How I Became a German - Jurek Becker's Life in Five Worlds

May 26, 1998

Alois Mertes Memorial Lecture at the GHI | Speaker: Sander L. Gilman (University of Chicago)

On May 26, 1998, Prof. Sander L. Gilman of the University of Chicago presented the GHI's eighth annual Alois Mertes Memorial Lecture, titled "How I Became a German - Jurek Becker's Life in Five Worlds.

Gilman's main scholarly interest was the call for a serious consideration of the reconstitution of Jewish culture in the new Central Europe, in particular the rebirth of Jewish culture in Germany. As part of this enterprise he is now engaged in writing a new biography of Jurek Becker, the novelist, film and television screenwriter, and public intellectual who died on March 14, 1997. Gilman's approach as a critic is self-consciously empathetic, primarily because he was a friend of Becker's. It is also as a Jew himself that Gilman finds Becker's life and work of singular importance as a representation of the diasporic Jew.

Gilman intends to present Becker's life within the context of the multiple histories in which he lived - the history of all the Germanies since 1937, the history of the Jews in Europe, Poland, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), in Berlin, and finally in the (re-)united Germany. It is a cultural history, literary history, and media history of a Jewish concentration camp survivor and author, an Eastern European Jew who held a major position in the culture of both Germanies but who was also a completely secular Polish Jew at home in the new Germany.

Becker's life is the complex tale of how he became a German writer while living in five different worlds. By crossing the border from Poland to Germany in 1945 and from the GDR to West Berlin in 1977, and then from Berlin to the Federal Republic of Germany with the reunification; by exchanging the Polish language for German; and by elegantly moving from film to television to fiction to essay, Becker tells us the story of Germany, of Central European Jews, of the role of culture in defining identity by examining his works and his life - never completely but certainly with a richly detailed narrative.

Becker's first world was the Poland of his birth and early childhood, from 1937 to 1939, a country of increasing political anti-Semitism that threatened the Jewish bourgeois. Multilingual, speaking Polish and Yiddish and even some German and Russian, these were Jews in the process of becoming Poles, as Jews in Germany had become German Jews.

For Jurek the child and for the other Jews in Lodz occupied Poland quickly became the Poland of the ghettos and camps, the second world of his life. The middle-class, Polish-speaking child of Lodz becomes the Jew in the ghetto at Litzmannstadt. What made the Beckers into "Jews," at least according to Jurek's father, was the anti-Semitism of both the Poles and Germans.

Becker's life in the concentration camp, a world of consummate boredom and ultimate fear, is marked by the death (or murder) of his mother. This loss is central to his experience of the post-Shoah world. The missing mother resonates in all his writings. However, he claimed that this existence and experience left no impression. After the death of his mother and the liberation he lost his Polish and Yiddish "mother tongues," the lingua franca of the camps. As an adult Becker retained no memory of the Shoah or of his life prior to 1945.

The forgotten experiences of the past, the silence of his father, and the obsessive discussion of the Shoah in the GDR and the FRG all provided material for his work. Although Becker may not have remembered his experiences or the language in which they were cast, his literary work captured them.

Ironically, in 1945 Becker's father sought safety in Berlin, in a defeated and divided Germany whose shame was inscribed on its national body by its division - like the tattoo on his arm. After all, his father reasoned, "it wasn't the Polish anti-Semites who lost the war." Although Jurek Becker admitted to understanding himself as a Jew, he never felt himself to be a Pole. This was the result of what his father saw as the Polish betrayal of the Enlightenment's promise. Becker's new German identity was created as the antithesis to a Polish identity: For him, as for his father, a secular Jewish, Polish identity represented the God that failed them.

It is with the move to Berlin and Becker's acquisition of the German language that his memories begin. His new language becomes the world that defines him. It is German that became the new mother tongue and the new mother, but it also heightened his awareness of the loss of his past. With no past, a tabula rasa, Becker became the model new German citizen, a good citizen of the GDR.

However, being Jewish in the GDR of the 1950s, particularly during the Stalinist anti-Semitic show trials, was not necessarily something that was seen as positive. It became a public and political sign of "split loyalties" in a world where the demand for a "universal" Marxist identity beyond national and religious definitions permitted only one level of identification, namely, with the new state. The establishment of a new socialist German identity in the GDR was incompatible with a "Zionist" or "Jewish" identity.

A sense of belonging but also of being separate, of being a German but also of being a Jew, marks Becker as a German writer. It is his Jewish identity in Germany that is the underpinning of his sense of what being German and being Jewish was - his attempt to recoup loss through the command of language. This ambiguity of how to be both German and a Jewish is a theme in all of his works.

Based on his experience of alienation, Becker began to write. From the beginning he had the sense that there was a close link between the tragic and the comic and that "tragedy must not always wear a dark suit and comedy a T-shirt." Although Becker took his writing seriously, whether as a novelist of first rank or as a TV screenwriter of broad acceptance, his was not a world of "high culture."

