- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 12, 2001

By Marcel Reich-Ranicki
Translated from the German by Ewald Osers
Foreword by Jack Zipes
Princeton University Press, $35, 407 pages

One of the most important literary critics of the 20th century has crafted a historic autobiography. Marcel Reich-Ranicki's life is one of the beautiful ironies of Central Europe. A Polish Jew who was destined for slaughter by the Nazis not only survived the Holocaust but emerged after World War II as one of the most preeminent forces in German culture.
Mr. Ranicki's personal narrative spans three traumatic epochs: Nazi Germany during the rise of Adolf Hitler, the horrifying Warsaw Ghetto, and postwar Communist Poland. And it culminates in his phenomenal rise to prominence as the "pope of German letters," whose opinions continue to determine the careers of German writers and whose criticism is devoured by millions of ordinary Germans.
Mr. Ranicki was born in a small Polish town in 1920 but at the age of nine was sent to live and study in Berlin. This was primarily the wish of his mother, who inspired in him a passion for German literature. During the 1930s, the author confronted the gathering clouds of Nazism and remembers soon after arriving in Berlin a sense of fear that was to accompany him for the rest of his life: a "fear of German barbarism."
Literature and theater became his most important refuge and the stark contradiction between German humanism and Nazi barbarism are a recurring theme in the book. Mr. Ranicki's love of literature helped him to survive, to find inner strength, support and elevation above the degeneration that surrounded him after Hitler and his henchmen came to power.
As a Polish citizen and a Jew, Mr. Ranicki was deported from Germany in October, 1938, and ended up in Warsaw on the eve of World War II. His account of Warsaw's Jewish Ghetto after the German invasion is a penetrating observation by one of its few survivors. While experiencing and witnessing deprivations and terrible suffering he also fell in love, married and discovered Polish poetry, which evidently saved his soul from the intolerable surroundings.
Mr. Ranicki saw Nazi barbarism fully unleashed in the Ghetto, and a chapter entitled "Hunting Down Jews is Fun" is required reading for an understanding of the utter helplessness and vulnerability of Europe's Jews. His parents were deported from the Ghetto and murdered in Treblinka death camp. The author eventually managed to escape from the Ghetto shortly before the 1943 Uprising — one of the most heroic acts of the entire war by an essentially unarmed population. The Ghetto Uprising was heroic precisely because it was hopeless.
For the remainder of the war, Mr. Ranicki and his wife were hidden by a poor Polish family in the suburbs of Warsaw. The author recalls a comment that his protector made soon after he took refuge: "Adolf Hitler, the most powerful man in Europe has decreed that these two people shall die, and I a small typesetter from Warsaw have decided that they shall live. Now we shall see who wins." Evidently, in certain circumstances, the word is indeed mightier than the sword.
In postwar Poland, Mr. Ranicki initially joined the Communist Party and through a string of unplanned events worked for the foreign and security ministries. But he quickly became disillusioned both with communism and with the ruling party whose Stalinist tentacles were being wrapped tightly around the country. He was thrown out of the party and briefly imprisoned as a "cosmopolitan." The frustrated writer eventually decided that he could not function under the stifling repression and managed to leave Poland during the post-Stalin thaw in 1958. He again made Germany his home and during the next decade experienced a meteoric assent as the foremost literary critic in his adopted country.
It is understandable why Mr. Ranicki's autobiography has become such a huge bestseller in Germany. His personal experiences are not only woven around the most critical historical events but they have intersected with the lives of the most prominent German authors such as Joachim Fest, Heinrich Boll, and Gunter Grass. Mr. Ranicki is above all respected for his honesty and clarity and he spares no one from the thrust of his literary insight. Having inevitably fallen out with several offended literary personalities, he concludes that writers are the last people suitable to judge their own work.
Mr. Ranicki himself has published a number of volumes on German literature and his reviews in the press, radio, and television are considered to be awards that can make or break an aspiring career. His work has also helped to make serious literature attractive to millions of ordinary citizens, a goal that he openly proclaims. While literature is clearly the foundation of Mr. Ranicki's life, with this volume his life has also become a part of German literature.

Janusz Bugajski is director of East European Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide