The day after
a book reading at UCSB,
On the evening of Nov. 20, 2002, Ruth Klüger read from her memoir Still Alive to a large audience at the University of California, Santa Barbara. On Nov. 21 she visited Prof. Marcuse’s class "Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Holocaust," and answered students’ questions for about an hour. During the previous weeks the students had read her memoir. The hour started with Ruth signing about a dozen books for students who had forgotten to bring theirs along the night before. Some students asked to have their books autographed to their parents, as gifts.
The text below is a typescript of the handwritten notes I (the professor, HM) jotted down during that discussion. They represent only my understanding of what was asked and answered, and make no pretense to be complete or even accurate renditions of what students wanted to know, or what Prof. Klüger answered. I am publishing them here as an attempt to document what transpires at such a Q&A session between students born around 1980, and a Holocaust survivor born around 1930.
RK: Began with reference to the discussion last night about resistance (why didn't the Jews offer more resistance, for instance in comparison to the Afghanis against the Soviet Union) by mentioning on Bruno Bettelheim’s critique of Otto Frank's (Anne's father) decision to keep the family together in hiding. Survival rates were higher when families split up. [critique published in Harper’s Weekly, Jan. 1960; included in course reader; 2003 table of contents, see no. 24]
Q: What do you think of Primo Levi’s suicide?
RK: No, she thinks it was not suicide. An author would have left a suicide
note. That relatively small fall might well have only crippled him. A
window would have been a surer bet. She visited the house in Turin, and
the railing is low (even though Levi is short). His housekeeper and wife
were out and he expected them back, might have leaned over to check. On
the other hand, he was taking anti-depression medication.
Q: Could she expand on her remark that she was running away from her marriage in the 1950s? Why not more about it in book?
RK: The book is about the first 20 years of her life, didn’t belong in that story. That marriage ended, as many do, and as it should have after people move apart emotionally. They are amicable; he called her to express condolences after her mother died.
Q: The back of the dust jacket compares her to Levi, Wiesel, Kertesz. How does she feel about that?
RK: She is honored but feels it goes overboard. She likes Kertesz. She talked about his memoir Fateless, first published in the 1960s, and how it has been unknown in the US, although he is better known in Europe. He recently won the Nobel Prize for literature. The Prize committee sometimes recognizes a lesser-known author.
Q: Could she remark on the reception of her book in Germany?
RK: It is still selling well; that amazes her. It was very positively reviewed in the Washington Post, which Laura Bush reads. Laura Bush gave it to her daughter Jenna. It is pleasing to think of the book on the table of Christmas gifts at the White House.
Q: What does she think about the use of the ghettos and camps as a setting for fiction--is that ok? [as in Frank Beyer's film Jacob the Liar, or Roberto Begnini's film Life is Beautiful ]
RK: Any human experience is ok for artistic treatment. RK likes most of Schindler’s List. Holocaust TV miniseries (1978) is generally considered not artistically serious, but it was an "educational force all over the world." She’d rather not have trivialization, feels that there should be less education about the Holocaust. What good has it done? Still mass murder and war all over the world. On the other hand, she can’t argue with the powerful effect of the fictional film.
Q: What does she think about the fictional Fragments by Binjamin Wilkomirski (pseudonym for Bruno Doesekker)?
RK: He's a complete fraud, she could do without. She argued with a professor from the UCSB Comp. Lit program at dinner last night. That prof. liked the book, considers it good writing. Fiction is not autobiography. Autobiography is history, of the most subjective kind; we have to take thoughts and feelings on faith. That fiction is plain lying.
Q: Why should people continue to write about the Holocaust?
RK: For same reasons as for writing any book: to transmit experience, to work through it. She wrote her book, the German version, for her German friends, and the English edition for her children and grandchildren. It has no message, just ideas, with inherent contradictions.
Q: Who does she consider responsible for the Holocaust?
RK: Does he mean the long history of racism and antisemitism? But it was not inevitable. Not the German population as a whole. They were passive and fanaticized, that is different than outright murder. Those who ordered are most responsible, also those who carried out the orders. Have to examine each case in a courtroom, according to legal standards.
Q: In a UCSB course on antisemitism the professor said that antisemitism in the US, although underground, is still here and strong.
RK: They are a fringe group here. Constitution, despite flaws in it (& 18th century language), esp. because of our belief in it, will prevent upsurge. Prior to Hitler Germans had no loyalty to antisemitism, more to blood and soil.
Q: What about the use of information gained from medical experiments?
RK: Results of no use, so moot point.
HM: We discussed the Pernkopf anatomical atlas, made by ardent Nazis, possibly using corpses from political prisoners executed in Vienna.
RK: She's heard of that. Unless the discovery saves many, many lives, such as a cure for cancer, it should NOT be used. But that is a "laboratory question," like Sophie’s Choice [on the ramp at Birkenau, to choose which of her two daughters to send to the gas chamber].
