Grass hits back at Polish leaders over birthday boycott

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Günter Grass, the German novelist, aimed a discreet blow at Poland's ruling Kaczynski twins yesterday, at the start of controversial celebrations to mark his 80th birthday in his home town of Gdansk.

Officials from the Kaczynskis' conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) are boycotting the events, after Grass revealed last year that he was briefly a member of the Nazi Waffen SS, a confession that shocked readers and shook his reputation as a moral authority.

"I am happy to be able to come here and meet my friends on the eve of my birthday," said Grass, an honorary citizen of the Baltic port. He was born there when it was the overwhelmingly German Free City of Danzig.

The Nobel Prize-winning writer, who previously called the PiS-led coalition government a "misfortune" and said he hoped Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the Prime Minister, would not be re-elected, then called for a high turnout in this month's snap general election – something that is seen as harmful to PiS's chances of success. "A huge turnout in the elections would be the most beautiful gift for me," Grass said in Gdansk, where the liberal local council rejected calls from PiS to revoke his honorary citizenship and is holding a two-day celebration of his birthday and a conference on Polish-German relations.

"None of us will participate in this event," Kazimierz Kowalewski, a local councillor, said of PiS officials in Gdansk who sent back their invitations to the birthday events. "We are still waiting for Grass to apologise and we don't see any reason for such a huge celebration for him. I am sure the money could be spent elsewhere."

After revealing his Nazi past, Grass explained himself in an open letter to the people of Gdansk, where he set his most famous novel, The Tin Drum. "I kept this episode from my young years to myself, but I never erased it from my memory," Grass wrote. "Only now, after many years, did I find the formula to speak about it in a wider perspective."

After initially condemning Grass and threatening to give up his own honorary citizenship of Gdansk, Lech Walesa, the former Polish president and Solidarity trade union leader, accepted the German's explanation, and is due to meet him today to discuss strained ties between their countries.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his identical twin, Lech, Poland's President, draw most of their support from older Poles who still resent Germany for its wartime occupation of their country.

Lech Kaczynski was elected in 2005 after a PiS official wrongly accused the grandfather of his opponent, Donald Tusk, of having fought for the Waffen SS, damaging his popularity before the poll.

President Kaczynski later withdrew from a summit with his German counterpart after a Berlin newspaper reported that he had boasted of having "never extended even a fingernail towards a German politician" and of knowing nothing about the country beyond "the spittoon in the toilets at Frankfurt airport". His office blamed unspecified "digestive problems" for his withdrawal.

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