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Welcome to Schönfließer Straße 21, literary salon of Ekkehard Maaß

Translator, singer, salonist and historical educator Ekkehard Maaß has changed Berlin culture - all from his Prenzlauer Berg apartment.

Photo: Makar Artemev

Schönfließer Straße 21 is one of the more significant cultural addresses in East Berlin. It’s not home to Berghain or the Volksbühne, nor is it the headquarters of some international media company. It has a normal Prenzlauer Berg door, a normal Prenzlauer Berg Hinterhof. But in one of these apartments lies the salon of Ekkehard Maaß – at once a living room, library, office, concert hall, tearoom and art gallery.

In 1978, Maaß began hosting readings for the rebellious literature and art scene under the DDR; his salon quickly became legendary, attracting young authors who had already broken with so-called socialist utopia (it also attracted the attention of the Stasi). After reunification, Maaß became heavily involved in intercultural work concerning the post-Soviet world; in 1996, he founded the nonprofit Deutsch-Kaukascisch Gesellschaft to raise awareness of the Russian war in Chechnya and support asylum seekers.

He has also worked as a “singing historical witness”, giving speeches about life in the DDR illustrated with renditions of songs from the period. We visited him on Schönfließer Straße to discuss his translation of the poems and songs of dissident Soviet author Bulat Okudzhava, recently published in the bilingual German-Russian edition Mein Jahrhundert (“my century”).  

Congratulations on these beautiful translations. Okudzhava is a fascinating figure – how did you first come to know him?

It was firstly that I could speak Russian, because I had an aunt from the Baltic who was a Russian teacher. When I was growing up in Naumburg (Saale), I had contact with Soviet soldiers – their summer camp was in the woods near my town – and I found it romantic to sit with them around the fire, eating Russian army bread and drinking my first vodka. I was 13, 14 then.

The most important thing about them is what’s between the lines

In order to speak with them, I learned basic Russian. Later, in 1971, the dissident DDR singer Wolf Biermann wanted to travel to Eastern Europe, but the government didn’t let him. Through the sister of my first wife, it was suggested he come to Naumburg to see me at my family’s home in case my Russian contacts could help. I was a little worried, because Biermann was a Communist, whereas my father stood for very different values. But Biermann loved it, and I ended up organising two illegal concerts for him in the area.

Photo: IMAGO / VWPics

Biermann played the harmonium and sang. A little later, he sang his translation of a Bulat Okudzhava song, ‘Die erste Liebe’ (The First Love). For the first time, I realised there were poet-singers like Okudzhava writing this sort of thing in Moscow. And because I knew Russian, it was immediately clear to me that these were my people: I had to seek them out and get involved with them. 

Did you meet Okudzhava in person?

I ended up moving to Berlin, where I visited Wolf Biermann. He opened a lot of doors for me. I learned a lot about history from him, about the Stalinist terror, which they were not teaching us. In 1976, the DDR expatriated Biermann. Okudzhava’s first concert in East Berlin had been scheduled for 14 days later; Biermann had given me money in advance so I could buy 20 tickets for him and me and our friends. I got the tickets – but Biermann could not come. So I sat there with [German singer and actress] Eva-Maria Hagen.

There was an immense hunger for something that wasn’t official state culture

After the show, I wanted to meet Okudzhava, but he was surrounded by excited Russian women, and I had no way through. I wrote on a piece of paper: ‘Dear Bulat, I would like to explain to you what is going on here. I’m Ekke Maaß, a friend of Wolf Biermann’. I passed the paper over to him. He took it, read it, put it in his pocket. And just as I got pulled away – by security or Stasimen – he shouted a number with four digits.

Then I was out on the street, disappointed, thinking I would never get to meet him. What could these four digits mean? But back at home I realised: maybe that’s his hotel room. So I called, and we met two or three times. In 1978, I was supposed to give my first concert performing Okudzhava songs. About 40 to 50 people came down to the venue. And then someone came out and said, “This event can not take place for technical reasons.”

