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Surviving for Art


When Theodor Adorno said that it was barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz, he unwittingly launched ten thousand essay questions. The remark still resounds, not only in Germany and not always in ways that Adorno would have wished it to be understood. But one of its legitimate implications, it seems to me, is that the expression “European Civilization” should have become unusable after 1945.

The phrase has been taken to mean that high art has a connection to morality—that Beethoven instills be-nevolence, and Mozart and Mantegna spread mercy. Something, it was believed, rubbed off. Exposure to art could melt hard hearts, or turn away the sword. And even though the history of Europe between 1939 and 1945 should have exploded this assumption forever, it persists. Those who still accept it should listen to Marcel Reich-Ranicki, and read his unforgettable book.

Reich-Ranicki’s position in German culture is unimaginable in any other country except, perhaps, Russia. For more than twenty years, German writers have trembled, fumed, wept, and on occasion preened themselves over his verdicts on their work. As the main critic of the weekly Die Zeit, and then for many years the literary editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he established an almost imperial ascendancy over German literary criticism.

He has been misleadingly called the pope of German literature. But Ranicki is a lonely figure with no Vatican and—dogmatic as he can be in judgment—no particular theology. He is an old-fashioned, pragmatic critic, phenomenally well-read, whose standards are his own subjective opinions about what is “good” or “bad.” He represents no particular branch of literary theory; he is “post”-nothing, but impenitently “pre-” all contemporary canons of French or Anglo-Saxon literary theory. But he is also the opposite of those traditional German mandarins who used to be revered by everybody and understood by nobody. Ranicki is a vigorous popularizer, whose television program on new writing—Literary Quartet—has reached millions and no doubt persuaded them into adventurous reading. He can praise, sometimes lavishly. But his fame rests on his fearsome acts of demolition, often salted with searing irony, which can be annihilating to a luckless author. This reputation pains Ranicki, a witty and charming old man who refuses to consider himself a destroying angel. Nonetheless, Ranicki in hanging-judge mood is the most merciless arbiter of writing in Europe.

He was a friend of Yehudi Menuhin, and they shared a background as assimilated Jews of essentially German culture. Once they ran into each other in a foreign-currency shop in Beijing; Menuhin was on a concert tour, while Ranicki was lecturing on Goethe and Thomas Mann. “Ah, well,” said Menuhin, “we’re Jews of course. That we travel from country to country, spreading German music and German literature, and interpreting it—that’s good and how it should be.” But Ranicki had his own reasons not to share his friend’s wonderful optimism about the impact of art on behavior. He writes in his book that Menuhin “had endeavoured to make the violin a weapon against injustice and hardship on this earth. As a child—he would often recall—he had been convinced that with Bach’s Chaconne or with Beethoven’s violin concerto one could make people if not good, then at least better human beings.” To Ranicki, in contrast, “any causal connection between music and morality was just a piece of fine wishful thinking, a frivolous conceit.” Music had not improved human beings: “We only know what music has failed to prevent.” And literature? “Have Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories prevented a single murder?… Did even one individual, after reading Goethe’s poems, become noble, generous and good?”

It was not in a concert hall that Ranicki had first encountered the genius of Yehudi Menuhin. In 1943 he and his beloved Tosia, soon to be his wife, were sitting with about eight other Jews on the floor of a room in the Warsaw ghetto. The doom of the ghetto was approaching; the Nazis had already forbidden public concerts, and a young couple had invited a few friends for a gramophone evening: Berlioz, Debussy, and Yehudi Menuhin playing Mozart’s concerto No. 3 in G Major. It left Ranicki stunned. “Did Mozart charm and delight us all the more because we were hungry and in permanent fear for our lives? You had better believe it: in the Warsaw ghetto Mozart was never more beautiful.” For a time—but only for that time—German music came to mean even more to him than German literature.

Marcel Reich (the Ranicki was added many years later) was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Wl/ocl/aweck, not far from Warsaw. His father was a mild, ineffectual businessman; his mother had been brought up in Germany, and like most of the town’s Jewish community, looked to Berlin as her cultural capital. In 1929, aged nine, Marcel was sent to Berlin to be educated, where he learned fear (the cane in the schoolroom) and also happiness, for he began to read German books and listen to German music. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Marcel was already a precocious pupil at a Berlin secondary school where for a long time official anti-Jewish propaganda and restrictions had little impact; his teachers treated him fairly, and he recalls not one instance of anti-Semitic abuse or bullying by his schoolmates. His parents had by now joined him, and he spent his out-of-school life in the theater and at the movies, or in endless, rapacious reading. He was in love with Erich Kästner, then with Schiller, then with the (banned) Kurt Tucholsky and Brecht, and then with Thomas Mann. His school essay on Georg Büchner, his first step as a critic, filled three exercise books.

