The Literary Guru

Marcel Reich-Ranicki in Images and Personal Testimonials

Literaturforum 1996 (1996) by Oliver SebelJewish Museum Frankfurt / Museum Judengasse

Marcel Reich-Ranicki (1920-2013) was the most famous and influential literary critic in the Federal Republic. He survived the Warsaw Ghetto and moved from Poland to the Federal Republic of Germany in 1958. He was a critic first for the newspaper Die Zeit, then for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
The following presentation tells his life story by way of selected works from his personal collection of author-portraits and caricatures, which he donated to the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt in 2003. These are complemented by citations from his autobiography, Mein Leben, which topped the German bestseller-lists for months.

"To put it simply: I wanted to explain to the readers why the books I consider good and beautiful are good and beautiful. I wanted to make them read those books."
Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Mein Leben, 1999, S.534f.

Schiller (after Schadow) (1975) by Horst JanssenJewish Museum Frankfurt / Museum Judengasse

Marcel Reich was born on 2 June 1920 in Włocławek, Poland, son of the merchant David Reich and his German-born wife Helene. His maternal grandfather was a rabbi, although his mother broke with Judaism and also brought up her son Marcel in an areligious way.
When his father’s business went bankrupt, the family moved to Berlin in 1929 to live with relatives of his mother. Here, as early as his school days, Marcel developed his passion for German literature.

Friedrich Schiller (after Ludovike Simanowiz) (1820/1830) by Siegfried Detlev BendixenJewish Museum Frankfurt / Museum Judengasse

"When did my passion for literature start? I can’t tell exactly, but my mother must have noticed it very early. When I was twelve years old she gave me on some occasion a rather unusual gift: a ticket for a performance of 'Wilhelm Tell' (...)
Schiller is also related to my first accomplishment in German class. (...) One of my classmates was giving a talk on 'Wilhelm Tell', but he was finished after barely five minutes. The teacher, having expected something more substantial, asked if someone could add something about the play. I put my hand up and got started: 'Tell' glorifies political assassination and an individual act of terror. I must have used a fair number of words to expound this and the like, because I was still talking when the break time bell rang about forty minutes later."
Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Mein Leben, 1999, S.82, 84f.

Portrait Gerhart Hauptmann (1920) by Ivo HauptmannJewish Museum Frankfurt / Museum Judengasse

After the National Socialists came to power, the family’s application for German citizenship was rejected. Marcel Reich was a member of the Zionist boy scouts association for a short time and read Theodor Herzl’s writings with enthusiasm. When the Nuremberg Racial Laws were enacted in 1935 his parents and brother returned to Warsaw. Marcel Reich passed his secondary school examination successfully at the Fichte Gymnasium in Berlin Wilmersdorf in 1938, but was refused permission to study German Letters because he was a Jew.

"Delighted by The Beaver Coat, I devoured half a dozen of Hauptmann’s dramas. What is more, I understood that literature could and should be entertaining. I have never forgotten that."
Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Mein Leben, 1999, S. 50.

Who is who? (1990) by Tullio PericoliJewish Museum Frankfurt / Museum Judengasse

In October 1938 Marcel Reich was expelled from Germany and deported to Poland. He lived with his brother and his parents in Warsaw. There he read a lot of literature by German expatriates; later he would continue to occupy himself intensively with this.
His sister Gerda and her husband Gerhard Böhm were able to flee to England shortly before the outbreak of war. Some of his cousins also managed to leave for Great Britain, among them, the artist Frank Auerbach.

"I was eager to learn what Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Arnold and Stefan Zweig, Döblin and Joseph Roth, Werfel, Feuchtwanger and Brecht, what they all had written in exile after 1933. That was not too difficult, because at that time there existed quite a number of private libraries in Warsaw and some of them were well-stocked with German books."
Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Mein Leben, 1999, S. 104

Erich Kästner, Lyrische Hausapotheke (Lyrical Medicine Chest) (1941) by Teofila Reich-RanickiJewish Museum Frankfurt / Museum Judengasse

In January 1940 Marcel Reich got to know his future wife Teofila (called Tosia) Langnas (1920 Lodz – 2011 Frankfurt), shortly after her father had hanged himself, having been humiliated by a German soldier.
In summer 1940 the German occupying forces ordered the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto. Marcel Reich became head of the translation section of the Jewish administrative council because of his good knowledge of German.

