Interview with Jurek Becker
BROADCAST: 1986 | DURATION: 00:56:17
Interviewing author Jurek Becker.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel "Shall I tell you how I came into a prison in America?" That's the voice of Jurek Becker. He's a novelist that many Americans don't know about yet, but they will to a great extent very soon. One of his novels, I know published in America, is called not--it was called "Jacob the Liar", Harcourt Brace, and there's a forthcoming one called "Bronstein's Children". Should point out that we're seated here, I'm in Berlin, still in Berlin, a very city that has no curfew. It's open all night, Berlin is, and pretty exciting. In West Berlin, I'm talking about now. Now Jurek Becker has been both in East and in West Berlin, and his own story is an incredibly fascinating one too. It's one of survival, as well. But we're in the apartment where you and your wife are right now. And the ceilings are high. I notice this. This is an older part of West Berlin [I see?] so the ceilings are high. So we know it's part of an old tradition that we talked about earlier.
Studs Terkel What I'm thinking is you're here right now, you said something funny. We were telling jokes and everything. You said, "Shall I tell you how I was--how I got in prison in America?" Did you?
Studs Terkel How'd that happen? Now from this we go into your writing and into, for that matter, your--I trust to your childhood, a part of your childhood, and also your father and you. How did you get into prison in America?
Jurek Becker I came to the little crowd and I've seen there in the middle of the people were two policemen and they tried to put on handcuff to a drunk man whom they arrested. And that drunk man didn't like to allow that. And they started to beat him and that--and when I tell you they beat him, it's a big understatement. They broke the nose, they smashed his face, they broke him out some teeth, and the man fell down, and they brought this man to a car, and threw him into the car. And then one of those policemen continued to beat that man. I didn't understand why. And you know, nobody said a word but on the side of me I've seen an old lady and an old man and she caressed at his temples
Jurek Becker Because he was so excited. It looked that he would go to the policemen and to start a fight with them. And I went to the car and I knocked on the back of the policeman who beat the man and he turned his head and I said to him, "I'm from Europe and now I know where the Nazis went. They became policemen in New Orleans." And okay I mean, I'm sure all over the world you get some trouble [laughter] when you tell this--
Jurek Becker Right.
Jurek Becker I'm under arrest. And I asked him why. You know, I've seen how they treated that man. And I was afraid. I can't believe it. I fear that they treat me the same way. And I asked him why I'm arrested. And he didn't give me an answer. He looked at me with the look meant one more question, one more word. It was the only thing I understood. And they opened the car, you know, in the back of the car there was a man behind a gate, and they pushed him to the side and I had to sit beside of him in a puddle of blood. And they closed the door and I was in a little prison, you know in the car. The man was unconscious. After two or three minutes, one of the policemen came into the car in front of the gate--
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Jurek Becker To write out the report. And I had no passport with me. My passport was in hotel. And he asked me for my name, he heard for sure that I'm not an American, and I told I'm from Germany. But I told them I'm from East Germany. And he couldn't believe that, and he called to the other as a policeman, "That's a Commie!" [laughter] It was so funny. And then he asked to me, "What are you doing here in Louisiana? Why are you not in Angola?" Because the Cubans weren't the same time. They had some hanky panky--
Jurek Becker And then he made the report. And he called another car and another [unintelligible]. And another car came and they put me into the other car. The policeman I haven't seen before and the car went away with me. And I asked the new policeman--I was behind a new clean gate now, and I asked him, "Where are we going?" And he told me, "We go to the prison." And I asked him why. And he had a little sheet, you know. He got it from the first both policemen and he looked at the sheet.
Jurek Becker I mean, it was right [laughter]. I interfered with police investigation. This new policeman, it was a kind man. He brought me to the prison of New Orleans, knocked on the door, and other policeman from inside got me and I was in the prison. I came in a very big cell. Is that right? Cell?
Studs Terkel Cell.
Jurek Becker Yeah. Like for such prisoners about they didn't know what to do with them, you know. There were some [legs?]. I was the only white one, and there was a big window to the cover doors, cover door is right?
Studs Terkel Corridor.
