The South African Star 10.07.2009
The other side of the Iron Curtain
John Tarver had just come out of a regular meeting with his officer in communist East Germany's Stasi secret service when the Berlin Wall came down. But the Briton had no desire to cross to the other side.
Neither did Ingeborg Rapoport, a German doctor who had moved from the US to the German Democratic Republic (GDR) when McCarthyism swept through America.
They were among a handful of Western communists who chose a life on the other side of the Iron Curtain, even though many East Germans dreamt of living in the West and hundreds died trying to escape.
Twenty years after the fall of the Wall, Rapoport, Tarver and others feel nostalgia - tinged for some with regret - for the GDR, arguing that modern society can learn from East Germany.
"There was much more friendship then," recalls Rapoport, 96, over tea at her home in former East Berlin. "That's something precious I will never forget. I'm homesick for the GDR."
Most of those who emigrated were communists: some were following the trail of Kim Philby, a British spy who served as a double agent for the Soviet Union; others came for personal or family reasons or seeking refuge from McCarthyism.
Tarver was no Philby, but his commitment to the communist cause had brought him into contact with the Stasi, which was how he came to be reporting to his officer in late 1989 in a safe house in East Berlin even as the Wall was cracking open.
"When I came out I went to the next pub, which I always did, and it had happened," the 79-year-old recalls. "People were saying: 'Yeah, we can go over now!'"
He didn't rush to join them because his British passport had allowed him to travel regularly to West Berlin since moving to East Germany in 1976.
He had a job in education, like most of the British immigrants attracted to the country despite the one-party government's repressive policies.
Most Westerners arrived from Austria and Switzerland. Some were communists, others had worked at institutions in Soviet-occupied Austria that were later closed. Many were scientists and medics whose expertise the GDR needed.
Rapoport, a paediatrician, was one of them. Born in 1912 in the former German colony of Cameroon, she grew up in Hamburg and studied medicine but emigrated to the US in 1938 because the Nazis wouldn't let her complete her studies. Her family has Jewish roots and the horrors of fascism turned her towards communism.
"I was quite religious when I was younger but I saw that after 2.000 years, injustice had not been done away with in society. So I looked for something else," says Rapoport.
In the US she met her husband, Samuel, also a European Jewish émigré and prominent physician - and a fellow communist. Soon they found themselves targets of the crackdown on communist influence spearheaded by Senator Joseph McCarthy.
They moved to Zurich and then to Vienna, before settling in East Germany in the early 1950s. For Rapoport, life in the GDR fulfilled many of the communist ideals that she still holds.
"I still think it was the best society I have seen, despite its faults," she says. "I saw the Weimar Republic, then fascism - obviously that was not the best - and then the States. I love the States - I would never have left without McCarthy - but I think the GDR in many respects was even better."
She recalls the GDR cradle-to-grave medical system: "The dedication of the physicians towards their patients was untouched by money."
Rapoport had the advantage of coming from a German family and being a sought-after doctor. But American and British emigrants did not generally enjoy success, with a few exceptions.
Dean Reed, an American singer and actor, moved to the GDR in 1973 and enjoyed fame as Der Rote Elvis (Red Elvis); Briton Diana Loeser was a household name as a TV presenter.
"Apart from Reed and Loeser, no other English-speaking person was very popular in East Germany," says Mario Kessler, history professor at the University of Potsdam, who grew up in the GDR. "They were viewed with some suspicion."
Tarver recalls how the East German authorities were worried about many of the Britons who came to the GDR: "They were afraid, and rightly afraid, that these people might become poles of dissent."
Wasn't he an undercover fermenter of dissent? "Absolutely not. I was 100 percent true to the party line," he says, adding: "I'm not unashamed of that now."
Born into a middle-class family, Tarver joined the British Communist Party on his 18th birthday in 1948 because he felt the Soviet Union had made the most effective resistance to fascism.
He worked as a party activist in Britain and made several trips to the GDR where he "met a number of interesting women".
"One was ready to marry me," Tarver recalls. "And so the deal was done, so to speak: I would get a job at Potsdam university - a good job really, as head of the final year of studies in the English language."
His 18 years' work as a communist party organiser set him apart from other Britons in the GDR and he became an informer for the Stasi, seen in the West as one of the most repressive police and secret service organisations in the world.
"I signed on the dotted line for them," he says, explaining that he thought the authorities knew how best to promote communism. "I had to report on the activities of my fellow citizens."
As well as keeping tabs on other Westerners, Tarver was sent to report on West Berlin and asked to glean information from the British authorities - a project that proved farcical. "It got to the stage where I invited a guy at the British embassy to have lunch with me and my wife," he recalls. "But he didn't show up."
A GDR secretary working at the British embassy in East Berlin says officials had found out that Tarver, because of his communist background in England as a party organiser, was "classified as a dangerous and devious operator".
"I love that! I will have it engraved on my tombstone," he says with a laugh. "I'm not an adventurous type. I try to avoid danger."
He now regrets supporting communism with such zeal: "It's a scar on my mind," he says, adding that he has gone back to his Catholic roots. "I'm unhappy without a strong belief system. For a year or two, after the collapse of socialism here, I didn't have it. But I found my way back to the Church."
But for Joel Agee, who grew up in the GDR after moving there when he was eight with his American mother and German stepfather, East Germany was mainly a place to leave.
"I was basically an artistic and rather dreamy boy and this was an extremely pragmatic society that was training its young people to become useful citizens... It simply didn't appeal to me," he says.
He left in 1960 aged 20 and has made a living as a translator and writer in New York, writing books including Twelve Years: An American Boyhood in East Germany.
Agee turned from believing in to resenting the GDR system.
"I believed without question for a long time in the rightness and nobility of the ideological aims of the system, because my parents did. And then questions arose."
He did some reading about the Soviet bloc when he moved to New York that opened his mind to communism's dark side. "For a few years, looking back, I felt a real repugnance for the way the natural idealism of young people was exploited and harnessed to the aims of the state," says Agee, now 69.
Rapoport had been travelling when the Wall fell. She had just returned to East Berlin from Hiroshima, Japan, as part of a group travelling with the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.
"I knew it was the end of the GDR, and therefore I was sad," she says, but adds with conviction: "In the future, I think they will think about us quite differently from how they do now." - Reuters