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Remembering Ruth Klüger
The Great Humanist

Ruth Klüger (1931-2020).
Ruth Klüger (1931-2020). | Photo (detail): © Paul Zsolnay Verlag/Margit Marnul

Ruth Klüger died on Tuesday in Irvine, California, at the age of 88. In 2005, the author and literary scholar received the Goethe Medal. We remember her.

By Wolf Iro, Cultural department head at the Goethe-Institut

It is difficult to start an obituary for Ruth Klüger without any reference to the Theresienstadt and Auschwitz concentration camps in which she was imprisoned as a child from 1942 until her escape shortly before the end of the war and which she describes in her disturbing and moving book Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered. It is unavoidable and yet it feels both inadequate and downright wrong, as this also means reducing the person of Ruth Klüger to that of a victim and that subsequent testimony. But nothing was further from her than that. Even the young Ruth seems to have known this, for example when someone slipped her, the girl wearing a Jewish star, an orange on the tram in Vienna. “But my feelings were mixed, as in the case of the sweet from the maid’s Christmas tree. I didn’t like the role of the passive victim […] I wanted an assertive, oppositional role.”[FG1]  And in her book Gelesene Wirklichkeit (Read Reality), she states with her entire work’s characteristic analytical succinctness, “Remembrance – just as survival – deserves no special merit.”
 [FG1]Aus der englische Übersetzung: Feminist Press 2003

“Remembrance deserves no special merit”

As Ruth Klüger demonstrates, even less brutal circumstances than National Socialism do not protect one against attributions and objectifications, and resisting them seems to me to have been a basic impulse of her personality as a whole. For example, in her book Anwältin der Unterdrückten (Advocate of the Oppressed), the feminist Klüger defended the Austrian author Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach against the tenacious image ascribed to her of a moralising provincial writer and idyllic poet. Speaking of idyllic, I was not able to meet Ruth Klüger in person, but we did have a fascinating email exchange. It began with the observation that with the exception of the not entirely forgotten Bertha von Suttner, every, really every writer of famous anti-war novels – from E. M. Remarque to Norman Mailer to Kurt Vonnegut – are male, and that a specifically female viewpoint on the subject is perhaps less the depiction of the cruelty and absurdity of war as such than what is at stake in war. According to this interpretation, Astrid Lindgren’s The Six Bullerby Children (which, as a side note on one of the characters reveals, takes place during the war) is no idyllic children’s story, but a full-fledged work of anti-war literature! But one that is written in another, feminine and clearly more human way.

“I don’t really trust Germany and German literature.”

In 2005, Ruth Klüger was awarded the Goethe Medal. She accepted this and other awards from Germany not without emotion, but also with a certain scepticism, saying, “I don’t really trust Germany and German literature.” Yet, in her speech to the Bundestag in 2016, she highlighted the admission of Syrian refugees to the country with the words, “The country that eighty years ago committed the worst crimes of the century has now won the world’s applause.”

We remember a great humanist. Through vigilance and resolute action against any kind of right-wing extremist, anti-Semitic or racist tendency in the nation, it is up to us to perpetually honour her..