In 1975 my sculptor husband, Mark Prent, was a Guest Artist in Berlin with the Deutsche Akademischer Austiuschdienst (DAAD.)
Young and ‘green’ ourselves, we spent almost two years living and working in the colorful world of Cold War West Berlin where we met some of the artistic and intellectual luminaries of our time.
The DAAD organized numerous social events, concerts and exhibitions featuring their guests, many of whom never missed an opportunity to take advantage of the seemingly endless string of parties. This proved the undoing of more than one promising career and a good many committed relationships; but that was not our story and so has no part in this one.
While in Berlin, we were under the informal patronage of a renowned American sculptor by the name of Ed Kienholz who reigned as the ‘king’ of Berlin’s international community of art ex-pats. If you were anyone of creative importance, sooner or later you sat down at the dinner table or the card table with Ed and Nancy Kienholz. If you did so in 1975 or ’76, most likely we were there, too.
And that is how we came to be having dinner one evening with the celebrated authors Jerzy Kosinski (“The Painted Bird”) and Gunter Grass (“The Tin Drum.”)
Jerzy Kosinski had been invited by America House, the American Cultural Mission in Berlin to be a guest speaker, and Mark was probably one of his biggest fans. Ed hadn’t even heard of Kosinski, but Mark’s enthusiasm was contagious so the Kienholzs joined us that evening at America House.
Now, Gunter Grass, we had met before. He often came to the DAAD events, but I had been a little shy of finding myself in conversation with him because I had a guilty secret.
When I was assigned “The Tin Drum” in college, I am ashamed to admit that I had found it simply too difficult a read and managed to skip huge passages while hitting only the high points and skimming my way to the end.
Following the lecture, Kosinski was absorbed in conversation with Gunter Grass, who also attended the event. Mark respectfully hung back, waiting for his opportunity to speak to the great writer, but Ed swept in and invited everyone to dinner as his guests.
We soon found ourselves at a large round table, surrounded by Ed’s entourage, with Ed on the opposite side of the table, seated between Kosinksi and Grass, who attempted to continue their conversation only to be preempted by Ed’s huge personality.
The rest of the evening, we hardly heard a word that was said by either author, because we were so far from the Ed-centric conversation group, and the din from the other guests simply drowned them out.
Mark was so disappointed, as I was for him; but once again, I was relieved not to have embarrassed myself with Gunter Grass.
I am of course, full of regret that my youthful uncertainty prevented me from having any kind of a meaningful conversation with one of the greatest authors of our time.
It is even sadder for me because my own focus was to resolve, too many years later, on some of the same big questions that appear to have routinely engaged the imagination of Gunter Grass even as we munched cocktail shrimp on either side of a DAAD buffet.
I was just too young, and still far too ignorant. If we had actually had that conversation, I would have been wasting his time.
He would have undoubtedly listened politely, because he struck me as an unpretentious man who never held court as our dear friend Ed was inclined to do, for all his generosity.
Ed was literally larger than life and his mere presence caused a stir wherever he went, but Grass was as unobtrusive as his name; an ordinary man with an ordinary face partially obscured by a rather large mustache.
What we didn’t know about Grass in 1975, was his own rather more substantial guilty secret, which was only revealed to the world in 2006.
Gunter Grass, champion against revisionism in the German collective consciousness; Gunter Grass, anti-war activist; Gunter Grass, liberal thinker; that same Gunter Grass, had been a member of Hitler’s elite Waffen SS.
Though his entry into the Waffen SS came only in 1944, at virtually the last minute of WWII, when he was still just a boy; and he is not suspected of engaging in any of the horrific acts for which the SS was infamous; the mere fact that he concealed this involvement for most of his life has made him the subject of vocal attacks.
When, for instance, he ventured to criticize Netanyahu’s policies in Israel, as any one of us might, the consequences of his guilty secret served to amplify the righteous condemnation with which his opinions were met.
It now seems very likely that much of the understanding of guilt that drives his most compelling novels has come from a genuine place in his own personal history. For me, that does not diminish his literary stature in any way. On the contrary, it actually helps me understand why I resisted what I misunderstood to be the intellectual challenge presented by “The Tin Drum.”
It wasn’t primarily intellectual at all; it was visceral; and I couldn’t possibly have appreciated from whence it came. Even if I could have done so, I don’t know that, in my own relative innocence, I’d have wanted to.
Anyway, while we were living in Berlin, we met a number of people who had lived there as children or teenagers at the end of the war. Some had been conscripted into Hitler’s child army when the end was near; others had just been the cruel collateral of war and occupation. All had been victimized in some way or another and each was haunted by his or her own confusing memories of shame, humiliation and confusion. Without exception, all expressed a horror and dread that such crimes could ever happen again in Germany.
I expect Grass’ backstory may not have been dissimilar to theirs.
To my mind Gunter Grass repaid whatever debt he owed to the world for the sins of his youth with a lifetime of painful introspection which he committed to the printed page on behalf of all the other lost souls who shared his terrible secret.
He died today in Lubeck, Germany at the age of 87, taking the only certain knowledge of what he experienced in 1944 to the grave with him.
May he now rest in peace.