Erich Kästner, Lyrische Hausapotheke (Lyrical Medicine Chest) (1941) by Teofila Reich-RanickiJewish Museum Frankfurt / Museum Judengasse

"So, Tosia copied by hand Kästner’s Lyrical Medicine Chest for me. She also created illustrations for the poems and carefully bund the sheets. The resulting book was given to me on my 21st birthday, on June, 2nd 1941 in the Warsaw Ghetto. Have I ever been presented with a more beautiful gift?"
Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Mein Leben, 1999, S. 40

"Umschlagplatz", czyli poczekalnia przed odjazdem do Treblinki / "Umschlagplatz" - Warten auf den Abtransport nach Treblinka („Umschlagplatz“ Waiting for the Transport to Treblinka“) (1942/1943) by Teofila Reich-RanickiJewish Museum Frankfurt / Museum Judengasse


Marcel Reich and Teofila Langnas got married in the ghetto on 22 July 1942. That way, Reich could protect his wife from the persecution by the occupying forces, but not his parents and Teofila’s mother Emilie, who were deported from the ghetto in September and murdered in Treblinka. In November, his brother Alexander was shot by SS men in the Poniatowa labor camp.

"We didn’t have a honeymoon trip. We, Tosia and me, were spared from it – as there would have been only one possible destination: the gas chambers."
Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Mein Leben, 1999, S. 252

Portrait Theodor Fontane (1970) by Horst JanssenJewish Museum Frankfurt / Museum Judengasse

Marcel and Teofila Reich succeeded in escaping from the Warsaw Ghetto in February 1943. Until liberation by the Red Army, they found shelter in the small house of the unemployed typesetter Bolek and his wife Genia on the outskirts of Warsaw.
To entertain their hosts in the evenings he told them stories based on great works of literature.

"Each day after dark I told Bolek and his Genia all kinds of stories – for hours, for weeks, for months. They served only one purpose: to entertain the two. The better they liked a story, the better our reward with an extra slice of bread or a carrot. I did not invent a single of these stories. I have rather told them stories I remembered. In the dark and austere kitchen I presented my grateful audience with flagrantly corrupted short versions of novels and novellas, dramas and operas and even movies which I turned into suspenseful tales. I told them Werther, Wilhelm Tell and The Broken Jug, Immensee and The Rider on the White Horse, Effie Briest and Frau Jenny Treibel, Aida, Traviata und Rigoletto."
Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Mein Leben, 1999, S. 286

Portrait Bertolt Brecht (1976) by Wolfgang WerkmeisterJewish Museum Frankfurt / Museum Judengasse

After 1945

After liberation, Marcel and Teofila Reich joined the Polish Army and were assigned first to a propaganda unit, then to military censorship. After the war, Marcel Reich worked in the Polish Foreign Intelligence Service and in the Consular Service. During this time he adopted the name Ranicki.

Portrait Bertolt Brecht (1976) by Wolfgang WerkmeisterJewish Museum Frankfurt / Museum Judengasse

"On the next day I reported to the local commander, only to learn that the propaganda unit I was supposed to join didn’t exist yet. But its future leader was already there … Without looking up he crisply asked me: 'Do you speak German?' And then he abruptly asked an unexpected, almost incredible question: 'Do you know Brecht?' I answered 'Yes' (...) The both of us were – I’m almost certain of it – the only ones in the entire Polish army to whom the name Brecht meant anything."
Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Mein Leben, 1999, S. 303f.

Portrait Franz Kafka (1982) by Cássio LoredanoJewish Museum Frankfurt / Museum Judengasse

In 1950 Marcel Reich-Ranicki was dismissed from the Foreign Service and the Secret Service, having been accused of a visa offence; he was also excluded from the Communist Party. He began working as an editor, translator and critic for various Polish publishing houses and newspapers.

