Marcel Reich-Ranicki and the German Literature

Reich-Ranicki (1920-2013), a Polish-born Jew and Holocaust survivor, was the preeminent authority in modern literary criticism in Germany

Who was Marcel Reich-Ranicki? It’s reasonable to assume that many Israelis have never heard of him. In Germany, his name is very well known, mainly among lovers of literature. Reich-Ranicki (1920-2013), a Polish-born Jew and Holocaust survivor, was the preeminent authority in modern literary criticism in Germany. For many years, Germans knew him by the epithet “The Pope of literature.” Although his autobiography was also translated into Hebrew (Life and Literature, 2004), much remains to be known about his fascinating life and public role as the most highly-regarded literary critic in West Germany over many decades.

Reich-Ranicki grew up in his native Poland until age 9, after which he was sent to live with relatives in Berlin. There he studied in the last schools to maintain a liberal character (despite the anti-Semitism raging in Nazi Germany) and even completed his matriculation in 1938. However, by that period, as a Jew, he was already denied the opportunity to continue his studies at a German university. During the deportation from Germany in 1938 of Jews who held Polish citizenship, he, too, was deported to his country of birth. Reich-Ranicki spent the Holocaust in the Warsaw Ghetto, but together with his wife, he succeeded in evading a certain death. Thanks to the assistance of a Polish citizen who helped them, the two were able to remain alive.

After Poland’s liberation from the Nazis, Reich-Ranicki joined the public service in Poland, served briefly as a diplomat in London, and even worked for the Polish secret security services. With time, however, he began clashing with the Communist regime, which in the early the 1950s was characterized by a certain degree of anti-Semitism. In 1958, after a number of years during which he was employed as an editor of German literature for a Polish publisher and by a Polish radio station, Reich-Ranicki decided to flee communist Poland and begin a new life in West Germany, of all places.

Shortly after his move, Reich-Ranicki found his niche as a literary critic, first for the newspaper Die Zeit (1960-1973), and afterwards as the director of the literary section of the prestigious newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (1973-1988). In both papers he was given the privilege of choosing on which works and authors to write critical reviews, according to his discretion and preferences. In this role, Reich-Ranicki published many book reviews and offered a stage to young German authors who transformed the literary style in Germany after World War II, such as Wolfgang Koeppen, Thomas Bernhard and Heinrich Böll. From 1988-2001, he hosted a television program, “The Literary Quartet,” in which he presented literary works and writers, together with other expert guests. In this manner, Reich-Ranicki exposed a broad audience to new works, keeping literature in the spotlight of public discourse. The program was very popular and proved that cultural content can be conveyed at a high level to broad audiences through television. Reich-Ranicki’s views were not always accepted by the writers and their readerships, but they had a strong influence on the success of books and writers. In addition, Reich-Ranicki published literary anthologies, essentially compilations of a “canon,” featuring the best of German literature that was in his opinion worth of becoming part of Germany’s literary heritage.

Reich-Ranicki visited Israel several times and was in contact with outstanding Israeli intellectuals, such as the scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem. The Scholem Archive, maintained at the National Library, contains a number of letters sent by Reich-Ranicki to his Jerusalem acquaintance. In one of them, from 1967, Reich-Ranicki invited Scholem to contribute an article about the character and work of German author Heinrich Böll (later to win the Nobel Prize in literature). Reich-Ranicki intended to publish a collection of articles about the author, whom he held in high esteem, and thought it befitting to also include an article by Scholem. It would be very interesting to know why the editor of the planned collection on Böll deemed it important to include the opinions of the scholar of mysticism, but the mystery, for the meantime, remains unsolved. Undoubtedly, Gershom Scholem asked himself this very question, and subsequently declined the offer to contribute a text. The book was indeed published a year later, but without a contribution from the Jerusalem scholar.

Marcel Reich-Ranicki’s letter to Gershom Scholem

Postcard from Curt David Wormann to Felix Weltsch, 1955

Who was Curt Wormann? What was he doing in Germany just ten years after the end of the war? And who was Felix Weltsch?

When Curt Wormann wrote this postcard in Berlin to Felix Weltsch in Jerusalem, it was not simply an inquiry from one man to his colleague. Actually, the director of an important institution in Israel was writing to one of his senior employees – from Germany. Who was Curt Wormann? What was he doing in Germany just ten years after the end of the war? And who was Felix Weltsch?

