My Dinner with Günter Grass

04/14/2015 09:51 am ET | Updated Jun 14, 2015

Most writers tell stories hoping that we'll remember them. Günter Grass wrote one hoping we would forget.

My first assignment at Harcourt Publishers in 2006 came with an odd request. "Don't get Günter Grass anything," said the publicity director. Because his next book was coming out in less than a month, there was no time anyway for galleys to go out to long lead media with the intention of getting reviewed. There was to be no follow-up calls to weeklies, and no email blasts to the usual writers on our critics lists. If anyone called asking about Grass, she said, I was to take down a name and send a review copy of his upcoming book after the publishing date, not before.

All of this was especially odd because only a week earlier Harcourt Publishers had lured me over from another publishing house with the charge of getting its marquee authors media attention. The new job came with the recompense of a senior title and an enticing raise. But it was really the institutional memory of this Madison Square Park publishing house that had brought me here. It was the chance to work with my most cherished literary heroes, like Grass, author of The Tin Drum, Dog Years, and Crabwalk.

A couple of years earlier, in 1999 Grass had won the Noble Prize in Literature, a totem for a huge quantity of work he'd produced over the past six decades in which Germany's greatest literary icon had pushed his country to confront its Nazi past. His next book, inexplicably submerged at the bottom of my roster, was a long-awaited memoir called Peeling the Onion.

But an industry rumor suggested the book was not simply a run-of-the-mill memoir, as I was led to believe, but something of a long-in-the-making confession. As far back as Grass' earliest books, Germany's iconic literary celebrity had faced questions about what part, if any, he'd played in Nazi Germany. To suggest that Grass, who had, over his celebrated career, pushed his country to confront its Nazi past, was himself willingly affiliated with the Nazis was simply astonishing. For his part, Grass had denied affiliation, and continued to do so for more than half a century.
Until now anyway.

If these so-called rumors were to be trusted, after 60 years of slippery semantics, it seemed Günter Grass was coming clean. He had, like many his age, belonged to the Hitler Youth, and later served in Hitler's infamous Waffen SS division. As the scuttlebutt reached fever pitch, the publicity director told me Grass had changed his mind and decided he was coming to New York after all to promote his book. He was going to be here for five days to engage in some very limited appearances.

I'd be escorting my first Nobel-prize winning author on one of the house's most high profile books. Still, this gave me pause.

Like any Jew raised within the long shadow of the Holocaust, I'd met my share of survivors. On some pedagogical and spiritual level it was part of the cultural curriculum, along with learning the Shema. My family, like many, has its share of those who never made it out of Nazi-occupied Europe, who disappeared in work and death camps, who survived.

I'd never met a Nazi, though, a perpetrator, a criminal survivor. Hebrew school taught Jews to fear and distrust men like Günter Grass. I still did.

I wondered if Grass would recognize the eastern European Hebraic modulation of my last name. I imagined what he would he say if I told him my first job out of college had been at a holocaust museum, maintaining a catalogue of Yizkor books, memoirs of Eastern European Jewish towns destroyed by the Nazis.

Shocked and angry that my manager was now telling me I had to escort a former Nazi through New York, I drafted a press release with the headline, "Literary Nazi Heads to NYC to Come Clean..."

But I backpedaled, tapped delete.

It was important to address this Nazi business head-on, so I escorted Grass into the lion's den, at the 92nd Street Y, the epicenter of Jewish culture in the city.

I moved through the Y's metal detector. My bag was scanned through an x-ray conveyor. A security guard patted me down for weapons. The event coordinator said, "We've got plain clothes police all over the place."

We moved into the low-lit auditorium, quickly filling with people. The event coordinator motioned to the balcony.

"And here we've got our eyes in the sky. All of our ushers are on alert," he said, turning to the orchestra seats. "We've hired double our normal amount of security."

This struck me as weird: This was the first book reading I'd attended where weapons were trained on the audience. Then again, ticket holders were going to be divided among fans, apologists, academics, the literati, and gray-haired Holocaust survivors. It could get ugly.

Good, I thought. Let people tear him apart tonight.

The houselights fell and a tall skinny man in an Apple-pie-crust brown checked suit walked across the stage with a copy of his book in hand. His face was constructed of stout charcoal arcs: stooped eyes, the sweep of a wooly mustache, and the bend of short eyebrows.

At the podium, he opened to an early chapter, pitched his glasses toward the page, and began to read, in German. Not the hard, harshly steeped German of nightmarish Nazi films, but a softer iteration, that of a storyteller. I was lost to its meaning but stolen away nonetheless. But the English translation followed, read by the great historian Amos Elon, whom the Y had flown in direct from Italy. Like a dinner guest whose just learned the delicacy he's consumed belonged to the frontal lobe of a chimpanzee, Elon revealed to the English-speaking audience that it had just put away the story of Grass' first weapons training as an SS officer. An audible gasp rose from the auditorium up to the gallows.

