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Holocaust survivor Ruth Klüger: 'Germany has changed'

Interview: Sarah Judith Hofmann / kbm
January 26, 2016

Ruth Klüger survived three Nazi concentration camps. Today, she is impressed that Germany is welcoming refugees. Klüger speaks to DW about Auschwitz, getting older and her speech in the German Bundestag.

Ruth Klüger, Copyright: picture-alliance / dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Steinberg

Ms. Klüger, you will be speaking in the German parliament, the Bundestag, on Wednesday in Berlin - the city from which the Nazis planned and ordered horrendous crimes against humanity. How does it feel for you to be here?

I see that so much has changed. It's very unusual that this Remembrance Day is observed year after year and that a nation is working through the crimes it has committed, rather than what might have been won on the battle field. I see new generations that are trying to make amends.

I am impressed by the openness with which the government and, if I understand correctly, also a large portion of the population, are taking in refugees. From my German-Jewish perspective, that is something new. God knows it was not like that two or three generations ago.

But I'm not so naïve to think that all Germans are obliging toward non-Germans. I know there are problems and large sections of the population that are resistant to taking a new attitude toward foreigners. But it seems to be a majority, or at least a strong and willful part of society, that is in favor of opening the gates and accepting others. That's exciting and I'm curious about experiencing that here. That's why I gladly accepted the opportunity to speak here.

As a child, you spent time in three concentration camps: Theresienstadt, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Christianstadt, a sub-camp of Gross-Rosen. You were only 11 years old when you were sent to Theresienstadt. Could you understand at the time what was happening?

Plenary chamber of the German Bundestag, Copyright: imago/IPON
Ruth Klüger is to speak in the German BundestagImage: imago/IPON

Children take whatever they experience for granted. They don't know any better. Even if it knows it's experiencing something unusual, the child thinks, at least I'll be able to talk about it later. I thought that very often: I have something to tell. That was a kind of survival aid. Of course, later on, no one wanted to hear about it, but that's a different story.

I knew so little about anything else. I was seven years old when Hitler marched into Austria and from then on, life was completely different. For me, the Hitler years were from the age of seven to 14, until 1945.

Did the literature and poetry that you loved so much help you at all in the camps?

You do everything you can to pass the time. I recited poems. But surviving under those circumstances is a coincidence. When you speak with survivors, you notice that each one has a unique survival story. As far as that goes, we are all abnormal. Surviving was not normal. Death was normal.

In your childhood memoirs, "Weiter leben" (Keep living), you describe yourself as one who frequently moves out of apartments and cities, as someone on the run. Is that still the case?

I am now 84 years old. That feeling has changed over the past 10 to 15 years. I enjoy being at home, in a nice apartment with a cat. On the other hand, I always ask myself how all those old women endured it back then.

I imagine what it would be like if I had to go to a concentration camp now, and that's a devastating thought. The thought of sleeping in a bed with four other people! How can you even sleep? I take sleeping pills now even though I have a comfortable mattress. And you didn't have your own bathtub or toilet. Children can sleep or use the toilet anywhere, but old women sitting next to each other in the latrine! I've been thinking lately about how inconceivable it would be for me to be yanked out of my apartment and sent away by hostile authorities.

Liberation of Auschwitz, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/akg-images
Holocaust Remembrance Day is pegged to the liberation of Auschwitz in January 1945Image: picture-alliance/dpa/akg-images

What does January 27 - the day Auschwitz was liberated in 1945 and International Holocaust Remembrance Day - mean to you personally?

I always try to remember where I was on that day. I think I was fleeing. And I didn't even know that Auschwitz had been liberated. It's not like millions of people were liberated there. Many had already been gassed and others were on death marches. Those who were left were those in the sick barracks who had reason to believe they wouldn't survive.

This Remembrance Day has been chosen randomly. But it's not a bad choice because Auschwitz was a particularly destructive camp.

What was your own liberation like?

We were already fleeing. We pretended to be Germans fleeing the Russians, which was ironic because we actually wanted to get over to the Russians. In April 1945, the Americans marched into Straubing in Bavaria. The war was over. My seven Hitler years were over. And the joy was immense, but it took a few days to really sink in.

How important is it to commemorate those who were brutally murdered by the Nazis?

At my mother's funeral, I had the feeling that it's important to bury the dead. My mother lived until she was very old, and she died in Los Angeles. The ritual has its place. That hadn't been clear to me until then. The huge loss in my family was as if I had literally lost something, like an object that I could no longer find. But a funeral draws a line. I can say a few religious words about remembrance and find closure with a sense of contentedness.

But that's not the case for Holocaust survivors. The dead are ashes scattered somewhere. They weren't even scattered by someone, they were thrown into a pit. If you've been to a real burial, you'll notice the difference.

Ruth Klüger, Copyright: picture alliance/APA/picturedesk.com/H. Neubauer
Ruth Klüger is a writer and university professorImage: picture alliance/APA/picturedesk.com/H. Neubauer

"Never again" is often an important part of commemoration. What is important for you to express in your speech in the Bundestag?

It's important that this tremendous change has taken place. That this used to be a fantastic country, not just concerning Jews, but also otherwise. And that it has now become a power for peace. I am still getting used to that.

Ruth Klüger was born in Vienna in 1931. Together with her mother, she survived three concentration camps: Theresienstadt, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Christianstadt. In 1947, she immigrated to the US and studied at the University of California, Berkeley. As a professor of German studies, she has taught at Princeton, UC Irvine and in Göttingen, Germany. Her breakthrough as an author came in 1992 with "Weiter leben" (Keep living). Today, Klüger resides in Irvine, California.

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