Gdańsk greets Gunter Grass

The celebration culminated with the premiere of a play at the Teatr Wybrzeze national state theater in Gdansk.Born in Danzig (currently named Gdansk), Gunter Grass was awarded the 1999 Nobel Prize in Literature and is among the most famous citizens of the Tri-City region. For many decades Grass has been an outspoken left-siding critic of Germany’s treatment of its Nazi past. Grass shot to international acclaim with the publication of his 1959 book “The Tin Drum.” The novel is part of Grass’ Danzig Trilogy. A 1978 a film adaptation by Volker Schlondorff shared the 1979 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or with “Apocalypse Now.”But last year the world was shocked to discover that Grass was a member of the Waffen-SS during World War II. Accusations of hypocrisy have dogged him ever since. As the historian Joachim Fest, writing in Germany’s “Der Spiegel” said: “After 60 years, this confession comes a bit too late. I can’t understand how someone who for decades set himself up as a moral authority, a rather smug one, could pull this off.”In Gdansk, Grass was expected to read from his 2002 novel “Crabwalk,” which is a fictionalized account of a modern-day journalist determined to investigate the real-life story of the World War II passenger vessel Wilhelm Gustloff. The ship evacuated thousands of German civilians from Danzig in January 1945 when it was sunk by three torpedoes from a Soviet submarine led by the Soviet admiral, Alexander Marinesko. As many as 10,000 people were thought to have died in the brutal attack. Grass, according to Russia’s St. Petersburg Times, chose to write about this particular story, and not, say, the bombing of Dresden, because the late American writer Kurt Vonnegut had already written about Dresden in the novel “Slaughterhouse 5,” while the Gustloff episode remains somewhat unknown.Grass was also expected to read and discuss his latest novel “Peeling the Onion.” With its revelations of his Waffen-SS past, there were rich discussions about World War II, questions of history, totalitarian societies and dictatorships of the 20th Century, as well as an analysis of current politics.Many critics argue that Grass has yet to provide a forthright account of the Waffen-SS scandal in front of a Polish audience.Grass’ visit to Gdansk had generated a great deal of controversy, and the Kaczynski brothers and their right-wing PiS party had thrown themselves into the fray. In 2006, all the major parties agreed to invite Grass to Gdansk and celebrate his life’s work (his birthday is later this month). However, recently PiS withdrew its support of the festival and President Lech Kaczynski did not attend the premiere at the Teatr Wybrzeze.As was reported in Dziennik Baltycki, the budget for the festival was some 350,000 zloty. PiS believed that the money is better spent renovating Grass’ home which is a tourist attraction many German visitors go to when they visit Trojmiasto (the Tri-City region of Gdansk, Sopot & Gdynia). Others believed PiS’ objections had nothing to do with a sudden, last minute interest in the renovation of the writer’s home to please German tourists who are worth blns of zloty to Poland through tourism each year. Rather, it is felt that PiS objected simply because of the upcoming election and that it was a strategy to stoke up anti-German feeling.Last year, PiS demanded that Grass relinquish his honorary citizenship of Gdansk. Jacek Kurski, PiS member of parliament, who represented Gdansk in the Sejm, said: “It is unacceptable for a city where the first blood was shed, where World War II began, to have a Waffen-SS member as an honorary citizen.” When asked about how they feel, according to opinion polls, the people of Gdansk whom Kurski is supposed to represent, adamantly disagree with this position – they feel an internationally known, award-winning writer from Gdansk deserves to be recognized as an honorary citizen and that Poland should no longer be preoccupied with the past and that the future is more about Germany and Poland cooperating as partners and equals at the table of the EU, rather than reopening old wounds.Piotr, a blues singer in Sopot, put it this way: “The Kaczynski’s and their Law & Justice Party (PiS) take art into consideration only so far as it furthers their narrow political agenda. They use art [and history] instrumentally. In furthering their shortsighted goals, they are always ready to undermine whatever positive symbols there are in Poland. A case in point: their treatment of former President Lech Walesa? Gunter Grass is a symbol of Polish-German reconciliation and undermining such a symbol is a grave mistake.” However, Cezary Kazimierz, a 23-year-old student of electronics, agreed with PiS and finds that too much money is being spent on a birthday party and that such money would probably be better spent on a more permanent tourist attraction such as the renovation of Grass’ home. But mostly, young students like Kazimierz, don’t care for this controversy. The Gunter Grass 80th Birthday celebration began Thursday, October 4 and ran through Saturday, October 6.

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