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People of the Book 101: The Jewish Pope of Literature

Murray Citron
January 27, 2015

Marcel Reich-Ranicki and German Memory

by Murray Citron

Reviewed in this essay: The Author of Himself, by Marcel Reich-Ranicki. Published as Mein Leben (1999), translated into English by Ewald Osers, Princeton University Press, 2001, 407 pages.

marcel-reichranickiIN THE LAST FORTY YEARS of the 20th century, the leading literary critic in Germany was a Jew, born in Poland, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto. At the height of his career he was referred to in Germany as the Pope of Literature (Literatur-papst), and he fulfilled that role by passionately promoting the post-war German writers he admired, while pulling no punches in his critiques of literature he considered weak. From 1988–2001, Reich-Ranicki hosted a prime-time literary talk show on German public television that was viewed by millions at a time. In 1999, his autobiography, Mein Leben, was a bestseller in Germany. It was adapted for television in 2009. On Holocaust Remembrance Day in January 2012, Reich-Ranicki addressed the German Parliament. It was his last major public speech before his death at 93 in 2013.

Reich was born in Wroclaw in 1920. When he was 9, the family moved to Berlin, where his mother’s brother was a well-to-do lawyer. The parents were not successful at making a living, but the uncle helped. Marcel did well at school, read enormously, and managed to attend theater and opera productions. He did not experience Nazi brutality, but he was aware of discrimination. He finished high school final exams in 1938 — and then, without warning, Germany expelled all Jews of Polish nationality, loading them on trains and dumping them across the border into Poland. This was the expulsion that led Hershl Grynszpan, a boy of about Marcel's age who had escaped to Paris, to murder a German diplomat. The Nazis used that as the occasion for the nationwide pogrom known as Kristalnacht.

The Reich family made their way to Warsaw. When the Ghetto was instituted, Marcel’s skill in German enabled him to get a job as secretary and translator for Adam Czerniakow, appointed by the Germans as the presiding officer of the Judenrat. The Judenrat’s functions included organizing transports of Jews for resettlement. Marcel states that fairly soon, its officials knew that resettlement meant death. They could tell by the boxcar numbers that the trains did not go far before returning for more Jews. In fact they were going to Treblinka.

The Warsaw Ghetto liquidation began in 1942, when the Germans had their systems in place. Reich, young and fluent in Polish and German, and his wife, whom he had just married, escaped to the Aryan side. They were taken in by a Polish couple and sheltered till the Red Army came in 1944. The host, Bolek, was a dealer in black market cigarettes. Marcel and his wife helped roll cigarettes. Marcel kept his hosts entertained by telling stories based on his knowledge of literature.

His parents and brother died at Treblinka. The author ascribed his own survival and his wife’s to “pure chance.” (He was non-religious, emphatically non-Jewish-religious.)

THE POLISH STATE was reestablished under Soviet control. Reich joined the Polish Army, the Communist Party, and later the secret service. He used the name Ranicki, which sounded less German and less Jewish. He began to write criticism and reportage for Polish and also East German periodicals. He was jailed for a time and then released. In 1958 he escaped to West Germany with his wife and son, where he was invited to join Gruppe 47, an influential group of writers including Günter Grass, Paul Celan, and Heinrich Böll, who were working to regenerate German literature following the depradations of the Nazi regime.

Reich was soon selling enough work to support his family. On the advice of the first editor he met, he adopted the double-barrelled name Reich-Ranicki. He came to know leading literary figures, including many who had been in the Wehrmacht and even the SS. His reviews appeared regularly in Die Zeit, Die Welt, Frankfurter Allgemeine, and on German radio. In his autobiography, he is clearly proud of his industriousness. He quotes Lessing: “Of his application, every man is entitled to boast.”

He tells his story matter-of-factly, with wit, and a minimum of commentary. The most emotional he gets is when he writes about his love for German literature.

IN 1973 HE WAS APPOINTED director of the literary section of Frankfurter Allgemeine, and served there for fifteen years. This work, and his participation in Literary Quartet, a long-running interview program on German TV, formed the climax of his career.

Early in his autobiography, referring to the expulsions of Jews from Germany, he wrote, “millions looked the other way.” That may seem like letting the German people off easy. But as a renowned literary critic, he knew the value of understatement.

Reich-Ranicki was clearly alive to the ironies of his situation, both as Jew and writer. Even at the height of his career as a “Pope of literature," he writes, “I could not avoid the suspicion that anything I was commended for was, at the same time, an accusation.” Still, he could be taken by surprise. In 1973, Joachim Fest, an important German journalist and an early biographer of Hitler, was appointed co-publisher of the Frankfurter Allgemeine with responsibility for the cultural section. It was he who arranged for Reich-Ranicki to join him as director of the literary department. Reich-Ranicki and his wife were invited to the book-launch of Fest’s Hitler biography at the home of Fest’s publisher. There he saw his wife, Tosia, turn pale — and “I too suddenly did not feel very well.”

The guest of honor was the Nazi architect and armaments chief, Albert Speer, not Fest. The host introduced them. Speer shook hands and they had a cordial conversation, the contents of which Reich-Ranicki does not remember. He wonders how it could be that the host, and his friend Fest, did not think they should warn him who he would meet at the reception, or fail to think that he “might — to put it mildly — have misgivings about shaking hands with one of the top Nazis or sitting at the same table with him.”

The book is translated by Ewald Osers, a Jewish man of letters who escaped Czechoslovakia at the time of Munich and made a literary career in England. In the translation, the straightforward German title Mein Leben, "My Life," is given a new name, The Author of Himself. No explanation for the change is given, but it is fair to say that Marcel Reich-Ranicki was a self-created author.

Murray Citron's bilingual chapbook of poems by Itzik Manger, There is a Tree, steyt a boim, was published in 2011 by Tree Press, Ottawa. His translations have appeared in a number of periodicals in Canada, England, and the U.S.