Sometimes a person's death speaks more loudly than the person did during their lifetime. I felt the moral force of this truism when Marcel Reich-Ranicki died in September. A Pole, a German and a Jew, he was a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, an influential literary editor and a successful talk show host. The reactions to the death of this towering figure shone a light on how ill at ease the German intelligentsia still is with the near-extinction of its Jewish heritage by the Nazis.
I need to stress that Reich-Ranicki, or "MRR" as he was often called, was exceptional, not only in his achievements but in the sheer power of his life story. His literary judgments were always delivered in his trademark husky voice with a rolling "r" and a slight lisp, accompanied by lively gestures. He either loved or hated a book — there was nothing in between.
The news of his death at the age of 93 revealed that, uniquely for a literary critic, Reich-Ranicki had become a household name. For a day or two it seemed as if a sombre mood had taken hold of the whole country. There were page-long obituaries and his picture appeared on the front page of almost every newspaper and magazine.
"Wait, he was a literary critic?" an American friend asked, slightly baffled. "But this man is getting a state funeral!"
"Well," I explained, "he was known as the ‘Literaturpapst', the ‘Pope of literature' — what else would you expect?"
Yet I couldn't quite convince myself that this was the reason for the national outburst of mourning. A particularly grief-stricken article exclaimed: "We can't live on without him!"