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Holocaust survivor, top German lit critic dies

Wednesday - 9/18/2013, 12:33pm  ET

FILE - The Jan 27, 2012 file photo shows Holocaust survivor Marcel Reich-Ranicki speakinh during a Holocaust hour of remembrance at the German Federal Parliament, Bundestag, in Berlin. Reich-Ranicki, who grew up in Poland and Nazi Germany, survived the Warsaw Ghetto and became post-war Germany's best-known literary critic, has died. He was 93. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

GEIR MOULSON
Associated Press

BERLIN (AP) -- Marcel Reich-Ranicki, who grew up in Poland and Nazi Germany, survived the Warsaw Ghetto and went on to become post-war Germany's best-known literary critic, has died at age 93.

The sharp-tongued Reich-Ranicki established himself as West Germany's premier arbiter of literary taste after arriving with no money in 1958 from communist Poland, where he had served as a diplomat and intelligence agent in the late 1940s.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, where he led the literature section for 15 years, said Reich-Ranicki died in Frankfurt on Wednesday. It didn't give further details.

Reich-Ranicki didn't shy away from hard-biting criticism of authors, saying once that "clarity is the politeness of the critic; directness is his obligation and his job." In his 1999 memoirs, "My Life," he conceded that he had a reputation as "a man of literary executions."

Initially part of the left-leaning literary circle known as Group of 47, along with Nobel laureate Guenter Grass, Reich-Ranicki wrote for the weekly Die Zeit, then led the literature section of the conservative-minded Frankfurter Allgemeine daily from 1973 to 1988. After that, he became the star of ZDF public television's "Literary Quartet," a popular book program.

Reich-Ranicki said he recommended German novelist Heinrich Boell for the Nobel Prize for literature. Boell won in 1972.

Reich-Ranicki was by turns supportive and critical of Grass -- with whom he fell out for a time after describing one of Grass' books as "a complete failure."

Reich-Ranicki was born into a Jewish family in Wloclawek, Poland, on June 2, 1920. When he was 9, his family moved to Berlin following the bankruptcy of his father's construction company.

He recalled his elementary school teacher saying to him as he left: "You are going, my son, to the land of culture." In Berlin, Reich-Ranicki went to high school but by the time he wanted to attend university to study German literature in 1938, the Nazis had come to power and he was denied entry because he was Jewish. He was then deported to Poland.

After Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939, Reich-Ranicki, like other Jews, was soon forced to live in the Warsaw Ghetto. There he worked as an interpreter for the ghetto's Jewish administrative council.

Speaking to the German Parliament in 2012, he recalled the day in July 1942 when the Nazi SS informed the Jewish council of plans for the inhabitants' "resettlement" to the east -- a Nazi euphemism for deportation to the death camps, and the beginning of the end of the ghetto.

Reich-Ranicki, who took minutes of the meeting, recalled that a "deathly silence" was followed by uproar. He said those present "seemed to sense what had happened: that the sentence had been pronounced for the biggest Jewish city in Europe. The death sentence."

Discovering that, as an employee of the Jewish council, he was among those exempted from immediate deportation along with their wives, Reich-Ranicki hurriedly married his girlfriend Teofila, whom he called Tosia.

In February 1943, the couple escaped the Warsaw ghetto. A typesetter and his wife on the outskirts of Warsaw hid them in the basement or attic of their house during the day. At night, they made cigarettes, which the typesetter then sold. This continued until the Red Army arrived the following year.

Reich-Ranicki's parents and brother were killed in the Holocaust. His sister, Gerda, and her husband escaped to England from Germany shortly before the war.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said Reich-Ranicki's decision to settle in Germany despite losing many of his family in the Nazis' extermination camps was "one of the events of the post-war era for which we can only be grateful."

"Not even the murderous hatred of the Nazis could banish Marcel Reich-Ranicki's love especially for the German poets," she said.

Having survived the war, Reich-Ranicki joined Poland's communist party. He said he and his wife credited their survival to the Red Army and that communist ideas appeared "very attractive" at the time. But, after returning from his stint as the Polish consul in London and as an agent with Poland's fledgling intelligence service, he was briefly detained and kicked out of the party amid the increasingly repressive atmosphere of the late 1940s.

He was still able to publish literary criticism in 1950s Poland and even had his expulsion from the communist party revoked -- although he said he was never officially informed. But, disillusioned in part by an upturn in anti-Semitism, he decided not to return in 1958 from a study trip to West Germany; his wife and son, who had already flown to London, joined him there.

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