August 22, 2006

Wiesenthal Center probing Grass’s Nazi past

By Louis Charbonneau

BERLIN (Reuters) - The Simon Wiesenthal Center urged Nobel
prize winning novelist Guenter Grass on Tuesday to come clean
about his time in Hitler's Waffen-SS by waiving German data
protection laws to enable the center to investigate him.

Grass, one of Germany's best-known writers and viewed by
many in the country as a moral authority, has for half a
century called on Germans to be open about their past.

But last week the 78-year-old shocked admirers at home and
abroad by disclosing he had volunteered for submarine duty at
15 but was rejected and was later called up to the Waffen-SS
toward the end of World War Two.

"We feel that there's an incredible lack of clarity. His
explanation has produced more ambiguity than clarity," Efraim
Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem,
told Reuters by telephone.

"The time has come to come clean," he said.

The Waffen SS was a highly trained Nazi combat unit,
initially composed of volunteers, which took part in the
Holocaust and committed war crimes. By the end of the war,
however, most members were drafted and many were under 18.

Grass said that he had joined the SS in order to escape
from his family and insisted that he never fired a shot.

But some critics inside and outside Germany say that this
explanation is too meager and comes too late.

Zuroff, who has been hunting Nazi war criminals for the
past quarter century, said the Wiesenthal Center has sent a
letter to Grass asking him for details of his duty in the

Among the questions the Wiesenthal Center has put to Grass
are: in which part of the Frundsberg Division did he serve; was
it Panzer Regiment 10; was he in the 2nd Panzer Division and
did he know some specific members of the SS.

"We have started an investigation," said Zuroff, though he
said that Germany's strict data protection laws prevented them
from getting access to key archives.

"We asked him for permission to get access," he said,
adding that only Grass himself could waive the data privacy
rules to allow them to probe effectively his Nazi past.

Grass won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999. He is
viewed as part of the movement known in German as
"Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung" or "coming to terms with the

An icon of the German left, Grass spoke out against German
reunification after the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989. He is
probably best known abroad for his first novel "The Tin Drum,"
published in 1959.