Ruth Klüger's weiter leben: eine Jugend:
A Jewish Woman's "Letter to Her Mother"

by Dr. Jennifer Taylor

Dr. Jennifer Taylor received her BA from Grinnell College, Iowa, her MA and PhD from Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y.

Dr. Taylor is Associate Professor of German at the College of William and Mary and of 20th Century Literature, Film, and the Holocaust in German Literature. This year she is visiting Associate Professor of German at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA.

Publications: Articles about German film and literary accounts of the Holocaust (Ruth Klüger, Jurek Becker, and Edgar Hilsenrath are among the survivor authors she has written about).

This article first appeared in an anthology: Out From The Shadows.
Essays on Contemporary Austrian Women Writers and Film makers.
Edited and with an introduction by Professor Margarete
Lamb-Faffelberger, of Lafayette College, Pennsylvania
Published in 1997 by ARIADNE Press, Riverside, California.


Ruth Klüger's 1992 Holocaust memoir, weiter leben (To Continue to Live: A Childhood) is a rich and highly constructed work, situating the reader simultaneously in the present and in the past and focusing on the difficulties Klüger faced and still faces, first as a young Jewish girl growing up in the anti-Semitic Austria of the thirties and, later, as an inmate of Theresienstadt and the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps. At the same time, the text reflects upon the contradictions she faces while integrating her identities as a Jewish Austrian woman, a professor of German in the United States and, perhaps most important, as the daughter of a Jewish survivor -mother and as a mother herself.

The work of an Austrian-born author, weiter leben does not immediately strike the reader as an Austrian book. In spite of the fact that the book's first part is titled "Wien" (Vienna), it appears to be more a German or even an American work than an Austrian one. Published in the town of Göttingen in German, welter leben is specifically dedicated by its survivor-author to "Den Göttinger Freunden" (the friends from Göttingen), to the Germans themselves instead of to the international community at large as are so many of the Holocaust memoirs. Furthermore, Klüger, though born and raised in Vienna before the Shoah, moved to the United States after 1945 and now lives and works in California. Certainly, there is little sense here that the author has the Austrians in mind as a friendly readership.

Nevertheless, I find weiter leben to be one of the most important Austrian works written in the postwar period, precisely because Ruth Klüger remains outside of its geographical borders in order to assert her claim to the Austrian, and specifically to the Jewish Austrian, cultural inheritance that was denied her from early childhood on, primarily by the Nazis, but also by her patriarchal family. Physical distance to her place of birth (and to her dead family members murdered by the Nazis) allows Klüger to examine both the Austria and the family in which she spent the first years of her life-which no longer exist-in a highly critical and provocative way. The Austria of her childhood becomes in this book what Klüger calls a Zeitschaft, a place in time to which one cannot ever physically return. Here her return to that imagined Austria is a literary journey taken from the relative safety and "neutrality" of California and Germany.

weiter leben is in many ways attempting to do some of the things we see in texts of other Jewish German writers such as Edgar Hilsenrath and Jurek Becker, namely, to reclaim the German (here I use the term German to mean the entire literary canon of the German-speaking peoples) literary and cultural past for the Jewish Germans. As I will show later, Klüger elicits the memory of the works of Austrian Jewish literati such as Paul Celan and Franz Kafka in reclaiming a Jewish German literary voice. This act of reclaiming is complicated, however, by the fact that the author is a Jewish Austrian woman, while the literary and cultural heritage is largely composed of texts by men. Klüger's book is specifically about Jewish Austrian women, or about the way in which gender has affected the author's own experience as a Jewish Austrian child and later as a Holocaust survivor. Thus while Hilsenrath and Becker might be able to see themselves as literally reclaiming a voice which Jewish men once had in German culture, Klüger is faced, both as a woman and as an Austrian woman, with the task of carving out an original voice. Ironically, she does this by taking up the literary and cultural past and rewriting it to a large degree as I will describe below.

The Jewish Woman's Voice

One of the most striking characteristics of this book is its focus on silence as the marker of a Jewish woman's identity. Ruth Klüger depicts herself, in all of her identities, as a daughter, a granddaughter, and even as a mother, as defined primarily by muteness: her experience is consistently denied throughout the text by those who, like her children's friends in California, cannot imagine a woman in the role of survivor. Writing the book breaks the silence while at the same time memorializing it.