Jurek Becker To the corridor. A very thick one. Because the policemen from outside wanted to look what's going on in this cell. And in this cell was a telephone. I never have seen that before in my life. I mean I never been to prison before, but I couldn't imagine how can to be in a cell a telephone? And a little advertisement was about a money lender.
Jurek Becker Right.
Jurek Becker Right.
Studs Terkel [Unintelligible]
Jurek Becker A new guy, a new prisoner. I've seen them coming from outside, and they told to him to put his hands against glass and they controlled if he has any weapon or knife or something. And it was there, between us was just a glass of the window. It was a very thick one, you know. And I looked in his eyes and the policeman from outside ask him something, I don't know what, and he gave an answer. I don't know which one, but probably he was rude. And suddenly I've seen his face fly against the window. And he fell down and they carried him away. Why I tell of this, through this window I've seen policemen beat people, prisoners, how never in my whole life. Never in a movie. Even I have seen their beat female policewomen, beat female prisoners. And what I want to say is, it had nothing to do with racism, nothing. There were Black policemen, white policemen, Black prisoners, white, it has nothing to do with racism. And probably I was a strange case in this cell.
Jurek Becker They didn't know what to do with me. And I was left till late evening, till let's say, 10 or 11. All of the other guys were away, just I was in that cell. And the policeman came and told me "Come on, let's go". And I went away with him and he went along a long corridor with me. And I asked him, "Where are we going?" And he told to me, "I bring you into another cell". I asked him, "How long? How long I have to stay?" I was, in the meantime, I was for about 6 or 7 hours. And he told me, you know, a judge had to--
Jurek Becker Had to decide what's bad. Today is Friday night and the judge comes back on Monday morning. And till Monday you have to stay. And I told him to him, "It's impossible!" And when I said it's impossible, he started to laugh [laughter] in a way that he never heard such a good joke before.
Studs Terkel [Laughter]
Jurek Becker He's bringing me to a cell and I say to him it's impossible. And then he pushed my shoulder and said--he knocked my--and so, "Why? Come on pal, why it's impossible?" And I told him, "You know, I'm a writer and I have to be tomorrow morning in the University of New Mexico." And it was not true, but I had a flight ticket for the next morning. I could show that.
Studs Terkel Mhmm.
Jurek Becker And I told him this problem, and this was my problem, and this was a very nice guy. He brought me back in the first cell and told to me "wait a minute". And then there's any judge he could call or something like that. And he came back one hour later and told to me "you have to pay bail".
Studs Terkel Mhmm.
Jurek Becker "Do you have 60 dollars?" And I had 60 dollars. And I had to sign that I will come back next Wednesday, 10:00 or so, in a special room to a judge. And when I came out of prison, I took a taxi. And I remember this was a night when there was a boxing fight, Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston.
Studs Terkel Bar.
Jurek Becker Right. And a little point for me I remember is when I came back to my hotel, it was about 2:00 in the night. My hotel was close to Bourbon Street and this Bourbon Street is at night a very living place--
Jurek Becker And drugs. So--and I've seen two policemen have any trouble with a person, I don't know what was going on there. And there was some little crowd, some people around them. And I went on the other side of the street you know, not to--
Studs Terkel I
Studs Terkel Yeah
Jurek Becker Right. And I asked men I knew in the U.S. Embassy here in Berlin, a consulate, what can happen to me when I come back to America. And this guy wrote a letter to Department of Justice or something like that in Louisiana and he told to me weeks later that I was sentenced. Is that right?
Studs Terkel Sentenced.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Jurek Becker There were two witnesses, the both policeman, who told what they were asked and I didn't come there. I mean, to prove for my guiltiness. And there are--that's the way he explained to me. There are three sorts of punishments. City, no no, town or city?
Mrs. Becker Municipal.
Jurek Becker Then the state and their federal. And this was the smallest sort which means I could be arrested when I come back to New Orleans. Not to New York or not to--but New Orleans is a dangerous place I think too now for me.
Studs Terkel Two things come out of that story. One, you say you learned your lesson because see, right then and there you say something. People stay away from things. If somebody's beating someone up, an authority, don't get involved! You learned not to get involved.