Grass and Elon then sat down for the Q&A portion in two small chairs. Questions hung in the air, ready for Elon to pluck between his fingers, curl his hand around, and hurtle like spears at Grass.

"How could you maintain your fealty to Hitler while seeing the synagogues burned in Danzig and elsewhere?" he began.

"I lived in a closed society and did not know what I knew..." replied Grass.

"How could you maintain your belief in the Nazis, seeing what happened to the Jews in the streets and knowing that there was a concentration camp near every major city?"

"I'd been a believer..."

Grass deflected then, tried to change the direction of the conversation. "In 1959 when I published The Tin Drum--"

"In 1959 all the Jews were dead!" shouted a woman from the audience. My heart leapt, even as others booed her into silence.

"Did you volunteer for the Waffen-SS?" asked Elon.

"I'd volunteered for the submarine unit..."

"Did you or did you not volunteer for the SS?"

"I was briefly sent to the Eastern front..."

Elon, envoy of the restless and indignant audience, pushed and pushed.

"Yes, but why wait sixty years to tell the truth?"

Grass paused, seemingly perplexed by the question. He dropped his hands in his lap with a yielding sigh.

"I've always mistrusted this kind of biographical self-investigation, mocking those authors who seemed able to remember exactly what they thought thirty years ago or when they were children," he said. "To write a book like this, you have to wait until a special age."

"But why?" Elon endeavored to drag him into the fight. "The longer you wait, the less you remember."

It dawned on me that then that this might have been the point: the longer Grass waited to tell the truth, the fuzzier the truth became, even to Grass.

Later that night, the publicity director and I met Grass, Grass' German manager, and Grass' American niece at a quiet restaurant in Hell's Kitchen. The evening began with red wine and hot tea with lemon. Grass talked about his affection for the city in summer time, the shops in SoMa that Grass' American niece had taken him to that afternoon, and an odd story he'd read about a fox that had inexplicably wandered into Central Park.

He was charming, amusing, loquacious, and genuinely gracious. He had the table laughing a lot.

He ordered more food, and after dinner he lit his pipe. I remember thinking the restaurant manager was going to rush over and tell Grass to put it out immediately, but it never happened. I'd called ahead, told the host I'd be accompanying a VIP that night, and that we'd need to be placed someplace private and inconspicuous. My job was to tend to a person who deserved no comfort.

After he finished smoking his pipe, the chef sent us pastries, gratis. The table ate, but my stomach was in knots, my apatite thin. I felt conflicted, as though the impression of the genteel writer before me was battling it out with that of the Nazi, and somehow my own moral code hung in the balance. Could I forgive this man for his past?

All the while I was sensitive to the fact that I had found myself in an extraordinarily rare and privileged place, the only situation really where a guy like me would ever be sharing a private meal with a writer like Günter Grass. I was close enough now to his famous oxbow mustache to see the course, gray-white hair that filled his nostrils of his brawny, long nose.

A stronger, more confident dinner guest would have confronted Grass about the inconsistencies of his book. He would have torn apart his memoir, page-by-page, line-by-line, parsing every word and demanding acts of contrition. A stronger dinner guest would have tossed Grass' wine in his face, poured his hot tea in his lap, yanked every hair out of his mustache until there were real tears in his eyes. A stronger person would not have pandered, as I was, pouring his wine and laughing at his jokes.

"I must ask my publicist how I did," Grass said eventually, turning from the free dessert.

"You made it through a really tough interview," I said.

He chuckled. "I've gotten used to answering tough questions."

"I thought it went well," I said.

"Yes, I thought so, too. The audience was especially cordial."

Nearly a decade has passed since my dinner with Günter Grass, when I was a kid struggling to reconcile the moral compass of a man nearly four-times my age. This morning, after reading about Grass' passing at age 87, it occurred to me that forgiveness might just be an older man's game, because now the anger I once felt toward this person who I did not know well and who had struggled with his demons for many years, has mellowed in me. I teach my children the difference between right and wrong as though there is a clear delineation marked in black ink, but this rudimentary description inevitably grows more nuanced as I look at the world through wiser eyes.

I can forgive parts of him. I can love others.

I'm looking at his memoir now on my desk. Today, I do not see a Nazi, or a prized author, but rather I am remembering an old man smoking his pipe after a nice dinner, surrounded by friends, members of the publishing industry, and his American niece whose name I never caught.

Lee Daniel Kravetz is the author of the international bestselling book Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering & Success (HarperCollins), (with David B. Feldman, PhD), available in paperback April 28, 2015 wherever books are sold.