The autobiographic text, weiter leben, can then be understood as a mapping out and simultaneous undermining of the image of the Jewish woman as mute on the many levels Klüger herself experienced. First, the text is a protest voiced against the Austrians and Germans themselves for silencing her both during the Third Reich as well as afterwards. Second, it is a voice raised to contradict the strict rules of her childhood Jewish religion for not allowing a woman an official role in the rituals. Furthermore, this is a book which asserts a voice in her own family, but especially in regard to her mother; weiter leben is, like Franz Kafka's Brief an den Vater (1975; Letter to His Father, 1966), written, published, and yet meant (perhaps) never to be read by the addressee. The work might very well be read as a modern "Brief an die Mutter," written to her own mother(l) who silenced her for being a girl, for being a child and for being a daughter. weiter leben simultaneously recalls the Austrian cultural inheritance of Kafka while rewriting it in the voice of the Jewish daughter.

Engpässe: Women's Voices as Jewish Survivors

Ruth Kluger writes that she and German friends were at a dinner party exchanging stories when the subject of tight places or claustrophobic experiences ("Engpässe") came up (the word draws the reader back to Celan's "da liegt man nicht eng" as well as to Klüger's use of welter, lending more resonance to the title). Her friends, all of them of her generation, were talking of elevators that had been stuck, of closets that were locked or of tunnels that seemed endless. Suddenly she found herself in an Engpaß of a different sort: her own experience, she realized, was not salonfähig (proper), for her Engpaß was the suffocating train ride that took her and her mother to Auschwitz. She describes this moment at the dinner table:

I could offer my trip in the cattle wagon and thought about it incessantly, but how should I add that to the discussion? This story would have so dampened the discussion, would have broken the rules so completely that only I would have still been speaking. The others, more or less affected, dejected, would have been silent, struck mouth dead by my experience[2].

In fact, then, her Engpaß was not narrow enough: it was too broad for the discussion at the table. Her story about the train would have crossed an unstated line and, would not, as she said, have been salonfdhig. Better, she thinks, that she remain mundtot (silent) than that they become so after hearing such a story. After all, she is used to being mundtot, her life has been spent . And so, at this dinner, Klüger tells another story in place of the train story, namely a story about a schoolteacher in Munich whose classroom was bombed by the Allies in World War II.. She says she can tell her German friends the stories of the Jewish people, but not her own: "My childhood falls into the black hole of this discrepancy" (WL 109). German stories about the war are about being bombed or being hungry. Jewish stories are about deportations and concentration camps. And yet, as Ruth Klüger's story points out, all of these people were (are) Germans (or in her case, Austrians), had been neighbors, would have been fellow citizens but for the Nazi years. That the Jewish stories are, by definition, foreign, in spite of the fact that they stem from a native Austrian of the same generation, underscores the irony of being both Jewish and German/ Austrian after the Shoah.

And yet, of course, Klüger does not remain mundtot; she writes the story of the transport in a book dedicated to "Den Göttinger Freunden," reflecting before she begins about the need to build bridges from one set of memories to another, not to replace one with the other. "But if there is no bridge between my memories and yours, why then am I writing this here anyway?" (WL 110). Writing the book breaks the silence; her voice, no longer mundtot, allows for those other voices to stay alive, to be connected to hers with a bridge. In light of the recent debates among the historians in Germany about writing history, Klüger's assertion that we build bridges without making each other mundtot sounds hopeful if not reconciliatory.