Jurek Becker [Laughter]
Studs Terkel I wouldn't have stirred. See, this is why you are a writer. You noticed that other thing that other people might not notice. Now you also said East Germany, you said to the cop. So we go back to Jurek Becker at the beginnings, don't we? Here you are in West Berlin. And so your novels, I know some deal with the very beginnings because you happen to be a survivor, a 7-year-old kid coming out of Sachsenhausen and--
Jurek Becker Ravensbruck.
Studs Terkel Ravensbruck.
Jurek Becker And now, a very strange thing about it is I'm not just a survivor. I'm a German writer, and when I was 7 years old I couldn't speak any word in German. Which means I'm a writer in a language which is not my language. I lost my own language in the meantime. My first language was Polish.
Jurek Becker Right. And I was two years later--two years older than all other kids and I couldn't speak. I mean, this was a proof that I'm an idiot. And the only way to went out of this terrible situation was for me to handle very intensive, to work very hard about language, about learning the language. And maybe I got from this time very, very close relation to language because it was important for me in a situation where language is not important for normal people. I have no idea why I became with such difficult circumstances for starting a writer. One day I read a story about an Australian swimmer. His name was John Konrads. And when he was Olympic gold medal winner in swimming, 1500 metres. And I read when he was a kid, he had polio [voice in background] and he had paralyzed legs. And the doctor told to his parents your son has to swim. And this guy became Olympic winner in swimming.
Studs Terkel Mhmm.
Studs Terkel He started out of adversity. So transcending adversity led to something else, not just learning a language as a kid without the difficulty, but language had that added element of something else. Some drama, urgency, whatever it was. So the words coming so hard to you as they did at the beginning, the words had a special meaning to you, too.
Jurek Becker Another thing was my father was not a very good teacher I think. But he was a very patient teacher. And he stopped from one day to the other to speak with me Polish and he--because he wanted that I learn as soon as possible German. But the problem was he couldn't speak good German. He spoke in a terrible way German. And he was my first German teacher. But he read with me books he found together with me and I repeated. I was 7, 8 years old, and he read with me Thomas Mann and Dostoyevsky in the German translation, and Edgar Wallace and Edgar Allan Poe and Agatha Christie [laughing], everything!
Jurek Becker Everything
Jurek Becker A big mash of literature, and maybe I understood. I couldn't understood in the same way. I didn't understood Agatha Christie, I didn't understood Dostoyevsky. But I think it can be great for kids to read literature you don't understand because there's the rest a mystery and literature for me was from the beginning a great mystery I was interested in.
Studs Terkel You know what you're offering right now? A marvelous lesson in learning to read. Not just learning to read C-A-T spells cat, or Jane is a girl [water pouring], and Dick is a boy, and Fido was a dog, something else. The urgency. And reading great literature, though mysterious, the urgency to discover, to cut through that mystery. Do you know the Brazilian educator named Paolo Freire? Paolo Freire is a Brazilian teacher, reading, and they use him a lot in Nicaragua and in Cuba. So that raises a question right there. They do and then--he teaches reading through words that have a meaning of urgency. Words like hunger [phone ringing], fight, survive, and so the words are part of the very lives and being! So in a different way, you were learning that too. [pause in recording] Now, you and your father were just about the only survivors, and an aunt of a large family.
Jurek Becker Of my family, that's right. I had no sisters, no brothers. My mother died in the concentration camp and a lot of uncles and aunts and grandparents. I told you I was born in Poland, and after the war my father stayed with me in Berlin. I never found out why. He could go with me to, let's say, to America. He could go to Argentina, he could go to Israel, to Australia. I could become an Australian. I could grow up in Brooklyn. To grow up in Brooklyn was more probable for me than to grow up in Berlin. And every time when I asked him "Why did you stay in Berlin? Why did you stay in Germany?" Either he didn't give me an answer or he made jokes about it. But sometimes he made, it seemed to me, very serious jokes, you know. For example he told, "When you don't know any place where you want to be, then you can stay in the place you are." Another time he told me, you know, the losers of the war where the German anti-Semites, not the Polish anti-Semites. That was explanation why he didn't go back to Poland, you know.
