Dear friends of writing and reading –
Today is Yom HaShoah, a Jewish holiday that commemorates the Holocaust.
A long time ago, before I converted to Judaism I taught college courses on the literature of the Holocaust. It was during this time that I got to know a friend of a friend, the scholar and memoirist Ruth Klueger. Ruth’s memoir Weiter Leben or Still Alive is a book she wrote twice — first in German and then in English. Ruth realized that an English version of the book would have to tell different historical details, make different sorts of emphases and employ different foci, so she wrote two versions of the same story.
Weiter Leben/Still Alive is/are (an) incredible piece(s) of writing. Funny, ironic, and self-deprecating, Ruth talks about how she argued with her mother at Auschwitz, which sounds crazy unless you are a daughter or a mother, in which case it will make sense. Mothers and daughters argue, families argue, and they do it everywhere, including in horrifying places. Ruth also writes about how important memorized poetry was to her, because reciting poems to herself helped her endure the hours and hours of standing during the Appel’s. If you don’t know what an Appel is, look up Appelplatz. One of her favorite poems was a poem by Friedrich Schiller, who is my favorite German author. She also tells about a moment of grace, that she experienced at the hands of someone who might have simply sentenced her to death,. But they don’t. That’s why she’s here to tell her story.
Ruth came and gave a talk about her book at UC Riverside, where I taught, and I remember her being funny and wry and modest. A man raised his hand at the end of the lecture, and said he didn’t like her depiction of the death camps. “Well,” she said in her gruff accented voice., “I’m SORRY YOU DIDN’T LIKE IT.” I was sitting in the front row, and I remember chuckling to myself because Ruth sounded — for a moment – just a little like a comedian fielding a heckler. I swear I heard the echoes of Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers in this distinguished professor’s response.
I converted to Judaism for many reasons, not the least of which was because I wanted to express solidarity with women like Ruth Klueger, or the woman – whose name I have forgotten – who came to my father in law’s shiva and showed me a photograph of her and her sisters and mother. “We were only at Auschwitz for a year,” she said as she sat on the sofa with her husband, as though she were referring to an unpleasant hotel or a less than spectacular junior year abroad.
The understatement with which the women that I have met talk about their experiences in the Holocaust, impresses me with a certain Zen quality. I do not mean in any way to make light of their experience. What is interesting to me is that they do. They make it light. They shed light on an experience so terrible that thousands of books and movies have been created in a failed attempt to depict it.
And yet that light is provisional. We shouldn’t forget the darkness that surrounds it or the gap that separates us from the victims. Ruth writes;
“So how can I keep my readers from feeling good about the obvious drift away from the gas chambers and the killing fields and towards the post-war period, where prosperity beckons? You cannot deduct our paltry three lives from the sum of those who had no lives after the war. We who escaped do not belong to the community of those victims, my brother among them, whose ghosts are unforgiving. By virtue of survival, we belong with you, who weren’t exposed to the genocidal danger, and we know that there is a black river between us and the true victims. Therefore this is not the story of a Holocaust victim and becomes less and less so as it nears its end. I was with them when they were alive, but now we are separated. I write in their memory, and yet my account turns into some kind of triumph of life.” (STILL ALIVE)
In this dark time, it’s important to remember and be grateful for voices that speak about suffering and survival, in terms that are uneasy, sparkling, humble, and precise.
And this reminds me of another precise Jewish woman. Rabbi Yohanna Kinberg recently gave a sermon about how in this time of Covid 19, we need to stand with the dying, so that every person in the world knows that they are not alone, even if they are physically separated from their friends and family in the hospital or quarantine. To use Kinberg to comment on Klueger – a typically Jewish textual maneuver – I would suggest that the opposing shores of the river that Ruth writes about are still connected through the water… through the fluid process of living and dying. To bear witness is NOT to be resemble or imitate or somehow become the person who suffers. To bear witness is to acknowledge the separation, the gap, the difference and yet still to lean over at the water’s edge to shed light on that suffering as we can and to send light to everyone connected to it, whether they consciously know we are doing it or not.
Watch Ruth read from her book on you tube