Special Tributes

Special Tribute to Ruth Klüger
By:  Peter R. Erspamer, Ph.D.

Dr. Ruth Klüger (also known as Ruth Angress) is Emerita Professor of German at the University of California-Irvine and the author of the European bestseller, weiter leben. She currently resides in California and in Göttingen, Germany. 

Ruth Klüger was born to a Jewish household in Vienna in 1931. Her father was killed in a concentration camp during the Holocaust while Ruth was still in grade school. When Ruth was only twelve, the Nazis deported her and her mother to the Czech concentration camp, Terezin. Subsequently, the Klugers were interned in the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz and Gross-Rosen. At the end of the war, the SS evacuated many of the death camps by leading the surviving prisoners on death marches. Malnourished inmates were forced to walk on foot from concentration camps in Eastern Europe to those within Germany. During such a death march, Ruth and her mother made a desperate attempt to escape--and survived. They then went into hiding in war-torn Germany with the help of a sympathetic pastor. 

Upon emigrating to America, Ruth Klüger earned her Ph.D. from the University of California,Berkeley. She taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Kansas, Princeton University, and the University of California-Irvine. She distinguished herself through scholarly writings on the German authors Kleist, Lessing, Stifter, and Grillparzer. One of her former colleagues at Princeton, Professor Paul T. Roberge, recollects her selfless mentoring very fondly and declares to this day that she is one of his favorite people in the teaching profession. 

Dr. Klüger's most enduring legacy will be her 1992 autobiography, weiter leben: Eine Jugend ("Continue Living: My Youth"). Published by a relatively obscure German publisher, it became an unexpected bestseller throughout Central  Europe--and lifted that publisher out of obscurity. The memoir chronicles Ruth Klüger's internment in Nazi concentration camps and her emigration to America. The primacy of human life is one of the main themes of the book. 

One of the things that makes Ruth Klüger's book unique is her utterly uncompromising attitude toward people portrayed in the book, including her mother and herself. This gives the book a certain relentless bleakness that is somehow overwhelmingly appropriate for the subject matter. In both Night and All Rivers Flow to the Sea, Elie Wiesel reflects on his unconditional love for his father and how it helped him survive the concentration camps. Ruth Klüger's narrative in weiter leben reads like a complete reversal of Elie Wiesel's. The contentious, fractious relationship with her mother merits some under-the-surface interpretation. Ruth was twelve when she and her mother were deported to the concentration camps. Her aggression toward her mother is grounded in the fear that her mother might leave her, as her father had. She feels deep sorrow for the death of her father, who died in a concentration camp. She recollects the trauma of her father's death: 