Jurek Becker I think my father was an intelligent, simple man. He was a merchant. The reason he never mentioned for staying in Berlin, but I think that the most probable reason, is all people he knew in Poland were dead. There were no survivors. Most of his friends who were still alive he'd met for the first time in the concentration camp and a lot of them were in Berlin. A lot of them were in Germany. [clearing throat] They came out of the concentration camp together with him.
Jurek Becker Some of them in East Berlin, some of them in West Berlin. It was a short time after the war, was sort of one city. But another reason why my father stayed in Germany and Berlin I think, he was so tired. You know, when you come from a camp, from such a camp, you are too tired to move a lot I think.
Studs Terkel Exhausted.
Jurek Becker It was not a mental torture for me. It was a physical torture, but I could forget it much more easy than he could. And the strange thing is, after two years, two years after the concentration camp, I lost my memories. To this day, I really cannot tell what was going on there and when I tried to speak about it, I'm sure I tell you what I read about it, not what I really remember. And that's why I had problems to speak with my father about this time because I feared that he tells me also what he read about. He tells me the stories I could hear everywhere. I could hear in the books and the TV. It seemed to me, I suspected, that this weren't original stories, it was fiction. I've--
Jurek Becker It's blacked out, but I think [voice in background] it has not just to do with avoiding. I repeat, I was a very small child. I was 3, 4, 5, and 6 years old. And you know, there haven't nothing to remember. One day was like the other one. Nobody talked to me. Nobody showed me the world. Nobody explained to me something. I was alive, but it was a sort of death, you know. The days were grey and there were no mountains and hills in the landscape of days. There was nothing to remember I think. And that's why I don't remember.
Studs Terkel So I'm thinking, you and your father. Now you didn't--you and your father were in different camps. I mean, you didn't know or meet your father till you were released. Is that right? You didn't meet him till you were 7 years old?
Jurek Becker No. When I was born, in the year '37 in Lodz. The Germans came in, I think, end of '39. Yeah. And the ghetto of Lodz was founded in beginning of '40. And I was with my parents, with my mother and my father, in this ghetto together till '42. Wait a minute--till '43. Then my mother and me, we came away into the concentration camp of Ravensbruck. My father was still in the ghetto because all men who could work, they need them for many reasons. They used them.
Studs Terkel Nazis.
Jurek Becker And this Ravensbruck was a camp just for women and kids. And my mother--then we came. I didn't know what happened with my father. We came in the year '44 to another concentration camp into Sachsenhausen where we were freed by the Russian army. And my father--I didn't know that, I heard that after the war, was in the meantime in Auschwitz. And he was freed in Auschwitz. And he found me with the help of an American organization. It was called UNRA, U-N-R-A.
Studs Terkel UNRA.
Jurek Becker And he didn't--he had big problems to recognize me, you know. He didn't see me for two years and I can't imagine how ugly people became in this time! He recognized me, I have here on my head, I have a red point. And this was the mark he recognized. My mother died two or three days after the war. And the first remembrance I have after the war is I laid in the bed, and this beds were double, you know--
Studs Terkel Bunks.
Mrs. Becker Bunks.
Studs Terkel Nurse.
Mrs. Becker Rough
Jurek Becker He beat the nurse. That is my first remembrance after the war because maybe in his eyes it was a sort of continuing the life of con--maybe he feared she was before in the concentration. I don't know that.
Studs Terkel Indelible memories that stick out, violence. On that very subject, we're talking to Jurek Becker, a quite remarkable novelist. In one of your books, or perhaps it is the forthcoming one, an English translation, isn't there an analogous situation where someone is visiting the woman whom he lives with? Or he's going to visit this woman and he sees his father and several others beating up a guy?
Jurek Becker It's "The Boxer". It's not translated into English. There is a scene that a man who is coming from a concentration camp is finding his son, but he's not sure if it's his son or not. This boy in the book has not such a mark on his head. And that's sort of the lottery, you know. The man thinks they can give me any kid and I have to believe that's my kid. Because till today there's a rest of unsureness, is that right?
