Reading Ruth Kluger’s STILL ALIVE: A HOLOCAUST GIRLHOOD REMEMBERED

Still_AliveKluger’s Still Alive is a remarkable book and I thank Dorian of the Eiger Monch Jungfrau blog for bringing it to my attention.

Like most girls of my generation, I read and reread Anne Frank’s Diary (the expurgated version, sadly) in grade six. It led, for years, to more reading about the Holocaust. Until now, however, I’d never come across Kluger’s memoir. It is superb, harsh, and unforgettable. Like Anne, Kluger speaks of a difficult relationship with her mother; unlike Anne, Kluger’s memoir recounts her life at Theresiensenstadt, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Christianstadt. We don’t know what Anne thought and felt when she was betrayed and brought to Auschwitz: there are accounts, I don’t remember where I read them, that Anne despaired, lost hope (how could one not?), but we are not privy. Her diary remains, as my students would say about any book they enjoy, “relatable”: I’m not damning with faint praise, simply acknowledging the universality of the adolescent experience she recounts, despite her unusual circumstances. Anne is not alien to us, attested by my still calling her by her first name. Kluger’s, on the other hand, is an alien experience, but it is her voice that washes over us and takes over, a dominant, indomitable voice. It is, as Kluger insisted about every Holocaust survivor, unique to her, to her individuality, a singular experience: this was a thread I noticed, an insistence on rejecting any uniformity in writing the Holocaust. She is writing, she would insist, not as a historian, but as an expression of herself. I understand her insistence on not “romanticizing” the Holocaust, not museum-fying it, placing it in “amber,” her way to assert the self. And yet, there are moments where she is weighed down by the history she carries, by her struggle never to be defined and yet, acknowledging she is defined, not so much by a monolithic history, but by time, place, and a monumental absence, of those who did not survive.

Kluger, in writing about the Holocaust, is unabashedly feminist, kind of second-wave-y, an us-and-them approach (loved this about her): “…fascism is a decidedly male property,” she declares from the opening chapter (see below her comment on Judaism, as another example). She is also unrelenting in her refusal to sentimentalize: “For sentimentality involves turning away from an ostensible object and towards the subjective observer, that is, towards oneself. It means looking into a mirror instead of reality.” She wants her family, murdered, seen in the clear light of her truth. When she describes an aunt, she doesn’t speak of her with regret, but with her inability to forgive her for a childhood incident. Being a victim, asserts Kluger, doesn’t endow virtue, “a false concept of suffering as a source of moral education,” certainly it didn’t to her memory of her aunt, “I…who can’t forgive her, even after a death that is as hard to imagine as it is impossible to forget” and being a survivor doesn’t oblige her to be a saint either: “I’m not going to become a paragon of virtue or put on nice-girl manners in order to shame and convert you.” She refuses to be pegged because being free to be herself is the most important “lesson” the Shoah gave her. It’s harsh, yes, but to a reader like me, who prefers truth to symbol, I was enthralled reading Kluger. And nothing is spared her feminist truth-ire, not her family, not the faith she was born into: “this religion, which reduces its daughters to helpmeets of men and circumscribes their spiritual life within the confines of domestic space. Recipes for gefilte fish are no recipe for coping with the Holocaust.” A combination of domestic and gallows humour: the juxtaposition of the horrific with the ordinary in Kluger’s sharp, unrelentingly truth-telling voice.

“In December 1938 our maid must still have been with us, for she gave me a piece of candy from her little Christmas tree. She was soon to leave us because, as an Aryan, she wasn’t allowed to work for Jews. When I found out where this present came from, I ostentatiously spat it out. Nothing Christian should touch my pure Jewish lips. But then I noticed that I had hurt the feelings of a person I liked a lot and was mortified and confused. I had wanted to make a point, perform a symbolic action, and learned that symbols are as volatile as weather vanes and point in every direction, depending on how the wind blows.”