Becker learned to write in the GDR, as he later said, in a world in which writing had a "substitute quality," replacing newspapers and radio and film. It was writing from the margin, writing in code, a task well suited to someone who never felt quite at home in his language, who always sensed his alienation from official literature.

Becker learned to write in the context of the half-spoken and partially overheard. Writing in a dictatorship (even of the proletariat) is difficult but in complex ways rewarding. Writers such as Becker, in his own estimation, had a greater freedom. The struggle with the state censor became a game. But it is greater freedom only within the self-conscious ability to exploit one's status as "Jewish" or "oppositional," as a spokesperson for a marginal position both within and beyond societal self-definitions.

These were heady years, years in which one could truly believe in what one was doing as one helped to build socialism and to guide it in new and positive directions through the act of writing. He initially wrote for the mass media, a sitcom for East German television and several DEFA-films. In 1965 Becker wrote his first serious script for DEFA, titled "Jakob der Lügner." Film seemed the preferable medium to Becker because it was a means of reaching the widest possible audience in a way that was not seen by the government as suspect or perverse. But to make a film in which a self-identified Jew and the murder of Jews stood at the center of the story was deemed politically unacceptable in 1965, and the DEFA and the Ministry of Culture refused to permit the film to be made. Becker turned the script into one of his best novels in 1969.

During 1977 Becker joined other writers of great visibility, such as Stefan Heym and Stephan Hermlin, to protest the official banishment of Wolf Biermann from the GDR. The Stasi spied on Becker, the party member and recipient of national honors, giving him the code name Lügner. The Jew as liar, misfit, and perpetual outsider was the theme that was given voice in the novel. In the secret coven of the Stasi, Becker had become a character in his own work.

In December 1977 Becker finally left the GDR, following Reiner Kunze's expulsion from the Writer's Union. He was given a two-year visa and encouraged to leave for West Berlin; two years later the visa was extended. He continued to renew the visa until the GDR fell.

He did not go into exile, and he never truly left the GDR. He wrote in 1993 that "none of my books deal with the West, still today all of my texts, which I have published, take place in a country that no longer exists, in the GDR.... All my attempts to make my new, unfamiliar home a 'Heimat,' the subject of my books, have been in vain."

It is in the remarkable city of "Westberlin" (according to East German nomenclature), an artificial construct of the Cold War fixed in time, that Becker felt himself most at home. Coming to the "West" in 1977 meant coming to a city in which he could always feel himself only one step away from returning to the GDR. In the middle of the GDR and yet not of it, Berlin was neither fish nor fowl. He called it a "middle thing,a Western, capitalist economy designed by a GDR firm." It was a place for misfits, for deviants. It signified the ability for individual change and growth in spite of the prevailing models of social identity in both the FRG and GDR. It was a virtual city "where one's contradictions are taken most seriously," and Jurek Becker became one of its real inhabitants.

He quickly became one of the major German cinematic writers. He was invited to write the screenplay for the first film about the Shoah in West Germany, David (1979), undertaken by a Jewish writer and a Jewish director (Peter Lilienthal). He completed his trilogy of novels as well as his great novella Die Mauer, all of which are a major literary record of the survival - not the death - of the Jews in Germany, of the reclamation of Jewish culture, no matter how fragmentary and misunderstood. As a screenwriter Becker's impact on the "average" German's understanding of Berlin (or at least of Kreuzberg) was substantial. In 1986-7 he began work on what was to become the most popular German television series ever, Liebling - Kreuzberg, in which his close friend and fellow East German Manfred Krug portrayed a new type of liberal popular hero.

With the fall of the wall he became one of the most articulate spokespeople for a new, kinder, more self-critical Germany. And the man who wrote that he did not know how he had become a Jew came to realize that he stood at the epicenter of new Jewish writing in the new Germany.

The division of Germany seemed a natural one for Becker, as for other German Jews. The question of a new, reunited Germany, of a vanished GDR, was problematic for him. Although he became one of its first chroniclers, he was not convinced of the desirability of, or the need for, reunification.

In a piece first published in the United States, Becker bemoaned the radical shift in the function of literature in the GDR and the FRG. He saw in the imminent reunification of the Germanies a "reunification" of the literature of the new Germany under the banner of the FRG. His critique of the newly reunified Germany found its expression in the film Neuner (1990) and in the nine-part miniseries Wir sind auch nur ein Volk in 1994.

He saw the role of literature of the GDR as not "merely" oppositional but as a space in which ideas could be debated seriously. This function seemed to have disappeared with the end of the GDR. However, the revelation of betrayals among East German authors, many of them his close personal friends who had collaborated with the Stasi, put this benign interpretation into question.

Difference is at the core of Becker's structuring of the world. And here the diasporic imagination becomes a tool in learning to represent productive disparities of awareness. Becker thus is one of the great examples of the resolution of "multiculturalism" in Germany - a Pole and a German, a Jew and an Ostler, a producer of high as well as mass culture - all of which made sense of his unique position.

Raimund Lammersdorf