Darum habe ich auch jahrelang, nein jahrzehntelang nicht glauben wollen and können, daß er wirklich vergast worden ist. Er ist zunächst von österreich nach Italien gefahren. Und dort hat er den Fehler begangen, aus einem faschistischen Land in ein demokratisches zu flüchten, nämlich nach Frankreich. Da haben ihn die Franzosen den Deutschen ausgeliefert.(Klüger, 33) 
[For years and even decades, I did not want to believe that he was really gassed. At first he travelled from Austria to Italy. Then he made the mistake of fleeing from a fascist country into a democratic one, namely France. The French turned him over to the Germans.]
She feels pain over the senseless loss of her father, in which the French were complicit. She is further traumatized by a fear for the loss of her mother, which she could not acknowledge. This was in turn transferred into an aggression toward her mother, that may have had lifesaving benefits for both of them. On one occasion, Ruth's mother suggests a joint suicide on the electric fences of Auschwitz. Both lives are saved when Ruth recoils in horror at the thought. But, on another occasion, during a Selection, Ruth's mother upbraids her for failing to lie about her age and insists that she stand in line again and give an inflated age in order to avoid selection. Ruth's life is thereby saved.
Another source of conflict between Ruth and her mother is her brother Georg, who like his father died in a concentration camp. Ruth competes with her mother in terms of mourning him: "Vielleicht bin ich einfach eifersüchtig auf ihr größeres Recht, ihn zu betrauen."(Klüger, 94) [Perhaps I am simply jealous of her greater right to mourn him.] The deaths of her father and her brother are a source of conflict between Ruth and her mother. Their shared loci of trauma become points of competition between them, revealing how the Holocaust shattered this particular family. 
In one passage, there is a jarring opposition to the filial piety of Elie Wiesel: 
Liesel ist ihrem Vater treu geblieben. Der konnte  nicht  raus, wie sie mir erklärte, weil er zu viel gewußt hat. Daher könne sie sich nicht zum Arbeitstransport melden, obwohl man sie viel eher als mich hätte nehmen müssen, denn sie war ein paar Jahre älter. Sie hat es nicht einmal versucht, sie wollte bei ihm bleiben; sie ist mit ihm vergast worden. Sie hatte absolut keine Illusion über ihr Sterben. Ich hätte mich für meine Mutter nicht geopfert. (Klüger, 135) [Liesel remained true to her father. He could not get out, as she explained, because he knew too much. Therefore she could not register for a work transport, although they would have been more likely to take her than me, because she was a couple of years older. She never even tried it; she wanted to remain with him; she was gassed with him. She had absolutely no illusion about her impending death. I would not have sacrificed myself for my mother.]
Elie Wiesel's description of wanting to stay wit his father no matter which side of the selection it put him on is reflected in the situation of Liesel, who wanted to remain loyal to her father unto death. Ruth's conscious disavowal of loyalty toward her mother may be more than a reflection of grim Holocaust situational ethics, but may be masking subconscious feelings of love that Ruth remains unaware of, because of her competition with her mother. The experiences of the Holocaust often made adults regress, while children had to grow up fast. Ruth sees her mother not as a parent figure, but as a peer with whom she is a ruthless competitor.
The fractious relationship between Ruth and her mother may have helped them both to survive the camps, because they were concentrating on a secondary conflict that was less devastating than the primary crisis of dealing with the everyday trauma of the camps. The conflict between mother and daughter acted as a sort of diversion which made the survival of both of them more possible. 
Even Ruth Klüger's descriptions of her mother's misfortunes are marked by a certain resentment: 
Meine Mutter verlor irgendwann den Kopf and schrie zurück. Dafür mußte sie dann zur Strafe auf dem schon erwähnten steinernen Kamin, dem Mittelstreife der Baracke, knien, eine Stellung, die nach ganz kurzer Zeit qualvoll wird. Sie war in elender Verfaßung, völlig außer sich, der Irrsinn flackerte ihr in den Augen, als sie, schon knieend, noch weiter auf die Beamtete einschrie.(Klüger, 137) [My mother lost her head and screamed back. As punishment, she had to kneel on the stone hearth, a position that became tortuous after a short time. She was absolutely beside herself, insanity flitted in her eyes, as she continued to yell at the camp administrators.] 
The passage is steeped in resentment, although it is not without a certain pity for the mother. The author's resentment for her mother is a result of the elder Klüger having become a lightning rod for Ruth's aggressiveness against her persecutors. The eighteenth century philosopher Moses Mendelssohn once observed, "Revenge seeks its object, and when it cannot find it, it eats its own flesh." With the possible exception of Jean Amery, I cannot think of any author who has helped me understand human trauma more than Ruth Klüger.


Peter R. Erspamer is the author of _The Elusiveness 
of Tolerance: The "Jewish Question" from Lessing to
the Napoleonic Wars_, which received the Choice
Outstanding Academic Book Award in 1997. 
He has taught at several midwestern universities and he also 
lectures in public venues, including community centers
and houses of worship.  He is currently working on a
new book with the title, "Before the Holocaust:
European Jews Between Emancipation and Destruction."


Dr. Peter Erspamer attended Grinnell College, University of Freiburg in Germany, University of Bonn in Germany (Fulbright Scholar), and University of Wisconsin-Madison. Ph.D. cum laude in Comparative Literature and German Cultural History with Research Focus on Jewish Studies.


Visiting Assistant Professor at Carroll College (Waukesha), Marquette University, Indiana
University/Purdue University of Indianapolis, Fort Hays University, University of Missouri, and
Winona State University. Citation from the Teaching Committee at IUPUI for having had "a remarkable and positive impact."


© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
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