Holocaust Survivor Ruth Klüger: "Vienna Reeks of Anti-Semitism"

German studies professor Ruth Klüger discusses her autobiography, "To Continue to Live" and stations in life that took her from Vienna to Theresienstadt to Auschwitz and California.

Ruth Klüger was born in 1931 to a Jewish family in Vienna. In 1992 she published the story of her ordeal in numerous Nazi concentration camps in her highly praised memoirs "To Continue To Live."
Monika Zucht / DER SPIEGEL

Ruth Klüger was born in 1931 to a Jewish family in Vienna. In 1992 she published the story of her ordeal in numerous Nazi concentration camps in her highly praised memoirs "To Continue To Live."

SPIEGEL: Ms. Klüger, at the moment you have a research post at the University of California in Irvine, and before that you were a guest lecturer at the University of Göttingen. Do you sometimes go back to your home town Vienna?

Klüger: Yes.

SPIEGEL: But the emotions you experience in Vienna must be very different to how you feel in Göttingen?

Klüger: Yes, what is strange is … how should I put it? Our personalities are such that we instinctively rely on our own experiences rather than using our brains. For me Göttingen is not a Nazi town, even though I know that Braunschweig is very nearby…

SPIEGEL: Braunschweig is of course where Hitler was made a German citizen in 1932.

Klüger: Exactly. But Vienna reeks of anti-Semitism. For me every cobblestone in Vienna is anti-Semitic. If I hadn’t fled with my mother and her friend in time, by the end of the war I could have ended up in Bergen-Belsen. But I have never been there, and I don’t go to these concentration camp memorial sites.

SPIEGEL: These memorial grounds are certainly not built with you in mind.

Klüger: It is just not my camp.

SPIEGEL: But you do you travel occasionally to Vienna?

Klüger: I did a guest professorship there. It was very unpleasant. The people I had to work with were awful.

SPIEGEL: So you believe that anti-Semitism is still deeply ingrained in the city? That it will always be there?

Klüger: Vienna will never be rid of anti-Semitism. I have the feeling the city doesn’t even want to be. When I got the invitation to go there, I couldn’t help thinking: “This is the university where your father studied.” And the first few weeks I was there, I couldn’t shake of the feeling that my father was standing behind me. I kept asking myself what he would have said if he had been there. And after a few weeks I knew what he would have said: “You are pretty stupid to have come here.”

SPIEGEL: Readers of your memoirs “To Continue To Live” will likely get the impression that the relationship with your mother was both symbiotic and tense. Was that a result of your isolation in Vienna?

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Klüger: Perhaps. Don’t forget, I wasn’t even seven-years-old when Hitler marched into Austria. I had only just started school. The arrival of the Germans is really when my childhood memories start, because everything happened so quick. Everyday something new happened. We Jewish children weren’t allowed to go to regular schools. We were moved from one Jewish school to another. I think I attended seven different schools within four years. And of course I didn’t learn a thing.

SPIEGEL: That must have made the bond with your parents all the more intense.

Klüger: No. For us children the adults weren’t particularly approachable. Clearly they were all very nervous; they didn’t know what was coming next. So we tried to steer clear of them as much as possible. The only thing that was left to me was reading.

SPIEGEL: Did politics have an impact on your life in 1938, after the annexation of Austria to Hitler’s Germany?

Klüger: My family was social democrat. Of course my father had his practitioner’s license taken away at once, and he was only allowed to treat Jewish women …

SPIEGEL: Your father was a gynaecologist.

Klüger: Yes, and then he was sent to prison. I heard from the rest of the family that it was because he had illegally performed an abortion.

SPIEGEL: There is a section in your book which intrigued me a bit: your father fled to France in 1938 on his own…

Klüger: … And didn’t take my family with him.

SPIEGEL: Exactly. Why?

Klüger: I talked to a cousin in England about that because it intrigued me too. “Why wasn’t he able to take us with him?” I asked him. And he said: “Are you so ignorant that you have to ask that? Who would have thought then that children and women were in danger?” My father was in danger, so he had to go.

SPIEGEL: Did he assume that he would be able to come back?

Klüger: I have no idea. I wish I knew. I mean, I was eight years old the last time I saw the man.

SPIEGEL: What happened to your father?

Klüger: For a long time I assumed he had ended up in Auschwitz. But that turned out not to be the case. When my book was published in French, someone got in touch with me, and told me about a group of 900 men who were transported to the Baltic states. There was a list and my father’s name was on it. But you know I also found out, when I was back in Vienna, that very few Jewish children actually stayed in Vienna. If my mother had allowed it, the Nazis would have let me leave. I could have gone to England.

SPIEGEL: With a transport of children?

Klüger: Yes. There were also illegal transports to Palestine. But you can’t condemn any mother for wanting to hold on to her child.

SPIEGEL: How long did you and your mother stay in Vienna?

Klüger: Until 1942. They then sent us to Theresienstadt, which in one way was even an improvement: I was around people again. In Vienna I was forced to sit in a dark room the whole time and read. In my distress I learned reams of poetry by heart. I can still recite Schiller’s ballads. Please don’t start, because I'll never stop.

SPIEGEL: Don't worry. What are your most important memories of Theresienstadt?

Klüger: We were completely starved. But it is hard to share experiences like that. You can’t actually describe hunger. You can say two or three sentences about it, but in reality right up to the end of the war everything was infused and underpinned by hunger. Although Theresienstadt was better than Vienna, I don’t want to give the impression that it was in any way a pleasant place. But I just mean that having the company of other young people balanced out all the physical strains.

SPIEGEL: When did you find out that the conditions in Auschwitz would be so much worse?

Klüger: While we were still in Theresienstadt. That’s why we didn’t want to leave. At first everyone just treated the talk about death camps as a rumor. But one day a group of children, who had been kept away from the other prisoners, came from Bialystok. We heard that they were incredibly afraid of taking showers. So they clearly knew that this was the method used by the Nazis.

SPIEGEL: You have told the story about how your mother said, after arriving in Auschwitz: “We won’t survive this. We will kill ourselves.” At the time you didn’t understand what she meant. Do you sympathize with her now?

Klüger: Yes, but only later. At the time I thought my mother had gone completely mad. Just imagine, you are 12 years old and your mother says: “Now we are going to die.”

SPIEGEL: It was unimaginable for you.

Klüger: Of course it was. At the age of 12 you want to live. There were good reasons why my mother lost her mind. She had quickly realized that we had landed in an unholy place. That something was happening which had never been done before. Other people, who you might say were more normal, said: “What can happen? After all we are in Central Europe.” One woman who had come with us actually said that.

SPIEGEL: Which, even at the time, you felt to be a strange argument?

Klüger: Yes. Because of the strange paranoia, which she had probably always had, my mother rejected that and was convinced that we were all done for. She was paranoid until the end of her life. Once we drove past a traffic accident and she said: “Do you see those police officers? They want to deport me.”

SPIEGEL: Perhaps a consequence of these terrible experiences…

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