On the occasion of Ruth Klüger’s seventieth birthday, Germany’s leading literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki congratulated the acclaimed author with a tribute published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in which he praised her work as a writer and as a scholar in the field of German literature. Reich-Ranicki noted Klüger’s distinguishing characteristics by summarizing that “she is an Austrian Jew, an American professor, a German writer, and one of the most brilliant Germanists in the world.”
Even though one might certainly add more facets to her life, this brief synopsis reveals some of the captivating features associated with Klüger’s biography. Born to Alma Klüger (née Hirschel, 1903–2000) and her second husband Viktor Klüger in Vienna on October 30, 1931, she spent the early years of her childhood in the Austrian capital, witnessing the tumultuous historic changes that soon affected her family. In her award-winning autobiography Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered, which was published in German in 1992 as weiter leben. Eine Jugend, Ruth Klüger describes her upbringing after Austria’s annexation by Nazi Germany in March 1938. “Suddenly I became a disadvantaged child who couldn’t do the things that children in our circle usually learned to do, like swim in the municipal pool, acquire a bike, go with girlfriends to children’s movies, or skate […] Vienna taught me to speak and read, but little else. […] Antisemitic signs and slogans were among my first reading materials, and here I had an early opportunity to practice critical discrimination as well as a sense of (Jewish) superiority” (25). She attended eight different schools in four years, and it was not too long before, at the suggestion of her mother, she stopped going to school altogether. Earlier on, Alma Klüger had lost the custody battle over her son, Ruth’s half-brother Georg (Ji?i, 1925–1942), who, after living with the Klügers in Vienna, had to return to his father’s home in Prague. Ruth’s father Viktor, a pediatrician and gynecologist, was imprisoned after performing an illegal abortion in 1938. He returned home in 1940 and shortly afterwards fled the country for Italy and then France, where he was imprisoned in Drancy, transported to the Baltics and murdered. Georg was deported to Theresienstadt (late 1941/early 1942) and then to Riga, where he was murdered. Not surprisingly, these severe losses had a profound impact on Klüger’s life and the ghosts of her brother and father frequently appear in her writings.
In September 1942 Ruth and her mother were forced to leave Vienna on one of the last transports to Theresienstadt, a ghetto in northwestern Czechoslovakia. “Theresienstadt,” she writes in her autobiography, “was hunger and disease, a small military village of straight lines and right angles, with a border I couldn’t step across and an overpopulation that made it almost impossible to find a quiet spot for a private conversation […] Theresienstadt meant transports to the east, which occurred at irregular intervals as surely and as unpredictably as earthquakes do in California” (74). The majority of transports from Theresienstadt were bound for Auschwitz, and in May 1944 mother and daughter were among the prisoners deported. However, soon after their arrival in Auschwitz, they were selected for work duty in Christianstadt, a satellite camp of Groß-Rosen in Silesia. In the winter of 1945, with the end of the war in sight, the Germans evacuated Christianstadt, “whose name nobody can remember” (70). After escaping the death march in February, Ruth and her mother joined the flow of refugees from the East into Germany, obtained identity cards and settled in Straubing (Bavaria) until their emigration to the United States in October 1947. Between 1947 and 1951 they lived in New York City, where Ruth studied at Hunter College. After graduation, she signed up with the “American Friends Service Committee” (summer 1951) to work in Mexico, but was banned from entering since her paper work was not in order. Instead of returning to the East Coast, she headed for California, where she met her future husband. After their wedding, the couple moved to Connecticut, where their two sons were born. In the early sixties, Klüger divorced her husband, and returned to California with her children where she worked as a librarian before she entered graduate school.
In 1967, Ruth Klüger received a Ph.D. in German Literature from the University of California at Berkeley, turning her love for literature—which had occupied an important place in her life since childhood—into a profession. She received an academic appointment at the University of California at Irvine (UCI) in 1976, where she taught until 1980. From 1980 to 1986 she taught at Princeton University and again at UCI from 1980 to 1994.
