Obituary: Werner Eberlein

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Oct 31 13:29:52 UTC 2002

NYT, October 30, 2002

Werner Eberlein, 82, Interpreter for Khrushchev and Survivor of the Gulag,
Is Dead


       Werner Eberlein, a German who spent nearly eight years in the
Siberian gulag under Stalin, and later, after an amnesty, rose to become
Nikita S. Khrushchev's interpreter at the height of the cold war, died
Oct. 11 in Berlin, German newspapers reported this week. He was 82. Mr.
Eberlein, known as Khrushchev's "German voice," was the simultaneous
interpreter for leading Soviet officials in the 1950's and 60's during
their frequent meetings with East German Communist leaders over the fate
of divided Berlin.

He had no formal training in interpreting, but his schooling in Moscow and
his experience in the gulag fortified him with an ease in simultaneously
translating both the nuances of his high-ranking subjects and their
political subtleties. He recalled Khrushchev, the Soviet party chairman,
as "a passionate orator who couldn't pass up a microphone, who talked
without periods, commas or paragraphs."

"With simultaneous translation, as required, I had to keep up at his speed
and volume," he said. "So sometimes we bellowed in a duet." Asked decades
later whether he translated everything, Mr. Eberlein said he sometimes
took the risk of smoothing things out. Thus when Khrushchev arrived at a
railroad station to be greeted by German Communist leaders, few of whom
spoke any Russian, he hailed them: "Down with capitalism. Long live
Socialism." Mr. Eberlein translated this mildly as "Good day, Comrades."

"Another time," he recalled, the Soviet leader spoke at the Sixth Party
Congress of the German sister party, of "the Fritzes in the east and in
the west," using a wartime epithet for the Germans. This was translated as
"Fritz in West Germany and Hans in East Germany." Afterward Khrushchev,
knowing enough German to understand what he had done, congratulated him,
saying, "You did that nicely, Volodya." Mr. Eberlein is survived by his
wife, Erika; two daughters, Irina and Sonja, and a son, Viktor.

Werner Eberlein was born Nov. 9, 1919, in Berlin, a year after his father,
Hugo, and his mother, Anna, took part in the founding of the Communist
Party of Germany. His memoir, published in 2000, was called "Born on
November 9," a day heavy with history on the German calendar: It was the
day in 1918 when a Communist revolution broke out; in 1938 the date of
Kristallnacht, when the Nazis burned synagogues and stores, and in 1989,
when the Berlin Wall collapsed.

Hugo Eberlein became editor of the Communist Party newspaper Rote Fahne,
or Red Flag, and in 1919 a founding member of the Comintern, the
Moscow-run international organization of the the world's Communists. The
Eberleins fled to the Soviet Union after Hitler came to power in 1933.
In Moscow, Werner attended the Karl Liebknecht School with other sons and
daughters of the foreign Communist elite. He was 17, living with other
exiled Communists and their families, when Stalin's purge of putative
opponents tore away his father and two uncles, who were also Communist
officials. They were later killed, and Werner was banished to the Siberian
gulag, to the town of Mogochino, where he was forced to work in a sawmill.

Neither that nor the fate of his relatives dimmed his faith in Communism
or his feelings for Russians. In an interview he recalled, "In Mogochino I
came to know an element of the Russian soul: to help the persecuted, the
sufferers, quiet warmth, humanity." Through personal intervention with
Stalin by Wilhelm Pieck, who had survived the purge and returned to a high
position in the German Communist apparatus, he was repatriated to the
Soviet Zone of Germany in 1948, a year before it became the German
Democratic Republic.

He became economics editor of Neues Deutschland, the party organ and,
because of his fluent Russian, soon was assigned to interpret for
important Soviet officials, starting with Khrushchev. In 1981, he became a
member of the party's central committee. Two years later, he was named
first secretary of the important industrial district of Magdeburg, and by
1989 he had become a full member of the party's governing Politburo.

More than a decade after the Berlin Wall had been breached, he told an
interviewer: "I received a faith in my childhood to which I remained
loyal, even when the idea was subject to various attacks. My life was a
roller-coaster. I now see Communism as an alternative that is necessary
today. Contemporary society is not in a position to solve the social

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