A Trip To East Germany

    As I mentioned in my essay on Micscape titled "Mantids, Stick Insects, and Centipedes", I was in Berlin preparing to go into Weimar in East Germany to do research.  My research was on the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche.  However, before leaving West Berlin, I spent several days communing with the animals in the Zoological Gardens.  I was heading to Weimar on a grant to work in the Nietzsche Archives which was under the aegis of an enterprise for which only the Germans could have concocted such a lumbering name--Die Nationale Forschungs-und Gedaenkstette der klassischen Deutschen Literatur in Weimar, know, for short as the NFG.  I had a travel grant through the International Research and Exchange Commission and a Goethe research stipend from the East German Ministry of Culture.  How this all came about is a tale so tedious that it is fit only for my unauthorized autobiography which I intend to write posthumously.

    I do, however, need to tell you this:  the travel grant was official only 5 days before I was to leave and, at that time, mail between Weimar and Laramie was taking 3 or 4 weeks.  So, it seemed to me that a letter informing the people at the institute of my arrival was not only unnecessary, but superflous.  Ah, the best laid plans of mice and academics.  Having been to other parts of Germany, but not Berlin, I decided to give myself a few days to recover from the flight and explore West Berlin.  I went to museums, the Charolottenburg Castle, wandered along the Kurfuerstendamm, drank splendid German beer and ate marvelous sausages.  After a few days, I decided it was time to cross over into East Berlin and head down to Weimar.  I packed my one suitcase and a small briefcase and headed for East Berlin to the address I had been given on Friedrichstrasse.  When I arrived in West Berlin, I called the American Consulate to confirm the address which I had been given by the State Department before I left the U.S.  It was the same, which was very convenient, since Friedrichstrasse was a major station of the underground crossing from West to East.  So, I went along to the address I had been given expecting to have visa in hand that morning and be on my way to Weimar by electric train that afternoon.  Ah, how naive and trusting I was in those days.  After more than 30 years, I don't remember the exact street number, but let's say it was #44--somehow that seems right.  Well, when I got there, there was nothing that looked remotely official enough to issue visas to visiting capitalist researchers and then I noticed a travel agency on the second floor.  I went up and there found an American couple in their 30s who were trying to communicate with a young woman in her 20s.  She spoke no English and the Americans spoke no German. Fortunately, at the time, I was reasonably fluent in German and I asked the young woman if she could make a telephone call and find out where the visa office was.  She went into another room to make the call. When she returned , she looked rather nervous and quickly told me that the the visa office was in the Police Presidium on the Hans Beimlerstrasse. This was a considerable distance from the Friedrichstrasse and I was now convinced that the American authorities didn't want any of us going into East Germany.  The American consulate had given the American couple the same misinformation which they gave me.  I explained the situation to them and they kindly offered to pay for a taxi if I would act as interpreter to help them get their visas. I gladly agreed and eventually they had the documents they needed to travel to Dresden for a week.  I say eventually, because the East German bureaucracy rivaled the old Austro-Hungarian Empire in terms of Kafkaesque cumbersomeness.  Even East German citizens had to go through the ponderous rigamarole of reserving transport, hotels, sightseeing tours, in advance and pay for them in advance. 

