This Day in Jewish History

1913: A German-born Author Whose Communist Bent Frightened Americans Is Born

Helmut Flieg, aka Stefan Heym, was a decorated warrior for the Allies, yet wound up returning his medals and leaving the U.S.

Marcel Antonisse, Wikimedia Commons

April 10, 1913, is the birthdate of Stefan Heym, the German-born journalist and novelist who fled the Nazis, became and fought as an American citizen in World War II -- and then returned to communist East Germany in the 1950s. He survived the following decades by walking a thin line between the roles of dissident and apologist for the regime.

Stefan Heym was the pseudonym of Helmut Flieg, who was born in Chemnitz, in Saxony. His father was a textile manufacturer. In 1931, Flieg was expelled from his gymnasium in Chemnitz after writing a satirical poem about German militarism that inspired the wrath of local Nazis against him. He moved to Berlin, where he enrolled in university, only to have his studies interrupted again after the burning of the Reichstag in February 1933.

Deciding he’d be safer in Czechoslovakia, Flieg went to Prague, where he wrote for several German-language newspapers, publishing under names that included Stefan Heym.

In 1935, a Jewish student organization at the University of Chicago provided Heym with a scholarship to come and study there. The same year his father committed suicide; the rest of his immediate family met their deaths in Auschwitz.

In 1936, he completed a master’s degree at Chicago, writing a thesis on Heinrich Heine. The following year, he moved to New York, where he served as editor of a weekly German paper affiliated with the American Communist Party. When that paper shut down, he worked as a salesman while writing a novel in English. “Hostages,” published in 1942, was a thriller about the German occupation of Prague; it was well received and turned into a movie by Paramount the next year.

Psychological warrior

Having taken American citizenship, Heym enlisted in the army. He joined the group of German-born young men who were trained at Ritchie Base, in Maryland, to serve as intelligence agents in Europe. He landed with Allied forces at Normandy in 1944, dealt in psychological warfare, and, after the German surrender, worked on “de-Nazification” in Munich, writing texts directed at former soldiers.

That experience served as the basis for the novel “Crusaders,” which, because of some of the unconventional opinions expressed therein, later left him open to accusations of being a communist sympathizer.

Other novels Heym wrote in the 1950s brought him under increasing attack in an America now possessed by a hysterical fear of communism. In 1952, he returned his commission and a Bronze Star to the army, and left the U.S. for Prague, followed, a year later, by East Berlin.

There, he became something of a “loyal opposition” to the communist regime. Writing a column in a Soviet-controlled newspaper, he was able to express opinions on political issues without expecting a knock on the door at any moment, partly because he was always careful not to go too far. When Stalin died, in 1953, he wrote a glowing tribute to him, but as time went on, Heym became more critical, and was pushed to the sidelines.

He wrote many novels, usually in English – several with Jewish themes -- which he would then translate into German. But after he wrote novels about the unsuccessful popular revolts in Germany and Hungary, in 1953 and 1956, respectively, his books stopped seeing publication in his home country, even as they were brought out in the West, and in West Germany.

In 1982, he spoke out in favor of the reunification of Germany. Yet, when reunification came, following 1989, Heym didn’t like what he saw. A socialist to the end, he criticized his fellow East Germans for now behaving like ''a horde pressed belly to back on the hunt for glittering junk'' in West German department stores.

In 1994, at the age of 81, he ran as an independent candidate for the unified Bundestag – which gave him the honor of making the first speech on its opening, only to resign his position a year later, in protest of legislators’ decision to vote themselves a raise in their expense accounts.

Stefan Heym died on December 16, 2001, while attending a conference on Heinrich Heine at a Dead Sea hotel in Israel, after suffering heart failure. He was buried at Berlin’s Weisensee Jewish cemetery.

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