I Will Bear Witness (1933-1941 & 1942-1945) by Victor Klemperer (Random House 1999)
This memoir starts as a recognizable story – a middle-aged professor, a member of the Protestant church with a distinguished war record, decides to build a house in the country. To supervise the construction, he learns to drive, and buys a car. He has problems with the builders (and with the car), and is then laid off from his university position. Moreover, his wife, Eva, suffers from a variety of medical complaints, and he has to face a troubling court case. The professor starts to have real money worries. Will he be able to make next year’s life assurance payments? Is his reduced pension going to be enough to live on? So, in 1933, he starts to maintain a meticulous journal.
Only this diarist lives in Hitler’s Germany. Klemperer, who considers himself a loyal German citizen, has been identified by the Nazis as a “Jew”, and his wife as “Aryan”. After his dismissal from Dresden University, the noose tightens gradually around him, and all others similarly classified. Over the years petty restrictions on Jews evolve into serious loss of freedoms and then serial dispatch to the death-camps. Throughout this catastrophe, Klemperer maintains his sanity by reading books of history and literature, by preparing notes for a commentary on the style of Nazi rhetoric, and by his promise to himself to provide for posterity a full chronicle of the régime’s monstrosities. He manages to conceal his diary entries, his wife smuggling them to a friend’s house for safekeeping. If this ruse were detected, they could all be sent to the guillotine.
As Klemperer logs the appropriation of his house, and the struggle to find food and to keep warm, he also makes insightful comments about the nature of Nazi totalitarianism, with wry historical analogies. He describes his eight-day imprisonment for a careless offence against blackout regulations, and the suicides of acquaintances undertaken in anticipation of incarceration. As early as 1942, he believes the end of the war is near, and it is difficult for the reader to imagine there are three years still to go. He goes on to describe his onerous year under slave conditions in a factory, and his and Eva’s amazing escape when, just before he is to be rounded up for the camps, Allied bombing devastates Dresden, and they manage to flee to Munich. Lastly, after Hitler’s suicide, he records their painful return (mostly by walking) to their now Soviet-occupied hometown.
First published in German in 1995, the work sheds an unprecedented light on daily life under Hitlerism. And it has provoked some controversy. Klemperer found any racial classification odious, and he defiantly rates Zionism as an evil equal to Nazism. He considers himself a true German to the end, a citizen of a country ruined by Romanticism gone wild. And his narrative may serve to challenge other preconceived ideas about collective German guilt in the Holocaust. Yes, most people knew – by listening to the accounts of returning soldiers – of the killings and massacres that were occurring in the East, and were aware in 1941 that Jews taken to Theresienstadt and other camps never returned, but (as Klemperer would insist) there should be no mass stereotyping. Among the “Aryans” he came across, the author describes fanatical Nazi supporters, cautious losers who would do anything to save their own skin, generous sympathizers who risked their lives, and defiant rebels who were themselves executed. And Klemperer himself was not typical. He had “privileged” status because of his marriage, which deferred his arrest until the end of the war approached, and the fact that he had a famous conductor/cousin called Otto may have staved off some Gestapo attention.
What distinguishes this journal is the author’s humanity, his honesty, his delight in small joys among the horror, his eye for detail, and his unstinting commitment to recording the truth under such dire conditions. Although Klemperer’s loyal and devoted wife Eva appears as a bit of a cipher, these diaries can be compared to Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned, which provided such haunting testimony on Stalin’s oppression. Moreover, the extract describing Klemperer’s two weeks in prison deserves to become a monologue for the theatre, akin to the similar holocaust memoir depicted in The Last Letter, the chapter from Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, which recently ran in New York. The translation is vivid and fluid, although the translator (Martin Chalmers) is completely clueless about the use of the comma, either slavishly mimicking German constructs, carelessly linking together separate main clauses in a manner that would be anathema to a literary German, or in some cases distorting the meaning altogether. Do publishers not employ qualified editors any more? I think I know the answer to that question already, but I did not let it mar my appreciation (“enjoyment” is not an appropriate word here) of these engrossing and highly moving volumes.