Germany’s Jewish “Pope of Literature” Remembering Marcel Reich-Ranicki

September 30, 2013

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Marcel Reich-Ranicki shaped the literary world of the Federal Republic of Germany in the last half century probably like no other public intellectual in German history. An expert of German literature, he became the most articulate critic of the country’s new literary publications. His judgment could make or break authors and influence their careers, be they literary novices or Nobel laureates like Günter Grass. Germany’s preeminent arbiter of literary trends and tastes, known throughout the country as the nation’s “Pope of Literature” died in Frankfurt at the age of 93 on Wednesday, Sept. 18.

Marcel Reich-Ranicki was born in Wloclawek in Poland in 1920, the son of German-Polish Jews. In 1929, his family moved to Berlin, where he attended the German Gymnasium, the high school for gifted children of the middle and upper class. After the Nazis came to power, he and his family were forced to return to Poland, where he soon ended up in the Warsaw Ghetto. There, he met and married Teofila Langnas, with whom he shared his entire life. While they managed to escape the Warsaw Ghetto just in time, the rest of Reich-Ranicki’s family was deported and perished. Sheltered by Polish peasants in the countryside, where their hiding places included attics, cellars and dirt holes, the young couple survived the onslaught of the German army.

After the war, they returned to Warsaw, Reich-Ranicki joined the Communist party, worked in London in the Polish secret service, and was appointed consul for the Polish government at the young age of 28. However, he soon fell out of favor with the Communist party, and when Jews again became scapegoats in Polish politics, Reich-Ranicki and his wife decided in 1958 to emigrate to West Germany, where they assumed German citizenship.

In Germany, he soon rose to prominent positions in the literary sections of the leading newspapers Die Zeit und die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. As the host and moderator of highly popular radio and television programs on literature such as the “Literarische Quartett” (1988-2001), Reich-Ranicki virtually became a household name. Loved and feared for his acerbic wit and adored for his charming combativeness, he grew into the role of the nation’s most widely celebrated and sometimes criticized Großkritiker; in short, Germany’s one and only Jewish Literaturpapst. In 1999, his memoir, Mein Leben, appeared and became a bestseller in Germany selling more than 1.2 million copies. Although there is also an English rendition of his autobiography called My Life, the following quotes are my own translations from the original German.

His memoirs are a moving account of the deeply conflicted identity of a Jew living in post Holocaust Germany. Already as a young Polish boy, excited to travel to Berlin, he has very mixed feelings. However, his initial “fear of the German cane” soon merged with a growing fascination for German culture: “My fear of the German world was mixed with the happiness which I owed to this world.” In Tonio Kröger, Thomas Mann’s celebrated novella of adolescence, and his protagonist’s fear of and longing for life, Reich-Ranicki found the model for his own existence: “This fear and this longing belong to the leitmotifs of my life.” Soon, his diffuse anxieties and excitements about Germany were to take shape in two distinctly opposite personalities: “Germany, that is in my eyes Adolf Hitler and Thomas Mann. Now as then, these two names symbolize the two sides, the two possibilities of Germany.”

“Verkehrte Welt,” this literary trope from the imaginary realm of German Romanticism, representing an inverted, if not perverted world, became a gruesome reality in the Warsaw Ghetto. To escape at least temporarily the many degrading experiences of life in the ghetto, Reich-Ranicki, with the help of the Judenrat, organized numerous concerts. Drawing on the rich musical talents and traditions of Eastern European Jewry, the ghetto boasted three string quartets and several gifted pianists, violinists and singers and together they performed with desperate dedication: “Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, Weber and Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Schumann and Brahms, in other words, as everywhere in the world, primarily German music.” In retrospect, Reich-Ranicki confessed: “To this day no other opera fills me with more joy, more happiness, than the Meistersinger. And no other opera moves me deeper and excites me more than Tristan und Isolde.” Thus, it is the signature sound of the Third Reich, its Wagnerian will to power, which also uplifted its victims and granted them a rapturous reprieve from almost certain perdition.

The question why he was allowed to survive the Holocaust would haunt Reich- Ranicki for the rest of his life. When asked in 1994 to give a speech in a lecture series titled “Speaking about your country,” he answered: “I have no country, no homeland, no fatherland.”

When he was a child in Poland, however, his mother described German culture as their promised land, and it was this promise on which the author never gave up. Having spent his youth in a German Gymnasium, he acquired the most important aspect of its culture: “I took with me out of the country which expelled me its language, the German language, and its literature, German literature.” As he returned to a bombed out Berlin right after the war, Reich-Ranicki writes: “Not revenge drove me back to Berlin but a yearning.” It was the longing for German culture. Following in the footsteps of the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, the most prominent exile of 19th century German literature, Reich- Ranicki also declares German literature his “portative fatherland.”

When toward the end of his memoir, Reich-Ranicki looks back on his meteoric rise to become a cultural institution in Germany, he asks himself: “Was it my ambition, to continue the Jewish tradition in the history of German literary criticism in a leading role, and maybe even demonstratively in all publicity? Of course it was.” It is an ironic reversal of fortune that the former refugee of Nazi Germany, hiding from Hitler’s henchmen in the Polish hinterland, should survive to become the supreme judge of German literature, Germany’s lord and master of books, “Herr der Bücher,“ as the leading German journal Der Spiegel called him in one of its several cover stories on him.

The author concludes his memoir with a cherished memory of Willy Brandt, Germany’s chancellor in the early 1970’s, whose genuflection in front of the monument to the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto made headlines around the world. In 1990, Reich-Ranicki met Brandt in Nuremberg, and the former chancellor, already marked by his terminal illness, asked him, how he had survived the Warsaw Ghetto. “When I was finished with my short report, someone had tears in his eyes. Willy Brandt or I? I can’t remember any more. But I do remember very well what I thought. When in 1970 I saw the photo of the kneeling German chancellor, I thought, that my decision to return to Germany in 1958 and to settle in the Federal Republic had not been wrong, that it had been right after all.”

Germany was very blessed with Reich- Ranicki’s return. Today the country honors him not only as a central cultural figure of the Federal Republic of Germany, but also as a major representative of the 200-yearold German-Jewish cultural symbiosis, which began with the friendship of Moses Mendelssohn and Gotthold Efraim Lessing during the Age of Enlightenment. This German-Jewish affinity and cultural productivity reached its creative culmination in the Weimar Republic only to be plunged into the depth by the Holocaust. Thus, Reich-Ranicki stands as a truly German- Jewish Janus figure. He not only looked back to the cultural legacy of German- Jewish history and its catastrophic ending, but also forward to a new beginning of German-Jewish relations, of which he was the most prominent and promising representative.

—Dr. Frederick A. Lubich is a professor of German at Old Dominion University.

by Frederick A. Lubich

Letter to the Editor