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.

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?

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…

Part II: "One of the youngest at Birkenau

Klüger: Could be. But more interesting still is the question whether people who are paranoid react better when they are really being persecuted than those who aren’t paranoid. That would then contradict the theory of Bruno Bettelheim and others, that a completely rational person, someone who has been brought up correctly, would know how to react in emergencies and crises. That, for example, you would join the partisans and defend yourself. But that apparently is not the case. It is the crazy ones who react correctly in crazy situations.

SPIEGEL: A good theory, which could perhaps be proved with the example of your mother…

Klüger: Yes. You don’t believe it?

SPIEGEL: I don’t know. But getting back to this woman who said after arriving in Auschwitz: “After all we are in Central Europe.” What she was probably getting at was that rumors such as the gassing of prisoners were hard to believe. Were you surprised at this woman’s reaction?

Klüger: A little bit, yes. I slowly came to realize that the adults actually knew less than I did. That I was ahead of the adults because I had been born during this period and didn’t have to adapt to it.

SPIEGEL: You were already aware of this as a child?

Klüger: Certainly. The adults were constantly talking about things that didn’t mean anything to me. All the things that were part of a free, middle-class existence. I hadn’t known any of that. Instead I learned to be cautious. Right from the very beginning.

SPIEGEL: I find the skepticism of this woman quite sensible. After all she merely believed that such an advanced culture, as that of the Germans, must surely have led to more sensitive society.

Klüger: So what? This genocide was carried out in Central Europe by a country where practically everyone was able to read.

SPIEGEL: We know that now. But that aside, don’t you believe that Central European culture provides some sort of a shield from barbarism, albeit an imperfect one.

Klüger: In this matter I am far too level-headed. I don’t believe that it protected us in any way, shape or form. In fact quite the opposite. Cultures which we used to refer to as primitive do at least stick to the rules. So, for example, we know they might have perhaps scalped their enemies but not their own people. This couldn’t be relied on in cultivated Europe. After all we were their “own people.” We were German or Austrian citizens. And the fact that we didn’t go to church didn’t in reality bother that many people. Especially since church attendance was down even among the rest of the population.

SPIEGEL: You were subjected to extreme physical and of course psychological strains in Auschwitz. Do you ever find yourself in situations now which remind you of that time?

Klüger: Oh, you know, for years I smugly thought I was the sort of person able to survive a concentration camp. But the older I’ve got, the clearer it has become to me that I am not. And now that I’m old, I know I wouldn’t survive two weeks.

SPIEGEL: Back then you were of course physically stronger.

Klüger: Well, yes. But to answer your question about being reminded of that time: that did happen to me once. I had locked myself out of my house and had to wait on the doorstep the whole night. It was bitterly cold. It wasn’t until five o’clock in the morning that the papers were delivered and I could be let in. I was so frozen that it took hours, with a warm shower and so on, to get warm again. But somehow it reminded me of everything. It even brought back a sort of feeling of solidarity with the people from my childhood, a certain reassurance and even some sort of contentment.

SPIEGEL: Do you remember concrete situations in Auschwitz?

Klüger: Rarely. On the one hand, this whole experience in the concentration camp seems so far away to me now, that it is almost impossible to imagine it properly. And I can barely grasp the fact that I was there at all. On the other hand, the complete opposite is also true…

SPIEGEL: That the experience is also very present?

Klüger: No. That you ask yourself: How on earth did we get out? How was it at all possible to get out? That thought sometimes occurs to me again and again.

SPIEGEL: And how did you get out in the end?

Klüger: There was a selection of prisoners fit to work in June 1944. At the time it seemed so easy: On the first attempt, I was turned away but then I tried again and I was selected to work. Looking back now, it seems crazy. I am really one of the youngest people you’ll find who was in Birkenau at that time and managed to get out. I was only just 12-years-old.

SPIEGEL: It wasn’t until October 1944 that you turned 13.