Reclaiming the German Fairy Tale

Giving a voice to the Jewish woman's survival story is just one part of Klüger's mission, however. The book also attempts to go back further in time before the Holocaust and to reclaim the German literary tradition for Jewish women. Like Jurek Becker, Edgar Hilsenrath, Bruno Bettelheim and other concentration camp survivor-authors, Klüger relies greatly on the fairy tale as a vehicle for telling some of her survival stories. Jurek Becker (Bronsteins Kinder; Bronstein's Children), Hilsenrath (Der Nazi and der Friseur; 1977; The Nazi Who Lived As a Jew; 1977) and, to some degree, Bruno Bettelheim ( , 1986) construct texts in which there are thematic as well as structural elements from German fairy tales such as and Gretel, which thematize the struggle for survival against terrible odds. Fairy tales are rich sources for literary depictions of (lie Shoah experience for many reasons. Their very structured form, from the formulaic language of "if they are still alive..."to their rigid narrative patterns, makes their or "constructedness" transparent, thus underlining the author's awareness of the difficulty of using language to describe the indescribable.

Furthermore, that fairy tales have a perceived double status, both as a part of high (written) and low (oral) culture within the German literary canon, adds to their usefulness in telling the Shoah story. The survivor-author can both locate her or himself within a high German cultural context and identify her or himself as a "mainstream" German by retelling the famous Grimm tales, which have their beginnings as literary texts during the first German nationalist movements before 1848. These writers, then, can use these particular literary texts to call attention to their own identity as members of high German culture. Such an act of assertion becomes necessary for Jewish survivors, who had been told that they were not members of the dominant group in German culture and that their language was false, their discourse degenerate. Thus, in rewriting and undermining the fairy tale, these authors are claiming an intimacy with German culture that is not allowed to an outsider. They are staking a familial claim by treating the cultural history in a critical though familiar way.

The main fairy tale in weiter leben, though, is not Hänsel and Gretel, as we see in the men's texts, but Schneewittchen (Snow White), the story of a princess driven into a dark forest by a malicious witch-like stepmother. In Klüger's complex text, the voice of the child, which is differentiated from that of the adult narrator, often paints the mother as evil and at fault for the entire camp experience, just as Snow White's stepmother had forced her into the forest. Several of Klüger's experiences underline the reasons a child might have for painting such a picture of a mother. When Ruth Klüger and her mother arrived in Birkenau in the summer of 1944, her mother suggested that they throw themselves onto the electric fence in the yard so that they might be spared watching each other suffer. She was horrified that her mother could suggest her death (WL 113-114). Klüger was twelve when they arrived in the camp, an age in which children are supposed to be taking risks, endangering their lives, while the parents should be cautious and conservative, worried about the safety of their children. Her life in the concentration camp turned the world upside down for Klüger. Thus, it is not hard to imagine why the child protagonist likens her mother to the fairy tale witch and herself to Snow White, the innocent victim.

Fairy tales are associated with a fixed past, a former way of working through trauma (according to Bruno Bettelheim)[3], but the function has clearly has for Kluger, a child survivor . Nothing in the fairy tale can serve to minimize the real experience or even to help inform the reader of reality. The child is trapped. Lawrence Langer writes of the function of fairy tales in Holocaust fiction:

The fairy tale allusion produces extraordinary reverberations, since in many respects it epitomizes the continuity in experience which characterized the imagination's attitude toward life before the advent of 1'univers concentrationaire. "Once upon a time," the traditional refuge for children, always ended "and they lived happily ever after," assuring an uninterrupted adventure from past to future-what the narrative voice calls a "readiness to live."[4]

For Ruth Klüger, the rewriting and breaking down of the fairy tale is to some degree a reckoning with her own destroyed or broken childhood. This connection sets into motion a whole process explored in her text of rewriting and reunderstanding the past, as the many voices of her own persona take turns telling her story. Klüger's retelling of Schneewittchen, as a literary representation of the Shoah, allows both the author and the reader to indulge in certain (perhaps therapeutic) fantasies about survival. The fairy tale realm becomes a world in which the former child-survivor plays out fantasies of guilt at having survived or anger at having almost died; the narrator can align herself with one or with all of the figures taking part in the fairy tale power struggle (in this case the struggle was with the mother), and thus relive her own power struggle as a child-victim of the Nazis, in which she had absolutely no control.

