gunter grass 88.
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Admitting that "I was a stupid young boy who only had fantasies and stories in my head," author Gunther Grass attempted in New York this week to explain his joining the Waffen SS, something to which he only admitted last August. But even his sympathetic interviewer seemed far from satisfied.
Grass's recently translated autobiography, Peeling the Onion, an attempt to revisit the early years of his life and to offer some explanation, brought him to the city. But he seemed unable to offer much in defense of his six decades of secrecy and his early belief in the Nazi regime.
"If someone believes in something he doesn't see other things. It's easy to say I was a child, but I didn't ask any questions. That's why I wrote this book," he said.
In a memorable appearance, Grass - who has largely refused to be interviewed since making the revelation about his past to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung last summer - was interviewed by Austrian-born Israeli writer Amos Elon at the 92nd Street Y.
Elon said Grass, in his first novel The Tin Drum and others, "pictured Nazism in its most cruel, crass, everyday dress." In the 1950s and 1960s, when Germany was still a country where many, mostly minor ex-Nazis were still prominent in the government, the judiciary and German universities, "Grass relentlessly urged everybody to confront their past, not to suppress it," Elon said.
More than that, Grass was an "engaged" writer, said Elon. He was one of Germany's most prominent public intellectuals who took it upon himself to continuously remind Germany of its past, taking to task both politicians and artists alike.
That's in part why the world was stunned by Grass's revelation that unlike his previous accounts, he had not been drafted into an anti-aircraft unit near Danzig, where he was born in 1927, as he had officially claimed previously.
Instead he revealed that in the final months of World War II, he was drafted by the Waffen SS, the elite army of Heinrich Himmler that managed the concentration camps.
That revelation drew mixed responses, with some of the harshest criticism from his own countrymen. A coalition of conservative German politicians and some Jewish groups called for the Nobel Prize committee to take back the award.
"I do not understand how someone can elevate himself constantly for 60 years as the nation's bad conscience, precisely in Nazi questions, and only then admit that he himself was deeply involved," Joachim Fest, a prominent historian and biographer of Hitler, told the newspaper Bild at the time. "I don't know how he could play thhis double role for so long."
Grass told his New York audience that "at the end of the '50s and '60s I spoke about it in interviews; no one cared. But later I kept it to myself. I was full of shame. I was sure I would speak about it in a literary form - to write a book like this you have to wait for a special age. Before, I distrusted memory writing."
Despite his obvious admiration for Grass, or perhaps because of it, Elon plainly found it hard to come to terms with Grass's revelations about his sordid past. At certain moments the interview sounded more like a fragile trial, one that both were nervous to conduct.
Elon spent half the interview "trying to understand" why it took so long for Grass - more than a year after the war's end - to realize the truth about the Nazis.
Grass, who tapped his fingers nervously throughout the interview, said that he had been "stupid" like many others at the time. Living under a totalitarian regime, he had been "a believer" who didn't ask questions.
That didn't seem to satisfy Elon. "You were 17 years old and had no doubts despite the fact that the Nazis killed your uncle, and [what about] your teacher's disappearance?" Elon asked.
Later he used a phrase from Grass's own Crab Walk to criticize the author. "You say that German history is like a clogged toilet: the more you flush, the more comes out. Some have said this happened to you.
"Why did it take 62 years to come out with this?" Elon asked towards the end of the interview.
At one point, Grass said he had "had enough" of the criticism that has been directed at him over the past year. By the sound of the applause, the largely Jewish audience seemed to agree.
Even Elon, who it seemed was still trying to come to grips with Grass on stage, ended his introduction by suggesting that Grass's autobiography will "survive the debate about it, and will be read long after the debate is forgotten."