An American Who Defected to East Germany
Between World War II and the fall of Communism, many fled Soviet-controlled East Germany and headed westward. The stories of these dissidents, defectors, and hardworking citizens who were simply looking for a better life have been exhaustively documented. But much less is known about the histories of the few who headed against the tide, from west to east, repulsed by capitalism. Victor Grossman was one such person.
Born Steve Wechsler in New York City in 1928, Victor’s political ideology was shaped by his experiences living in America during the Great Depression and the events of the Spanish Civil War. After earning an economics degree from Harvard, his communist ideals led him to earn a simple living as a factory worker. In 1950, in the beginning stages of the Korean War, Victor was drafted and while stationed in Germany, his left-wing past was uncovered by the military. Fearing a court-martial for his beliefs, he sought refuge in the Soviet bloc, changing his name to Victor Grossman and settling among like-minded comrades in the German Democratic Republic.
For 30 years, Victor thrived in the GDR as a journalist and author. He published numerous books on US history and culture, lectured frequently, and hosted a popular radio show that introduced East Germans to the antiestablishment folk songs of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs, and Bob Dylan. Despite his criticisms of the GDR establishment, Victor still felt that he was seeing his ideal—“an antifascist state with economic security for everybody”—transformed into utopian reality. By the late 80s, however, it became apparent that the Soviet system could no longer sustain itself and would soon collapse under its own weight. Victor came to the bleak realization that he would have to “start over from zero.”
In 1994, he returned to the USA for the first time, where he was officially discharged from the army, 44 years after being enlisted. He remains today in Berlin and continues to write prolifically in German. In 2003 he published an English-language autobiography, Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany. Regardless of what you think about his political convictions, Victor’s ideological steadfastness is impressive. In a way he seems to be a man out of time, which made me think that speaking with him could provide not just a window to the past, but a different context for viewing the present.
VICE: When did you first become disillusioned with capitalism? Was it a gradual progression or was it one event?
Victor Grossman: The 1930s were a left-wing period. My first recollection from a newsreel was the big sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, which broke General Motors. I remember that and [what was happening in] Spain, the soup lines and college graduates selling apples on the corner to make a living. My father was an art dealer. Who buys art in depression times? It was often tight, but we never went hungry. We were never really down and out, especially because we had a bungalow in New Jersey in an experimental single-tax community called Free Acres. It was very simple; it had running cold water and no electricity. And it was wonderful, just wonderful. We ran around barefoot all day. It was like Huckleberry Finn. A lot of people living there were bohemians from New York and left-wingers. Some of the nicest people in that place were left-wingers who really determined my thinking.
You went to Harvard, but after graduation you started working in a factory. Why?
When I graduated Harvard, the Communist party secretary from Boston came to us and said, “You’ve got a Harvard diploma, but our party is supposed to be a workers’ party, and we don’t have enough workers. Have any of you considered becoming workers?” I was one of three people who said yes. I was provided with an address in Buffalo. I hitchhiked there and walked to this black neighborhood. I came to this rundown wooden house, and on the porch was a middle-aged black lady in a rocking chair. I said, “I’m looking for Hattie Lumpkin, do you know where I can find her?” She said, “That’s me.” She was the head of Buffalo’s Communist Party.
Hattie’s place was Buffalo’s left-wing hub. The family her daughter had worked for had been leftists; they had asked her to sit at the table with them to eat. This was absolutely unheard of. She became a Communist. At first, Hattie had told her to get the hell out with her atheist ideas, but they argued and Hattie was convinced. Hattie’s place became my home away from home when I worked the awful graveyard shift at the factory.
The Soviet Ghost Town in the Czech Republic
There’s a little bit of the Soviet empire left in the middle of the Czech Republic, but it’s abandoned, decaying, and almost completely forgotten.
USSR military bases might not be known for their community outreach, but is it really possible that two towns, one Czech and one Russian, could exist just over one mile apart for two decades without the residents knowing anything about each other? If you’ve got enough barbed wire fences and Kalashnikovs, I suppose anything is possible.
After occupying what was then Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Soviet army chose an airfield 28 miles from Prague as the base for its Central Group of Forces. It had been used before by the Austro-Hungarian military, and then the Luftwaffe, but when the Soviets moved in they came for the long haul.
They built an entire town next to the airfield and called it Boží Dar, meaning “God’s Gift,” and then fenced it off from the outside world. Oh, that dark Soviet humor! Or maybe they really did think it was nice, since it did have a pool, a movie theater, and wasn’t Nizhny Novgorod.
