Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A Man of His Own

One does not often hear of a decorated soldier from the United States army choosing to move to the German Democratic Party (East Germany under Communist rule). Stefan Heym, however, did just that after he returned his army commission and bronze star as a means of protesting U.S. involvement in the Korean War. 

Heym, whose real name was Helmut Fleig (Heym being his pen name), was actually a native of Germany. Born in April 1913 in Chemintz, he came to America in 1935 on a scholarship from Phi Sigma Delta, a University of Chicago Jewish student organization. Heym had begun his degree in Berlin, but fled to Czechozlovakia when the Reichstag was burned in 1933. 

After completing his degree, Heym moved to New York, where he worked on a communist-aligned German language paper. When the paper closed, he freelanced and wrote his first novel, Hostages (which was made into a movie). In 1943, Heym became a member of the Ritchie Boys, the U.S. army’s intelligence and psychological warfare unit. Discharged in 1945, he continued to write until leaving the country.

While the political situation in East Germany was tenuous, Heym managed to be both opponent and supporter of the regime. He was a prolific author and, in addition to essays and newspaper columns, published numerous novels, most of which he wrote in English and then translated into German. Jewish themes were prominent in several of his novels, such as The Wandering Jew and The Lenz Papers.

A supporter of reunification even before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Heym was a staunch socialist. In 1994 (at the age of 81!), he was elected as an independent representative to the Bundestag (German Parliament), only to resign later in protest of increased expense accounts for legislators.

On December 16, 2001, while attending a conference in Israel on the poet Heinrich Heine (about whom he had written his Masters thesis),  Heym suffered a fatal heart attack. 

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