The Death of 'Germany's Literary Hangman'

Marcel Reich-Ranicki, 'Pope of German literature, owed his life to the German language: During the Holocaust, the Nazis pulled him out of the Warsaw Ghetto to translate extermination orders into Polish.

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“I’m not speaking to you today as a historian, but rather as an eye witness. More accurately: As a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto.” That is how Marcel Reich-Ranicki, the “Pope of German literature,” began the speech of his life, which he made before the German Parliament in January 2012, to commemorate international Holocaust Memorial Day. It was also Reich-Ranicki’s last big public speech, before his death in Frankfurt on Wednesday. He was 93-years-old.

For the last few decades, Reich-Ranicki was the most famous and influential German literary critic. After his death, German media outlets wrote, among other things, “You taught us to read.” He succeeded at a challenge which many others defeated. He managed to bring literature and the people together. He did it as the editor for the literary pages in the most highly-regarded German newspapers, but mostly as the host of a popular literary television show which was broadcast for decades in Germany. The show turned him into a star in Germany.

But the most influential person on German literature was actually born in 1920 a Polish Jew, to a Polish father and German mother in the town of Wloclawek near the river Vistula. When he was nine he moved with his family to Berlin. There, within the walls of his school, began his love affair with German literature. When he was 18 he sought to continue on to higher education in Berlin, but the Nazis would not allow it. He wasn’t German enough for them. In October 28, they knocked on his family’s door, and deported them back to Poland.

Reich-Ranicki took with him five marks and a novel he had just begun to read. He said “from the language that deported me, I took the German language, and German literature.” In November 1940, he was forced to move into the Ghetto. His command of the German language gave him an advantage, as he became a translator for the Judenrat.

The German language would also save his life later on. In 1942, many Jews in the ghetto were shot or arrested. The SS came and raided the house of the Judenrat. Reich-Ranicki thought his life had reached its end, but the SS had other plans for him, and they took him on as a translator as well. Later, he was forced to translate the Nazis orders of evacuation to the camps into Polish, the language of the Jewish victims.

He met his wife Teofila in Warsaw in 1940, after she had lost her father. Reich-Ranikci’s mother, who knew Teofila’s family, asked her son to watch over the young, grieving girl. The two fell in love, and joined their lives together. In February 2943, they manage to escape, and found refuge in the home of a poor Pole. “Adolf Hitler, the strongest man in Europe, decided that these two people need to die here. And me, the little typographer from Warsaw, I decided that they need to live. Now let’s see who will win,” he said.

They lived there for 16 months. Reich-Ranicki would entertain his host family by recounting famous stories from German literature. In September 1944, they went free. His parents had been murdered two years earlier in Treblinka. His brother had been shot near Lublin. Only his sister survived and managed to escape.

After the war, Reich-Ranicki joined the Polish army, and served as an intelligence officer. He served in London, Berlin, Warsaw and other places as well. Later, he joined the Communist Party in Poland, but in 1958 defected to West Germany with his wife and their son.

In Germany, he joined “Gruppe 47,” an influential German literary association which was active in Germany after World War II, which included among its ranks Gunter Grass, Heinrich Böll, and Paul Celan. In 1960, he moved to Hamburg, and worked for the magazine Die Zeit as a literary critic for 13 years. In 1973, he returned to Frankfurt and worked as the literary editor for the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, until 1988.

He owes most of his fame to the television show the “The Literary Quartet,” which he hosted from 1988 until 2001. The show was immensely popular in Germany, determined the fate of many German authors and book, and secured Reich-Ranicki’s place as a German cultural star.

In 2008, however, he refused to receive a lifetime achievement award for his literary criticism from the television station zdf, which aired the show. “I don’t think I belong here, with all the garbage I’ve seen tonight. I do not accept the prize. There is no more culture in German television,” he said to million of viewers live.

He called himself “Germany’s literary hangman,” and 1995 became embroiled with Gunter Grass, when he called one of Grass’ novels “worthless prose, boring and unreadable from the first page to the last.” Reich-Ranicki was depicted on the front page of Der Spiegel magazine tearing Grass’ novel. Since then relations had improved between the literary critic, and the Novel Prize winner Grass.

In 1990, Reich-Ranicki published an autobiography entitled “My Life,” which became a bestseller. The book was translated into 16 languages and sold 1.2 million copies. The book was translated into Hebrew by Rahel Bar-Haim, and published by Dvir publishing in 2004, under the title “Life and Literature.” In 2009, the autobiography was adapted into a movie for German television.

In 2012, as he had trouble walking, and his voice was week, Reich-Ranicki took the stage for the last time. Accompanied by the German president, the president of the Bundestag, and the president of the constitutional court, Reich-Ranicki took the stage and made his speech to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day. Thus he came full circle: A Polish Jew, banished from Berlin, returned after he became the “Pope of German literature.” 

The March 18, 2009 file photo shows journalist Marcel Reich-Ranicki posing for a portrait prior to the screening of the film "Marcel Reich-Ranicki: Mein Leben (My Life)" in Cologne, Germany.Credit: AP

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