“…the symptoms of this flourishing mother-daughter neurosis were textbook-perfect, and it’s amazing that not only the neurosis itself, but the symptoms go back so far. Yet this awareness was of little help. Freud was an optimist.”

I never thought I could laugh while reading a Holocaust memoir, but it is testament to Kluger’s incisive intellect, her I-have-you-pegged understanding of one of our greatest thinkers, coupled with a clever irony that found me bursting into embarrassed guffaws. I don’t think Kluger would have minded.

And then, suddenly, passages of tragic truth I didn’t quite know what to do with.

“…the site of suffering has to be preserved.

And I ask myself: Why?

…Do we expect that our unsolved questions will be answered if we hang on to what’s left: the place, the stones, the ashes? We don’t honor the dead with these unattractive remnants of past crimes; we collect and keep them for the satisfaction of our own necrophiliac desires. Violated taboos, such as child murder and mass murder, turn their victims into spirits, whom we offer a kind of home that they may haunt at will. Perhaps we are afraid they may leave the camps, and so we insist that their deaths were unique and must not be compared to any other losses or atrocities. Never again shall there be such a crime.

The same thing doesn’t happen twice anyway. Every event, like every human being and even every dog, is unique. We would be condemned to be isolated monads if we didn’t compare and generalize, for comparisons are the bridges from one unique life to another. In our hearts we all know that some aspects of the Shoah have been repeated elsewhere, today and yesterday, and will return in new guise tomorrow; and the camps, too, were only imitations (unique imitations, to be sure) of what had occurred the day before yesterday.”

In the first few responsive thoughts that come after reading an extraordinary book, I concluded that Kluger’s account contained a tension between random/chance and free will in her understanding of the camps. Now, I’m not so sure. There is an account of her taking a chance, during a selection, to re-enter the line-up, to lie about her age; another incident near the war’s end when she, her mother, and another girl decide to make a bolt from an enforced march. The camps were a place where every manifestation of the singular had its day, an arena where every possibility of being human was taken. She recounts an incident where a woman chose to help her and she is in awe that there was no reason why she should have:

“What happened next…was an act of the kind that is always unique, no matter how often it occurs: an incomprehensible act of grace, or put more modestly, a good deed. Yet the first term, an act of grace, is perhaps closer to the truth, although the agent was human and the term is religious. For it came out of the blue sky and was as undeserved as if its originator had been up in the clouds. I was saved by a young woman who was in as helpless a situation as the rest of us, and who nonetheless wanted nothing other than to help me. The more I think about the following scene, the more astonished I am about its essence, about someone making a free decision to save another person, in a place which promoted the instinct of self-preservation to the point of crime and beyond. It was both unrivaled and exemplary. Neither psychology nor biology explains it. Only free will does. Simone Weil was suspicious of practically all literature, because literature tends to make good actions boring and evil ones interesting, thus reversing the truth, she argued. Perhaps women know more about what is good than men do, since men tend to trivialize it. In any case, Weil was right, as I learned that day in Birkenau: the good is incomparable and inexplicable as well, because it doesn’t have a proper cause outside itself, and because it doesn’t reach for anything beyond itself…it must have been freely chosen, because anyone knowing the circumstances would have predicted the opposite, or at least shoulder-shrugging indifference. Her decision broke the chain of knowable causes…Never and nowhere was there such an opportunity for a free, spontaneous action as in that place at that time. It was moral freedom at its purest…In a rat hole, where charity is the least likely virtue…that is where freedom may appear like the uninvited angel…in the perverse environment of Auschwitz absolute goodness was a possibility, like a leap of faith, beyond the humdrum chain of cause and effect. I don’t know how often it was consummated. Surely not often. Surely not only in my case. But it existed. I am a witness.”