We knew that meant the Stasi had banned it, but we had our suspicions in advance, so we prepared some flyers saying to come instead to Schönfließer Straße. The whole crowd turned up here – 50 people. We had just moved in, so they were sitting all over benches and boxes of books. That was my first concert with his songs.

What was it about Okudzhava’s songs that so inspired you, and seemingly everyone else?

There was an immense hunger for something that wasn’t official state culture. And these poems and songs by Okudzhava, they [had] a real authority about them – they were authentic, and they were genuine. I would sing some in my German translation, some in Russian with a German explanation, sometimes starting in Russian then continuing in German. It was always a mixture, with the aim of conveying what is actually behind these works.

Okudzhava in his armchair. Photo: IMAGO / ITAR-TASS

Because the most important thing about them is what’s between the lines: how they were able to express the pain of the Stalin era and the pain of war. For 45 years, I’ve been intimately connected with these songs. That’s how long I’ve been singing them. Again and again, again and again. And these songs, simple as they are, they open up lyrical spaces. They are like a garden you can take a walk in, over and over, and you will always discover something new and have new ideas or new associations. I never get tired of walking in his poems.

What was your philosophy when translating Okudzhava? Were you trying to recreate his tone, his rhythm, his images…

When I began translating him, I had basically no idea about the craft of it. I just picked it up, little by little. The only advantage I had is that I am not a poet myself – because every poet wants to defend his own poetic language, his writing style, his poetic signature. I have no poetic signature to defend. I stayed close to his poetic imagery and tried to render his work in simple, plain language, because that is his language.

The only advantage I had is that I am not a poet

I’ve had a long time to work on them, over and over again. Some of them I’m still improving today. It is also about how he sings, the emphasis, the sound. I always sing the German versions out loud while translating; sometimes what emerges is a wonderful German song, and sometimes it doesn’t sound right in German, so I read it as a poem rather than singing it.

Often I translate while cycling. At home, there is so much to do, but when I cycle to some event for 30 minutes, I go slowly and sing the songs in Russian, learning the lyrics by heart – then I take my German version and try out different wordings that might fit. And sometimes a good idea occurs to me! Like this [sings]. 

Let’s talk about your salon, which continues to this day – Angela Merkel recently attended one. Why did you initiate it?

As I said, Wolf Biermann had just been expatriated, which I felt very directly. At that point I just thought, this is too much. I helped collect signatures for a protest letter by leading DDR authors, who were members of the party, and I was expelled from university. At that point, I knew I wanted to create an apartment like Biermann’s, where people could meet and where unofficial events could be held.

They took language apart and tried to purge it of its historical and ideological baggage

The first concert here was the songs of Okudzhava. And then I started seeking out authors for literary evenings. It started off with people I met by chance, then it became populated with young authors who couldn’t publish in the DDR because they were using language differently – by which I mean, they took language apart and tried to purge it of its historical and ideological baggage before putting it back together again.

Maaß’s first concert was the work of Okudzhava. Photo: IMAGO / ITAR-TASS

It created something totally new, a new tone in DDR literature, one that was playful and ironic, unlike the deathly serious tone of the older generation. For each event, a graphic artist would make an illustration for the invite, which we circulated by hand. The first salons were 50 people, then it went up to 80 – all three rooms totally full.

When Jan Faktor read, there were 130 people here. It was a very intense, very lively time. There was always something to eat and drink, of course. We made massive bowls of pasta salad with apples and onions and beef. And there was red wine, terrible wine, which we would hide in the piano. Now I host a reading almost every month. The main themes are Eastern Europe, history of Communism, Georgia and the Caucasus. They’ve become quite fashionable. It’s always a little bit about politics – but first and foremost, it’s about literature.

  • Mein Jahrhundert: Lieder und Gedichte, available now from Lukas Verlag.