Often cited as ‘Germany’s collective conscience’ and commonly regarded as one of the country’s greatest poets, novelists and playwrights, Nobel Prize winner Gunter Grass was born in the Free City of Danzig in 1927. Although he spent most of his life in Germany, much of his work references the places he spent his childhood in the Gdansk (German Danzig) district of Wrzeszcz (Langfuhr) including his family’s home and his schools which survived the war despite the huge damage the city suffered.
Gunter Grass (1927-2015 )
Gunter Grass was born on October 16, 1927 the son of a German grocer, Wilhelm Grass and a Kashubian mother Helena Knoff, in the hospital now known as Kliniczna. Grass’ background was not uncommon in a city where Germans, Poles and the local Kashubian population regularly inter-married and his own story can be viewed as a pocket history of the city in the first half of the 20th century.The mix of cultures in which Grass grew up is also a theme that regularly appears in his work and is particularly evident in Grass’ ‘The Tin Drum’ where the main character Oskar has a Kashubian mother, and two presumptive fathers - the German Alfred Matzerath, his mother’s husband and the Pole Jan Bronski, his mother’s lover. Because Grass uses real places set against an historical background in his fictionalised work, he creates a window into the Danzig of the 1930s and 1940s and the lives of those who lived here during this period.
Many of the locations where the action is set in his novels are real places where Grass spent time during this period and with many having survived the devastation suffered by the main city of Gdansk/Danzig during World War II, it is possible to walk the streets of Grass’ childhood and at the same time realise the setting of his stories. The best place to start is his parents’ home close to the Wrzeszcz railway station and bus terminus. The row of buildings on ul. Lendziona (German – Kastanienweg) look much like they did when Grass was born and at 5a you’ll see the entrance to the courtyard where the Grasses lived.
Although his father was an Evangelical Protestant, Gunter Grass was christened a Catholic like his mother in the nearby Sacred Heart of Jesus church on ul. ks. Józefa Zator Przytockiego 3 (Schwarzerweg). His parents moved to the nearby ul. Joachima Lelewela (Labesweg), where his father, a grocer, also had a shop. Grass attended the primary school on ul. Pestalozziego (Pestalozzistrasse) before continuing his studies in the Conradinum on ul. Piramowicza (Kruzestrasse).
Grass had been born and raised in the Free City and by the time he became a teenager, Danzig had been incorporated into the Nazi German Reich in 1939. While Grass had openly admitted to having been a member of the Hitler Youth, it is the period of his life towards the end of the war which caused the most controversy in his later years. Grass had said that he had volunteered for, and been rejected by, the Kriegsmarine as a 15-year old in order primarily to get away from his unhappy, uninspiring family life in the “two-room flat and four-family toilet” and that later he had served as an anti-aircraft auxiliary. However this version of his story was thrown on its head in 2006 following a frank interview granted to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Grass admitted that in 1944 he had been drafted into the 10th SS tank division Frundsberg and that the aircraft auxiliary episode was one that had lasted only while he was a schoolboy. Naturally his involvement in an organisation infamous for its associations with deaths heads and murder caused a bit of a rumpus in Poland, a country regarded as the primary killing field of the Nazi machine. Local hero, Lech Wałęsa, called on Grass to surrender his honorary citizenship of Gdańsk, while some accused him of trying to hype up the publication of his latest book at the time, Peeling Onions. While the belated revelation drew widespread shock and accusations of hypocrisy, following many years where he had criticised Germans for not taking full responsibility for their war-time actions, many high-profile names such as the local Archbishop Michalik and novelist John Irving, sprang to his defence. Speaking of the guilt he had carried all his life by not revealing the truth, Grass claimed to never have fired a shot, adding that once he saw the brutality of war he even tried to infect himself with jaundice in an attempt to escape his military duty. He went as far as to write an open letter of explanation to the people of Gdansk and this appeared to have done the trick with the local mayor Pawel Adamowicz refusing to rescind Grass’ honorary citizenship while even the normally stubborn Wałęsa applauded Grass for coming clean and withdrew his previous objections.
The end of the war saw the city occupied by the Red Army and Poland given the city of Danzig/Gdansk under the terms of the Yalta agreement. Poland’s territory was moved westward with the German border now at the Oder. The surviving German population of Danzig/Gdansk were expelled to make room for Polish refugees themselves moved from ceded territory in the east such as Wilno/Vilnius in what is now Lithuania or Grodno/Hrodna in the present day Belarus. Grass never made it back to Danzig/Gdansk after leaving to Berlin and then Dresden to be a tank gunner. He was wounded in April 1945 and was in Marienbad in the now Czech Republic when Germany surrendered.
His family moved to Germany where Grass worked in a mine and trained as a stonemason. He attended art school in Dusseldorf and Berlin and the post-war years saw him do stints as a black-marketeer; a drummer in a jazz band, working as a tombstone cutter and then as a political speech writer. It was while scraping a living in Paris that he wrote The Tin Drum in 1957, a book that came to be his defining work. The story of Oskar Matzerath, the boy who at the age of three decides to stop growing and has a voice that can break glass, is a powerful story full of dark imagery set against the rise and fall of Nazism in Danzig/Gdansk. The Tin Drum, published in 1959, launched Grass as a writer and was followed by Cat and Mouse in 1961 and Dog Years in 1963 to form the Danzig Trilogy.
Grass first returned to his hometown at the end of the 1950s and he maintained close contact with the city until his death. While he built a career as an artist and sculptor as well, it is for his writing that he became best known and he continued to publish into his eighties. One of his later works, Crabwalk (2002), focuses on the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff – the largest maritime disaster in history. Setting sail from Gdynia the ship was sunk in the Bay of Gdańsk and, though rarely reported, remains the world's largest nautical disaster. Grass received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999 for his work and in 2009 a gallery was opened in Gdansk in his name which hosts changing exhibitions of his writing, art and sculpture.
While Grass’ Gdansk is mainly sought by Germans tracing their families’ own stories or looking to see the places about which they read at school (where Grass is still taught), the area makes for an interesting walk particularly if you have read Grass’ Danzig Trilogy or you want to get a sense of what old Danzig looked like before the war. We have created this walking tour which helps you to discover the key places which still exist or we recommend you contact one of the tour companies listed below.
Gunter Grass passed away on April 12th, 2015 at the age of 87, his death prompting Walesa and Gdansk mayor Pawel Adamowicz to pay their tributes on film (with subtitles). A collection of photographs showing Grass during his life can be seen here while a number of writers and commentators reflect on Grass' life and legacy.