To his astonishment, the essay was only marked “Good on the Whole.” But by then, in 1937, the regime was closing in on Jewish pupils and on those who taught them, and when he chose the dramatist Gerhart Hauptmann as the subject for his oral Abitur, or matriculation, examination, the headmaster interrupted him to ask for the correct National Socialist attitude toward Hauptmann.

There would be no university place for Marcel Reich. His parents retreated to Poland again, leaving this impassioned Jewish teenager to wander from theater to opera house and to read the banned books which could still be fished out of the municipal libraries. The cultural life of the city was still rich, sharpened by the dangers of Nazi censorship; he worshiped great actors like Gustav Gründgens, lost his virginity to an actress, and held intense conversations on park benches with a Jewish girl who—in a future Communist Germany—was to become the wonderful Berlin Ensemble performer Angelika Hurwicz. Romantically, he thought of himself as Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger, a homeless soul who was “sick to death of being a portrayer of humanity and having no share in human experience.”

His share was soon to come. In October 1938, a month before the Kristallnacht pogrom, he was arrested and expelled from Germany as a Jew of Polish nationality. He had time to grab one book, a minor Balzac novel, and a spare handkerchief. But, as he writes, he took with him “invisible luggage… the German language, and a literature, the German literature.”

Marcel Reich, now eighteen years old, could still speak passable Polish, but in Warsaw “everything was strange to me, and Poland has always remained a little like that”: the country of his birth and his exile, but never a homeland. Back with his family, he gave German lessons and, to his lasting joy, discovered Polish poetry. It was a brief interval. In September 1939, less than a year after his return, Germany invaded Poland.

What follows is one of the great witness statements at the trial of “European civilization.” It is not that Ranicki’s book somehow changes gear at this point. On the contrary, it is the continuity of his story that makes it so precious and so heartbreaking. Ranicki carries forward the tale of one young man’s development, as alert to the Jews and German soldiers in dying Warsaw as he was to the actors and schoolteachers of Berlin, and as fascinated by his own emotions and self-discoveries in the ghetto as he had been as a German schoolboy. There are no heroics or grand laments here. They are superfluous. Ranicki saw everything, except the inside of the cattle cars heading for the gas chamber at Treblinka, and he remembers everything, with a sensitivity trained by Schiller, Shakespeare, Mozart—even by Wagner.

Anyone who survived did so by bizarre chance—the winning tickets in a lottery. This was true of Ranicki; he came safely through not one but many selections for the gas chamber in which an indifferent young Nazi with a riding crop pointed left for death or right for life. (People of disheveled or neglected appearance were always sent to the trains, and Ranicki, naturally dark-complexioned, formed the habit of shaving twice a day—a habit which he has never been able to give up.) But his German fluency helped him too. He was taken on by the Judenrat (the Jewish Council which ran the ghetto for the Germans) as a translator, and Judenrat staff were at first relatively secure from the shootings and roundups. In this job, he came to know Emanuel Ringelblum, the secret chronicler of the ghetto whose buried archives were dug out of the ruins years after the war. He was even closer to his chief, Adam Czerniaków, the tragic chairman of the Jewish Council. Czerniaków, with his white suit, straw hat, and little car, behaved as if there was a future. Only when the SS told him that the entire population of the ghetto was to be “resettled in the east,” starting that day, did he go to his office and take cyanide.

Young Marcel Reich took the minutes of that meeting with Sturmbahnführer Hermann Höfle, on July 22, 1942. He is probably the only living witness to the encounter. He remembers that it was a warm day, that the Judenrat building was surrounded by SS troops who played Strauss waltzes on a gramophone when they grew bored, that the main noise inside the room when Höfle stopped speaking was the clatter of his own broken-down typewriter and the clicking as SS officers took photographs. Höfle added conversationally that if the Judenrat had any problems about carrying out this order he would hang them all in the children’s playground across the road.

The order also stated that workers in the Jewish Council and their wives would be exempted. Marcel Reich married his Tosia that very evening, in a hasty ceremony conducted by a theologian for want of a rabbi. The deportations began, and soon, in spite of the order, selections began in the Judenrat itself. On September 5 came the “Big Selection.” The entire remaining population was rounded up apart from a few thousand given “life numbers.” Marcel and Tosia got numbers. Marcel’s parents did not, and he looked at them for the last time as the riding-crop pointed them away. “I still see them: my helpless father and my mother in her smart trench-coat from a department store near the Berlin Gedächtniskirche. The last words Tosia heard from my mother were: ‘Look after Marcel.’”

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