"I didn’t only write about the older authors, but also about the writers of German post-war literature (like Frisch and Koeppen, Böll and Andersch, Martin Walser and Siegfried Lenz) who were still unknown in Poland. I also did – for the first time in my life – some translations. Together with a friend I translated Max Brod’s stage version of Kafka’s The Castle and Dürrenmatt’s The Visit."
Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Mein Leben, 1999, S. 371

Portrait Heinrich Böll (1981) by Celestino PiattiJewish Museum Frankfurt / Museum Judengasse

In Germany

Marcel Reich-Ranicki moved to the Federal Republic of Germany in 1958. To acquire a passport – supposedly necessary for a temporary study sojourn – he needed sponsorship, which Heinrich Böll was willing to provide. He had got to know Böll in 1956 when the latter visited Warsaw at the invitation of the Polish Writers’ Association.His first contributions for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Die Welt and various radio stations were made under the name Marcel Reich-Ranicki.

"We hadn’t been long in the Federal Republic when Böll came to Frankfurt to pay us a visit in the scantily furnished room we lived in. He brought a bouquet of flowers. Later Tosia said to me 'He is the first German who brought me a bouquet of flowers'. And I thought to myself: Maybe he is the first German after all."
Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Mein Leben, 1999, S. 366

Group Portrait (1981) by Cássio LoredanoJewish Museum Frankfurt / Museum Judengasse

Gruppe 47

The most important forum for post-war literature in the young Federal Republic was the Group 47 (Gruppe 47), a gathering initiated by Hans Werner Richter. As of 1958, Marcel Reich-Ranicki took part regularly in the meetings of the Group 47, soon becoming one of its best known faces.

"Before I departed from Poland, I had already read some works by award winners of the Group 47–works by Ingeborg Bachmann and Ilse Aichinger, Heinrich Böll, Günter Eich and Martin Walser. I was familiar with the names of many of the authors who were present in Großholzleute, like Hans Magnus Enzensberger or Wolfgang Hildesheimer, not to speak of Günter Grass. All in all, this group of German writers made me feel somewhat comfortable and by no means strange."
Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Mein Leben, 1999, S. 408f.

Nun with Eel (1973) by Günter GrassJewish Museum Frankfurt / Museum Judengasse

After their joint debut at the Group 47, Günter Grass and Marcel Reich-Ranicki maintained a close, if also tense relationship. Although he severely criticized several of Grass' books, he still ranked him among the greatest contemporary writers.

"I gave an account of how during the dark hours I became a storyteller borrowing his subjects from world literature. Afterwards Grass asked me, if I intended to write about it. When I said no, he asked my permission to use some of these motives. Many years later, in 1972, he published his From the Diary of a Snail, where I rediscovered my story. He had attributed it to a teacher nicknamed Zweifel [doubt]. When we met again, I casually told him that I probably deserved a share of the revenues from the Snails Diary. Grass turned pale and shakily lit a cigarette. To reassure him, I quickly made a suggestion: I would abandon all claims, if he gave me one of his prints."
Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Mein Leben, 1999, S. 388

Portrait Max Frisch (1972) by Otto DixJewish Museum Frankfurt / Museum Judengasse

The Swiss author Max Frisch became world famous in the 1950s with his novels Stiller and Homo Faber. In 2002 Marcel Reich-Ranicki included Frisch's Montauk in his 20-volume "canon" of the most outstanding German-language novels.

"I was keen to persuade Max Frisch to at least occasionally contribute to the literary section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. I wrote him letters, called him, I met him here and there. (...) He answered swiftly and kindly, it all ended in excuses. (...) But in 1977 Frisch surprised me with a present. He sent me a wonderful print. It was his portrait by Otto Dix. As he told me a little later, this gift was meant as a compensation for the disappointments he repeatedly had to cause me: The point was that he couldn't agree with various political issues in the Frankfurter Allgemeine. So, he would be no means want to write for this newspaper."
Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Mein Leben, 1999, S. 520f.

Award Certificate for the Golden Medal of the City of Klagenfurt (1986)Jewish Museum Frankfurt / Museum Judengasse

The influantial critic

In 1977 the first German-language Literature Days were held in Klagenfurt; the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize is awarded at that event. During the competition mainly young authors read from their texts, which are then discussed by a jury of experts. It has become one of the most important contemporary literature events, among other things, because it is televised. Marcel Reich-Ranicki gained widespread prominence as the spokesman of the jury.

