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The lonely American: speaking with a US defector to East Germany

Brett Neely · 3 Nov 2009, 17:08

Published: 03 Nov 2009 17:08 GMT+01:00

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Appropriately for a lifetime leftist, Victor Grossman tells his story while sitting in his favourite easy chair in his apartment on Berlin’s Karl Marx Allee.

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 81-year-old recalls how he was one of the few people in the now reunited German capital not celebrating on November 9, 1989.

West Berlin “frightened me,” he says, explaining how he feared the US troops stationed there would arrest him for his hasty decision to desert from the US Army when he was a 24-year-old soldier in 1952.

“For a year or two later after the Wall went down, I still never went across as long as the US Army was there,” Grossman says, his New York accent still strong 57 years after leaving the United States.

Born Stephen Wechsler in New York City, Grossman changed his name upon arriving in the now defunct German Democratic Republic (GDR).

“I said maybe I should protect my family from the consequences of deserting, so therefore I should change my name,” Grossman explains.

“The Soviet officer in charge of me said: ‘Go ahead, think of one.’ Three times, I tried but I couldn’t. So he said: ‘How about Victor Grossman?’ I didn’t like it one bit, but I was so ashamed I couldn’t think of a name that I went with it. Of course, I didn’t really think then I’d be stuck with it for life.”

Grossman’s flight eastward in 1952 isn’t surprising in some ways. He grew up in a left-leaning family and studied at Harvard University in the 1940s, becoming heavily involved in socialist politics. After graduation, he worked in a factory, trying to organise workers but soon afterwards, was drafted by the US Army when the Korean War began.

With America in the throes of the leftist witch hunt led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Grossman was asked to sign a statement saying he had never belonged to any of a long list of left-wing organisations. “I was a member of at least a dozen of them,” Grossman told The Local.

He signed the statement, saying he felt he had no choice as a draftee at the height of the Cold War. “I was frightened; to be known as a ‘Red’ in the army during the Korean War was almost worth your life.”

While stationed near Nuremburg in 1952, Grossman’s secret eventually came out. Though he had just months left before his enlistment ran out, he received a letter summoning him the next week to a judicial proceeding for his communist ties. The penalty for lying on that security form was as much as five years in prison.

Swimming the Danube

Scared, the 24-year-old Grossman slipped away from his base in West Germany and made his way to Austria, which was still under occupation by the four Allied powers. The American zone was separated from the Soviet zone by the Danube River and Grossman simply swam across unnoticed.

“The funny thing is that I didn’t find any Russians around, I thought they’d be waiting there, if not with tanks then with machine guns, but no one was there,” Grossman explains. After several hours wandering, he was picked up by Austrian police who turned him over to Soviet forces.

Grossman spent two weeks in a Soviet jail in Austria while they decided what to do with him. Then, without asking, they took him to Potsdam outside Berlin. There he spent two months being questioned by Soviet interrogators.

A stint in the Saxon town of Bautzen followed, where deserters from other Western armies were also housed. Many were “troublemakers” who had fled east to avoid military justice. While in Bautzen, Grossman met the woman who would become his wife until she died this past August. They moved to Leipzig, where he studied journalism at what was then known as the Karl Marx University.

“I’m probably the only person in the world who received degrees from both Harvard and Karl Marx Universities,” Grossman quips.

After completing his degree, Grossman and his wife Renate moved to Berlin in 1958, where they raised their two sons in a time of relative prosperity.

“Up until the 80s, the standard of living had been rising, not always fast but steadily. But then you could see the economy was getting worse and prices were rising and goods getting scarcer.”

An American jester in communist East Germany

Story continues below…

Though Grossman says he was committed to the socialist ideals of the East German state, he never joined the country’s SED communist party and he claims he often made critical remarks in the interest of promoting constructive change.

As an American, “I was a bit like a court jester, able to say the things everyone knew but no one wanted to say themselves,” says Grossman.

Though not blind to the failings of the East German state, Grossman still regards much of the past 20 years as a step backward for those living trapped behind the Berlin Wall. He points to his two sons, both of whom lost their jobs after East Germany collapsed.

