Like many Germans of his generation, Gunter Grass, the Nobel Prize-winning German author who died Monday, had a complicated relationship with Jews and Israel.
One of Germany’s most prominent writers, Grass created a stir in 2006 when he admitted that he had been drafted into and served in the Nazis’ notorious Waffen-SS at the end of World War II. Grass, who had previously criticized other Germans for hiding their Nazi pasts and in a 1967 JTA article was described as “a known anti-Nazi during the Second World War,” had not seen military action, but “ended up behind the Russian front on reconnaissance patrols, witnessing what he described as gruesome scenes and surviving by pure chance,” JTA reported.
More recently, he irked Israel and its supporters with poetry critical of the Jewish state’s policies. In 2012, he published a poem called “A Hero in Our Time” praising Mordechai Vanunu, an Israeli convicted in 1988 of treason and espionage for leaking Israel’s nuclear secrets to a British newspaper. Earlier that year a poem titled “What Must Be Said” he claimed, JTA wrote, that “Israel was endangering world peace by threatening Iran” and condemned Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government for agreeing to subsidize Germany’s sale of additional submarines to Israel. The controversial poetry spurred a Polish Jewish community to request that Grass, then 85, not visit its synagogue during a visit to his hometown Gdansk:
“We wish to Gunter Grass very fruitful and pleasant stay in Gdansk,” Michal Samet, chairman of the Jewish Community in Gdansk, told the Gazeta Wyborcza. “There are so many wonderful places in Gdansk, the city has more than a 1,000-year history; certainly he will have a lot of things to see here. He was in our synagogue once, five years ago, and I think that would be enough.”
But it was hardly his first time criticizing Israel. In 2001, he told a German news magazine that Israel’s “occupation of Palestinian land, and its settlements, are all criminal acts,” blaming Israel alone for the lack of peace.
Like many other Europeans, Grass was more sympathetic to Israel in its early years, when it was the underdog in the Middle East and the Holocaust was still a fresh memory. In 1975, Grass was one of “23 Nobel Prize winners and more than 125 artists, writers, scientists and educators” from around the world to sign a letter protesting UNESCO’s anti-Israel discrimination. And in March of 1967, just months before Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza in the Six-Day War, Grass visited the Jewish state at the invitation of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, where he met with President Zalman Shazar and Prime Minister Levi Eshkol.