An econ professor who was mistook as a spy!

Prof. Frederic Payor of Swathmore College has had some experience in life. He was mistook for a spy in East Berlin due to his dissertation on Russian economy! The topic of dissertation was on the foreign trade system of the Soviet bloc.

All this interesting titbit was hardly known till Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks did not play the events in their recent movie – Bridge of Spies.

In this interview, Prof Payor narrates the experience and how closely the movie captures reality:

How do the events depicted in the film compare to your actual experiences?

They had me arrested while the Berlin Wall was being built for trying to help some woman get out. Absolutely false. I wasn’t even in Berlin when the wall was being built. I was in Denmark on vacation, and I came back after it had been up for a couple days. I decided to return to East Berlin, just once, to attend to three things. One, to hear a speech by Walter Ulbricht [the head of the Communist Party], justifying why the wall went up. Two, to visit the sister of a friend of mine to see if she had any messages for me, since communications [between east and west] had been cut. Three, to give a copy of my dissertation to an East German professor who had been helping me.

At what point did you run into trouble?

I went to see my friend’s sister and her landlord said she wasn’t there. But what she failed to tell me was that the woman had fled to the west in some sort of passport manipulation. The Stasi were staking out her apartment to catch anyone coming to get her stuff. I didn’t even get into apartment, but they arrested me. They brought me to the police station. When they found my dissertation, they gasped and sent me to prison. There I remained for almost half a year.  

What was your experience in prison?

I lived from day to day. I knew nothing about the negotiation process to get me out. Letters sent to me, I never got. Christmas packages from my parents, food, I never got them. I was cut off from all communication. They interrogated me every day for four and a half months. Good practice for your German, by the way.

To show you how detailed their interrogation was, I had about 50 slips of paper on me. One was my Yale library card. It said ‘Special Student, Only Room 413.’ We spent an entire week on what that meant. I couldn’t remember. Finally, I remembered I was late in paying my tuition and that the library only allowed me to go to the economic study room to read books I was assigned. Once I told them about it, that was it. But it took a week.

Nerve biting stuff.

He says academics was the only profession which accepted him:

What impact did the arrest have on you, moving forward?

My dissertation had been accepted, so it had no impact on my academic career. But I didn’t want to teach. I wanted a job in the government, the Agency of International Development or the State Department. But they refused to hire anyone to represent them abroad who had been arrested for espionage.

So I went into industry. I had consulted for GM the summer before, so I asked them about a job. But they said no, they didn’t want anyone with a prison record. I said, ‘But it was the commies!’ They said, ‘Tough.’

The only places that didn’t pay mind to my prison experience were colleges and universities. Swarthmore didn’t care. In fact, I think the students kind of got a kick out of having an ex-con teaching them.

🙂 A combo of Ex-con and E-con…What could be better for students?

Quite a few Europe based people related to economics have had their horrid tales. There is this stirring tale of Daniel Kahnemann who actually escaped from Nazis by sheer luck. Then Soros has explained the escape too in one of his books. But none was inspring or exciting enough to get into a movie..

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