Eloquent and Provocative Memoir Garnering Strong Reviews
Ruth Kluger emigrated to the United States from Austria in 1947, graduated from Hunter College in New York City, earned a Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley, and became the first woman to chair the German department at Princeton University. Now a professor emerita, she taught for many years at UC-Irvine in Irvine, California, where she now lives. Kluger has taught frequently in Germany.
During her distinguished academic career, Kluger authored numerous significant and award-winning works of literary criticism, but not until her 1992 memoir, Weiter leben: eine jugend, was published by a small literary press in Germany (Wallstein Verlag) did Kluger emerge as a publishing phenomenon. Provocative, wry, eloquent, and wholly unsentimental, the book has just been published in English to great acclaim by the Feminist Press as Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered.
The book, selling over 250,000 copies in German, has been issued in paperback by a leading German commercial house, DTV, and translated into Dutch, French, Italian, Spanish, Czech, and Japanese. In recognition of the book, the 70-year-old Kluger has been awarded Germany's Thomas Mann Prize and the French Prix Mémoires de las Shoah de la Fondation du Judaism Francais.
Still Alive chronicles Kluger's journey from her comfortable life in Vienna as a doctor's daughter, through the forced Jewish settlement and way station of Theresienstadt (Terezin); to the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Christianstadt, an extension of the Gross-Rosen concentration camp; escape from the work camp; and survival of the bombings by Americans in occupied Straubing, Germany, near the war's end. In 1947, after delays and bureaucratic entanglements, Kluger; her mother, Alma; and their orphaned friend, Susi, docked in New York harbor after two weeks in steerage on the SS Ernie Pyle. It was Ruth Kluger's 16th birthday.
Many reviewers have termed Still Alive "stunning." Kirkus Reviews wrote, "A work of such nuance, intelligence, and force that it leaps the bounds of genre"; and Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post Book Review, in his column of December 2, named Still Alive as one of the 10 best books of the year. In a preview to his review, which will appear in the December 9 issue, Yardley calls the book [a] "genuinely astonishing piece of work."
Ruth Kluger visited New York recently and met with BTW, along with the book's editor, Livia Tenzer, at the offices of the Feminist Press. Still Alive, according to Jean Casella, publisher/director of the Feminist Press, will mark the largest print run in the house's history. Still Alive includes a foreword by novelist Lore Segal.
BTW: IS THE BOOK JUST PUBLISHED IN THE U.S. THE SAME AS THE ONE YOU ORIGINALLY WROTE IN GERMAN?
RK: Much was changed in the English translation. I took out all the reflections on East Germany and other things that would be of interest only to Germans. The original version was well received. ["Somewhat of a sensation," interjects the soft-spoken Tenzer.] I think because there was an identification with the feelings that went into it. It was intended for an audience of well-educated Germans. Still Alive [the English version] is not really a translation or a new book--it's a parallel book for my children and my American students.
BTW: YOU HAD A COMPLICATED AND TROUBLED RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR MOTHER, WHICH YOU DESCRIBE IN STILL ALIVE. YOU HAVE TERMED THE RELATIONSHIP "VERY NEUROTIC," AND DESCRIBED SOME OF YOUR MOTHER'S MENTAL PROBLEMS. DID YOUR MOTHER, WHO WAS STILL LIVING WHEN THE BOOK WAS WRITTEN, AFFECT HOW YOU WROTE THE BOOK.
RK: I did not want my mother to read the book. I started it when my mother's slow death cut her contact with the outside world. When I wrote it, from 1988 to 1990, I didn't want my mother to see it, but I knew she never touched any German books. Then the cousin of one of her bridge partners, who lived in Switzerland, unkindly sent her the book. All she focused on were the negative passages and was very hurt. I promised myself not to publish it in English until after her death. When my mother died, in 2000, I finished it in short order.
My mother had always been paranoid and in Germany the social order finally caught up with her delusions. She knew from the very start that we were going to be killed.
BTW: YOU WRITE IN THE BOOK OF AN ARGUMENT WITH YOUNG GERMAN GRADUATE STUDENTS. THEY RESENT THE RACISM TOWARD ARABS AND OTHER ETHICAL FAILINGS OF SOME JEWISH SURVIVORS OF CONCENTRATION CAMPS--"HOW CAN SOMEONE FROM AUSCHWITZ TALK LIKE THAT?" YOU RESPOND THAT "AUSCHWITZ WAS NO INSTRUCTIONAL INSTITUTION, LIKE THE UNIVERSITY OF GÖTTINGEN
. YOU LEARNED NOTHING THERE, AND LEAST OF ALL HUMANITY AND TOLERANCE. ABSOLUTELY NOTHING GOOD CAME OUT OF THE CONCENTRATION CAMPS
. THEY WERE THE MOST USELESS, POINTLESS ESTABLISHMENTS IMAGINABLE. THAT IS THE ONE THING TO REMEMBER ABOUT THEM IF YOU KNOW NOTHING ELSE."
RK: The beliefs about the survivors are that they are either the best or the worst. Jews are reviled for being greedy and grabbing less than innocent. Then, we are also depicted as saints who have become better people for the experience. We didn't change with these enormities. We were normal people reacting to abnormal circumstances, clashing with a world running amok.
BTW: IN AUSCHWITZ YOUR LIFE WAS SPARED BY A YOUNG CLERK, A FELLOW PRISONER WHO CONVINCED THE SS MAN MAKING THE SELECTION THAT YOU WERE 15 DESPITE YOUR APPEARANCE AND YOUR ACTUAL AGE OF 12. AT 15 YOU WOULD GO ALONG WITH YOUR MOTHER TO THE FORCED LABOR CAMP. ALL THOSE UNDER 15 AND OVER 45 WERE SUMMARILY SENT TO THE GAS CHAMBERS.
RK: I owe my life to a woman who didn't know me. It was an act of the kind that is always unique--an incomprehensible act of grace.
BTW: YOU OBJECT TO A SANITIZED, "MUSEUM CULTURE" OF THE CONCENTRATION CAMP SITES AND THE HOLOCAUST IN WHICH THE OBSERVER IS DISTANCED FROM THE REALITIES. WHAT ARE SOME ACCURATE DEPICTIONS OF THE EXPERIENCES?
RK: Shoah, the unforgettable documentary by Claude Lanzmann; the books by Primo Levi and Elie Weisel; This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski (Penguin); and Smoke Over Birkenau by Liana Millu (Northwestern University Press).
-Interview by Nomi Schwartz