Studs Terkel Uncertainty.
Studs Terkel Which leads to another question. I think this appears in many pieces about you. Pieces, more and more being written about Jurek Becker now. I'm sure in American literary sections and quarterlies and magazines it will be appearing. You and your father, now you never asked him. Somewhere in one of your conversations you speak of notebooks you kept, questions you planned to ask your father but never got around to asking and probably never would have asked him. That became a sort of wall, did it not, between you and your father?
Studs Terkel Memory.
Studs Terkel Communicate.
Jurek Becker We could communicate about present things, but he felt--how shall I explain? He felt attacked when I tried to ask him "tell me what was going on there." You have to understand, when he spoke about these old times, he spoke about the death of his wife, about the death of his friends, and he was always moved in a way I couldn't understand. It was ridiculous for me. I--when I asked him, "Tell me when we moved from this street to this street." And he started to cry. And I started to fear to speak with him about this material. Perhaps it's interesting for you. My first book I wrote was a sort of comedy about the Jewish ghetto. It was "Jacob the Liar". And my father was so angry about this book that he didn't speak with me for two years. My father had a sort of a button. And when you push this button, the tears came into his eyes. And I have no such a button. And I think my readers have not such a button too. And my father was a person, he was sure when you start to speak about such terrible things, everybody has to be moved. And he couldn't understand how anybody could be boarded about that. And I was boarded, is that right?
Studs Terkel Bored.
Jurek Becker Bored.
Studs Terkel Bored.
Jurek Becker Bored, "gelangweilt". He couldn't understand how anybody could bored about that. And he told to me about this "Jacob the Liar", you can cheat this stupid public. They don't know the truth. I know it. And I told them, "Why shall I tell stories for the witnesses? I have to tell stories for the others." The witnesses don't need any stories about--
Mrs. Becker His
Jurek Becker A trivial invasion in a very serious part of history. [pause in recording] I will tell you a strange little story I experienced some days ago. Two, three months ago I published a new book, it was called "Bronstein's Kids", and I had a lecture tour with Bronstein's children. And I had a reading in Hamburg, in the university. And we spoke about how literature affects, is
Mrs. Becker Mhmm.
Jurek Becker But I don't like to read opinions of the author, and I don't like to write opinions in the hope that the reader takes my opinion and makes it to his own. It doesn't work. And I told an example, some months ago, I've seen the movie in the TV. It was called "Witnesses". In this movie, survivors of Auschwitz told their reported experiences. And some of them were very moved when they remembered Auschwitz. And they told the most terrible things I could imagine. And I was sitting before the TV set and I thought, how boring. And it was for me a terrible experience too. And I asked myself, "What shall I do? I'm bored. What shall I do? Shall I lie and shall I tell it? I'm very, very interested in that." And I told it. And there was old man, an old man like my father, and he was so angry. And he started a big speech. He attacked me. And his theory was, it's enough to tell the truth. The truth is the only thing which affects. And you know what had happened there? There were, let's say, 600 people. And he told and told and told, and after two minutes I was the only one who heard what he said. All others, they had small talks. They drank coffee. They ate the sandwiches they brought. And it didn't interest him. He spoke and spoke and spoke and spoke, and the situation was the proof that he was not right. You know? But he didn't watch it. He was not interested in that. And this was his situation. I remembered the trouble I had with my father about my first book. It was, for me, the same situation.
Studs Terkel You know, as you're saying this, again a couple things come to mind. I saw "Shoah" in Chicago. And there's an intermission. Two nights it was, it was nine hours, but the intermission each time. And during the first intermission, or maybe it was the second intermission of the second night, hours of it. What do you think people talked about? How did the Bears do tonight? The Chicago Bears, which of course supports your point. Is the truth--now you come to the big--here comes to you now, the novelist. Here's you, Jurek Becker, the creative spirit. So it's something beyond truth, isn't it? That truth is not enough. That's what you were saying. And the old man was bawling you out and he were proving your point by the others walking away.