Just down the (heavily guarded) road was the nondescript Czech town of Milovice and its 8,000 or so inhabitants, none of whom knew about the hundreds of families living under armed guard in cramped concrete tower blocks just up the road.
Boží Dar existed in complete isolation. This closed town within a closed state was about as inaccessible as it gets, and it’s entirely possible that most of the residents never left the town. No one but the highest-ranking officials would have had that kind of freedom. Operations at the base were kept top-secret, and such was the extent of Soviet paranoia that they even closed down Milovice’s sewage treatment plant at one point, fearing that the additional waste would give away too much information about the size of Boží Dar’s population.
There was just as much secrecy surrounding what was going into the base as what was coming out of it, so most supplies were probably brought in from Russia by air or rail. It looks like the base was partly self-sufficient, with its own coal power plant, underground reservoir, and farmland.
Most of the locals we asked thought the whole barbed-wire-and-armed-patrol thing was less about stopping the Soviet residents from getting jealous of living standards in communist Czechoslovakia, and more to do with stopping the Czechs from finding out about the possible secret stockpile of nuclear warheads being kept at Boží Dar.
It’s widely believed that the Soviet army kept at least some nuclear weapons in Czechoslovakia, most likely at the base of the Central Group of Forces, but no one has ever been able to prove it. The Russian embassy in Prague still refuses to confirm or deny anything, although the former Central Group of Forces commander, General Vorobyov, was pretty open about the whole thing in a 2008 interview with Radio Prague. On the phone from Moscow, he said “We did indeed have nuclear weapons in the rocket brigades as part of the Central Group of Soviet Forces that I commanded.”
Any nukes must have been transported back to Russia soon after 1989, when the Soviet Army started packing its bags following the Velvet Revolution. In their haste, soldiers dumped out entire tanks of diesel and buried their leftover ammunition in the ground.
After the last Mig-29 took off back to Russia in 1991 the military base was left open and unguarded, and was quickly looted of anything even remotely valuable. Thieves ripped out everything from copper wiring to door handles and plastic movie theater seats, tearing up floorboards and pulling down walls in the process.
In 1992, Russia generously gave the already-crumbling buildings and polluted, explosive-riddled land to the Czech government, claiming that the value of this piece of real estate would make up for the cost of cleaning it. It seems the Czechs had little choice but to accept.
Despite it being state property, no one has ever bothered to guard it or fence it off, so we went to have a look around.
Since this was February in the Czech Republic, it was snowing. A lot. First, we found some aircraft hangars.
There wasn’t much inside.
We had to walk about another mile before we got into town. The snow was a few inches deep, so we had no idea what we were walking on. Once we got close to the buildings there were a lot of big holes in the ground, which we discovered by nearly falling into them, covered as they were with trash and snow.
The holes were probably made when the environment ministry swept the ground for all that buried live ammunition. Most of it was dug up and disposed of back in the early 90s, but the occasional mine or grenade still turns up. In January this year, someone walking their dog in the area stumbled across a live artillery shell and three landmines.
Partying with the Secret Police in Communist Romania
Illustration by Michael Shaeffer
Vacation options in communist Romania were pretty limited. When Labor Day, the big party holiday of the year, rolled around on May 1, many Romanians traveled to Costinesti, the only seaside resort for young people in the country. To reach it, they had to take the train to the last stop and walk another two miles, or hitch a ride on a farmer’s cart. Most of the country was poor at the time, so many travelers slept on the roofs of rented huts; the only sources of heat were campfires people made on the beach.
There were just two discos in Costinesti, and for some archaic reason, dancing was only allowed in them from 1 to 3 PM and 6 to 10 PM. Romanian beer was sold exclusively; other kinds of booze were only available at a store that catered to foreigners. And, of course, everyone was being watched all the time by government minders.
Sorin Lupascu, who DJed in Costines‚ti at the time, recalls, “You could drink until you fell on your face. The regime never messed with the parties, but the resort was filled with secret police who were scouting for new employees.” Government restrictions caused other problems too, according to Natalia, a math teacher who took teens on field trips to the beach: “The whole class could end up pregnant because condoms were illegal. At night I had to poke through bushes with a broom to stop them from having sex.”
