“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.

Erika Dreifus was raised at Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, NJ. She is the author of Quiet Americans: Stories, a 2012 ALA Sophie Brody Medal Honor Title for outstanding Jewish literature. She blogs about Jewish literature, culture, and politics at My Machberet, which is where this post first appeared.

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

  1. avatar

    Rather than remove the epigraph, why not an author’s note putting it in its new context?

  2. avatar

    In light of the recent Grass poem, I wonder how the word “It” in the quotation will actually be read by those less familiar with the rest of the work and thoughts of Grass? Perhaps it will take on new meaning all by itself.

  3. avatar

    As this whole controversy emerged, I found myself feeling outraged and angered and betrayed along with the rest of the Jewish community. Then, I went and actually read his poem. Yes, he’s critical of Israel–so what?!? He may be wrong, but the language of the rest of the poem proves that he’s not an anti-semite. This does not erase any of what he’s written before, and has nothing to so with his brief stint in the SS, for which I think he’s satisfactorily atoned. I don’t understand how people can accuse him of being an anti-semite, just based on this poem. People are so sensitive about Israel that they are willing to level a blanket-charge of antisemitism at anyone who dares to criticize it. This is really not a good state for the Jewish community to be in…

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