BookClub INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR
Karl M. von der Heyden ’62 led a storied career in business, holding C-level executive positions at H.J. Heinz Company, PepsiCo, and RJR Nabisco. But his youth is the subject of his new book, Surviving Berlin: An Oral History (MCP Books). Born in Berlin in 1936, he grew up during the heart of World War II and its aftermath, came to America as an immigrant in the late ’50s, and noted the cultural changes of the U.S., particularly in the South, in the following decade with an unusual perspective, one he maintains today. Now retired, he recently spoke with the magazine; this is a condensed version of the conversation. Rod Goodman
What were the provisions of your student visa?
Well, getting a student visa through the consulate in Berlin—in those days, the capital of West Germany was in Bonn, not in Berlin, so we only had a consulate—that was a piece of cake. There was a provision that you had to come back when you were no longer a student and that you couldn’t work without permission. So, when I decided to stay for a second year [his sophomore year], I had to get permission from Washington, which I did. And when I came back the second time [von der Heyden went to Berlin after his sophomore year but returned for his senior year studies at Duke], I actually applied for a student visa again, and the consular officer said to me, “You want a student visa, or an immigration visa?” He said, “It’s all the same to me.” That was really unusual, because in those days there was a quota by country. Germany had been a big provider of immigrants in the nineteenth century, and the U.S. has a large German-American population, but the German quota was not fully used, not even fractionally used, at that time. Now, we’re talking ’61. So, I thought about it, and I said, VON DER HEYDEN:
“Well, it can’t hurt, right?” First of all, if I need to work, I don’t have to apply for permission, and also if I decide to stay, I can stay. And so I said to him, “If it’s all the same to you, I’ll take the immigration visa.” In the book, you describe finding old German newspapers in Perkins Library that describe the war and the atmosphere in Germany at that time. In light of recent events in Charlottesville and in other cities, do you see any similarities between now and your youth?
I’m not all that surprised about what happened in Charlottesville, although Charlottesville is a lovely town and quite tolerant, and these racists came, from what I understand, from all over the country. So, you can’t necessarily blame it on the South. But it’s not a surprise to me that these strains of racial prejudice, anti-African American, and anti-Semitism are below the surface—and maybe not so much under the surface in America— and even this Nazism. In the final part of the book, I mention that these same sentiments are still below the surface in Germany, as well. The book is really about some parallels beVON DER HEYDEN:
tween the discrimination against the Jews in Germany and the discrimination against the blacks in the South. That is one of the features of the book that made my upbringing a little bit unique, because a lot of people went through the Nazism time, and then other people went through the segregated South time, and I did both, and that’s relatively rare. In another interview, you mentioned that you’re optimistic by nature. So much of your childhood and upbringing was affected by war and the aftereffects of war. Have you thought about how your optimistic nature developed, either in spite of these circumstances, or maybe even due to making it through these circumstances? VON DER HEYDEN: Well, yes, I’m optimistic because of my experiences in America. I was constantly amazed how fair people were to me. I mean, I was an immigrant; I was a foreigner; I had an accent; and it never developed into any kind of discrimination. I saw America at its best, and I’ve been here for almost sixty years now, so that’s a long time. And, to be an optimist in America is not that hard. —Lucas Hubbard
To read the rest of the Q+A, go to dukemagazine.duke.edu 18 www.dukemagazine.duke.edu
Published on Nov 29, 2017