Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (Weiter Leben: Eine Jugend)

views updated


Memoir by Ruth Klüger, 1992

Originally published as weiter leben in Germany in 1992, the English translation and revised edition became available from Feminist Press as Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered in November 2001. In this award-winning book, Ruth Klüger recalls her past and supplements these recollections with critical observations and reflections from the present, specifically addressing a German audience. Calling it a "German book," she has dedicated it to her friends from Göttingen, a city in northern Germany, where she has occasionally resided and taught at the local university. The text itself also addresses the readers directly (as "Dear friends," for instance) and repeatedly invites them to participate actively in the reading process. The specific episodes of her life are told from the perspective of an emancipated, self-confident Jewish woman who survived prejudice, persecution, the loss of her family, internment in three concentration camps, and displacement—a woman who is now an internationally respected scholar and writer. At the same time, the book has another dimension. Its critical candor extends to author and audience alike, and the narrative explicitly contemplates Klüger's own process of working through the past. The reader learns about personal issues ranging from the recurring preoccupation with her father and brother and the circumstances surrounding their deaths to her experience as an immigrant in the United States. Moreover, the text raises many controversial questions of interest, among them coming to terms with one's past (Vergangenheitsbewältigung ), feelings of guilt, the culture of Holocaust memory (Erinnerungskultur ), and the role of women within Judaism. The pertinence of her topics, the vivid and precise use of language with which she has traced the course of her life, her recognition of the problematic nature of memory, and her outspoken honesty constitute this autobiography's uniqueness. The reader not only learns about one survivor's life but also receives an education on questions central to the Holocaust.

Five large sections frame Klüger's account: "Vienna," "The Camps: Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Christianstadt," "Germany-Bavaria," "New York," and "Epilogue: Göttingen." Each, she insists, is important to her identity. "Vienna" consists of childhood memories, particularly about her father, Viktor Klüger, and her brother George (Schorschi), both of whom died during the Holocaust. Her complicated relationship with her mother, who survived along with her daughter, also plays an important role throughout the book. "The Camps" begins in September 1942, when Klüger, not quite 11 years old, was deported with her mother to Theresienstadt. In this section she describes her living arrangements in what was called "The Children's Home," the friends she made, and the general experience of being in a camp. Fond of German literature, especially German poetry, she relates how she started to write what she later describes as "sehnsüchtige Gedichte über Heimat und Freiheit" ("poems of yearning about homeland and freedom"). In May 1944 mother and daughter are sent to Auschwitz, where they both are selected in June of the same year for work in Christianstadt, a satellite camp of Gross-Rosen in former Silesia. In addition to descriptions of everyday life in the camps (deportation, hunger and thirst, selection, slave labor), the reader also hears of the continued importance of poetry for her during this time. Writing and reciting poetry give her comfort and support by providing a balanced, coherent, and well-structured language in times of utter chaos. She evokes how poetry helped to pass the time (during roll call, for instance, when she recited Friedrich Schiller's ballads) and exercised her mind, preserving her sanity. Memorization was necessary: since she often lacked pen and paper, she wrote poetry in her mind. The book quotes not only excerpts from the concentration camp poems but also those she wrote after the war about her traumatic experiences. Some recurring themes in her postwar work are the death of her father and brother and her preoccupation with the dead, the ghosts who intrude on the present. She analyzes each poem, assesses its aesthetic qualities, and tells the story behind its composition.

The third section, "Germany-Bavaria," recalls the immediate postwar period in Germany. After successfully escaping from Christianstadt with her mother and Ditha, her foster sister, whom her mother had adopted in Auschwitz, they join the flow of refugees from the East into Germany, obtain identity cards, and pass as Germans. Klüger tells of qualifying for the university and attending classes at the University of Regensburg before immigrating to the United States. Her acquaintance with the student she calls Christoph (actually the German writer Martin Walser) and their numerous conversations form a part of this section. "New York" portrays her difficulties as an unwelcome immigrant in the new country and the small group of female friends who sustained her. The chapter ends with her leaving her mother behind in New York after receiving a bachelor's degree from Hunter College in 1950. In the "Epilogue" Klüger describes the startling effects of a bicycle accident she suffered in Göttingen. This experience triggers the realization that the past is always present and inescapable. The ghosts of the dead require her to deal with her past and to work through it, prompting her to write her autobiography, which will surely stand as a lasting evocation of one person and an entire period.

—Sandra Alfers