I Will Bear Witness
by Gabriel Austin
Victor Klemperer's Story (back to top)
I Will Bear Witness is the diary of Victor Klemperer, a Jewish professor in Dresden, throughout the Holocaust. It is a day by day account of the horrible living conditions that he suffered through in order to survive the persecution of his fellow Jews. He started the diary in 1933 and continued writing in it until the war ended in 1945. I read the second volume of the diary, which starts in January of 1942. Victor was kept alive mainly by the fact that he was married to an Aryan, and had been baptized. Despite this, he is forced to wear the star, and is treated terribly by the Nazis. His wife Eva does not wear the star, but still suffers many of the same hardships that Victor does. Every day they struggle to find enough food to survive, all the while living with the fear that at any moment they could be arrested and sent to their deaths. Victor keeps this diary at great personal risk to himself, for if it was discovered by the Gestapo he would have been deported immediately. His purpose in keeping this diary is twofold: First, he wants to keep a written record of the injustices he suffered, and second simply to break up the monotony of his day to day life. From the diary we learn that Victor was able to survive mainly by living from day to day, doing everything within his power not to draw attention to himself, and never giving up.
Victor is a former professor, and finds it necessary to keep his mind occupied in order to stay sane. From the start of this volume and continuing for about a year and a half, Victor's life consists of finding and preparing food, reading to his wife, and working on his diary and studies. This is interrupted by a brief period when he is forced to shovel snow along with other men in the same situation as him. He finds this work terrible, as he is of a fairly advanced age, yet he is in better shape than most of the others. He works like this for a few weeks before he is released, and returns to his "normal life." Both he and Eva have health problems, and are unable to go to a doctor, further complicating their problems. Also, they are compelled into moving to another house twice during the time from 1942-1945. When they move, they are allowed to bring only what they can fit in a suitcase, and whatever is on their backs. When he discovers on April 19, 1943 that he will be forced to carry out "labor duty" his spirits dampen even further. However he work is not particularly difficult, in fact it is quite easy. Still, Victor despises it because it is mind-numbing, monotonous, and boring. For him, this is the worst kind of punishment, and he suffers through every hour that he spends at the factory. He ends up serving this labor duty for over a year before he is finally released. By February of 1945, Victor's situation seems desperate. On the 15th, all Jews from mixed marriages are to report for labor duty, which most likely means that they will be deported. Fortunately for Victor, on the 13th, Dresden is bombed by Allied forces and reduced to rubble. Victor and his wife are able to survive the remaining months of the war by getting temporary papers, and by continuously moving through Germany. In the end, they are able to move back into the house they were living in before the war, and somehow try to go on living a normal life. Of all of the Jews living in Dresden, Victor is one of only about two hundred who survive the war. The Klemperers' story is similar to many stories of Holocaust survivors, in that every aspect of their life became devoted to surviving this terrible ordeal. From this diary, one can truly understand the hardships they suffered through, and appreciate the effort they put forth to go on living.
One of the most striking parts of Victor's story is that every day seems like a new low, yet when reading it you know that the situation will continue to get worse. Eva and Victor struggle to find food every day, and from very early on it is apparent that this is not going to get any easier as the war progresses. For example, they are reduced to starvation in the third year of the six year war. " (July 19, 1942: Sunday evening) The first day of truly remorseless hunger. A tiny remnant of potatoes, so black and stinking, that it turns the stomach, a tiny remnant of bread." (Klemperer 103) When reading a passage such as this one, it leads readers to believe that this must have occurred late in the war, in that it seems impossible to survive these conditions for very long. Surprisingly, Victor writes this in 1942, a full three years before the war is over. While this was a particularly bad day for them during the war, it is apparent that Victor will find himself in this very same situation many times to come.
