Book Review: Still Alive, by Ruth Klüger

Revisiting Ruth Klüger for the second part of her memoir

TVR Books | Vera Mair, Jessica Spiegel | May 2009

Austrian-born author Ruth Klüger during an interview at Café Canetti (Photo: Ksenia Kuvaeva)

The Loss of Optimism

An author of candor and consequence like Ruth Klüger deserves a revisit in the pages of The Vienna Review: The Austrian-born Holocaust survivor had returned to Vienna nearly half a year after TVR’s coverage of the Ein Stadt, Ein Buch celebration, where she and her book Weiter Leben were the guests of honor.

Still Alive, a memoir based on Klüger’s experiences of Nazi Vienna and her time spent at three concentration camps as a young teenager, is an English version of Weiter Leben and a new work, revised a decade later in English by Klüger herself. She had originally wanted her memoirs only to appear in German – and thus far from her mother who resided in the U.S. To tell this story, she had to address her mother’s conduct, which was suffocating. This attempt ultimately failed when a friend discovered the book in Germany and sent it to her mother as a ‘gift’.

But her narrative of Vienna’s darkest hour did not fail. Trying to retrieve her fading childhood memories, Klüger creates a narrative equal to the ugliness that human nature is capable of, trading accounts of her history with observations of others, giving the reader little reason to believe we have learned anything from history.

Her encounters with conflict didn’t end with her harassment as a young Jew in Vienna, nor in the gruesome, cramped quarters of the Theresienstadt and Auschwitz-Birkenau camps, nor in the campuses of German universities, where her feminism was inflamed by the male-dominated society. The conflicts followed her to post-war New York, where first-generation immigrants condemned her for her unwillingness to adopt all things American and the manners of the Upper West Side.

Klüger’s young life was calloused by reality, yet softened by an intellectual passion that helped her survive, weaved together in Still Alive by literary inventions that compel one to read very, very carefully. Her cynicism pierces even her opinion of herself, creating a detached identity from which she observes her proximity.

But this time, she was here for a reading of that work’s sequel – Unterwegs Verloren – a memoir that takes readers past the view from a child’s eyes and delves into the core of a woman who had aged, and who continues to observe the world with a poignant and cynical tone. Klüger met with The Vienna Review before the reading at Café Canetti, situated above the Wiener Hauptbücherei, towering over the busy Neubaugürtel. She seemed unimpressed, however, with the stunning view of the city:

"The view might be extensive, she commented, "but it isn’t beautiful. Who wants to see all these cars?" There were many things that Klüger, a 77- year-old with grey spiky hair, wasn’t satisfied with. Perhaps because of the "old" Apfelstrudel she was served, or the "annoying" (quiet) music at the café. Perhaps she still struggles with her difficult past, or maybe it was the nerves before going on stage that evening. But when asked to explain why she had "not the slightest desire" to stay in Vienna, she answered tersely: "For obvious reasons. I don’t have to go into that."

Her pessimism dissipated when discussing the publication of Weiter Leben, which she claimed gave her a new beginning. "I became known in German-speaking countries," she said, though still using an irritated tone.  "It created a new phase of life for me at a time when most people arretieren (lock up)."

As for the book itself, she feels that it had allowed for new connections to be made, and created openings for any kind of writing.

"It is an autobiography," she averred, slightly enraged after accidentally referring to the work as a novel. "I feel an autobiography is the most subjective form of history."

Her temper improved after stepping on stage after the interview. She appeared to enjoy the attention; the Hauptbücherei was packed, and guests were sprawled out on the floor due to a lack of chairs. The crowd of nearly 100 sat in concentrated silence as Klüger read from Unterwegs Verloren, her voice calm and neutral – in great contrast to an only an hour ago in the café.

Klüger’s carefully-chosen passages focused on her experience of growing old.

"Elderly people are more secure of their identity than the young," she read. "They know who they are and how they differentiate from other people; On the other hand the levels of consciousness are blending into each other…. The present is only a couple of paces above the placid surface of past experiences, the ground swaying beneath you." 

Klüger was the embodiment of self-assurance when she read. She sat perfectly upright and, when she paused to take a sip, she looked the whole audience straight in the eye. Her voice trembled slightly at times, although perhaps a sign of age, or more likely the result of intense emotion that resurfaced as she referred to her past, an indicator of how troubled she may still be.

Though most of the passages covered her past, one excerpt was read in the present tense. She is on a cruise that stops in Ile de Gorée, Senegal, an island from which slaves were deported in the 18th century. Klüger’s voice came to a halt for a hundredth of a second, and then continued:

"I’m the only one here, whether tourist or local, whether men or women, who remembers what slave labor is – from personal experience; she read flatly. "I was a slave girl. The barrack in Ausschwitz’s women’s camp, where I spent the last few nights before deportation to Groß-Rosen as a twelve year old, with four other women on a three-storey-pallet, full of fear of death, that the sleep displaces the fear that came back the next morning."

This dispassionate yet lyrical account captured the listener, and made one imagine turning each page until the book was finished. One wonders if Klüger has come to terms with the atrocities she has lived through? Only two years ago, she said in the Q&A session after the reading, she removed the tattoo that disclosed her identity as a holocaust victim. "A keepsake from Auschwitz," she called it. It took three months to complete the procedure. Tattoos can be removed, it seemed; but as she concludes in her book, "the misery of the past is only over for those who perished."

For more on Ruth Klüger at the Ein Stadt, Ein Buch celebration see "The Klüger Campaign" in Dec. 2008 TVR.

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