Jewish-Polish-German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki (1920-2013)

This video says about itself:

18 Sep 2013

Germany is mourning the death of the country’s most influential postwar literary critic, Marcel Reich-Ranicki.

By Sybille Fuchs in Germany:

On the death of literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki (1920-2013): A passionate advocate of literature—Part 1

31 October 2013

This is the first part of a two-part tribute to the late Polish-born, German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, who died September 18, 2013.

“Thinkers are valued in this country
especially when they poeticise
– and the poets, when they don’t try to think” [1]

The death of literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki on September 18 marked the passing of one of the most important figures in German cultural life. He was more than the sharp-tongued, redoubtable and controversial “Pope of Literature”, as much of the media chose to label him. He loved German literature and music, although most of his family fell victim to the Holocaust, which he himself only narrowly escaped. He always rejected the attitude of despising everything German, or blaming all Germans for the crimes of the Nazis.

Nor did he ever subscribe to the pessimistic, anti-Enlightenment views propagated by members of the Frankfurt School such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Literature was for him existentially significant in the deepest sense of the words, and he wanted to communicate this significance to the general public by every means available. In fact, he saw his life’s work as an endeavour to counteract any further lapse into social barbarism.

Reich-Ranicki discussed probably every German author of note, ranging from the classical masters to novelists and poets of recent times, and his legacy includes profound judgements and assessments that will long reverberate. Again and again, he worked with publishers on new editions and anthologies, endeavouring to draw attention to half-forgotten or, in his opinion, no longer or insufficiently recognised literary figures and make them accessible to a wider public.

His reviews and essays are anything but dry dissections of literature. They are written in a clear and vivid prose, and, even if one disagrees, make entertaining reading. “Many writers and critics are suspicious of literature that entertains,” he wrote in 2010. “I say instead: Literature should not only be also entertaining; it must be entertaining!”

He also kept to this maxim in his own writings, although “entertainment” for him had nothing to do with superficiality. Rather, he felt that only well-conceived works, in which form and content were harmoniously integrated, could be entertaining.

He related the story of his life in his 1999 autobiography, [2] which sold 1.5 million copies within a few years and has again sold widely following his death. The book is more than a biography. It is itself a piece of literature and, among other achievements, conveys the horrific conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto to many readers for the first time.

Marcel Reich was born on June 2, 1920, in the Polish town of Wloclawek on the Vistula. His father owned a small building material factory. After the business went bankrupt, his mother, who came from a German-Jewish family and loved German culture and literature, sent him off to Berlin. His parents hoped he would attend a German gymnasium (academic secondary school) and benefit from the greater economic opportunities that would result.

Heinrich Heine

Owing to his Jewish ancestry, he was expelled from social and group activities such as school trips and gym classes by supporters of the Nazi Party. Increasingly isolated, he took refuge in reading. He was able to sit for the Abitur (secondary school leaving certificate) in 1938, but, like all Jews at the time, was not allowed to go on to university. While working as an apprentice in an export company, he got hold of theatre, opera and concert tickets as often as possible, before he was arrested in October 1938 and deported to Poland. During this time, literature and music were his haven, and a particular fondness for certain German writers began to emerge.

In the epilogue to The Case of Heinrich Heine, he writes about this period: “When I was reading the great German poet for the first time—it was a long time ago, it was in my Berlin school days in the thirties—I did so voluntarily and with enthusiasm…. I admired Lessing’s three great dramas, but they left me a bit cold. I loved Schiller…I venerated Goethe…Hölderlin seemed strange to me, but I bowed before him, trembling with awe. I suffered along with and was very fond of Kleist…. Büchner alarmed and transported me, Grabbe only irritated me, Hebbel was only interesting, Gottfried Keller amusing and delightful, Storm moving, Fontane captivating and rapturous, the young Hofmannsthal enchanting. But no one touched me more than Heinrich Heine. I could sometimes even identify with him”. [3]

In the Warsaw ghetto

After his deportation to Warsaw, he had to relearn the Polish language. It was virtually impossible for him to find work, particularly after the German army invaded Poland. In November 1940, his entire family was forced to move into the city’s ghetto. There, he was employed as a translator by the council of Jewish elders, known as the Judenrat. He also wrote concert reviews and assisted in the organisation of concerts.