Klüger: Yes. My mother and I didn’t go through the selection process on the ramps when we arrived, but went straight to the family camp. Of course the family camp wasn’t a friendly, comfortable living room. It just meant that men and women from Theresienstadt were in the same camp. They then decided to select women between 15 and 45 for work. My mother said: “We have to do it. It’s our only chance.” And I said. “But I am 12 and don’t look older.” And she just replied: “Then say you are 15.” And I thought, if I tell such obvious lies I will have nothing but problems and God knows what will happen to me. So I put myself in line and when it was my turn I said I was 13. I was rejected.

SPIEGEL: Were you separated at once from your mother?

Klüger: No. We were standing round a while, and my mother said: “Now go again and try again.” And because she pushed me so much, I did. I was totally against it, and still didn’t believe it would work. Even then I was always very skeptical about what my mother thought. This time I stood in a different line. I think the line that I was in was being checked by Dr. Mengele…

SPIEGEL: … who was the doctor who made the decision about who should live and who should die.

Klüger: I think so. I don’t want to namedrop, but I think I recognized him on photos I saw later. One of the women who was writing down the information came up to me and asked me my age, just before it was my turn to go up. “How old are you?” And I said: “13” And she said: “Say you’re 15.” One or two minutes later it was my turn and I just said to the doctor: “I am 15,” and he said “But she doesn’t look it. She looks weak.” And the woman taking notes said: “No, no, she looks strong. Look she has strong legs, she can work.” She said it very kindly.

SPIEGEL: The woman was no doubt also a prisoner.

Klüger: Yes, she was a prisoner. I’ll never forget that. There can only be one explanation why she did that: She wanted to do some good and she wanted to help me. She had no other reason to do it. For me this scene is, so to speak, the epitome of goodness without any self-interest. I have of course thought about her a lot since then.

SPIEGEL: Did the female prison guards actually act differently to the SS men?

Klüger: In Auschwitz itself I realized very quickly that you should attract as little attention as possible. So I had very little to do with the SS people. They just did an awful lot of shouting around the place. Although the Block elders, who were also prisoners, did that too. We were constantly snarled at and shouted at. And I made myself as small as possible. Which wasn’t very hard, as I was small.

SPIEGEL: And what about later in the work camp?

Klüger: The first female guards I came into contact with were actually in Christianstadt, which we were brought to from Auschwitz. That was a sub-camp belonging to Gross Rosen in Silesia. Some of these women were nasty, others weren’t. In general women are less violent than men.

SPIEGEL: What did you have to do there?

Klüger: The older prisoners worked in the munitions factories. I always worked outside in the forest or the quarry.

SPIEGEL: And you worked by your mother’s side?

Klüger: No, she worked somewhere else. But yes, it was in the same camp. We always stayed together.

SPIEGEL: In spite of all the tensions between you both, being with your mother must have been a blessing.

Klüger: Definitely. I wouldn’t want to deny that. But the best thing of all was that my mother had found this wonderful friend Susi, who I really liked. She only died three years ago in Los Angeles.

SPIEGEL: What happened when the Nazis closed the camp?

Klüger: We had to march and march, further and further, with all the other prisoners. I was really weak and completely starved. Then on the second evening six of us ran away. Three of the others were Czech: We were quite near the border so they obviously thought they would be able to make it over. The other three, Susi, my mother and I, wanted to get over to the Russians. But we never made it. It was impossible to get past the front. In the end we passed ourselves off as German refugees and managed to get transported by train to Bavaria.

SPIEGEL: Was that not a big risk? Did everyone look as wretched as you?

Klüger: I think that around that time, when everyone was living on the street, no one was looking very closely. But of course we were lucky. One time we were spotted and even arrested. But the policeman didn’t quite know what to do with us. His boss wasn’t there, and the Russians were firing behind him, so he let us go free. I tell you: pure luck.

SPIEGEL: Do you remember the day the war ended?

Klüger: Yes. For me the war came to an end in April. We had reached Straubing and the Americans were already there. Suddenly we saw a military policeman on the corner directing traffic. So my mother went up to him and said that we had come from a concentration camp. And he just turned round, covered his ears with his hands and said something along the lines of: “More of them again. I’ve already had enough of that lot.”

Interview conducted by Martin Doerry

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