Friday, February 15, 2008

Still Alive: A Holocaust girlhood remembered

Difficult times are often swept under the carpet. The natural course is to run away from them, almost negating and denying the memory. Most tragic events are narrated not by people who suffered them, but those who heard/read/researched about them, sometimes being born in the same century being their only claim to that narration. Perhaps that's why a lot of these narrations have a God-like or at least saint-like ring to them, pretty much like - "This my child, is the essence of life...." or something equally pedantic.

A lot has been said about the holocaust, most of it by people who were simply alive in those times or others who, fascinated by the tragedy struggled to imagine it, weave it in their thoughts and super-impose it on their lives. Most of the victims of holocaust did not survive to give us the story, those who did, had the happy end which somehow diminishes the tragedy and concocts it into, what to our minds is, a fairy tale. The treatment of holocaust essentially is either a narration of unspeakable evil, or a fleeting, vague account of the rootlessness felt by the survivors. Both treatments make us restless about the tragedy , but both of them are in a way incomplete.

Ruth Kluger's memories of a holocaust childhood, however are as close to the reality of that sunken, cold, frost-bitten life that I have ever come across. Perhaps that's because it is a very honest account; I am surprised she remembered her feelings of so long ago with such remarkable clarity and had the courage to live through them again. (Is this too, then, another super-imposed account, even though the imposition is internal and not forced? That, however, is beside the point). These feelings are not those of a tragic heroine who bore the atrocities backed by an unshakable faith, nor do they emphasize dramatically the death that hangs around her life. They are an account of a daily decay, perceived through minor changes at school, the fighting of old women, and many such small events that no one associates with the holocaust.

The author, born in Vienna is very young when Germany takes over Austria and the extrication of Jews begins. She loses her father, who escapes to France, and her brother who is sent to a camp. She and her mother are unable to escape and are eventually sent to the ghetto of Theresienstadt, then transferred to Auschwitz, then to a slave labor camp. As the war breaks out, the prisoners are taken on the death marches, where she escapes with her mother, and then eventually emigrates to America. In America, her past associations never leave her and in a way continue to shape her behavior, friendships, relationships.

In recollection of all these stages of her life, there is a remarkable perception, clarity and objectivity. In a few words, Kluger is able to capture the moment as perhaps it must have seemed to the young girl. Her relationship with both her city and her mother are captured in a line each:
"Vienna was a city that banished you and didn't allow you to leave."
"During an earthquake, more China gets broken than at other times"
In this earthquake, Ruth's already tepid relationship with her mother increasingly became difficult, suspicious and intolerant. Again, I was surprised at the anger that she still holds for that mother, even though she was not a particularly malicious person. Is their relationship with each other also another broken china? Perhaps, but as she correctly points out the error of people who judge her marginally through her one experience, one would be wrong in summarizing it thus. She resents these judgments and presumptions; abhors the indiscretion of curious intruders (I too feel like one sometimes, wanting to soak up the reality of that horrifying time) and strongly dislikes the turning of death chambers from the past into a shrine visited by enthusiastic homage-payers. I understand that resentment, even though I know that if I ever visit Austria/Germany, I will also go to these death-chambers - not to pay homage, but only to satisfy a pathetic curiosity.

I put down the books moments before I set down to write this blog, and I am still quite moved by whatever she described here. Perhaps a little bit of it is imagined, but still it is a very honest account, and definitely should be read by everyone who has any interest in the holocaust literature.

8 comments:

Alok said...

Oh Wow, I am surprised you managed to find it. I had trouble finding it myself.

What I loved about it was the extraordinary level of self-consciousness she shows. She is always aware that she is writing a "holocaust memoir" which has become some kind of a genre. She is always anticipating reader's response and trying to find some way outside the conventions. Like she repeatedly says that her story is not a story of escape... because all holocaust memoirs but their very fact of being will be stories about escape and survival. those who died will never have memoirs of their own and that is the reason why we should be sceptical of drawing our own conclusions from her story.

