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Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Reading List: I Will Bear Witness. Vol. 2

Klemperer, Victor. I Will Bear Witness. Vol. 2. New York: Modern Library, [1942–1945, 1995, 1999] 2001. ISBN 978-0-375-75697-9.
This is the second volume in Victor Klemperer's diaries of life as a Jew in Nazi Germany. Volume 1 (February 2009) covers the years from 1933 through 1941, in which the Nazis seized and consolidated their power, began to increasingly persecute the Jewish population, and rearm in preparation for their military conquests which began with the invasion of Poland in September 1939.

I described that book as “simultaneously tedious, depressing, and profoundly enlightening”. The author (a cousin of the conductor Otto Klemperer) was a respected professor of Romance languages and literature at the Technical University of Dresden when Hitler came to power in 1933. Although the son of a Reform rabbi, Klemperer had been baptised in a Christian church and considered himself a protestant Christian and entirely German. He volunteered for the German army in World War I and served at the front in the artillery and later, after recovering from a serious illness, in the army book censorship office on the Eastern front. As a fully assimilated German, he opposed all appeals to racial identity politics, Zionist as well as Nazi.

Despite his conversion to protestantism, military service to Germany, exalted rank as a professor, and decades of marriage to a woman deemed “Aryan” under the racial laws promulgated by the Nazis, Klemperer was considered a “full-blooded Jew” and was subject to ever-escalating harassment, persecution, humiliation, and expropriation as the Nazis tightened their grip on Germany. As civil society spiralled toward barbarism, Klemperer lost his job, his car, his telephone, his house, his freedom of movement, the right to shop in “Aryan stores”, access to public and lending libraries, and even the typewriter on which he continued to write in the hope of maintaining his sanity. His world shrank from that of a cosmopolitan professor fluent in many European languages to a single “Jews' house” in Dresden, shared with other once-prosperous families similarly evicted from their homes.

As 1942 begins, it is apparent to many in German, even Jews deprived of the “privilege” of reading newspapers and listening to the radio, not to mention foreign broadcasts, that the momentum of German conquest in the East had stalled and that the Soviet winter counterattack had begun to push the ill-equipped and -supplied German troops back from the lines they held in the fall of 1941. This was reported with euphemisms such as “shortening our line”, but it was obvious to everybody that the Soviets, not long ago reported breathlessly as “annihilated”, were nothing of the sort and that the Nazi hope of a quick victory in the East, like the fall of France in 1940, was not in the cards.

In Dresden, where Klemperer and his wife Eva remained after being forced out of their house (to which, in formalism-obsessed Germany, he retained title and responsibility for maintenance), Jews were subjected to a never-ending ratchet of abuse, oppression, and terror. Klemperer was forced to wear the yellow star (concealing it meant immediate arrest and likely “deportation” to the concentration camps in the East) and was randomly abused by strangers on the street (but would get smiles and quiet words of support from others), with each event shaking or bolstering his confidence in those who, before Hitler, he considered his “fellow Germans”.

He is prohibited from riding the tram, and must walk long distances, avoiding crowded streets where the risk of abuse from passers-by was greater. Another blow falls when Jews are forbidden to use the public library. With his typewriter seized long ago, he can only pursue his profession with pen, ink, and whatever books he can exchange with other Jews, including those left behind by those “deported”. As ban follows ban, even the simplest things such as getting shoes repaired, obtaining coal to heat the house, doing laundry, and securing food to eat become major challenges. Jews are subject to random “house searches” by the Gestapo, in which the discovery of something like his diaries might mean immediate arrest—he arranges to store the work with an “Aryan” friend of Eva, who deposits pages as they are completed. The house searches in many cases amount to pure shakedowns, where rationed and difficult-to-obtain goods such as butter, sugar, coffee, and tobacco, even if purchased with the proper coupons, are simply stolen by the Gestapo goons.