It is fitting that Kluger, with her sharp mind and sharper pen, with her eschewing of sentimentality, would stand as a witness to goodness. She is the true, clear-eyed misanthrope, calling out hypocrisy, sentimentality, pigeon-holing and generalizing, simplifying to suit amour propre, only to reveal a heart and mind that assert humanity’s freedom to choose good over evil. I will always love Anne, for voicing what every struggling sensitive-souled girl feels, thinks, and can’t articulate, but as a woman of a certain age, it’s Kluger’s voice that resonates, her refusal to be determined, or defined, not by fate, history, or memory:

“I never went back to Auschwitz as a tourist and never will. Not in this life. To me it is no place for a pilgrimage. I am told that they exhibit my Auschwitz poems in their museum, against my express wishes. That doesn’t make me furious anymore: one gets old and indifferent. I could be proud  to have survived what some have called the asshole of creation, proud that it held me and couldn’t keep me. But it is dangerous nonsense to believe that anyone contributed much to her own survival. The place which I saw, smelled, and feared, and which now has been turned into a museum, has nothing to do with the woman I am.”

Kluger is hardly triumphalist; she doesn’t think she contributed much to her own survival and was as dependent on others and chance as herself, but there is a hint, a tiny suggestion that follows the above passage about what defines her:

“And yet in the eyes of many, Auschwitz is a point of origin for survivors. The name itself has an aura, albeit a negative one, that came with the patina of time, and people who want to say something important about me announce that I have been in Auschwitz. But whatever you may think, I don’t hail from Auschwitz, I come from Vienna. Vienna is a part of me–that’s where I acquired consciousness and acquired language–but Auschwitz was as foreign to me as the moon. Vienna is a part of my mind-set, while Auschwitz was a lunatic terra incognita, the memory of which is like a bullet lodged in the soul where no surgery can reach it.”

“Consciousness” and “language” and “a bullet in the soul”: free will and memory, freedom and constraint.

Here is the review part: read Kluger’s memoir. (I didn’t realize March is women’s history month: this would be the ideal read for it.)

8 thoughts on “Reading Ruth Kluger’s STILL ALIVE: A HOLOCAUST GIRLHOOD REMEMBERED

  1. This sounds… wonderful isn’t right. Good isn’t either. Compelling. I am definitely going to add this to my TBR pile though. Wonderful review, very thoughtful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are correct: adjectives fail, but it is a book worth reading and rereading. In the same vein, I won’t say I hope you enjoy it, though it is strangely a page-turner, but you will get a lot out of it.

      Thank you for your kind words!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I avoid Holocaust memoirs, but this one sounds worth checking out. My mother was from Vienna, and I know more Holocaust survivors than I can count, so after a while you wonder what more new can be said. Like millions of others, I read Anne Frank’s diary when I was a tween, and although I remember very little of the details, it had a deep and lasting impact on my consciousness.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is very much worthy of your reading time. It’s like nothing I’ve ever read before and I can see why it rankles with some survivors. I think it’s brilliant.

      I too have friends from Vienna, though none are Holocaust survivors. Montreal, however, like New York, has a large Jewish community. I grew up in a neighbourhood that had many Holocaust survivors and thus, I too grew up knowing many of them. Though they didn’t often speak about their experiences.

      Anne’s diary formed so many of us and still does.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The quoted parts left me gasping. I don’t know that I’m in a place where I could read this without breaking into a million pieces, but, this part “symbols are as volatile as weather vanes and point in every direction, depending on how the wind blows”. That is why symbols sustain and destroy, in the same moment.

    Like

    1. I totally understand and pray and hope you’re ready and able to read the Kluger one day. This is not by way of convincing at all!!, but she is such an incredibly strong person. I was inspired by her and I LOVED her unfailing honesty, about herself as much as everything and everyone.

      Exactly: what she said about symbols struck me as deeply as you. I never had the words why I felt that way and Kluger gave them to me.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It stays with you, doesn’t it? I grew up in a neighbourhood where many shop-owners were survivors and I remember their tattoos vividly. Horrific it was and horrific it remains.

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