Q: What lessons/message should be taught in Holocaust courses?
RK: We shouldn't. But she herself did teach courses on it, already in the 1980s, called them "10 books." We've said "never again" -- but countless wars, mass slaughter have occurred since. Each inhumanity is different, but still they’re all akin.
Q: Should more stress be placed on the time before the Holocaust, rather than the horrendous end?
RK: Her generation has greatest generation gap, to its parents' generation. They should have known what was happening. They thought pogroms only in eastern Europe, not in Germany. In Wiesel's Night author writes how they discussed running away to the woods, but already it was too late. Also "Your identity depends on your social surroundings." It is easy to misunderstand the situation. McCarthyism was a passing phenomenon, McC. never wanted to be a dictator. Still it remains a contradiction.
Q: How do you define the Holocaust?
RK: Her definition is like everyone else's. It should include the gypsies, who were swept along with the anti-Jewish wave as a kind of collateral damage. She feels differently about homosexuals, for example, because the persecution was not out of racism, but because of a life style. She isn't concerned about the debate about the use of the term Holocaust because its root meaning is "burnt offering."
Q: The Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance includes many other issues, what does she think of it?
RK: Yes, that is very important, to put the Holocaust in the context of those issues.
HM: How does she assess antisemitism in Germany today and since the 1990s, when she lived there for extended periods?
RK: On the rise. (Elderly German historian) Hans Mommsen says it's not -- she'd like to believe him. The hard core is not increasing in size. It was an issue in the last election; it ended her friendship with Martin Walser (Christoph in her book).
Q: Most films, portrayals end with the liberation of the camps.
RK: Allies didn’t know what to do with survivors afterwards. Most who stayed in DP camps were psychologically broken. In contrast to what she said earlier that survivors are generally well-balanced, productive members of society. Another contradiction. Hard to get visas, US didn’t open gates very wide after the war. Jews in the diaspora did indeed try to help.
Q: Is there a generation gap with her children?
RK: You have to ask them. She'd say much less than hers with her parents -- she still really doesn’t get it. If the government advocated discrimination, she would leave this country, too.
Q: Should the US have bombed the camps?
RK: Yes, they certainly should have bombed the tracks. They did bomb camps, only a few, mainly industrial installations. They were saving bombs, but it wouldn’t have set the war effort back.
Q: While in the camp, how did she picture her future?
RK: That she'd have enough to eat, she’d learn much more than she actually has. She saw herself in Israel, was an ardent Zionist, but a minor, and her mom didn’t consider going, the British were not letting people in at that time.
Q: In Meditations of a Holocaust Traveler [author Gerald Markle] tells about how he and his wife went to Austria and waited in front of the house of the guy who murdered her father, but they decided not to meet him. Would RK go back?
RK: No, never thought of it. Took a trip to Krakow, others went to tour Auschwitz, she stayed and toured castles of Krakow instead. She's of the running away kind. They [Germans of that generation?] are all parts of the system, she mistrusts them. German perpetrators are older than she, so mostly dead now.
Q: How does she feel about Israel now?
RK: She'd go -- still Zionist, stayed a strong feeling for a long time after the war. For example, her ex-husband said "She’ll take the children to Israel" [at the time of divorce]. She doesn't want to get into politics, but: Zionists wanted to build a "just state." "A Land without people for a people without a land." But there were people on that land already. Now she knows that there is no such thing as a just state. That is a contradiction in terms.
Q: What about forgiveness? Can she forgive?
RK: No, she's not in a position to forgive, for example for her 17 year old brother who didn't have a life. But she has a number of friendships to Germans. They run parallel to her feelings of mistrust of Germans, don't meet.
Q: Her German colleague who was in the Hitler Youth -- how is that?
RK: Go back a step: philosemitism. Some think same as antisemitism; she doesn’t. It does matter whether a plus or a minus sign is in front. If the subject gets awkward, she says let’s talk about something else. Compare to Blacks in the US. Some more bending over backwards [on white America's part] would have been fine.
Q (follow-up): When she asks her friend why he was in the Hitler Youth?
RK: He responds we were indoctrinated, we were going to build a new world, scientifically proven that genetically better than everyone else. Racism is the best example of the superstition of science. People want to believe they are superior, so it is easy to convince them.
Q: Did she lose respect for the Allied countries after the Evian conference (in 1937 many countries met there and decided not to allow more Jewish immigration)?
RK: She saw them as liberators; she lived in a small town and didn’t
know better. She thinks of the area bombing of civilian targets, cities.
We must ask: was it necessary? The US doesn’t talk about it enough. Only
Kurt Vonnegut’s book Slaughterhouse 5, never a public discussion
in the US. It was a terrorist bombing to break the will of the Germans.