The Holocaust is one of the best-documented events in human history, and every year hundreds more histories and memoirs are published. Once in a while, one stands out above the rest. "Still Alive" by Ruth Kluger is one of these--a book of breathtaking honesty and extraordinary insight.
Kluger was born in Vienna and deported with her mother to Thereisenstadt in 1942, just before her 11th birthday, and then to Auschwitz. But the book hardly deals with the Nazis. "I didn't know any Nazis," Kluger writes, "but I knew the difficult, neurotic people whom they oppressed." She refuses to accept the conventional view that suffering brings people closer together, that it makes them more generous and more humane; she calls that "sentimental rubbish" and fearlessly describes what happened in her family: how her mother early on decided not to send her to safety on the kindertransport that rescued 10,000 other German and Austrian Jewish children; how her father tried to escape on his own and failed; how her mother became increasingly irrational and demanding while waiting for the knife to fall and then how her mother got the two of them out of Auschwitz alive.
First came Thereisenstadt, a concentration camp but not a death camp. "In a way, I loved Thereisenstadt," she writes, one of the points at which she suggests readers need to "rearrange a lot of furniture in their inner museum of the Holocaust." In Vienna she had been isolated, lonely and trapped with her disturbed mother; in Thereisenstadt she lived in a girls' dorm that was full of life, where young Socialists and Zionists taught her about friendship and teamwork and ideas. There was good in Thereisenstadt--but no thanks to the Germans: "The only good was what the Jews managed to make of it, the way they flooded this square kilometer of Czech soil with their voices, their intellect, their wit, their playfulness, their joy in dialogue." She quickly adds, "I hated Thereisenstadt," hated the filth, the crowding, the powerlessness, the humiliation.
She survived Auschwitz because of the inexplicable act of another inmate, a young woman working as a clerk to the SS. The scene was one of the infamous "selections," as naked inmates stood in lines and SS men pulled some out--usually for the gas chambers. But here Kluger's mother's instinct kept them alive. She figured out that this selection was not for the gas but for work. But you had to be at least 15, and Ruth was only 12.
Her mother told her to tell the SS man she was 15. She thought that would never work, but the young female clerk also whispered, "Tell him you are fifteen." Ruth did, and when the SS man expressed skepticism, the young clerk told him, "She is strong. Look at the muscles in her legs. She can work." So Ruth and her mother were sent from Auschwitz to a work camp in rural Poland.
People who heard the story of Kluger's survival were often disappointed that it wasn't more action-filled, more heroic. She challenges that view and mobilizes her considerable literary and analytic power to focus on what happened at that moment when she stood in line, "a kid sentenced to death," rescued by someone she had never met: "What more do you need for an example of perfect goodness? Listen to me, don't take it apart, absorb it as I am telling it and remember it." Her writing is vivid and precise; her observations are penetrating and sometimes barbed.
Kluger eventually went to New York with her mother, got a doctorate in German literature, taught at Princeton and recently retired from UC Irvine.
The book was originally published in Germany a decade ago, where it was a bestseller and won major literary awards, and was then translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Czech and Japanese. Only now has it appeared in English. Kluger felt she couldn't publish in English until her mother died, and her mother lived to be 95. By that time, the daughter was almost 70 and still trying to understand and explain their intense and difficult life together.
Their most glorious moment together came early in 1945, when they ran away from the work camp "so fast and light" as if it was all downhill. That moment has marked the rest of her life, she says. Today she is "a woman who is perennially on the move, changing jobs and homes at the drop of a hat ... a person who runs away as soon as she gets nervous, long before she smells danger. Because running away was the best thing I ever did, ever do. You feel alive when you run away. It's the ultimate drug, in my experience." We are fortunate that she stood still long enough to write this amazing book.
Jon Wiener is a contributing editor of the Nation and teaches history at UC Irvine.