Curt David Wormann was born in Berlin in 1900, studied literature at university, joined the German Social-Democratic Party, and worked as a librarian at the public library of Berlin-Kreuzberg, of which he was also the director until 1933. In the spring of that same year, Wormann received a letter of termination from the municipal services in Berlin, which had begun within a short time to operate according to Nazi directives. Wormann, as it turned out, was fired for two reasons: he was Jewish, and he was a Social-Democrat. A year later, he moved to Israel, and in 1937, he was again working as a librarian, this time at the Tel Aviv municipal library, under the directorship of Heinrich Loewe. But this was not the final stop in Curt Wormann’s career. In 1947 he received his last appointment – as the head librarian of the National and University Library in Jerusalem (now the National Library). He began his work in this institution under less than simple circumstances that grew more complex with the partitioning of Jerusalem in 1948, when the library building was on Mount Scopus, cut off from the western part of the city. And indeed, thanks to Wormann, the library survived, grew over the years in terms of both the number of holdings and the staff, and even received a new building at the recently established campus of the Hebrew University in Givat Ram. The building, inaugurated in 1960, is used by the National Library to this day. In parallel to his work as head librarian, Wormann also established and headed the School of Library and Archive Studies at the Hebrew University.

Felix Weltsch, Martin Buber and Curt Wormann

Felix Weltsch, to whom the postcard is addressed, was born in Prague in 1887. In his city of birth he studied law and philosophy and received doctorates in both disciplines. Already in 1910 he was working as a librarian at the German University in Prague. He was acquainted with Franz Kafka from his legal studies. The great author was one of Weltsch’s closest friends. Together with Max Brod and the sightless author Oskar Baum, they were the famous “Prague circle,” active in the fields of literature and philosophy. From 1919 and until his last days in the spring of 1939, Felix Weltsch was also the chief editor of the Zionist newspaper published in Bohemia, Selbstwehr (“self-defense”). With the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939, Felix Weltsch fled to Palestine/Eretz Israel with his family and with Max Brod, where he took up residence in Jerusalem, and shortly thereafter, joined the staff of the National and University Library. Due to his vast experience as a librarian, Weltsch was made responsible for the library’s classification system, and even taught at the School of Library Studies. At the same time, he wrote articles in philosophy and literature, including on Franz Kafka and his works. Weltsch wrote mainly in German, but his writings have been translated into Hebrew and other languages.

In the postcard to Weltsch, Curt Wormann writes about the meetings he had in Germany, for example with the publisher Peter Suhrkamp, with his colleague Lambert Schneider, and also with Hans Wilhelm Eppelsheimer, the first director of the National Library (Deutschen Bibliothek) of West Germany, located in Frankfurt. At one point, Wormann even visited the National Library in East Berlin, formerly the National Library of Prussia. It is reasonable to assume that Wormann knew the librarians from before when he worked in Berlin. It is also known that Wormann went to great lengths to save Jewish books confiscated by the Nazis. It is therefore likely that these were the reasons that brought the director of the library in Jerusalem to Communist East Germany in 1955, during a period when there were no official ties between the State of Israel and East Germany.

The choice of the German language for writing the postcard is not surprising: it was the mother tongue of both Wormann and Weltsch, and the two felt comfortable in it. Only the address is written in Hebrew, in order to make things easier for the employees of the Israeli postal system.

Erich Kästner’s Poems in Hebrew, 1965

Kästner sympathized with the Zionist idea and even visited Israel a number of times. Some of his books were translated into Hebrew already in the 1930s

​For decades, German author Erich Kästner (1899-1974) was one of the best-known German authors in Israel. His international acclaim – his children’s books have been translated into over 40 languages – also reached Israel. His books Lottie and Lisa, Dot and Anton, The 35th of May, and others, met with a large, enthusiastic audience: Hebrew readers, young and old. Due to the sensitive nature of all matters pertaining to Germany, in most of the early translations to Hebrew, names of both the characters and places were changed. Locations in Germany were moved or assigned Hebrew names that transported them far from the geographic reality. Only the new translations by Michael Dak reinstated the original names and places.