After the fall of the Iron Curtain and ensuing revolution in 1989, young people had more options for partying. Many of them started going to Neptun, a resort town about 50 miles down the coast. Mariana, a hotel receptionist there between 1987 and 1996, described the change: “After the Revolution, people saw the first of May as a day when you could do whatever you wanted. Also, booze was on the market.” Things started to get wild: One year, Neptun’s Hotel Romanta was gutted by a massive fight among a group of friends who had rented nearly 70 percent of the rooms. Teo, a gynecologist who saw that brawl, told me, “The cops didn’t have the guts to break them up. They watched while beds, closets, and tables flew out of the windows.” The next year a confrontation between the customers of two pubs across the road from each other resulted in a brutal fight in the middle of the street that ended only when ambulances arrived.
Other destinations have also become popular in recent years, like the village of Vama Veche— where hippies laze about, ransack tents, fuck on the beach, and hit one another in the face—and Mamaia, where club kids celebrate their holiday freedom by robbing people and committing random acts of vandalism. And while these might not sound like the greatest of times, at least the secret police are nowhere to be found.
Need more partying?
Never Party with the Brick Squad
A Party’s Not a Party If You Don’t Punch a Fish
Historical Party Fouls
The Summer Camp That Made Me a Commie
At 15, I didn’t know a whole lot about life. In many ways I was a typical teenager, which is to say: stupid. And to be honest, I was pretty much fine with that. Unless it involved the physical act of love, I really wasn’t all that interested in learning about anything. I certainly didn’t have any firm ideological convictions outside of a general, since-proven-correct sense that everything is kind of terrible. But that changed after I spent a week of my young dumb life at a summer camp for losers learning about the power and glory of free enterprise that explored both the philosophical arguments for capitalism as well as the practical reality of it.
By the end of the week I was a communist.
Why did I attend? Who knows? Maybe it was boredom or a desire to spend some time away from my parents and asshole friends. Perhaps it was a simple, base desire to ineptly hit on and try in vain to hook up with girls who were from other schools and thus not yet in on the secret that I was most definitely not cool. Whatever the case, during the hot and steamy mid-Atlantic summer of 2000 I packed up my things and headed off to a small Pennsylvania college to be indoctrinated by local business leaders.
Before you ask: Yes, of course my life is full of regret. But like World War I, the camp was inarguably something to do. But, again—and this is important—it also raised the possibility of mingling with members of the opposite sex who, given that this was Camp Capitalism, could very well determine it in their own rational self-interest to engage in a minimal amount of physical contact with me. I brought a copy of The Fountainhead just in case.
The camp was called Pennsylvania Free Enterprise Week, founded by business interests in 1979 to address the “compelling and urgent issue of workforce preparedness.” I could look forward to hearing from people like then-governor and future terror-threat color announcer Tom Ridge about how big business is what makes America great and how the propertied elites should be left to rape and pillage the working class as they see fit—and applauded for their initiative (not his exact phrasing).
After settling in to our dorm rooms, the campers—a diverse array of white middle-class nerds from eastern Pennsylvania—were broken into teams and ordered to establish the rigid hierarchy necessary for any exploitive power structure to flourish. With a local businesswoman as our mentor, we dutifully chose among ourselves a CEO, a CFO, and all the other assorted middle-management ways to say “asshole.” Our purpose? To compete in a fun and educational simulation of the business world where we’d sell undefined “widgets” to made-up clients.
Each morning our team would receive a printout listing our fake assets and the fake demand for our fake products, upon which we were supposed to base decisions about allocating our resources. We would then submit our decisions to the adults, who would in turn leave our fate to the devices of a Dell home computer. That the results would be determined by an inscrutable mix of dumb luck and algorithms was a deft, realistic touch.
As the future unemployable English major of the group, I naturally fell into the role of the bullshitter, aka the ad guy. It was my job to draft compelling copy about how my firm’s brand of widgets would help you attain spiritual fulfillment and last longer in bed, which I presented along with our firm’s future plans before a group of faux shareholders. Since my charisma is not quantifiable by mere machine, this portion of the contest was judged by the human automatons in charge of everything. And the sort of damning thing is they liked me. A lot, actually. Turns out I could really sell a widget.
And then my group won.
I don’t know the how or why of it, but the dude with the Dell said my group of not-sex-havers was the greatest widget-selling firm of Pennsylvania Free Enterprise Week session two. Best of all, this being a lesson in capitalism we would of course be generously rewarded for our efforts. To think, I said to myself with a smug little smirk, I could have been off somewhere having fun with my jerk friends at the beach or something. But now I was successful. I was a dick.