Ultimately, although the child's voice and the fairy tale narrative structure is essential to the intricate texture of weiter leben, it is the voice of the adult Klügcr which has the final say. The book is, above all else, an act of forgiveness of her mother. For as a mother herself, and as a mature adult, Ruth Klüger is now able to understand the dilemma faced by her own mother who had asked her to throw herself onto the electric fence. In her book, the author states: "Only when I had children did I understand that it is justifiable to kill your own children in Auschwitz rather than to wait" (WL 113-114).

Kaddish: Reclaiming the Woman's Voice in the Jewish Community

As a child and as a girl, but even now as a woman, Klüger claims she felt stripped of the ability to count, to say kaddish for the dead, to be a source of memory. She writes that she has always been suspicious of rituals because they did not include her. Women in the Jewish community were excluded from the important rituals. According to Klüger:

Before his daughters he talked this way to a dog, and my mother told me about it uncritically. She just took the put-down the way a Jewish daughter should. It was meant to be funny. Were things different and I might be able to, as they say, officially say Kaddish ...for my father, then I might be able to make friends with this religion ...(WL 23)

To some degree, then, the title weiter leben also implies a learning to come to terms with her past frustration at the Jewish religion, a frustration and anger which is marked in this story as highly ambiguous: Her anger at her mother for not contradicting the grandfather, whose story is clearly marked as harmless and comical, is conflated here with the anger at her mother for not having stopped the camp experience. Klüger has lost everything-family, language, status, father, mother, identity-and in trying to piece together a viable post-Shoah identity, she finds that she must "make friends" with the past, with the Jewish religion itself. Thus, the text becomes a mapping out of her identity as a writer, as a scholar, and as a literary voice.

Ironically, it is only through taking on the traditional role of the man in the Jewish mourning ceremony, by "writing the book" and, in so doing, saying kaddish for the dead, that she is able to take that step and begin the process of making friends with Judaism again. The book becomes the kaddish she never said for her father, for her grandfather, and for her lost brother, for even as she complains bitterly about not having been allowed to say the prayer, she begins to remember her father, to recount his life, and to mourn for him.

This work of mourning is colored, however, by the guilt she feels at having no way of bringing together her everyday memories of him, some bad, some good, with his death which is too terrible to imagine. And this guilt, in turn, produces in her narrative a tone of aggressive anger at a man for dying a death after which she cannot express the normal anger a child might have felt toward a parent ever again. His death, which she imagines, is indeed horrible. She sees him naked in a gas chamber, attempting to scratch his way to the top of the pile, and she tries to imagine whether he, like many men, was stronger than the others and thus able to crawl up over the children, children who were perhaps her own age. Such a vision, planted into her head by the stories she had heard after the war, haunts her as she attempts to remember him not only as a victim, but as a father. This kaddish is an attempt to rescue his memory-to exercise such visions by writing them down.

History and Living On: weiter leben

The title of the work itself, which translates into English literally as "Going on with life" or, more interestingly, as "living more widely, with more room," conjures up several images which generate questions for the reader. On one level, the title describes what she has herself done; she has lived on and this is her story. At the same time, though, the words "weiter leben" can be construed as a rough order or a strong admonition for other survivors and, especially, for her younger German audience to live on. This is quite literally a book for the Germans of younger generations who will read her story and live on.

On another level, the title refers to Klüger's life in America, especially in California, where all is spatially wider ("welter") and, (at least apparently), more open. She writes that, after her years of being boxed in both in the camps and in New York City which caused her to experience a "Käfig-gefühl" (a feeling of living in a cage) (WL 237), the openness of the California freeways and wide landscapes carne as a shock:

My university lies between two interstate highways ...When I first came to Orange County and got lost every few days on the highways, I imagined that hell must be like this, that everyone would have to travel these highways, alone in their own tin jails, separate from all the others and yet visible for everyone ...(WL 280)

The wideness of California was not just terrifying, however: Southern California's desert landscape offers what appears at first to be a break with the past for all who have endured too much history. Ultimately, though, Kluger comes to like California in spite of its unfulfillable promise of new beginnings; California is still home:

Meanwhile I am at home again in Southern California, in Orange County. This is a county whose history consists of the fact that its inhabitants fled here to escape history, European, Asian and finally even American history, in as far as it took place further eastward ...I like living here. This sea and desert landscape, threatened by earthquakes, blessed by the sun, plagued by drought, this landscape has taken on the foolish and tragic mission of getting rid of the past by denying it, by replacing the present with another present before the first one can get old. This is impossible and that's why it is foolish. (WL 280-282)