In the days of the Weimar Republic, Erich Kästner worked as a journalist and even wrote poems and prose (for example, Fabian, a novel in fragments). His works were burned in 1933, when the Nazis destroyed many books that were not to their liking or whose authors were Jews. Despite the political situation, Kästner remained in Germany during all the years of the Third Reich, but published his books only in Switzerland. The Nazis arrested him a number of times, and in 1943, banned all of his publications, even outside of Germany. After War War II, the author resumed writing in newspapers and continued authoring children’s novels (such as Lottie and Lisa, 1949). Kästner sympathized with the Zionist idea and even visited Israel a number of times. Some of his books were translated into Hebrew already in the 1930s.

Front side of a postcard sent by Kästner to the Israeli writer Moshe Ya’akov Ben Gavriel

Erich Kästner’s works, however, are not limited to children’s books and a few adult novels. Kästner wrote poetry, and also appealed to the general public with the hope that they would read his poems not only on special occasions, but on a daily basis. One example are Doctor Erich Kästner’s Lyrical Medicine Chest, which was published in 1936 by the Atrium Press in Zurich. In this volume, Kästner wanted to provide his readers poems that are suitable to various moods of the soul whose remedies, according to the poet, are humor, anger, apathy, irony, reflection and exaggeration. Kästner viewed these poems as “homeopathic home remedies” for personal use. Kästner even added a user’s guide of sorts that explains which poems should be read for which mood. Here, the reader finds terms such as old age, loneliness, laziness, insensitivity, illness, dreams and more. This collection of poems was very popular among readers, and was even partially translated into Hebrew in a handsome edition published in 1965 by the art press Ekked, but omitting the poet’s “instructions”. Kästner’s poems were translated by Yehudah Ofan, interspersed with drawings by Chaim Nahor. Yonah Coleman created specially-designed font for the poem texts and the books were published on exclusive light-brown paper.

It may be that it is only a coincidence that this translation was published in 1965, the first year of diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany, but it is also possible that this choice of the poems of Erich Kästner, well-liked in Israel, was intended to acquaint the Israeli readership with an additional aspect of German literature, and in this case, even poetry filled with irony and humor, but that is also thoughtful and deep.

Cover of the Hebrew translation of the Lyrical Medicine Chest, and the first page of the German original volume

Theodor Heuss in Jerusalem

"The Germans must not forget what was done during these shameful years. […] Nobody, absolutely no one, will relieve us from that shame."

Theodor Heuss, Curt Wormann and Elazar Shena'ar heading towards the Library

Fifty years ago, on May 5, 1960, former German President, Professor Theodor Heuss, landed in Israel. Although Heuss was one of thousands of tourists who visited the country that year, his visit was classified top-secret, and his coming to Israel aroused much excitement. What was so special about Heuss that distinguished him from the other post- World War II German statesmen, and what was the secret of his charm, that caused many members of the Israeli public, who still had reservations regarding the new relationship with the “other Germany”, to receive him so warmly?

Theodor Heuss, son of an engineer, was born in 1884 in the state of Württemberg, Germany. He studied political philosophy at Munich and Berlin Universities, and already as a student became deeply involved in political activity. His unequivocal positions, as representative of the German Democratic Party, negated the policy expressed by the National-Socialist Party during the last days of the Weimar Republic. Among the political writings that Heuss published at the time, two of them are of particular note, as they were directed against Hitler. Later, these books were condemned to be burned and Heuss was publicly denounced. During the period of Nazi rule in Germany, Heuss was forbidden from participating in any political or journalistic activity, and he devoted himself to academic work, writing biographies, as well as a comprehensive history of the German of 1848. When publishing articles in the newspapers, he was always sure to use a pen name.

Heuss’s great moment as a statesman came after World War II. In 1948, after he failed in his attempts to establish a pan-German liberal party, he was elected to the position of Chairman of the Free Democratic Party. His respectable character, mild personality and broad education won him the sympathies of many people in the nascent West German Republic. As one of the formulators of the German constitution, Heuss contributed greatly to shaping the face of his country, forced to arise from the ruins and deal with its difficult past. In 1949, and again in 1954, Heuss was elected to the German presidency, and was the first president of the West German Republic. During his two periods of office, Heuess won the respect and affection of many members of the German people.