Ruth Klüger was known primarily as a literary scholar of the Early Modern period (Baroque poetry, in particular) and of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German literature. In addition to her numerous publications in these fields, she explored feminist issues such as gender-specific interpretations of texts and representations of femininity in popular culture. It was with the appearance of her autobiography in 1992 that her personal experience of the Holocaust was revealed to the public. Translated into several languages and adapted for the stage, the book earned Klüger numerous international prizes and established her as an important authority on the Holocaust in Germany. Its critical candor extends to author and audience alike, and the narrative explicitly contemplates Klüger’s own process of working through the past. She couples her recollections with critical observations and reflections from the present, not shying away from frank commentary on controversial topics, such as Germany’s attempt at coming to terms with its Nazi past, the culture of Holocaust memory or the role of women in Judaism. In the 1990s her scholarly work also turned toward the Holocaust, antisemitism and German-Jewish writers. Ruth Klüger, who officially retired from teaching at the University of California at Irvine in 1994, lives in California.
Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered. New York: 2001; Weiter leben. Eine Jugend. Göttingen: 1992.
Originally published in Germany in 1992 as weiter leben, the English translation and revised version became available from Feminist Press as Still Alive. A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered in November 2001. As the German title and its English translation indicate, Ruth Klüger not only recounts her childhood in Vienna and her imprisonment in three concentration camps, but also her experiences in post-war Germany and as an immigrant in the United States. The continuation of her account into the present and the coupling of her recollections with critical commentary on a number of issues make this book an unusual, even unconventional Holocaust autobiography.
Zwickmühle oder Symbiose: War Heinrich Heine ein Geisteswissenschaftler? Heidelberg: 2003.
Printed version of a lecture on the German-Jewish writer Heinrich Heine (1797–1856).
Salomon Hermann Mosenthal. Erzählungen aus dem jüdischen Familienleben. Göttingen: 2001.
Stories by the German-Jewish dramatist Salomon Hermann Mosenthal (1821–1877). Edited by Ruth Klüger.
Schnitzlers Damen, Weiber, Mädeln, Frauen. Wien: 2001.
Printed version of a lecture given in Vienna on the Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler (1862–1931).
Dichter und Historiker: Fakten und Fiktionen. Wien: 2000.
Essay on the problematic nature of the writing of literature and that of history.
Therese: Chronik eines Frauenlebens. Frankfurt am Main: 2000.
Novel by Arthur Schnitzler (1862–1931), edited by Heinz Ludwig Arnold, afterword by Ruth Klüger.
Else Lasker-Schüler. In Theben Geboren: Gedichte. Frankfurt am Main: 1998.
Poetry by the German-Jewish author Else Lasker-Schüler. Edited by Ruth Klüger.
Frauen lesen anders. München: 1997.
Klüger’s exploration of gender-specific interpretations of texts and representations of femininity in popular culture.
Knigges “Umgang mit Menschen”: eine Vorlesung. Göttingen: 1996.
Printed version of a lecture on Adolph Freyherr Knigge (1752–1796).
Von hoher und niedriger Literatur. Göttingen: 1996.
Two essays on the relationship between kitsch, memory and representations of the Holocaust.
Katastrophen: Über deutsche Literatur. Göttingen: 1994.
A collection of Klüger’s scholarly essays on the failure and necessity of literature.
The Early German Epigram: A Study in Baroque Poetry. Lexington: 1971.
Research based on Ruth Klüger’s dissertation (1967).
Bruno-Kreisky-Preis für das politische Buch für ihr publizistisches Gesamtwerk (2002); Preis der Frankfurter Anthologie (1999); Thomas Mann-Preis der Stadt Lübeck (1999); Prix Memoire de la Shoa (1998); Österreichischer Staatspreis für Literaturkritik (1997)’; Ehrengabe der Heinrich-Heine-Gesellschaft (1997); Annerkennungspreis zum Andreas-Gryphius-Preis (1996); Heinrich-von-Kleist-Preis (1996); Marie-Luise-Kaschnitz-Preis (1994); Rauriser Literaturpreis für die beste Prosa Veröffentlichung in deutscher Sprache (1993); Niedersachsen Preis (1993); Johann-Jacob-Christoph-von-Grimmelshausen-Preis (1993).