This Day in Jewish History

2013: A Warsaw Ghetto Escapee-turned Red Spy-cum-literary Critic Dies

'Literature pope' Marcel Reich-Ranicki lost his parents to Treblinka, escaped, and ultimately ended back in Germany, a place he loved and feared.

Marcel Reich-Ranicki, April 7, 2009
Benutzer, Wikimedia Commons

On September 18, 2013, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, the Polish-born survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto-turned communist spy, who during the second half of his life became Germany’s most influential literary critic – its “Literaturpapst,” or literature pope – died, at the age of 93.

Marcel Reich was born in Wlocawek, Poland, on June 2, 1920. His father, David Reich, was a merchant, and his mother, the former Helene Auerbach, a German Jew from a long line of rabbis.

In 1929, David Reich’s business failed, and the son was sent to live with relatives from his mother’s side, in Berlin. There he became enamored of German culture, read voraciously and attended the opera. As a Jew in Nazi Germany, he was not permitted to enroll in university, so he became an autodidact.

In 1938, however, Marcel was arrested and deported to his birthplace, like other Polish nationals living in Germany, and in 1940, he was confined, together with his parents, to the Warsaw Ghetto. There he worked for the Judenrat, the Jewish council, as a translator, and also served as a music critic for the ghetto newspaper Gateza Zydowska.

'My father looked at me helplessly'

As a member of the ghetto authority, Marcel was initially exempt from deportation. But in September 1942, he watched as his parents were both made to board a cattle truck destined for Treblinka. “My father looked at me helplessly, while my mother was surprisingly calm,” he recalled later in life. “I knew I was seeing them for the last time.” He also lost a brother, Alexander, in the death camp, while a sister survived, having fled to England before the war.

Reich married Teofila Langnas, an artist and later a journalist, in the ghetto in 1942. The following year, they escaped, and were taken in by a Polish couple, who hid them in their basement until the liberation of eastern Poland. He then joined the Polish People’s Army.

Following the war, Reich joined the communist party and became a mail censor for the public security department. Four years later, he was sent to London to work in the consulate, using his diplomatic cover, and the assumed name of “Ranicki” to work as a spy.  

That didn’t last long, however, as in 1949, Reich was recalled to Warsaw and expelled from the People’s Party and even briefly prisoned. The charge: “political estrangement.”

'Author of Himself'

Reich-Ranicki, as an editor later suggested he call himself, emigrated to West Germany in 1958, but by then he had already established himself in Poland as an editor and writer who specialized in German literature. In Germany, his subject did not change, only the language in which he wrote about it.

During the decade following 1963, Reich-Ranicki was book critic for the papers Die Welt and Die Zeit, and from 1973, he was an editor and critic for the influential Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

What turned him from an authority into a household name, however, was the show “Literary Quartet,” on German public TV, that Reich-Ranicki hosted between 1988 and 2001. A kind word from him could mean for a German author what a plug from Oprah once did in the U.S.

The fact that Reich-Ranicki was a victim of Nazi Germany, and lost his family to Nazi genocide, was not something that he or his public downplayed or ignored. It wasn’t until 1999, however, that, at the urging of Teofila and their son, Alexander (who today is a mathematician at Edinburgh University), that he produced his memoir, "Author of Himself," which focused on the war period. It became a best-seller in Germany.

There, Reich-Ranicki acknowledged the irony of his situation, explaining how, coming to Germany as a child, "I fell under the spell of German literature, of German music. Fear was joined by happiness — fear of things German by the happiness I owed to things German.”

Once, Günter Grass, who was to become something of a nemesis, asked Reich-Ranicki at a literary conference how he regarded himself. “What are you really," he asked, "a Pole, a German or what?”

“I am half Polish, half German and wholly Jewish,” replied Reich-Ranicki.