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“What Must Be Said”: Günter Grass, My Book & Me

In 2006, Günter Grass’s confession that he’d been a member of the Waffen SS surprised me. But it didn’t depress me. It didn’t anger me. Grass seemed appropriately ashamed and regretful. I knew him to be an advocate for Germany’s recognition of its Nazi past. He wasn’t asking for my forgiveness, but he would have had it, anyway.

I’d read the closing words of his 2002 novel, Crabwalk, as a regretful but accepting acknowledgment of the lasting reverberations of this past, for all of us. Those lines—“It doesn’t end. Never does it end.”—moved me so deeply that I included them as one of two epigraphs for my short story collection, Quiet Americans. (The other epigraph, also from a Nobel laureate, is Imre Kertész’s “Which writer today is not a writer of the Holocaust?”) My book is inspired largely by the histories and experiences of my paternal grandparents, German Jews who immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1930s, and by my preoccupations with that legacy. The suggestions of the Holocaust’s enduring presence in other people’s minds, souls, and history seemed to be encapsulated in these lines. In fact, Grass and Crabwalk received another mention in one of the book’s stories, as part of the narrator’s point about wartime sufferings endured by non-Jewish German civilians. (Which, I believe, remains valid.)

But now I have to look at the Grass epigraph differently. Because, with the recent publication of the poem translated as “What Must Be Said,” I have to wonder if Grass was already thinking, back in 2006, that he’s not pained. He’s not regretful. He’s just fed up. And, like so many other writers, he’s displaying some appalling anti-Israel sentiment. Because, you know, the Jews (pardon me, the Israelis), aren’t so weak anymore. They’re not such easy victims. And you know, you really can’t trust them, even if they are, at heart, a democratic and peace-seeking people. (But presumably you can trust all kinds of oppressive dictators and regimes who don’t merit poems of their own.)

Others have dealt with his poem more eloquently and knowledgeably than I would be able to, so I’ll point you to their treatments. And I’m not going to get into the Israeli government’s subsequent decision to bar Grass from their country (again, you can read some feelings I share elsewhere). I’ll say only that this time, Grass had made me deeply depressed. And outraged. And that when the time comes to renew the license that was negotiated for including the quotation from Crabwalk to open Quiet Americans, I suspect that I will let it lapse.

This will cause some major inconvenience—think of the new book files, for starters. But the only question for me now is: Should I remove the epigraph sooner? I’m trying not to react impulsively, to take some time to consider and make the decision. Yes, it will be costly and time-intensive to make this change. But, to paraphrase Grass’s own explanation when he revealed his Waffen SS past, the situation is weighing on me.

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11 Responses »

  1. Ah, Erika. I understand your pain. It seems that you have answered your own question. I’m sure you will be much more at peace with yourself and your wonderful creation when you remove the epigraph.

  2. Erika, I agree, you have already answered your own question: it doesn’t seem that you want to continue to validate or honor Grass by quoting him as your epigraph. Kudos for your high seriousness.

  3. Erika,
    What a dilemma and what a fascinating post. Could you include an author’s note with another edition of Quiet Americans? I think it would be fascinating for readers of your book to know everything you’ve written down in this post.
    Linda

  4. What a thought-provoking post. I like Linda’s idea.

  5. Thank you for *all* of the comments. Linda, I hadn’t thought about an author’s note. It’s a compelling idea. To be continued.

  6. Agree with Linda Wertheimer. You don’t want to disappear the epigraph in what would ultimately be a silent, unseen gesture; it’s part of the book after all. Linda’s solution resolves many conflicts. EW

  7. Erika, I appreciate your dilemma and I think Linda has the right idea. I recently visited the former Jewish ghetto in Shanghai, which let me feel, just a little bit, what the world was like when, as a Jew, you had no place to go, and you were at the utter mercy of other countries to even live on this planet. I think our generation can’t even fathom how fortunate we are to finally have a Jewish state, and a democratic one to boot. I’m sad to say Grass’s recent publication did not surprise me. I’m a native German speaker and hated the Blechtrommel, and I feel that perhaps now I know why his writing always made me uncomfortable.

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