“It’s been very rough, as it has for millions of people in the East, millions of people have suffered greatly since the Wall came down, I don’t know if that’s well known in the States,” Grossman says.

But ironically it was the fall of the Wall in 1989 that helped resolve Grossman’s fate. It was only in 1994 that the US Army agreed to drop the charges of desertion against him. He has since reclaimed his US passport and has travelled to America several times, including a visit to a college reunion at Harvard and a book tour to promote a memoir he published in 2003.

“I’ve always thought of myself as American, not German. I thought of myself as a political refugee, not an immigrant,” emphasises Grossman from his easy chair overlooking Karl Marx Allee.

Brett Neely (news@thelocal.de)

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Your comments about this article

19:59 November 3, 2009 by OPB
No attempt to be German after so long? Over stayed his 'welcome' a long time ago.
21:08 November 3, 2009 by wxman
This guy, not Demjanjuk, should be on trial.
21:25 November 3, 2009 by snorge
This guy joined left wing organizations, then lies about it when they want to question him. He deserts his own country and then hides in what was then considered the enemy and he still thinks himself as an American?????

I think he gave up that right to think that he was one of us the moment he walked up on the other bank of the Danube. Surprised we gave him his citizenship back. But then again, could one really believe some one with such a record would be forthright and honest? I certainly don't think so.

Now he is a lonely old man living his last days wondering his decisions in life. Well buddy, you made you own bed and now have to lie in it. Amazing you had the balls to be printed in a newspaper read mostly by Americans living in Germany.

Pay attention to some of the people your age who made unwise choices and are now covering todays newspaper headlines around the globe for those choices. Be lucky you aren't one of them, but don't think you are one of us either you Turncoat!
23:26 November 3, 2009 by finanzdoktor
What gets me is how capitalist he is. A book tour to the country he deserted to promote his memoirs? How much more of an opportunist can he be? Not only a turncoat, but two-faced.
05:50 November 4, 2009 by Brugge
In his defense, he's a Yankee.
07:00 November 4, 2009 by smitsch1949
According to the article, the US Army has forgiven him. I find hateful comments directed against Mr. Grossman to be an indicator of how correct he was in doing what he allegedly did.
08:23 November 4, 2009 by mmxbass
User smitsch1949 pretty much hit the nail on the head here. The level of bitterness and spite present in the comments alone prove beyond any doubt that we deserved exactly what we got.

Given the behavior of the United States since the fall of the wall, I'm honestly surprised he would even want to consider himself American.
10:16 November 4, 2009 by YankeeT
Hmm. He defected because he MIGHT have had to spend UP TO 5 years in prison for his involvement in a few leftist organizations... So he spent 57 years in a country he did not feel at home in.

Uh huh.

A 'political refugee'? Doesn't pass any tests of logic.

What exactly did this fugitive and active US military man tell his 'hosts' during his two weeks in the Soviet jail in Austria, and his two months being interrogated by Soviets in Potsdam?

And the Russian who named him... worked his ego. The translation becomes "Victorious Big Man" and is a joke which he completely fell for.

I have no sympathy for him or his story.
16:01 November 4, 2009 by edwards629
I have a sneaken suspicion that if this story is investigated a little more, one might find that nobody was going to do anything to him. He only used persecution as an excuse to desert. The nice thing about this is most non americans don't like or respect him cause he's american which being american I don't agree with that but if that hate can be used on him thats good. But the other half of the coin is us americans who are the greatest people in world by the way, won't give him any respect due to him being a traitor and a deserter. If one thinks i'm wrong just look at words people write on this, as you can see the non americans seem to focus their hate on fact that he' american and only that, and if you look at the comments from those who look to be american, they focus their dislike for this guy do to him being a desrter and a traitor.
21:31 November 4, 2009 by wxman
Re: Bell the cat, that's how it works - - and always has.
22:10 November 4, 2009 by frankiep
He was not facing 5 years in prison for being a communist. He was facing 5 years in prison for lying on a military security form. Communism was the biggest enemy of the West back then and this guy told the army that he had no ties to any communist organizations. Of course he would go to prison for it....he lied and in doing was a major security risk to those he was serving with. If he didn't want to be put into that situation then he should of told the truth from the beginning, but as another poster suggested, perhaps he saw being in the army as an opportunity to assist his communist comrades.

