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Gunter Grass

Gunter Grass
Often cited as ‘Germany’s collective conscience’, and commonly regarded as the country’s greatest living poet, novelist and playwright, Gunter Grass was born in the Free City of Danzig on October 16, 1927 and was awarded the Nobel prize for Literature in 1999. Although based in Germany much of his work refers to the Danzig of his day, with the suburb of Wrzeszcz featuring heavily in his works.
 
Born the son of a German grocer, and a Kashubian mother, Grass was a member of the Hitler Youth before being drafted into the army at the age of the 17. Up until 2006 the subject of his involvement in the Third Reich was often brushed over though all that changed following a frank interview granted to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. It turns out that as 15-year-old he volunteered to join a submarine unit of the Kriegsmarine, primarily because of his unhappy homelife, though that application was turned down.
Now, the bit no-one knew. In 1944 his draft card finally landed and he found himself serving in the 10th SS tank division Frundsberg – not as an anti-aircraft auxiliary as he had previously claimed. Naturally his involvement in an organization 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, some accused him of trying to hype up the publication of his latest book, Peeling Onions, while other high-profile names, such as Archbishop Michalik and novelist John Irving, sprang to his defence. A complete mess, in other words, and headline news across the whole region. The matter appears to have been put to bed with an open letter Grass wrote to the people of Gdańsk. Speaking of the guilt he has carried all his life, Grass claimed to never have fired a shot throughout the war, 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. The letter appears to have done the trick, and even the normally stubborn Wałęsa has been won round. 
 
So, what of the post-war Gunter Grass. After the war he attended art school, before pursuing numerous colourful career turns. A stint as a black-marketeer was followed by joining a jazz band on drums, 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 has come to be his defining work. His life has always been inexorably linked with Gdańsk, and fans should be sure to explore his old neighbourhood. From the Wrzeszcz commuter train station, head out along ul. Wajdeloty, a pretty cobbled lane runnng past dilapidated townhouses. At the small roundabout, turn left onto ul. Aldony and then onto ul. Lelewela. N°13 is the grocery store Grass always alludes to in his books, and where he spent the best part of his childhood. Further down Lelewela is Pl. Wybickiego, a small chunk of green providing respite from the gray dullness. Housed in the park is a monument to Oskar, the hero of The Tin Drum. This is the principal grail for fans of Grass, though sadly some thieving pillocks have since made off with one of drumsticks – hardcore fans or local numbskulls we do not know, either way we can only hope it doesn’t inspire copycat crimes. For readers of the The Tin Drum a visit to the Church of the Sacred Heart is essential, and it can be found round the corner from his childhood home, while those who have read Dog Years can view the statue of Gutenberg lying just off ul. Jaśkowa Dolina.

With his repeated references to the tri-city there is of course more to see outside of Wrzeszcz, and a particularly rewarding place for fans is the bar Vinifera (see Gdańsk Bars, Pubs & Clubs). Serving as an inspiration for the doll’s house in Call of the Toad the interiors are disappointingly dull, though there’s no faulting the picture book setting. And, if nothing else, you can at least order a mulled wine inside while leafing through one of his numerous works. One of Grass’ latest works, Crabwalk, focuses on the sinking of the Gustloff – the largest maritime disaster in history (See Gdynia). Setting sail from Gdynia the ship was sunk in the Bay of Gdańsk, and up until recently it was possible to view the ship’s bell in the Barracuda restaurant. Ghoulish, to say the least, which explains why the proprietor has since removed it. Nonetheless, those who get their thrills from that sort of thing can take an excursion out to the maritime grave in calmer weather. Get in touch with Ticada (www.ticada.pl).

On a final note, those hoping to sneak a look at the great man should take into account that he always stays at the Szydłowski (see Gdańsk Hotels) and has a table in their restaurant on permanent standby.

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