Replica of a Thaler from the Old Klagenfurt Mint (around 1980)Jewish Museum Frankfurt / Museum Judengasse

"After only a few years some said it was clear as daylight, that I had acquired an uncommon amount of influence. (...) In those years my involvement in the literary life by far exceeded the Frankfurter Allgemeine: I was member of many juries, I was co-founder of the Klagenfurt competition for the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 1977 and Spokesman of this competition’s jury until 1986. But one question may be allowed: Was that beneficial or bad for the literature?"
Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Mein Leben, 1999, S. 491

Schädelstätte (Place of the Skull) (1980) by Friedrich DürrenmattJewish Museum Frankfurt / Museum Judengasse

As a critic, Marcel Reich-Ranicki was both famous and feared for his unambiguous judgments. Because of his popularity and his characteristic manner of speaking, he became one of the most parodied and caricatured intellectuals in the Federal Republic.

"Although I have written many, very many affirmative reviews, and although on occasionally reading my old reviews I have to ask myself, if I hadn’t been frequently praising books that hardly deserved it, I was considered a specialist for scathing reviews. A drawing by Friedrich Dürrenmatt depicts me armed with a monstrous pen sitting on a heap of heads, presumably those of my victims. The drawings bears the title 'Place of the Skull'".
Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Mein Leben, 1999, S. 445

Bambi, Media and Television Award in the Category Culture (1989)Jewish Museum Frankfurt / Museum Judengasse

The Literary Quartet was a TV show that ran from 1988 to 2001: Four literary critics discussed books and their authors, usually quite controversially. Although it adhered to a very minimalist concept, doing without film inserts and the like, it was extremely popular with viewers.

"The audience of the Literary Quartet consists not only of literary experts and avid readers, but also of people who are quite indifferent towards literature. Now and then they are watching us anyway, probably because they enjoy our conversations and perhaps also our controversies. It seems that occasionally these viewers reach for some of the books discussed, often themselves quite surprised of their sudden interest in literature. I don’t want to deny that I care particularly about these viewers."
Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Mein Leben, 1999, S. 537f.

The Golden Camera Award (2000)Jewish Museum Frankfurt / Museum Judengasse

As host of the TV show The Literary Quartet Marcel Reich-Ranicki was awarded numerous TV prizes, including the Bambi and the Golden Camera.
In 2008, however, he spontaneously refused to accept the German TV Prize, referring to the drop in standards on television.

"I believe it wouldn’t do me justice to judge my professional accomplishments only by the Literary Quartet. What I have to say about literature can still be found in my articles for newspapers and magazines and in my books. But the one thing I have always aspired through my long life as a critic and which I have never quite accomplished–reaching out to the general public–was actually achieved by television."
Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Mein Leben, 1999, S. 539

Mein Leben (My Life) (1999) by Marcel Reich-RanickiJewish Museum Frankfurt / Museum Judengasse

Marcel Reich-Ranicki's autobiography was published in 1999 entitled Mein Leben. It was No. 1 on the Spiegel bestseller list from 11 October 1999 to 15 October 2000 and thus one of the most successful books of contemporary history. A film of the same name based on these memoirs was made in 2009.

"The history of this autobiography dates way back until the year 1943. In those days, shortly after our escape from the Warsaw ghetto it was asked from me by Teofila Reich-Ranicki. I didn’t comply with her request. For many years and decades I have resisted this wish, which has been expressed throughout the years by many different persons, among them Andrew Alexander Ranicki. I did not want to live through it all again in my thoughts. Also, I was afraid not to be equal to the task. Only half a century later, in 1993, I have finally decided to describe my life."
Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Mein Leben, 1999, S. 555

Credits: Story

Objects and photos:
Jüdisches Museum Frankfurt, donated by Marcel Reich-Ranicki

Concept and texts:
Erik Riedel

Editing and realization:
Korbinian Böck

Pauline Cumbers and Erik Riedel

Excerpts from Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Mein Leben: © 1999, Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, München, in der Verlagsgruppe Random House GmbH

Die Sammlung Reich-Ranicki. Schriftstellerporträts aus zwei Jahrhunderten, Frankfurt: Jüdisches Museum Frankfurt 2003.
Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Mein Leben, München: DVA 1999.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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