English-language propaganda sheet, a two-man operation aimed at boosting East Germany's gloomy and repressive image and maligning West Germany as the true heirs to the Nazis.
Using reports provided by East Germany's crack spy network, the newsletter specialized in exposing ex-Nazis who had managed to find positions as judges, politicians and generals in supposedly de-Nazified West Germany.
In the late 1960s, he quit journalism to organize a Paul Robeson Archive and birthday celebration that the East German Academy of Arts put on for the American Communist singer. Since 1970, Grossman has been a freelance writer, producing a steady stream of books, articles and lectures about the United States. He wrote a travel book in 1976, "Hitchhiking Through the USA," based on a trip he took when he was an 18-year-old Harvard student. A couple of years ago, he wrote "If I Had a Song," a history of folk music in the States, from Yankee Doodle to Louis Armstrong, minstrel shows to Pete Seeger.
Sometimes he feels a little silly. After all, he is East Germany's resident expert on a country he knew before civil rights, rock-and-roll, Vietnam or Michael Milken. "In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king," Grossman says, and he is not sure whether it is excuse or explanation.
In his books and lectures, Grossman has repeated the standard Communist criticism of his native land -- focusing on the disparities that produce homelessness and poverty in a nation of affluence. But he says he also tried to communicate his love for the iconoclasts of American tradition, abolitionists, early union organizers, those who stood their ground against McCarthyism.
"I wandered a thin line," Grossman says. "I gave them what they wanted, but I tried not to make it as black-and-white.
"And as a foreigner here, I could get away with a lot of criticism of East Germany. Well. This is relative, of course. I saw people here treated like people were in the U.S. in the McCarthy years. I certainly had illusions when I got here. I learned. Socialism didn't make angels out of people. There were stupid, incompetent, self-centered people, and unfortunately, they moved to the top."
In the Harvard class of '49's 25th reunion book, the entry beneath Stephen Wechsler's name says only, "LOST." The rest of the page is blank.
When it came time for the 40th reunion last spring, Grossman wrote a letter to his alumni magazine, explaining his vanishing act and announcing that he was, "believe it or not, still an incorrigible radical." Yes, he said, East Germany has "countless problems and many weaknesses." But he argued that two good things made up for many of the problems: the fact that many East German leaders had fought against Hitler, and the Communist social safety net, protecting citizens against hunger, poverty and unemployment.
Grossman asked for mail from classmates. He got 40 letters and five visits. But what he really wanted was a way back to America, a chance to show his wife and sons -- a journalist, 34, and a filmmaker, 28 -- the country he has been talking about all these years.
He had tried before. Ten years ago, the U.S. Embassy in East Berlin invited Grossman in and offered him a passport valid for one trip to the States and back. (Grossman is not an East German citizen; he has an East German passport that says he is a U.S. citizen. He has no American passport, but never renounced his U.S. citizenship.)
The embassy checked with the Pentagon, which reported back that Grossman would get a general discharge, but no jail, even though there is no statute of limitations on desertion. He would, however, have to report to military officials. "That scared me," he says. He rejected the offer.
Last year, Grossman wanted to go to his Harvard reunion, and asked his class for help getting into the country. He got no response.
Then the Berlin Wall fell.
Grossman was loyal enough to East Germany's old regime that he kept quiet during the worst years. But by last spring, he knew that things were heading for disaster. Party boss Erich Honecker was resisting the relaxation of state control that had swept from Moscow through the East Bloc.
Grossman wrote to the head of the East German parliament, warning that the country would explode unless the government opened up to the people. He recommended that party leaders go on television and come clean, a fireside chat. The letter went unanswered.
During last fall's peaceful revolution, Grossman was away on vacation in Bulgaria. He came home to find German reunification -- unthinkable weeks earlier -- well on its way to fruition. He was crestfallen. He still is.
Because East Germany will now lose the cradle-to-grave benefits that were supposed to make up for the pollution, corruption and repression of communist life, Grossman, ever the true believer, mourns the passing of the system.
"Volkswagen, Daimler-Benz, General Motors -- all coming in now," he says. "All the forces I've been afraid of all my life. It's pretty damn depressing."
Two months ago, Grossman went to the U.S. Embassy in East Berlin and once again asked for a passport. An official in the consular office told The Washington Post that if Grossman never took foreign citizenship or a policy position in a foreign government, he could probably get a passport. But the official says cases like this "can take years to resolve."
Maj. Lois Faires, spokesman for the U.S. Army personnel command in Washington, says that if Grossman comes home, he would face "some time in a lock-up. Then, traditionally, if there are no espionage or criminal charges pending, he is given an other-than-honorable discharge and is free to go."
Another American defector returned to the States from East Germany earlier this year, but he tried to sneak into the country, Faires says. Apprehended on his overseas flight, he was kept in a military jail for several days before being released.
If Grossman comes back openly, the Army says it will meet him at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin and give him a free flight to the States on a military plane.
To Grossman, the idea of being in the hands of the army he deserted 38 years ago is more than a little unsettling. But he has not ruled out the idea.
He has lived the life he made. Still, he wants very much to see New York again.
"What sense is there to have regrets? Things happen the way they happen." He shrugs, throws his arms out. "Every once in a while, the homesickness hits. On my mother's last visit before she died, she said, 'Ah, be happy already. It probably went better for you here.' So. I identified with this society. But it wasn't home."
Grossman takes the elevator to the lobby of his building and opens his jam-packed mailbox. He flips through the letters and the junk and seizes on two items: a large envelope from his brother and a magazine. He rips open the envelope; it is stuffed with clippings from American newspapers. Then he turns hungrily to the magazine, the latest issue of the Nation.
"Letters from home," says Stephen Wechsler.