    Finally it was my turn.  I explained to an official that I had an invitation from the NFG to do research in the archives in Weimar.  He returned after about 20 minutes and told me that the papers from Weimar had not yet arrived, which meant I had to be back in West Berlin by midnight. There were lots of things to see--The Alexanderplatz, several fine museums and parks, but I was concerned about getting back to West Berlin to find a hotel room.  Fortunately, the hotel where I had been staying still had a vacancy.  I didn't at all mind spending a few more days in West Berlin and spent the time in the Zoological Gardens and went to a wonderful museum in Dahlem, a suburb of Berlin. It contained not only fine paintings, but anthropological artifacts, such as large Polynesian canoes, and then there was a small room with case after case of jade carvings.  It was the first time I had ever seen the exquisite Burmese lavender jade which creates the illusion of being illuminated from within the stone itself. After three days, I began to get restless, so I packed my things, went to the border, converted some money, went through customs (more accurately, customs when through all my stuff), and headed for the Police Presidium.  By the way, each time one went through customs going in, you had to convert some money and buy at least 5 East German marks which it was wisest to spend.  You couldn't convert them back and you couldn't take them back out with you which was OK because that money was worthless outside of East Germany anyway.  Nonetheless, a nice little gimmick to give a small boost to the economy. Also I quickly learned that when in the East, one didn't say East Germany or East Berlin--it was Germany and Berlin!  At the Police Presidium:--No, the papers have not yet arrived from Weimar.  Back over to the the West by midnight. I was begining to get annoyed and discouraged.  I started to leave and the stopped suddenly.  I was very irritated with myself.  Why had I been so stupid?  Traveling back and forth across the border, wasting time, money, and energy. I went back to the official I had spoken with and asked for the telephone number there at the visa office.  How shortsighted I had been!  Now I could simply wait a few days and then call and find out when the papers arrived.  Much cheered, I returned to the hotel in West Berlin.  ( I had warned them that I might return.)  I went out and treated myself to a nice dinner and a couple of glasses of wine.  The next 2 days, I spent much of my time at the Zoological Gardens which was as restful as it was enlightening.  The third day I got up, took a long walk, and then in the mid-morning placed a call through the hotel operator to the visa office in East Berlin.  Fortunately, the hotel had a bar--it took 7 hours to get the call through! I later discovered that at that time there were only 14 telephone lines between East and West Berlin for public use. The papers had still not arrived. The next morning, I was filled with that fragile courage (bravado) that is fueled by anger.  As I exited the Friedrichstrasse station, my ire quickly dissipated.  The streets were full of Russian soldiers with submachine guns.  The East Germans were having a Party Congress.  At the Police Presidium--still no papers--I found a sympathetic official who told me he would give me an overnight visa to Weimar and then the next day I could go to the police in Weimar and get the visa extended for the duration of my stay.  Finally, some sanity.  I took an electrified train to Weimar which traveled so fast that I expected it would jump the track at any moment; however, I arrived safely, got a taxi, and said to the driver that I want to go to the main offices for the NFG.  He shrugged and said he had never heard of such an institute.  I tried explaining it to him, but he just shrugged again.  I began to suspect that he was working for the American Consulate.  Then I suddenly remembered that the offices were in the Castle--more shades of Kafka.  The Castle is in the center of Weimar and there indeed were the offices of the NFG.  I showed my letter of invitation to a secretary and was informed that Professor Holtzhauer was out of the country on vacation. My heart sank.  However, she told me not to worry, she would call Dr. Henning, the Director oftheCentral Library and Acting Director of the NGF in Professor Holtzhauer's absence. Dr. Henning, a tall, stylish man in his late 40s or early 50s, appeared in about half an hour, found me a room at the Hotel Elephant, and told me he would meet me at 9:00 the next morning to take me to the police station to settle the visa problem.  (I never did learn how the hotel got its name.)  I slept well and the next morning set off enthusiastically to get the bureaucratic nonsense out of the way so that I could settle into doing my research. The police official was cordial and attentive (I suspect because of Dr. Henning's status) and he listened patiently. When we had finished, he said:  "I'm very sorry.  Visas can only be issued in Berlin (East Berlin)."  Turning to me, he said, "You will have to be back in the West by midnight."

    ARGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!  Dr. Henning explained that the NGF had not yet sent the necessary papers to the visa office in East Berlin, because they didn't know when I was arriving.  I explained to him that I had received the travel grant confirmation only 5 days before I had left and that even if I had sent a letter at that time, he still would not yet have received it.  He assured me that the papers would be sent out that afternoon and took me to the train station for my return trip to Berlin. By now, I had become a familiar figure at the hotel and fortunately they did still have a room.

    I spent 2 more days wandering and exploring and then I got restless and irritable, packed my belongings and headed for the visa office again.  The papers had not yet arrived! By this time discretion had flown and I lost my temper.  I shouted at the official and told him that I had an official invitation from the East German Ministry of Culture and insisted that he call them immediately.  Evidently the papers had been sent directly to the Ministry, for 15 mintues later, I had a virtually unrestricted visa and I didn't have to make any reservations or pay in advance for any accommodations.  At last I was on my way to spend my time wandering around a city where so many important and famous peole had lived and worked--Goethe, Schiller, Franz Liszt, Herder, Lucas Cranach, Nietzsche and even Bach, Rilke and Thomas Mann had resided ther briefly.  Under the jurisdiction of the NFG were castles, archives, libraries, museums, parks, the Goethe house and museum, The Schiller house, and the Franz Lizt Academy of Music. 

The Goethe-Schiller Archive houses over a million pages of original manuscripts and not just those of Goethe and Schiller, but many of Liszt's compositions, the works and letters of Nietzsche, etc.  I was awarded a Goethe stipend to support my work.  The amount was 1,900 East German marks; my accommodations were in the old Nietzsche Villa Silberblick which had been remodeled for visiting scholars.  I had a plain, but pleasant room which looked out over the drive and wrought-iron gates onto the steep cobblestone street.  The rent for the period of my stay was 90 marks.  So, I had 1,810 East German marks which I had to spend since it was illegal to convert them or take them out of the country as I mentioned before. [To be continued]