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Volume 19 • Issue 17 | September 8 - 14, 2006

Talking Point

How Günter Grass drummed me out of an interview

By Jerry Tallmer

My stepfather, Peter Müller-Munk — my mother’s second husband — emigrated to New York in 1926 from the Berlin where he’d been born and raised. He was 22, a silversmith and starving artist. Three years before he set sail for America, there had occurred what came to be known as the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, and the name of Adolf Hitler entered the ledger of history. P.M.M. — the initials that became a nickname to his close associates — was half-Jewish, half not. The Jewish half had been his father, a Berlin doctor or lawyer or businessman of some standing; he had, I think, died well before the advent of Hitler, when Peter was still quite young. Peter’s mother, Gertrud Müller-Munk, who followed her son to America, was an artist in her own right and a formidable German-backboned personality, as my own mother, Ilona Müller-Munk, would come to appreciate only too well over the years. (My mother’s father, Max Lowenthal, was himself originally a Berlin businessman perhaps not much unlike Peter’s father.)

Over those same years, Peter Müller-Munk — he and my mother having moved from New York to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — rose from hunger artist to head of the industrial-design division at Carnegie Tech, and thereafter, having set up shop for himself in that brand-new field in 1938, to a ranking as one of the world’s top industrial designers, not too far behind Raymond Loewy and Henry Dreyfuss.

It was P.M.M., one of the most elegant men I ever knew, likewise one of the most cultured, from whom I first learned why I should read Thomas Mann; it was from P.M.M. that I first learned, in thrilling detail, about something called the “Dreigroschen Oper,” or “Threepenny Opera,” of two Berlin somebodies called Brecht and Weill; it was P.M.M. who opened my ears to the virility of Mozart.

It was also Peter Müller-Munk — first him, and then my mother — who in 1959 said there’s a book, Jerry, that you must read, and right away, called “The Tin Drum,” by a German named Gunter Grass.

I not only read it, I devoured it, and devoured everything else by Grass I could lay my hands on, in particular, the two other novels of the “Danzig” trilogy, “Cat and Mouse” and “Dog Years,” that followed in 1961 and 1963. Whenever thereafter Peter and Ilona and I would get to talking about Nazi Germany and post-Nazi Germany, which was often, “The Tin Drum” and its ominous little Oscar Matzerath (a name that always sounded peculiarly like matzohs, to me) was the starting point, or point of reference.

Günter Grass, in short, was the Good German — and not only that but the genius German, the X-ray-vision German, a Nobel Prize German for the ages. Peter and Ilona — who both died in 1967 — did not live long enough to get a bit weary, in more recent years, of the hellfire Günter Grass who has redirected all of Oscar Mazerath’s venom, all that tireless acidulous drumming, against the adventurist military policy (or anti-policy) of the latter-day United States.

And Peter — and mother — what now? What now of the Good German who joined the Waffen SS at age 17 and then forgot all about it for the next 60 years? What now of the laying bare the root rot of the German psyche — no, the Nazi psyche — to the ratatatat of that clamorous, odious little drum?

I don’t know how many people I have interviewed in my life. A great many, suffice it to say. Some were bored (to have to do it), some were snippy or condescending, some were sourly noncommunicative (Tennessee Williams!), some were simply in a crushing hurry. None that I can recall were purely and simply hostile, right off the bat. None but one: Günter Grass.

He cut me off at the knees, at the pass. I don’t remember when this was, or what the occasion: a book tour for some new thing of his, I imagine, sometime in the ’70s or ’80s. And try as I may — I’ve wracked my brains on this the past couple of nights — I cannot for the life of me bring back what I said, for openers, that elicited his harsh, blunt, Germanic — I was about to write “brutal,” but “Germanic” will do — dismissal.

Which is the point, isn’t it? Or to the point. Because maybe my interviewer’s opener to him (I am inventing this as I go along) was something like: “Mr. Grass, you were a kid, 6 years old, when Hitler came to power, do you have any memory of that? What was it like, going to school in that time … ” — and so on and so forth. That would have come dangerously close, maybe, to turning the key to open the door of memory — the tar pit of memory — that his current apologia has left blurred, locked, sealed, unopened. The door to the perhaps 1 million ferocious murders that the Waffen SS perpetrated throughout Europe without 17- or 18-year-old Günter Grass knowing anything about it.

I mean, if he can blank out all that, then I can forget what it was that made him destroy the interview that day before it began. Just as he forgets.

I do have another, more vivid, memory that might be considered a subtext here.

Peter Müller-Munk’s lifelong best friend, from Berlin on up, was a fellow his own age named Ullrich Meisel. Ullrich later became a distinguished Texas-based photographer. But on the night I remember, he and I, still in uniform, were fresh back from service in WW II, and the two of us and Peter were having a drink on it in that hotel bar on the East Side where portholes in the wall, or the simulated ocean behind them, went up and down.

Ullrich had been in the U.S. Army in Occupied Germany; I had been in the Air Force in the Pacific. Ullrich got talking, and Peter and I kept pumping him.

“The French,” said Ullrich. “The French they are such shits.” And the Brits, Ullrich? “Oh, such shits, those British!” Peter and I started laughing. What about the Russians, Ullrich? “The Russians? Such complete bastards.” Peter and I are now collapsing with laughter. How about the Americans? “What absolute sons of bitches. But I mean total sons of bitches.” And the Germans, Ullrich?

“Please don’t ask me,” said Ullrich Meisel, late of Berlin, and so we didn’t.

I do have one or two things, however, to ask Günter Grass at this remove, but so do you. And so, somewhere out there, must my mother and Peter Müller-Munk, I like to think.



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