BERLIN, Dec. 18 (JTA) — Stefan Heym, the German Jewish writer and politician who fought Nazi Germany and later chose to live in Communist East Germany, has died in Israel at 88. A Berlin resident who fled the Nazis, Heym collapsed Sunday from a heart attack in his hotel at the Dead Sea. A doctor called to the scene was unable to revive him. Honorary president of the German branch of the PEN writers association, Heym had been a guest speaker Dec. 13 at a conference in Jerusalem on the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine. Heym and his wife, Inge, went to the Dead Sea last Friday, where a reporter described Heym as "running around like a 40-year-old." Born Helmut Flieg in 1913 in Chemnitz, Germany, Heym was the son of a Jewish salesman. Politically active as an anti-fascist and socialist, he changed his name in 1933 when he fled Nazi Germany, in order to protect family members who remained behind. Before fleeing, he had caught the attention of local Nazi authorities because of an anti-military poem he published in a newspaper. He subsequently moved from Chemnitz to Berlin, but that did not stop the authorities from looking for him. "I was supposed to be arrested" in Chemnitz "but they took my father in my place," Heym said during a recent reunion of 1933 classmates of Humboldt University in Berlin, where he studied philosophy, German and journalism. The reunion brought together students whom the Nazis expelled from the school, then named the Friedrich-Wilhelms University, for political or "racial" reasons. "My mother told me to get out of the country as fast as possible," he said. "I went over the mountains by foot. That is how my emigration began." Heym´s father committed suicide in 1935, and several family members later died in concentration camps. Changing his name, Heym fled to Prague, where he worked as a journalist. Heym then went to the United States, where he continued his studies in 1936 at the University of Chicago. He later became editor in chief of a New York-based, anti-fascist weekly newspaper called the German People´s Echo. His first novel, "Hostages." was written in English and published in 1942. His 1948 war novel, "Crusader," was a worldwide best seller. Heym enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1943 and took part in the Normandy invasion as a sergeant in a psychological warfare unit. After the war, he was thrown out of the army for his Communist leanings. He returned to Germany in 1951 after giving back his U.S. Army medals to protest the war against North Korea and the anti-Communist witch hunts of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. In East Berlin, Heym became a columnist for the Berliner Zeitung. A committed Marxist who often praised Stalin, he nonetheless criticized East German officials, a stance that won him a following in West Germany. As the Communist government faltered in the late 1980s, Heym won applause for calling for a "new, better socialism" in East Germany. After German reunification, he was elected to the German Parliament in 1994 as a member of the Party of Democratic Socialism, the successor of East Germany´s Communist Party. In an appreciation of his late friend, author Richard Swartz wrote in the Suddeutsche Zeitung newspaper that Heym had valued Judaism increasingly in recent years, "not in the religious sense, but in its relationship to fate and the meaning of life." Heym drew praise from across the political spectrum. In a letter to Inge Heym, his second wife, Wolfgang Thierse, president of the German Parliament, praised Heym for working toward "changing and improving our society." Thierse, who also lived in the former East Germany, described his former political opponent as "critical, obstinate and unbending" in every quest. Berlin´s new mayor, Klaus Wowereit, called Heym a "political-cultural event."
ADVERTISEMENT: Search 155+ Jewish summer camps to find your perfect fit, and you may be eligible for $1,000 off! Visit OneHappyCamper.org today!
Toby Axelrod is JTA's correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee's Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week. She has won numerous awards from the New York Press Association and the American Jewish Press Association. She has published books on Holocaust history for teen-agers.