updated 8/22/2006 4:43:44 PM ET 2006-08-22T20:43:44

German novelist Guenter Grass said in a letter to the mayor of his hometown of Gdansk that only in his old age has he found the "right formula" to talk about having served in the Waffen-SS during World War II.

"In the years and decades after the war, when the terrible scope of Waffen-SS crimes was revealed, I kept to myself this episode from my young years that was brief, but which weighed on me heavily," the Nobel laureate wrote in the letter dated Aug. 20 and made public Tuesday. "However, I did not erase it from my memory."

"Only now, with age, I have found the right formula to talk about it in a wider perspective."

The city's mayor had the letter read out by actor Jerzy Kiszkis at a news conference in Gdansk.

Earlier this month, Grass, 78, made the surprising confession that he served in the Waffen-SS, the combat arm of the Nazis' fanatical paramilitary organization. His new memoir, "Peeling the Onion," was then released and appeared last week in German bookstores.

Pawel Adamowicz, mayor of Gdansk — where Grass is an honorary citizen — had written to him asking for an explanation amid calls from some politicians to strip Grass of the city honor.

A ‘painful lesson’
In his letter, Grass said his book tells how in 1942, as a "blinded 15-year-old I asked to serve on the submarines but I was refused. Instead, in September 1944, at the age of 17 — without my participation — I was made a member of the Waffen SS."

"I would like to keep the right to say that I have understood this painful lesson that life taught me when I was a young man. My books and my political activity are the proof," Grass said in his letter.

"This silence may be judged as a mistake — that's exactly what's happening. It may also be condemned. I must also come to terms with the fact that the honorary citizenship of Gdansk is questioned by many residents."

But Grass did not say he was giving up his honorary citizenship, as he has been urged to do by Solidarity founder and Nobel Peace laureate Lech Walesa.

Walesa had threatened to give up his own honorary citizenship in Gdansk if Grass didn't give an explanation to the city. But he said he was satisfied by the letter and would not do so now.

"I find it a convincing letter and from now on I will no longer be in conflict with Mr. Grass. I think he has explained himself well enough," Walesa was quoted as saying by the news agency PAP.

Praise for Walesa
Grass praised the Solidarity freedom movement and Walesa for having helped end communism and the post-war division of Germany without bloodshed and for paving the way for "true democracy" in central Europe.

He said his lifetime effort of promoting dialogue between Poles and Germans aimed to "draw lessons from history — however painful — and to help understand each other."

Grass served in the 10th SS Panzer Division, which fought Soviet troops in eastern Germany near the end of the war. He was wounded and then taken prisoner by U.S. forces.

Grass, who won the 1999 Nobel Prize for literature, has long been respected as a moral authority in Poland and elsewhere. Poland was subjected to a brutal invasion and occupation by the Nazis during the war, and Poles enthusiastically welcomed the fact that Grass for decades urged his fellow Germans to confront their nation's past crimes and promoted reconciliation between the two neighbor nations.

Grass was born in Gdansk in 1927 when it was called Danzig. The Baltic port city, now in Poland, passed between German and Polish rule for centuries.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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