Studs Terkel It's
Studs Terkel That's it. I know that you have other things do, and I don't want to hold you, but I know you've got a million more things to say. I just really want to say to the listeners that soon we hope "Bronsteins's Children", which would be getting rave reviews here. All of your books will be Harcourt Brace published in the United States, read by people. But you're in West Berlin now. You said--when you told those cops in New Orleans you're from East Germany, you did. So I suppose the obvious question is the two Berlins, since you experienced both Berlins.
Studs Terkel Mhmm,
Jurek Becker But it's not difficult to get some troubles in West Berlin too. But the consequences of the troubles are not that big. I'm still interested, what's going on in the East, much more till today than I'm interested in what's going on here. I see that news from the East are more thrilling for me till today.
Jurek Becker Yeah. I cannot explain why it's working that way. Maybe it has to do with my education? I studied philosophy and I studied Marxistic philosophy. And what's going on in the society, it's pretty important for me. And I cannot imagine the sort of life, making a lot of money, and buying a lot of things, and make junk of them, and make new money. I tried it, but it's a terrible one. And when I don't like it about other people, I don't like it about myself too. I'm a political engaged person since I'm 10 years old. My father made me that way probably. I was in East Germany a member of the Communist Party till they expelled me out.
Jurek Becker I'm sorry, till I was expelled for a big, big lot of troubles. But you know, I cannot say, "That's it. I have nothing to do more with this material." And when the troubles in the East are behind me, some troubles in the West are very close to me. And I tried to be--I tried to continue my interest.
Studs Terkel So you span both. In a sense your interests span both societies. And I'm not going to use that phrase "marginal man" because that's not quite it either. And yet you being a writer, and creative, you said you're attracted by the East, even more [than North?]. Is it because the tensions itself becomes [a prod?], becomes an impulse that further helps you explore whatever it is you're trying to do?
Jurek Becker I'm a splitted person. The one part of me is a human being. The other part of me is a writer. As a writer I have more difficulties than as a human being. I can just write books when I'm convinced that they are important. If it's not, I can make anything else. I can write TV series, I can go jobbing. And while I lived in the East, it was not so difficult to get desperate, to get this confession that what I'm doing is important. I think in the East, writers are much more important persons than in the West. That's the reason why the party is controlling them that hard way. Because what they are writing has follows. You know, when you are, let's say a carpenter, and you finished to build a desk. That's no question for you what you are doing then. You make a new one. You make a new desk. Why? You are a carpenter. When you are a writer and you have finished a book, it's not a good reason to write the next book because you are a writer. You need a better reason. And to find this better reason, it's becoming for me more and more difficult. When I'm starting a book, which means when I'm starting to sit down on my desk for two years, I have to be confessed that the race of human being needs it. Otherwise it will be poorer. And in the meantime, I cannot believe it, you know. And in the West, for me, it's much more difficult to find this confession.
Studs Terkel No, you know something? Someone said--who was it? The writer [said thing what?]. Why poetry? A lot of poets are repressed out east. But thousands attend the poet readings of the young, or there's the [unintelligible] underground, whereas in the West, poetry is absolutely free. Write anything you want, but it's wholly unimportant and few attend. This is another way of saying what you've been saying a moment ago. The very kind of prediction.
Jurek Becker See, and other thing very close to it. It's in East Germany. The people are very interested in informations, and it's very difficult to get them. Here in the West, it's very easy to get informations, but nobody is interested in
Studs Terkel We're talking about the battle against trivia to some extent too. This is an hour that to me has been non-trivial and highly provocative. You've raised points that I've hardly heard raised before. The challenge is to a writer but to a being, as well, living in this crazy time. And so the obvious question to ask you, Jurek Becker, right now, who's novel "Bronstein's Children" will soon be published in the United States and will cause a much of a stir as it does here. I'm certain. And we hope some of the other books too. Any--well first of all, to thank you and your good wife for the excellent everything, hospitality, food, and conversation. Anything we haven't talked about that you feel like saying as a postscript, as an epilogue to the conversation?
Jurek Becker What I want to say--when it's an opportunity to say something to an American public, the most important thing to me since I was sometimes in America, and I had lost a lot of good feelings about America. And watching the politics in America, I forgot them all, I mean the good feelings. And I hope it's changing very soon.