- Associated Press - Saturday, October 31, 2015

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - His cell sat directly above the torture chamber in the East German prison, Frederic Pryor recalled, but he didn’t know it at the time.

He only knew that he could occasionally hear screams.

Of the international Cold War drama that swirled outside the jailhouse walls, and the chance it could spark his freedom, he knew nothing, kept in the dark by his communist captors.

Now, everyone knows.

The new Steven Spielberg movie, Bridge of Spies, tells the tense, true story of how the United States and the Soviet Union traded spy for spy at a moment when each nation threatened the nuclear annihilation of the other.

To get back CIA spy-plane pilot Francis Gary Powers, the U.S. gave up captured KGB Col. Vilyam Fisher, known as Rudolf Abel. A subplot of the 1962 exchange, and film, concerned the fate of a 28-year-old American doctoral student who had stumbled into an East German snare and been arrested for espionage.

Today that one-time student is an 82-year-old emeritus economics professor at Swarthmore College, and a resident of Newtown Square, Delaware County.

An expert on comparative economies and the author of 13 books, he’s surprised by the sudden attention brought by the film and still distressed at how an accidental arrest altered the arc of his life.

“I try my best,” Pryor said, “to forget it.”

If it’s a revelation that a player in a major Cold War episode lives and works in the Philadelphia region, there’s a simple explanation: Pryor rarely talked about it.

He never discussed his six-month imprisonment with his wife of 44 years. Nor with his son.

It’s not that it was a secret, Pryor said. They knew. He simply didn’t think it worth discussing, seeing himself as a bit performer in the larger, more dangerous chess game between nations.

Pryor’s cell held a table, a toilet, two wooden bunks, and a roommate-informer. He wasn’t afraid. But he understood the East German system, and expected a long sentence.

“Once you’re arrested, you’re always convicted,” he said. “I expected five or 10 years in prison. I made peace with that.”

The swap came through the efforts of James Donovan, a New York lawyer, who insisted that any spy trade include the college student.

The Powers-for-Abel exchange was to take place on the Glienicke Bridge, a restricted link between the Eastern Bloc and the American sector of Berlin. Pryor would be released 19 miles away, at Checkpoint Charlie, a crossing point in the Berlin Wall.

The spies were not to be traded until Pryor was freed. At the last minute, that requirement held up the deal.

The East Germans kept Pryor in a car at the checkpoint, waiting for 30 minutes. That wasn’t an accident. It was a snub, a way for the East Germans to jab their Soviet masters over having to surrender their prize.

Truth as compelling as fiction

In Bridge of Spies, Pryor is arrested while trying to rescue a pretty acquaintance from East Germany as the wall rises around them.

“I came to get you and your father,” the Pryor character, played by Will Rogers, breathlessly explains. “Leave! Right now!”

It didn’t happen that way.

But the true story is at least as compelling, a lesson in how lives and nations can turn on small events.

Pryor had arrived in Berlin in 1959, taking classes at the Free University of West Berlin as he pursued a doctorate from Yale University.

Berlin was a divided city full of spies and soldiers, a place where the U.S. and U.S.S.R. stood toe-to-toe.

“The most dangerous flashpoint in the Cold War,” said Villanova University professor David Barrett, an authority on the age. “Each superpower was drawing a line in the sand.”

On May 1, 1960, Powers’ U-2 aircraft was hit by a surface-to-air missile high over Soviet territory. The U.S., believing the plane destroyed and the pilot dead, claimed that a weather plane had strayed off course.

But Powers had bailed out. And both he and the plane were in the hands of the Soviets - who revealed the truth and condemned the United States. Powers was sentenced to 10 years.

But the U.S. government also had a spy in hand: Abel, who had been caught in 1957. Donovan, his lawyer, managed to save Abel from a death sentence, suggesting he might someday be a bargaining chip.

In Berlin, Pryor moved freely between East and West to pursue doctoral research, studying foreign trade in the Soviet bloc. He was vacationing in Denmark when the wall went up in mid-August 1961.

On his return, he saw that foreigners could still pass through. He decided on a quick trip to East Berlin.

Pryor wanted to hear a speech by German Communist Party head Walter Ulbricht - and visit an economist who was helping him compare textile firms in East and West. Because the border was so tense, he intended to cancel their joint project and say goodbye.

When Pryor arrived at her apartment, the woman was gone, having escaped to the West. The Stasi, the East German secret police, was watching.

They grabbed Pryor. When they searched his car and found his dissertation, they knew they had a spy.

Months of daily interrogations

Pryor’s interrogators questioned him six to eight hours a day, every day. They scoured every piece of paper taken from his car and wallet.

Especially suspicious: his Yale library card, which read Special Student 413.

Pryor told them the truth - 413 was a room number where books were kept for economics students. As to the meaning of “special student,” he had no clue.

His captors didn’t believe him, pushing him to confess.

“We spent a week on that card,” Pryor said. “They went through my life with a fine-tooth comb.”

Daily interrogations went on for 4½ months. He wasn’t tortured. He never was deprived of food or sleep. He never heard the names of Powers or Abel.

After the questioning stopped, Pryor languished in prison for another month and a half - then sensed a change in his keepers’ behavior.

On what would be his final night in jail, Pryor said, an interrogator came into his cell, sat down, and stayed the entire night.

The East Germans wanted to make sure Pryor didn’t try to kill himself at the last moment.

A reunion with former captor

Pryor paid a price for his arrest. And not just in lost time.

As a young man, he wanted to work in government. But the State Department wouldn’t hire him, he said, because he had been accused of espionage. General Motors cited his prison record in turning him down.

“The only people who didn’t care about that were universities,” he said, so that’s where he worked, including more than 30 years at Swarthmore.

After the Berlin Wall collapsed and the Germanys were reunited, Pryor traveled there to read his secret-police file. It covered 5,000 pages. He had a beer with a former interrogator, who had remained certain that Pryor was a spy.

Pryor saw Bridge of Spies when it hit screens, declaring the movie a good thriller but inaccurate as to his life.

In the film, the CIA is angry about the complication posed by Pryor’s imprisonment. The agency wants to focus on retrieving Powers. But, an officer says, it’s stuck with an Ivy League kid who thought it a good idea to study communism in Berlin during the Cold War.

Does Pryor think that’s fair?

“My thesis was on communist foreign trade. The research facilities in Berlin were superb, much better than in the U.S.,” he said. “That’s why I went there.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1S47YBP

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Information from: The Philadelphia Inquirer, https://www.inquirer.com

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