Throughout the war, Victor stays alive by eating potatoes and bread for almost all three meals in the day. If they are lucky, they might be able to get some butter, and maybe even some vegetables. Eva has it somewhat easier in that she can still go to restaurants during the day, but even there she rarely receives anything more than soup. Luxury items such as meat and tobacco can be found nowhere, and they are forced to live without them. The war takes its toll on all inhabitants of Germany, as by 1943 the government had to ration not only food staples for Jewish people, but luxury items for non-jewish people as well. People go to great lengths to continue their lives as normal before the war, paying outrageous prices for goods that used to be every day items. "With reference to food, I long ago wanted to report. Richter, this modest, almost petit bourgeois, certainly not wealthy man, father of three children, told me recently: "Do you know what a pound of coffee costs now on the black market? 200M. I cannot manage without coffee, I'm a night worker; I bought two pounds today." (Klemperer 207) This man is so desperate for coffee, that he is willing to pay any price for it. He is not even Jewish, yet he still suffers from the effects of wartime rationing, leading one to question just how non-jewish Germans allowed the war to continue for as long as it did.
Another of the more frightening parts of Victor's diary is how accustomed everyone became to the horrors that they live through on a day to day business. Upsetting news comes nearly every day, yet somehow they are able to keep on going. After a while, they come to expect bad news, making it easier to deal with when it does happen. Victor comments on this in the fall of 1942. "What was curious about our conversation was the way we took the subject for granted, the general numbness. The general mood is simply: We have come to a terrible end. Each one of us may fall, each one of us may survive. At all events: An end is within sight." (Klemperer 135) Reading this, one may think that Klemperer is oversimplifying the situation. In reality, this is the situation, and usually the simplest explanation is the best. These are the facts that all of the Jews living in Victor's situation have come to accept, and only by accepting these facts do they have any chance of survival. Fooling oneself into believing that the situation is better than it is does not help one survive; only by realizing that you must be willing to do everything you can to survive, is one able to do so.
Lastly, one aspect of the Klemperers' life in Dresden that I found surprising, was that many of the non-Jewish residents were not anti-semites, and in fact were sympathetic to their cause. Fear of punishment by the Nazis certainly prevented them from acting on these feelings, yet this must have been encouraging for the Jews. For example, one day Victor is walking down the street. "Two big Hitler Youths overtake from behind on their bicycles; they are joking with one another, laughing loudly, shouting something. . . Immediately afterward cycling in the opposite direction, a worker aged about twenty; he leans over to me with a friendly smile: 'You mustn't take any notice of that." (Klemperer 151) Such a small act of courtesy seems trivial to us, but it must have been reassuring to Victor to know that some Germans were still decent people. Anything at all that gave him hope, helped him to continue to fight to survive. Also, some are willing to give whatever they can to help Victor, even if doing so takes away from them, or even puts their lives in danger. "Today as I was waiting for Eva by the broth queue, an ordinary woman wanted to give me a bread coupon. 'I would really like to give you something.' I declined with heartfelt thanks." (Klemperer 401) This is obviously not the action of an anti-semitic Nazi, but rather a rational human being with compassion for others. People such as these allowed Victor to not give up complete faith in humanity, and gave him hope that he would be able to make it through this ordeal alive. Instances such as these show that many German people had given up on the Nazi cause, and that they too wanted the war to end.
Firsthand accounts of the horrors of the Holocaust make a lasting impression on those hearing them. Books such as the diary of Victor Klemperer are vital in our understanding of the situation and our first defense in ensuring that such a situation never again occurs. A book like this will never be replicated, as it was written at the time of the Holocaust, not afterwards. This diary gives an account of what really happened to an actual human being, making it much more powerful than anything created later. Within the next few decades, all survivors of the Holocaust will eventually pass on, leaving no one able to tell their story firsthand. Books such as this one will become the closest we can come to speaking directly with a survivor, and their importance will continue to grow in the coming years. Klemperer kept this diary at great personal risk to himself, because he knew just how important a journal like this could be. Fortunately for us, he survived, and was able to share his story with countless others.
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About the Author (back to top)