I also liked her poems which are somewhat straightforward but become so powerful in this context. Also the place where she says that wars and so the memoirs of wars are essentially a male property and only a man can have an interesting past. Women's past is always indecent... (ironically of course) I am paraphrasing from memory but it somehow has stuck in my mind. This is another reason what makes it so valuable and puts it apart from regular memoirs, even those which are more critically revered. And of course the truly bizarre relationship she has with her mother. It is not even a love-hate relationship, which is not uncommon at all. It is something else entirely.

Actually she had written this memoir in German first which won many major awards in Germany and continental Europe. After her mother knew about what she had written about her in the book she was so angry that Kluger had to promise not to publish it in English while she was still living...

The book was a little too short. I wish she had written more about her relationships and the problems she faced in her later life too. It is a holocaust memoir but as she herself says in the book, the past is never really past... it always keeps coming back. The nonlinear structure of the book also confirms this. The chapters are chronological but inside she is always digressing and writing from different perspectives in time.

Long comment and repeating the obvious. I am just so glad that you read and liked it. It is so undeservedly obscure. She is actually more famous in Germany and France... not much elsewhere.

Alok said...

One other small thing I wanted to point out. You say:

Perhaps a little bit of it is imagined, but still it is a very honest account,

the honest account need not be limited to a documentary account.. just a catalog of what happened. Imagination can be real and honest too. It only has to be founded on real experience. Honesty lies in intent and the way one expresses oneself and not in content, what one is saying. That's what separates a work of art from say, a book of history.

Madhuri said...

I didn't just like it, but loved it. I read about it first on your reading list for last year and looked it up since it is my favorite topic. Had been hunting for it since then, and that was a very very hard task. Finally came up to this online store which was very efficient and quick and had a great collection (www.a1books.co.in)

I agree with honesty of imagination, and that's why I said that it may have been imagined from memory, it is still quite honest. And you are right, her recognition of the reader is great - that's why she is so objective and understanding.

Her feminine perspective is something rare in literature. Most women writers either try too hard to not sound like a woman or take the feminist line. She, keeping her honesty and directness, was just right.
Once again, thanks for the recommendation. It was awesome.

Alok said...

this subject interests me a lot too and like you I also keep thinking why am I really reading this? Am I intruding into someone's private painful trauma or feeding off for my own secondhand voyeuristic curiosity? What I found so interesting in this book was the way she was also thinking about and anticipating these responses that her writing may lead to.

And yet I think remembering and mourning the dead and those who have gone is an ethical act too. that's why these books are so important. the reader only has to be careful not to sentimentalize it or exploit it for one's own petty emotional needs, like one may do with a regular prison escape thriller for example.

shiva said...

Many people going through your blog will learn a lot simply by reading comments like this. I am one among them. Great job!!

Madhuri said...

:) Thanks for your nice words Shiva!

Marcia said...

I borrowed "Still Alive" from my local Jewish Community Center and I have been stopping polite conversations all week when I begin, "I have been reading a fascination book by a Holocaust surviror,..." Because of course these experiences stop all conversations, as she illustrates in her book.
Some of her ideas keep rolling around in my head: That good is more interesting than evil because it is unpredictable and that ostracism leads to self-contempt. There are many others. I also love her views about sentimentality: that it requires deception - especially self-deception - in denying the reality of what is in front of our eyes to fit our need of what reality should be.
She has a blazing intelligence - I think we should be careful in assuming she imagined much of this. We start to sound like the dinner party people in the book who tell her, "See, it wasn't that bad!"
This is how she remembered it and we who will never know what it was like have no right to question her perceptions. This sounds harsher than I meant it to. Can we absorb her reality without changing it to fit our needs? Can we absorb our own reality without fictionalizing it?

Madhuri said...

Hi Marcia,
I understand what you are saying. When I say that it is possibly super-imposed is merely to suggest that even if part of it is her mental reconstruction and not 'memory', it is an honest version of the experience. Sometimes it is hard to draw the line between memory of objective reality and imagined reality, and it is only because I have often wondered about the concepts of objective reality did I interject this thought. It is totally irrelevant to my perception and appreciation of this great book.