As It Happens·Q&A

Holocaust survivor Ruth Kluger 'would not accept inequality,' says friend

Anger fuelled Ruth Kluger's writing and her advocacy her whole life and she never backed down from it, says a longtime friend and neighbour.

Kluger — whose divisive memoir Still Alive was unforgiving and unflinching — has died at the age of 88

Writer, professor and Holocaust survivor Ruth Kluger has died at the age of 88. (Dieter Nagl/AFP/Getty Images)

Anger fuelled Ruth Kluger's writing and her advocacy her whole life and she never backed down from it, says a longtime friend and colleague.

Kluger, a German literature professor and Holocaust survivor best known for her unflinching memoir Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered, died on Oct. 6 from complications related to bladder cancer. She was 88.

Kluger was six years old when Nazi Germany annexed her home country of Austria, and 12 when she was shipped to Theresienstadt camp with her mother, and later to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Christianstadt. 

She and her mother survived the Holocaust, but her father and half-brother did not. 

Still Alive stands out among Holocaust memoirs for the way it bluntly skewers not only the Nazis, but also Kluger's anti-Semetic Austrian neighbours, the adult Jews in her life who failed to see the Holocaust coming, and the U.S. soldiers often described as liberators. 

Gail Hart, a German literature professor at UC Irvine, was Kluger's longtime friend, colleague and neighbour. Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Gail, first of all, I'm sorry for the loss of your friend.

I do miss her and I'm struggling with the past tense. So I may speak of her in the present. 

That's perfectly understandable... I understand you met her at the University of Virginia. You were a graduate student. What were your first impressions of Ruth Kluger? 

Actually, I met her reputation at the University of Virginia. She had departed just before I got there, and people talked about her constantly. And ultimately, when I did meet her ... I was afraid of her. She has a very sharp mind. She is a very direct interrogator. She doesn't have any of these conciliatory mechanisms that most women have. And she seeks argument. And at first I found that a little bit off-putting and I kind of avoided her.

But then I slowly got to know her, especially as a colleague, and we became very good friends. 

How did you become friends? How did that evolve? Because that sounds quite intimidating. 

Yes, well, alcohol was involved. We discovered at a local Mexican restaurant that they made excellent Cadillac margaritas, and we had a number of long discussions at the restaurants or over wine at home. And we found that we agreed on a lot of things, but we also had a lot of things to tell each other. 

Kluger's first Holocaust memoir, Still Alive, made waves for its unforgiving, unsentimental portrayal of the concentration camps, as well as the events preceding and proceeding them. (The Feminist Press At Cuny, Dieter Nagl/AFP/Getty Images)

One of the perhaps most important contributions she made, it was to the idea that the Holocaust ... is something that must be talked about in unsentimental terms. What did you make of that?

I admired her for that.

When this book came out, there was just dithyrambic reaction. There were so many of long, very, very positive reviews of the book, and almost everyone mentioned that she had described her experiences without pathos. That phrase kept recurring from review to review. 

I think she was a little bit too hard on those who, say, visited Holocaust memorials and Holocaust museums because she said that, you know, they were trying to admire themselves for hating the Nazis. She says this at one point. But I do admire her directness. That was very unusual in Holocaust literature at the time.

In what way? I mean, because it's hard to think of the Holocaust being romanticized. In what ways were people rationalizing [or] talking about it in heroic terms? Give us a sense of what she was writing against. 

There's an episode in the book — in both versions, German and English — where she is talking to some students in Germany. And they were amazed that … some Jewish survivors of the Holocaust were not more understanding towards refugees or towards others who were suffering.

And she was quite annoyed with that. She said that, you know, the camps were not providing moral education for the inmates. And she insisted throughout her life that the camps made no sense. They had no logical rationale. They were just wrong, evil. 

We always try to realize some benefits from suffering. And for her, there was no benefit from suffering. She should not have been taken out of school and deported to Theresienstadt, and then further to the death camp, and from there to the work camp. She should have been going to school.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, President Joachim Gauck, centre, and Premier of Saxony Stanislaw Tillich, left, applaud Kluger after her speech during the international Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, 2016, at the German parliament in Berlin. (John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images)

In 2016, Ruth Kluger spoke at German parliament and focused on the ongoing global refugee crisis. So how was she preoccupied with contemporary politics?

She was terribly concerned about about the refugee crisis, as we all were. The year previous to that, I believe Germany took in something like a million refugees, and it's a country of only 80 million. So there was a lot of feeling or support for refugees, but also reaction against them.

In United States, she was very, very upset about the Mexican border and the separation of families at the Mexican border. I mean, she talked about that quite a bit. She was very much opposed to it. Even she was able to stay with her mother in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, and these children were being taken away from their parents and relatives. That preoccupied her.

She loves to talk politics — present tense — and is very much opposed to the current administration and the things that they are doing. And it's kind of sad that she didn't live till election day in two weeks.

Gail Hart, left, and Kluger right, attend a protest together against the U.S.-Mexico border wall. Kluger was staunchly opposed to the treatment of asylum-seekers at the border, Hart said. (Submitted by Gail Hart )

She wanted readers to, she said, "rearrange a lot of furniture in their inner museum of the Holocaust." Do you think she accomplished that? 

I do. She was widely read. It's interesting. The book was extremely popular in Germany … because of its kind of matter-of-fact tone, and also the wisdom that she brings to various human situations. 

In the U.S., it was not that much of a seller. It's used in a lot of classes. I imagine it is also in Canada. College classes and even high school classes. But I think it has had better life as a textbook than as as a book that people buy and read.

Originally, some of the ... reviewers were put off by her prickliness. The interview or the review in the New York Review of Books, the one in New York Times, they kind of rejected the narrator of this autobiography because she was never satisfied with anything, because she resented things.

I think anger is a very, very important part of Ruth's thinking. She would not accept inequality. And she did not like to be reduced. And this anger was a response to her being reduced first as a child, then as a Jew in Hitler's Europe, and then later as as a female faculty member. 

But you were not put off, eventually, by her prickliness or her anger, especially with the help of the margaritas.

That's right. That's right. [Laughs]

And so if she were here, I mean, you must want to talk to her about all the things that are going on in this world right now. What do you miss most about your friend?

Discussing daily politics. She was always on top of the New York Times and watched CNN constantly. And she really, really wanted to discuss these events one by one. I'm a little less willing to talk about the current administration a lot, but my husband is, and so she would talk to him about these things, and it was always a lively discussion.

I also miss talking to her about about German literature and culture, also about German politics and society. She was someone who really kept abreast of what was going on. Although, you know, in certain areas she was almost illiterate, like sports or something like that. She didn't really know much about that. She once said to me, "Who is Magic Johnson?" 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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