Dr. Curt David Wormann (right) presenting a manuscript to Heuss
Prof. Heuss in Martin Buber’s house

​In his great wisdom, Heuss understood that an inseparable part of the reconstruction of Germany and its reacceptance into the world of nations depended on its ability to courageously confront its Nazi past. Felix Shinar, Israel’s first ambassador to Germany, wrote in his memoirs that Heuss “expressed the idea of Germany’s inconsolable disgrace in coining the concept of the German people’s ‘collective shame’ about what happened.” In the dedication of the headstone in memory of the victims of the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp in 1952, Heuss said: “The Germans must not forget what was done during these shameful years. […] Nobody, absolutely no one, will relieve us from that shame.”

Heuss’s courageous attitude regarding the days of the Third Reich earned him the faith of many people, including in Israel, and helped facilitate the thawing of relations with the state, the echo of whose crimes against humanity had not yet subsided. Heuss’s personality therefore helped to bring about the recognition of a “different,” enlightened Germany, a country and culture that many Israeli citizens continued to secretly admire, wishing for the quick opening of a new page in the relations between the two peoples. It is therefore not surprising that Heuss was very warmly received by the Israeli academic elite, many of whose members were German-born. Heuss, the man of letters and culture, understood that a renewed rapprochement between the Jewish and German peoples would not arise merely from financial contracts and diplomatic ceremonies. The building blocks of the relations between Israel and Germany, he believed, would be an open and sincere exchange of view between intellectuals, artists and philosophers from both sides. His visit to Jerusalem, therefore, was one of the heights of a series of meaningful meetings and reciprocal visits, in which ideas in the realms of intellect and culture were exchanged.

Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, Akiva Ernst Simon and Samuel Hugo Bergman were Heuss’s official hosts at The Hebrew University, and they delivered moving welcoming addresses at the conference held in his honor on the Givat Ram Campus, at which Heuss spoke about the shaping of democracy. The next morning, the daily newspaper Maariv reported that “There are 750 seats at the Wise Auditorium at The Hebrew University. Over 1,000 people attended, and many remained outside.”

The visit to The Hebrew University brought the 76-year-old Heuss great pleasure, apparently since it was the only event during his long tour of Israel in which the Holocaust was not mentioned explicitly and no questions on the matter were posed to him. During the period when citizens of Israel were waiting for the commencement of Adolf Eichmann’s trial, just a few weeks after his arrival in Israel became public knowledge, the topic of Holocaust crimes was a sensitive and oft-discussed matter. One cannot deny that during this historic visit, among the Israeli populace there were many who vehemently criticized the warm reception that the representative of the German people, the “murderous nation” received.

H​euss, who reported carrying a small notepad with him at all times, in which he drew and expressed his impressions in brushstrokes, shortly after his visit to Israel published a book with statements he delivered in Israel, and words spoken in his honor at The Hebrew University. The text in this book was interspersed with delicate brush drawings of Israeli landscapes that made an impression on him. In August 1960, just two months after his return to Germany, he sent Martin Buber a copy of this book, with a warm dedication. During his visit to Jerusalem, Heuss had made a personal gesture to Buber, visiting him at his home on Hovevei Tzion Street.

The meeting with the heads of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem also included a visit to the National Library, which was at the time a university institution. The National and University Library, as it was called then, was poised before an historic transition from its temporary residence in the Terra Santa building to the new building on the Givat Ram Campus. In photographs documenting that visit, Heuss can be seen, a plump cigar protruding from his mouth, inspecting with great interest ancient manuscripts of machzorim from Ashkenaz that were brought to him by then director of the library, Dr. Kurt Wahrman and his vice director, Dr. Yissachar Yoel, both native Germans. Heuss remembered Wahrman from the period when he had been chief librarian of the Berlin-Kreuzberg public library system, during the Weimar Republic.

This important visit, although it took place only at the end of Heuss’s tenure as president of West Germany, was, in the words of Felix Shinar, an important link in fortifying the decisive role that intellectual, scientific and cultural matters have – as eternal values – in solidifying the relations between the two nations

​Prof. Heuss giving a speech in Weiss auditoium. Left: Maritn Buber
​In the room of the Library director, Dr. Curt David Wormann (at the center): the deputy director, Dr. Issaschar Joel, Presents to Heuss a manuscript. Left: Felix Elazar Shena’ar.
​Theodor Heuss’ personal dedication for Martin Buber in his book about his visit to Israel

Photographs: Dr. Kurt Meirowitz (Photo Emka) From the Library Archive, ARC. 4* 793 06 121