As I look back, I realize that the only public figures I have admired and perhaps trusted were authors -- those authors, that is, who wrote about the time and place they lived in, whose purpose was to discover the truth, bear witness, unveil secrets, no matter what the cost to themselves or others. Most of these authors -- Albert Camus, Marguerite Duras, Oriana Fallaci -- lived through World War II. Most of them explored the mysteries of the human soul -- how it's at once capable of great kindness and unspeakable cruelty, how it tends to shy away from taking ownership of its sins.
Among them, of course, was Gunter Grass, Germany's greatest author since World War II, who wrote "The Tin Drum" and a dozen other books; who has dedicated his career and his public life to exposing the dark corners of his nation's psyche, making sure it doesn't forget, doesn't rationalize, minimize or move on from -- the Holocaust.
Grass has been quick to denounce hypocrisy and deceit anywhere he has found it, and he has done so with a vigor -- some would say brutally -- that has not softened with his advancing age. He has pointed a finger at the mighty and the weak; deplored the lack of moral righteousness in Europe and the United States. Most of all, he has held his own people accountable for crimes against humanity. As recently as 2002, he wrote, in "Crabwalk": "History, or, to be more precise, the history we Germans have repeatedly mucked up, is a clogged toilet. We flush and flush, but the shit keeps rising."
Born in 1927 in the then-German city of Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland), Grass had, until this year, always maintained that he was recruited by and served in the German army in the last days of the war, but that he was not a part of the SS. He made a point of this, in fact, when he spoke in Israel in 1967: "You can tell by the date of my birth that I was too young to have been a Nazi but old enough to have been molded by [the Nazi] system. Innocent through no merit of my own, I became part of a postwar period that was never to be a period of real peace."
That he refused to take credit for not having joined what he calls the "Nazi system" is one reason he was admired the world over -- enough to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. It's also one reason he has been denounced so vehemently in some circles by what he revealed this year in his memoir, "Peeling the Onion," that he had, in fact, willfully joined and served in the Waffen SS during the war, that he did so in spite of opposition from his parents, that he had admired Hitler and never believed the stories about concentration camps until later, during the Nuremberg trials.
Suddenly, the man who has made a career out of digging for truth in other people's lives turns out to be a liar himself.
In the memoir, he speaks movingly of the suffering of the German people during the war, while admitting that it paled in comparison with that of Jews and other victims of the Holocaust. He talks, with not a trace of self-pity, about how he suffered from hunger and loss and fear, how he lived as a refugee for years after the war, how he learned later that his mother had been raped repeatedly by Russian soldiers.
Perhaps, understandably, he stands at a safe distance from the young man whose story he has set out to tell, reminding the reader often that he is not -- doesn't even recognize -- the 15-year-old who joined the Hitler Youth. He says he was called up by the SS only when Germany had lost the war and never actually fired a shot. He says he kept silent about his past because he was ashamed. He says that his confession now, when he is 84 years old and near the end of his life, is impelled by a conscience that has weighed on him from the start.
Publicly, Grass has insisted that his books and his involvement in German politics for over half a century should serve as proof that he had learned the lessons he has tried to teach others; that he should be judged for all the good he has brought to the world through his work and not for his personal conduct.
No wonder he wrote in "The Tin Drum": "I expected more from literature than from real, naked life."
Do I believe him?
I'm not sure. But I don't think it matters. Too old, perhaps too cynical myself to look for heroes anywhere, I think Grass has taught us, through his own life, a lesson that transcends his influence as an individual.
Asked to comment on the Grass controversy, Italian playwright Dario Fo, also a Nobel laureate, responded: "Pity the land that needs heroes."
It is true that Grass has brought much good into the world by his writings. It is also true that his late-in-life revelation calls into question or, depending on your point of view, entirely invalidates his right to the high moral ground he has for so long occupied. But in doing so, he has proven to those of us who have followed his life and career what he says he learned as a POW after the war: That no truth is ever entirely true, that what we revere today may become indefensible tomorrow, that the wisest path through life is to distrust certainty and instead to walk, in Grass' own words, "the long route, paved with doubts."
Gina B. Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel, "Caspian Rain," was published this fall. Gina Nahai's column appears monthly in The Jewish Journal.