Pope of Literature, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Dies at 93

Curmudgeonly Critic Became Unlikely TV Star

Meeting the Pontiff: Marcel Reich-Ranicki, seen here with Angela Merkel, survived World War II to become a post-war specialist in German literature and host of a German literary TV show.
Getty Images
Meeting the Pontiff: Marcel Reich-Ranicki, seen here with Angela Merkel, survived World War II to become a post-war specialist in German literature and host of a German literary TV show.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published September 19, 2013, issue of September 27, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

A memoir, “The Author of Himself: The Life of Marcel Reich-Ranicki published by Princeton University Press in 2001, recounts the unlikely story of how a Polish Jewish escapee from the Warsaw Ghetto managed to become the so-called “Pope of Literature” (Der Literatur-Papst) in postwar Germany. The critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, who died yesterday at the age of 93, was born Marceli Reich in 1920, of Polish-German Jewish heritage in the northern Polish town of Włocławek. In 1929 he moved to Berlin, but was deported back to Poland by the Nazis in 1938, and by 1940 was interned in the Warsaw Ghetto. There, of a critical nature, he penned often-harsh music reviews for the local Gazeta Żydowska (The Jewish Newspaper). One such, of a Saturday morning concert in 1942, castigated a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto by soloist Zygmunt Lederman, a chamber music partner of Władysław Szpilman, whose story inspired the Oscar-winning 2002 film “The Pianist.” Reich-Ranicki’s critique stated that he was “especially bothered” that the first movement was “too sweet” and the second “too superficial.” Nor was he overly impressed by a Beethoven Seventh Symphony conducted by the Polish Jewish composer Marian Neuteich (1890 – c.1943), who would be murdered the following year in the Trawniki concentration camp, southeast of Lublin.

Reich-Ranicki, who escaped to the German side of Warsaw before the Ghetto was destroyed, became a postwar specialist in German literature in postwar Poland. He joined the Polish People’s Army in 1944 as a censor in the Communist secret police. After a stint in London as Polish consul-general and intelligence operative (using the alias Ranicki), he fell afoul of official anti-Semitism, and was accused of “cosmopolitanism,” a notorious euphemism for Judaism. Resurfacing at the Polish Defense Ministry, he promoted East German writers, signing articles with his spy alias, Ranicki. In 1958 he moved to Germany, where his editor at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) newspaper suggested that his pen name should be the Marcel Reich-Ranicki, which it remained. Reich-Ranicki became a multi-media celebrity with a hit TV show, whose fame endures to this day (“The Author of Himself” was filmed for German television in 2009 as “My Life,” by the Tel Aviv-born Israeli director Dror Zahavi, himself long based in Germany).

Reich-Ranicki’s stint from 1988 to 2002 as curmudgeonly host of “The Literary Quartet,” a German public TV offering, cemented his fame, and an even longer running feature for FAZ, “Ask Reich-Ranicki” was a kind of Bintel Brief about books, reinforcing his supposed omniscience about all things literary. One 2011 column described a 1965 visit to the home of the German Jewish poet Nelly Sachs, a resident of Sweden who would win the Nobel Prize the following year. Reich-Ranicki found the elderly Sachs hampered by a “very serious mental condition” and “severely limited sanity,” complaining of being “persecuted and terrorized” by radio waves sent by an illegal German Nazi organization which was barely reined in by the Swedish police. Uncharacteristically, Reich-Ranicki decided not to report on his visit with Sachs at the time, waiting until decades later to do so.

It was not in Reich-Ranicki’s nature to remain silent. “A History of German Literary Criticism, 1730-1980” from the University of Nebraska Press describes Reich-Ranicki’s “own combative personal perspective” that criticism could “encourage certain kinds of literature and prevent others from coming into existence. Thus [Reich-Ranicki] created a fictional literary republic whose citizens — the reading public — seek access to literature under the guidance of critical opinion leaders and more or less dictate their esthetic desires to the producers.” Perhaps reflecting his earlier experience as a Communist censor, met by the German penchant for following orders, Reich-Ranicki’s dicta were lapped up by a nation, even when he aggressively slated all of German TV in 2008. At the German Television Awards in Cologne, where he was presented a lifetime achievement award, Reich-Ranicki snapped, “I don’t belong here among all this rubbish,” and the cowed audience meekly applauded in agreement.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.