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Journal of American Folklore 116.460 (2003) 238-240
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Von West nach Ost—und zurück: Autobiographisches eines Grenzgängers zwischen Tradition und Novation. (From the West to the East—and Back Again: Autobiography of a Boundary Wanderer.) By Wolfgang Jacobeit. (Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot, 2000. Pp. 298, name index, black-and-white photos.)
On New Year's Eve 1955 a young folklorist named Wolfgang Jacobeit boarded the interzone train in Göttingen (Federal Republic of Germany) and traveled to East Berlin (German Democratic Republic) where he began his career in the Academy of Sciences. Forty-two years later, after an entire career in the Academy, more years as the director of the Folklore Museum in East Berlin, and six years as professor for Volkskunde at the Humboldt Universität, emeritus Jacobeit began to write his autobiography in a reunified Germany. The book has set a flood of reviews in motion in Germany and Austria, in the daily press, on-line, and in professional journals. Jacobeit's autobiographical writings belong to a new series of publications [End Page 238] in which former citizens of the GDR write accounts, and in some cases justifications (Rechtfertigungen), for their life and work in that country.
Wolfgang Jacobeit's move to the socialist state of East Germany occurred at the time when large numbers of Germans were forsaking their traditional home regions and moving in the other direction, to the West. It was only two and a half years after the June 17, 1953, uprising in East Berlin; it was the time of the twentieth Communist Party Congress when Khrushchev denounced Stalin; and it was only shortly before the uprising in Budapest. Still, Jacobeit was not alone in his trek to the East; one need only mention the playwright Bertold Brecht or the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch. Jacobeit's autobiography is more of an accounting than a justifying of his decision, although he does address the matter in some places. These are both the most intriguing and the most difficult passages to grasp.
During his university years in Königsberg, Jacobeit studied with one of the well-known figures of folklore, Walter Anderson. The young Jacobeit spent the war years as a radio operator, being moved about frequently in the Reich. It is to his credit that he says, as radio operators "we knew . . . about the facts of NS [National Socialist] crimes, about concentration camps, etc." Postwar years brought him to Göttingen, where he studied with Will Erich Peuckert and met many of the young folklorists who were to become the leaders of postwar German Volkskunde. During this time he worked for the Mission Française de Recherches exhuming bodies of Nazi crimes. Descriptions of postwar Germany are fascinating, especially for those who remember the time: pawnshops, professors selling family heirlooms, black-market dealings on the street, and more.
Chapter 6 is the most interesting because it offers insight into Wolfgang Jacobeit's decision to board that train to the East. He attributes his decision almost exclusively to the offer of a position in the Academy of Sciences by Wolfgang Steinitz. This folklorist and member of the SED (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands), and for a time member of the Central Committee of the Party, is described as a man who not only had "scholarly interest and involvement, but who also radiated over and over again that agreeable trait of honest humanity, which was expressed just as optimistically as it was critically" (p. 81). Jacobeit goes on to speak of the democratic spirit of work in the Academy and of an open and positive mood and atmosphere. Still, it is not difficult to find places in his text where one wonders about that positive atmosphere. On one occasion in a situation that could only be viewed as threatening, Jacobeit was reminded by a superior, "Herr Jacobeit, you do have a family." In 1961, shortly after the "Wall" went up, while Jacobeit was defending his Habilitation on farm implements, the rector of the university asked how he would...