By this time every Jew knows individuals and families who have been “deported”, and the threat of joining them is ever present. Nobody seems to know precisely what is going on in those camps in the East (whose names are known: Auschwitz, Dachau, Theresienstadt, etc.) but what is obvious is that nobody sent there has ever been seen again. Sometimes relatives receive a letter saying the deportee died of disease in the camp, which seemed plausible, while others get notices their loved one was “killed while trying to escape”, which was beyond belief in the case of elderly prisoners who had difficulty walking. In any case, being “sent East” was considered equivalent to a death sentence which, for most, it was. As a war veteran and married to an “Aryan”, Klemperer was more protected than most Jews in Germany, but there was always the risk that the slightest infraction might condemn him to the camps. He knew many others who had been deported shortly after the death of their Aryan wives.

As the war in the East grinds on, it becomes increasingly clear that Germany is losing. The back-and-forth campaign in North Africa was first to show cracks in the Nazi aura of invincibility, but after the disaster at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942–1943, it is obvious the situation is dire. Goebbels proclaims “total war”, and all Germans begin to feel the privation brought on by the war. The topic on everybody's lips in whispered, covert conversations is “How long can it go on?” With each reverse there are hopes that perhaps a military coup will depose the Nazis and seek peace with the Allies.

For Klemperer, such grand matters of state and history are of relatively little concern. Much more urgent are obtaining the necessities of life which, as the economy deteriorates and oppression of the Jews increases, often amount to coal to stay warm and potatoes to eat, hauled long distances by manual labour. Klemperer, like all able-bodied Jews (the definition of which is flexible: he suffers from heart disease and often has difficulty walking long distances or climbing stairs, and has vision problems as well) is assigned “war work”, which in his case amounts to menial labour tending machines producing stationery and envelopes in a paper factory. Indeed, what appear in retrospect as the pivotal moments of the war in Europe: the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk, Axis defeat and evacuation of North Africa, the fall of Mussolini and Italy's leaving the Axis, the Allied D-day landings in Normandy, the assassination plot against Hitler, and more almost seem to occur off-stage here, with news filtering in bit by bit after the fact and individuals trying to piece it together and make sense of it all.

One event which is not off stage is the bombing of Dresden between February 13 and 15, 1945. The Klemperers were living at the time in the Jews' house they shared with several other families, which was located some distance from the city centre. There was massive damage in the area, but it was outside the firestorm which consumed the main targets. Victor and Eva became separated in the chaos, but were reunited near the end of the attack. Given the devastation and collapse of infrastructure, Klemperer decided to bet his life on the hope that the attack would have at least temporarily put the Gestapo out of commission and removed the yellow star, discarded all identity documents marking him as a Jew, and joined the mass of refugees, many also without papers, fleeing the ruins of Dresden. He and Eva made their way on what remained of the transportation system toward Bavaria and eastern Germany, where they had friends who might accommodate them, at least temporarily. Despite some close calls, the ruse worked, and they survived the end of the war, fall of the Nazi regime, and arrival of United States occupation troops.

After a period in which he discovered that the American occupiers, while meaning well, were completely overwhelmed trying to meet the needs of the populace amid the ruins, the Klemperers decided to make it on their own back to Dresden, which was in the Soviet zone of occupation, where they hoped their house still stood and would be restored to them as their property. The book concludes with a description of this journey across ruined Germany and final arrival at the house they occupied before the Nazis came to power.

After the war, Victor Klemperer was appointed a professor at the University of Leipzig and resumed his academic career. As political life resumed in what was then the Soviet sector and later East Germany, he joined the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, which is usually translated to English as the East German Communist Party and was under the thumb of Moscow. Subsequently, he became a cultural ambassador of sorts for East Germany. He seems to have been a loyal communist, although in his later diaries he expressed frustration at the impotence of the “parliament” in which he was a delegate for eight years. Not to be unkind to somebody who survived as much oppression and adversity as he did, but he didn't seem to have much of a problem with a totalitarian, one party, militaristic, intrusive surveillance, police state as long as it wasn't directly persecuting him.

The author was a prolific diarist who wrote thousands of pages from the early 1900s throughout his long life. The original 1995 German publication of the 1933–1945 diaries as Ich will Zeugnis ablegen bis zum letzten was a substantial abridgement of the original document and even so ran to almost 1700 pages. This English translation further abridges the diaries and still often seems repetitive. End notes provide historical context, identify the many people who figure in the diary, and translate the foreign phrases the author liberally sprinkles among the text.

Posted at December 3, 2019 22:44