A lot has been said about the holocaust, most of it by people who were simply alive in those times or others who, fascinated by the tragedy struggled to imagine it, weave it in their thoughts and super-impose it on their lives. Most of the victims of holocaust did not survive to give us the story, those who did, had the happy end which somehow diminishes the tragedy and concocts it into, what to our minds is, a fairy tale. The treatment of holocaust essentially is either a narration of unspeakable evil, or a fleeting, vague account of the rootlessness felt by the survivors. Both treatments make us restless about the tragedy , but both of them are in a way incomplete.
Ruth Kluger’s memories of a holocaust childhood, however are as close to the reality of that sunken, cold, frost-bitten life that I have ever come across. Perhaps that’s because it is a very honest account; I am surprised she remembered her feelings of so long ago with such remarkable clarity and had the courage to live through them again. (Is this too, then, another super-imposed account, even though the imposition is internal and not forced? That, however, is beside the point). These feelings are not those of a tragic heroine who bore the atrocities backed by an unshakable faith, nor do they emphasize dramatically the death that hangs around her life. They are an account of a daily decay, perceived through minor changes at school, the fighting of old women, and many such small events that no one associates with the holocaust.
The author, born in Vienna is very young when Germany takes over Austria and the extrication of Jews begins. She loses her father, who escapes to France, and her brother who is sent to a camp. She and her mother are unable to escape and are eventually sent to the ghetto of Theresienstadt, then transferred to Auschwitz, then to a slave labor camp. As the war breaks out, the prisoners are taken on the death marches, where she escapes with her mother, and then eventually emigrates to America. In America, her past associations never leave her and in a way continue to shape her behavior, friendships, relationships.
In recollection of all these stages of her life, there is a remarkable perception, clarity and objectivity. In a few words, Kluger is able to capture the moment as perhaps it must have seemed to the young girl. Her relationship with both her city and her mother are captured in a line each:
“Vienna was a city that banished you and didn’t allow you to leave.”
“During an earthquake, more China gets broken than at other times”
In this earthquake, Ruth’s already tepid relationship with her mother increasingly became difficult, suspicious and intolerant. Again, I was surprised at the anger that she still holds for that mother, even though she was not a particularly malicious person. Is their relationship with each other also another broken china? Perhaps, but as she correctly points out the error of people who judge her marginally through her one experience, one would be wrong in summarizing it thus. She resents these judgments and presumptions; abhors the indiscretion of curious intruders (I too feel like one sometimes, wanting to soak up the reality of that horrifying time) and strongly dislikes the turning of death chambers from the past into a shrine visited by enthusiastic homage-payers. I understand that resentment, even though I know that if I ever visit Austria/Germany, I will also go to these death-chambers – not to pay homage, but only to satisfy a pathetic curiosity.
I put down the books moments before I set down to write this blog, and I am still quite moved by whatever she described here. Perhaps a little bit of it is imagined, but still it is a very honest account, and definitely should be read by everyone who has any interest in the holocaust literature.