Warsaw Ghetto uprising

When the deportations began, he married his girl friend Teofila (“Tosia”) Langnas, whose father’s despair had led him to suicide. So Reich-Ranicki was able to save Teofila from transport to the death camps, because the wives of Judenrat employees were initially permitted to remain in the ghetto. His mother-in-law, parents and brother were deported and murdered in Treblinka. His sister managed to escape to London with her husband in 1939.

Tosia and Marcel were able to escape from the ghetto on the way to the deportation assembly point. They were hidden by the extremely poor family of an unemployed typesetter, Bolek Gawin, and his wife, Genia, who only managed to feed themselves and their “guests” by selling self-rolled cigarettes. During long evenings, often spent in darkness due to power cuts, Reich began to retell to Bolek and his wife stories from classical dramas and novels to alleviate their fears and forebodings. This was how they managed to survive until September 1944, after the brutal German suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the occupation of the right bank of the Vistula by the Soviet Red Army.

Part 2 of this series is here.

7 thoughts on “Jewish-Polish-German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki (1920-2013)

  1. POLAND: Some 200 members of the Jewish community and Warsaw residents have observed the 71st anniversary of the city ghetto’s ill-fated uprising against German nazi forces.

    Officials laid wreaths and the group said prayers at the monument to the Ghetto Heroes today.

    They marched to the former Umschlag Platz, where in 1943 the nazis loaded ghetto residents onto cattle wagons to take them to the Treblinka camp.

    About half a million Warsaw Jews died there.


  2. Thursday 18th August 2016

    posted by Morning Star in Arts

    Grand Hotel Abyss by Stuart Jeffries (Verso, £18.99)

    MARX’S famous observation, engraved on his Highgate tombstone, that philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it, made little impact on the members of the multi-disciplinary Marxist Research Institute.

    Known as the Frankfurt School, it was founded in 1923 and Guardian columnist Stuart Jeffries charts the history of this influential movement by intertwining the biographies of leading social and political theorists — principally Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse and Jurgen Habermas — with the development of their revisionist analyses of scientific Marxist doctrine.

    Jeffries notes that they almost all came from a wealthy Jewish bourgeois background and rebelled against its values. At the same time, they laboured over the question why the attempted 1918-19 German revolution, spurred by the Soviet success and the chaotic aftermath of the first world war, had not succeeded.

    They recognised the ever-increasing commodification of humans, who were becoming alienated, passive consumers of mass-produced goods. Just as capitalism’s iron cage of labour had subdued the masses during working hours, “now the culture industry subdued them at their leisure —changing them … from the Marxist dream of creatively vital humans to stupefied moviegoers all giggling at the same thing.”

    The melancholy resignation “seeping through” this Marxist think tank was heightened by the advent of nazism. That necessitated a move to the US, where even the terms Marxist and revolution were excised from the school’s publications in order not to endanger its funding.

    These residents of what Georg Lukacs described as the Grand Hotel Abyss — “a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity” — turned away from any idea of transforming society.

    Marcuse, who wrote The One-Dimensional Man, a critique of advanced industrial society, became the godfather of the “new left” student movement of the 1960s, while Adorno, back in Germany, went as far as calling on the police to evict student protesters from his lectures.

    In the early years, Walter Benjamin “arguably the most original thinker associated with the Frankfurt School,” committed suicide on the run from the nazis in 1940. But his short Theses on the Philosophy of History is one of the school’s major contributions to the development of Marxism.

    The main later concerns of the group, however, were abstruse battles with Logical Positivists, Empiricists, Pragmatists and Freudians and they are all covered by Jeffries. As the younger Jurgen Habermas came to the fore, the group’s tenuous adherence to Marxism fell away completely.

    There is much to provoke interest and thought, even entertain, in Jeffries’ informative account of a group of highly intelligent observers and analysts of the imprisonment of humanity, both socially and individually by the corrosive system under which it suffers.



  3. Pingback: Polish Jewish socialist Szmul Zygielbojm’s suicide in 1943 | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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