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Apr 2001 Journal

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Profile – Marcel Reich-Ranicki

Marcel Reich was born in 1920 into a bourgeois family of mixed Polish-German background. He grew up in Poland, but attended a German primary school. Aged ten, he moved to Berlin where his mother had relatives. His teacher’s last words to him were: ‘Du fährst in das Land der Kultur’ (‘You are going to the land of culture’.)

And so it turned out – at first. Marcel prospered at the Fichte Gymnasium where he continued – astonishingly unmolested by Nazi teachers or classmates – till 1938. Outside of school, of course, the outlook grew ever darker. In search of company he joined the Jewish Scouts among whom he met some kindred intellectual spirits. At one of their meetings they discussed Kurt Tucholsky’s Jewish selfhate-filled suicide note which had been trumpeted in Das schwarze Korps. All participants were deeply depressed. But the mood didn’t last. Marcel received countervailing positive impulses from literature – he was devouring the classics – and from play-going.

This bizarre twilight existence, in which a precocious teenager tried to hold reality at arm’s length by immersing himself in culture, came to an abrupt end in October 1938 when, together with thousands of Polish Jews resident in the country, he was expelled from Germany. Even so, with part of his family already living in Warsaw, Marcel was spared the agonies of the deportees trapped in the no-man’s-land along the border. For him the real trauma set in after the coming of war, when occupying German troops daily inflicted sadistic outrages on defenceless Jews. Yet even amid the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto Marcel had a life-enhancing experience; he fell in love with poetry-loving Tosia.

Working as a translator at the office of the Judenälteste Marcel was charged with notifying part of the ghetto population to pack their belongings in preparation for ‘resettlement’. He and Tosia, now newlyweds, had to stand by helplessly while all their close relatives went to the Umschlagsplatz en route to Treblinka. When it was their own turn to be marched – with thousands more – to the railway sidings, they contrived a near-miraculous escape and went underground. A fortuitous chain of circumstances brought them to the semi-derelict, isolated house of Bolek, an unemployed printer. Here, freezing and half-starved, they lived in constant fear of discovery. Even so, Bolek and his wife saved their lives – in exchange for which they manufactured thousands of black market cigarettes, and Marcel regaled them, Scheherazade fashion, with the plots of all the classics he knew.

In late 1944, liberated by the Russians, they volunteered for a Polish division of the Red Army in which Marcel – having also joined the Polish Communist Party – became an Intelligence officer. After the war he worked for the Polish KGB in London, where he shadowed rightwing émigrés, and in Berlin. Back in Warsaw he was purged from the Party as a dissident cosmopolitan Jew, and Tosia suffered a nervous breakdown. Thereafter things improved. Marcel, now ‘polonised’ as Reich-Ranicki, found work as a reviewer and translator and started establishing contacts that enabled him in 1958 to escape semi-legally to West Germany. At this point his remarkable rise to the position of German Kulturpapst commenced. At its height he wrote the autobiographical Mein Leben (Deutsche Verlags Anstalt, 1999).

In it he paints damning portraits  – though not from personal acquaintance – of the two German literary giants of the last century: Gerhard Hauptmann and Thomas Mann. In 1937 the author was appalled to see Hauptmann share the ‘royal’ box at the Schauspielhaus with Goering; like his murderous neighbour, the quondam humanist playwright responded to the theatregoers’ applause with a Heil Hitler salute. Alas, Thomas Mann, Hauptmann’s opposite not only in politics – the two men vied for the role of Goethe’s successor in the Weimar Republic – likewise emerges from Reich-Ranicki’s account as a deeply flawed human being. Two of his sons, it appears, committed suicide; the third, the famous historian Golo Mann, told R-R that he positively yearned for his father’s death.

In the final chapters of the work the focus switches from literature to politics. Here the author ‘brings to book’ figures in German public life who still refuse fully to acknowledge the tragedy their country visited upon the world. One such is Prof Ernst Nolte who ignited the infamous Historikerstreit of the 1980s; another is the playwright Martin Walser who in 1999 demanded an end to the taboo on criticising the Jews. A third is Joachim Fest, the newspaper publisher to whom R-R was indebted for advancing his career. Fest is also an esteemed historical scholar, who shocked many when he espoused Nolte’s cause in the ‘historians’ feud’. When Fest’s biography of Hitler appeared the publisher invited R-R and Tosia to the launch party; to their horror they found that the guest of honour at this event was Albert Speer, and they were obliged to shake the monster’s hand.

How, the reader asks oneself, can R-R bear to continue living in a country stained by the presence of murderers and of apologists for murder? He himself provides the answer. What made it possible for him to stay in Germany, he writes, was the sight of Chancellor Willy Brandt falling to his knees on the site of the destroyed Warsaw ghetto.                         
Richard Grunberger

previous article:Erev Pesach in Munich
next article:Obituary: Ilse Wolff 1908 – 2001