People and stories such as these only reinforce my assertion that communists are, when you get right down to it, selfish to the core.
16:39 November 5, 2009 by edwards629
I have to agree with you frank if by any chance they were going to arrest him, it was more than likely due to his dishonesty. I was in the u.s. army for 8 years and most people that were ever found out to have done something such as lying mainly about police records before going in were just given the boot and that's as far as it went. I seen some of this while i was on profile(light duty) in a jag office for a broken leg. Of course he came from a differnt time.
18:07 November 6, 2009 by locally
I think we all should try to imagine how it might be with him then.

He was only a young guy unfortunatly running from justice.

The mistake he made was to go into the then enemy territory which was quite wrong.

If only he faced the justice which might not be as he thought,he would have had a different LIFE and STORY to tell.

That's Life.
18:45 November 6, 2009 by Englishted
"The McCarthy era is not a shining moment in US history" by joesjungle.

I find this a bit of a understatement.

I find this also a bit of a understatement.

It goes with many not so shining moments in U.S. history.

We also have many but ours are longer back in history.
01:13 November 8, 2009 by edwards629
Englishted just be glad america saved your a..sses in ww2, the germans would of walked on you. I always found it funny that in the history books britian always talked of dunkirk like it was their finest moment. But if you read about it you see that it was a massive retreat. All britian has ever been is america's little poodle, when america calls britian comes running with a cute little bark, wondering what the next command is. Then when britian gets out of line line america smacks them in the head, then takes their doggy treat away.
06:10 November 8, 2009 by Aussiefrank
Tho' I don't agree with deserting ones Nation and figure the guy could be called a a moral coward for not standing up for his beliefs. I wonder which was worse, East German Socialism or the Right Wing witch hunts of the McCarthy era which demonized any person whose politics were left leaning. The latter seems to me to be pretty awful given it happened in a land that prided itself on freedom of speech.

Perhaps both the above were mistakes, however Socialism was forced on East Germany, whereas the McCarthy witch hunts were not.
17:47 November 10, 2009 by Chico2001
McCarthy was endorsed by the Communist Party when he ran, which tells you something about how "progressive" they were, as they refused to back Progressive Bull Mooser LaFollette. This was not a witch hunt, or didn't start as one, since there ARE no witches but there clearly were communists -- and this man was one of them. Thank God he didn't have the stomach or courage to wait until he had real information to trade to the East Germans -- or did he? What did he tell them, exactly, to earn their kindness? This man is no different from Lee Harvey Oswald who defected to the USSR, although he ended up coming home. There's a very big difference between "left leaning" politics and the communist statism that resulted in the massacres of Stalin and Mao. Please. Just go read Emma Goldman's book on her disillusionment with the Soviet Union to educate yourselves.
21:22 November 11, 2009 by Jazzineva
It both saddens and angers me to read the ignorance and prejudice of many commenting here. Communist ideals are not intrinsically evil, nor are the people who hold them. Yet since extremists tried to force them on people using a number of evil forceful methods, communism became an enemy. But would all of those despising Victor here be as hateful toward the Chinese or a Chinese American?

On the other side, some of you sound far too young to remember how un-American McCarthy became with his evil methods and Victor had every right to be fearful. He served the vast majority of his enlistment as a loyal soldier and didn't desert when he was really needed. The American values confirmed in the Bill of Rights for which he stood up for were deserted by McCarthy and his followers. It's no wonder Victor was conflicted. I'm really glad he now has the freedom to tell his story which includes truths too many turn a blind eye towards.
09:11 November 13, 2009 by SPQR
Comment removed by The Local for breach of our terms.
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