Is California comforting because so many like her who tried unsuccessfully to escape history live there? Here, one is not alone with the past, but one lives every day in the vain hope that history might be replaceable. Like Becker's characters in Bronsteins Kinder, Californians are seeking to recreate themselves by running away from the past, and all are doomed to failure. Klüger sees a difference, though, between Germany and California, the ultimate last frontier of the frontier-land, America. The Germans, in order to recreate themselves, must deny that history affects them. The Californians, expecting their histories to catch up with them any day, know they are running from something which does affect them.

The word "weiter" in the title has more than a spatial meaning, however; "welter" also calls to mind the lines of Paul Celan's complex poem to the dead, Todesfuge, and thus links Klüger's work closely to the Jewish-German literary past. Celan writes in his poem of the smoke of the burning, murdered Jewish victims rising up into the air where "da liegt man nicht eng."[5] Klüger's title, one can almost imagine, echoes the eng with weiter, and, as we shall see, Celan's liegen (lie) with leben (live). The association between the two works is by no means inconsequential; it is highly fitting that Klüger, in this highly constructed and yet emotionally laden memoir, pays tribute to Celan, the great Jewish German poet of the former Austro-Hungarian empire.

The two works of mourning can be read against each other in interesting ways. Kluger's ambiguous word "weiter," directed both to the living and the dead, seems to be a response to Celan's poem to the dead, itself full of contradictory imagery and rhythms. While Celan's dead do not lie (liegen) narrowly, Klüger's figures are exhorted to live (leben) widely. His is a negative statement (da liegt man nicht eng), hers is positive (weiter leben). His lie, hers live-two German words which are similar in rhythm and sound and yet vastly different in this context. Her title and the book itself is an ambiguous exhortation to both the living and the dead to live on, if only in memory, while Celan's vision in his poem is directed only toward the past, the dead. Like Celan's, Klüger's dead will live on only in the book itself, not eng, but weiter, but her living will also live weiter, perhaps even in the open spaces of California. Klüger's text functions then on many levels simultaneously: it is a prayer for the living to live on, and it is, like Celan's, a kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning for the dead, for those who will not live on except in memory. In the end, weiter leben becomes a tribute to the Jewish German literary past, a kaddish written, very appropriately, as a German literary text.

Bridging Two Worlds

The publication of weiter leben, as well as her ongoing work and teaching in both California and Germany (she takes exchange students from Irvine to Gottingen regularly), make it necessary that Klüger travel back and forth between Germany and California-as a survivor, she belongs to both of them equally. weiter leben, with its associations with the literary past, has returned to her lost status as a member of the German-speaking community from which she was violently removed, while her "home" in the United States has literally meant life and a chance to begin again. It is hard to imagine ever being able to reconcile the new world, in which everyone is running from history, with the old, in which all are embracing the past in some sort of masochistic ritual that brings no relief. And yet, this is, to a large degree, one of the primary functions of this text, to bridge these two worlds that are so much a part of the survivor's identity. To what degree Austria plays a role in the bridge between the two worlds remains to be seen. Austria appears to be a place left behind, a Zeitschaft full of painful memories and yet the focus of so much of [tie book's energy, both positive and negative.


1. At the time of publication (1992), Ruth Klüger's mother lived in a nursing home and had not yet read the book. In the meantime, the mother read it and is reportedly "furious."

2. Klüger, weiter leben: eine Jugend (Göttingen: Wallstein, 1992), 109. All texts from this source were translated by me. Further references to this text will be cited with WL and the page number throughout the text.

3. See Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment and the Informed Heart (New York: Vintage Books, 1977).

4. Lawrence Langer, The Holocaust and the Literay Imagination (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1975), 158.

5. Paul Celan, Todesfuge, in: Deutsche Gedichte, eds. Theodor Echtermeyer and Benno von Wiese, 17th ed. (Düsseldorf: August Bagel, 1986), 664-665.