As a teenager, Ruth Klüger survived Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and Christianstadt. In the United States, she pursued a successful career in academia, becoming a professor of German literature in the 1970s. Shortly before her retirement from the University of California at Irvine in 1994, she published her autobiography weiter leben. Eine Jugend, in which she wrote about her life before, during, and after the Holocaust. An instant hit with readers, the book catapulted her onto Germany’s literary scene because of its unconventional writing style and frank discussion of Germany’s past. It is by now integral to high school curricula in Austria and Germany and appeared as Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered in the United States in 2001.
On the occasion of Ruth Klüger’s seventieth birthday in 2001, Germany’s then leading literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki (1920-2013) congratulated the acclaimed author with a tribute published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, praising 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.”
Childhood Under the Nazis
Born to Alma Klüger (née Hirschel, 1903–2000) and her second husband Viktor Klüger in Vienna, Austria, on October 30, 1931, Klüger 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, adapted and reworked from the German original weiter leben. Eine Jugend, she 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, Alma Klüger had lost the custody battle over her son, Ruth’s half-brother Georg (Jiří, 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 (Latvia), 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, including her original poetry.
In September 1942 Ruth and her mother were forced to leave Vienna on one of the last transports to Theresienstadt, the former ghetto located in today’s Czech Republic. “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 slave labor in Christianstadt, a subcamp of Gross-Rosen in Lower 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 under different names, 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 she was banned from entering because her paperwork was not in order. Instead of returning to the East Coast, she headed for California, where she met her future husband, Werner Thomas (“Tom”) Angress. 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 entering 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. She taught at Princeton University from 1980 to 1986 and again at UCI from 1980 until her retirement in 1994.
In academia, 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 areas, she explored feminist topics such as gender-specific interpretations of texts and representations of femininity in popular culture.
Ground-breaking Holocaust Autobiography
The appearance of Klüger’s autobiography in Germany in 1992 revealed her personal experience of the Holocaust to the public. Translated into several languages and adapted for the stage, the book became a literary sensation, selling over 250,000 copies in 1992 alone, and earned Klüger numerous international prizes. It also established her as an important public intellectual in Germany and Austria.
The success of weiter leben relies on a combination of factors, such as its unusal writing style and candid, unsentimental tone. 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. Trying to engage her audience in open and frank dialogue, Klüger does not shy away from difficult and 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 society and religion. Another unique feature is the integration of poetry into the main text, both her own and those written by others, and her explanation of poetry’s usefulness in working through trauma. She skillfully weaves individual pieces of her life story into an intricate textual tapestry, negotiating between different persepectives (e.g. child, adult), identities (e.g. daughter, wife), and discourses (e.g. feminism, culture, or memory). The result is a fascinating multilayered narrative “about the Holocaust in the past, in the present, and in the future” (Costello). The English version Still Alive, adapted for an American audience, appeared in the United States in 2001, and in 2008, Klüger published a continuation of her autobiographical account in German as unterwegs verloren: Erinnerungen. In the 1990s, her scholarly work also turned toward the Holocaust, antisemitism, and German-Jewish literature.
Ruth Klüger passed away shortly before her 89th birthday in October 2020. She is survived by her two sons, Percy and Dan Angress, her daughters-in-law Livia Linden and Laurie Angress, and her four grandchildren Antonia, Raphael, Isabela, and River.
Renata Schmidtkunz, Das Weiterleben der Ruth Klüger: Landscapes of Memory: The Life of Ruth Klüger, New York: Films for the Humanities, 2013. (English/German) (Documentary about Ruth Klüger.)
Selected Online Resources
Video of speech before the German parliament (“Bundestag”) on International Holocaust Remembrance Day (German), 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ZowuseYqUk
Video of talk for Herman P. and Sophia Taubman Foundation Endowed Symposia in Jewish Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara (English), 2003. https://www.ucsd.tv/search-details.aspx?showID=7208
Interview with Ruth Klüger for National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” (English), 2001. https://www.npr.org/2001/11/20/1133516/author-ruth-kluger
Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered. New York: Feminist Press, 2001; weiter leben. Eine Jugend, Göttingen: Wallstein, 1992.
Originally published in Germany in 1992 as weiter leben, the English adaptation 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.
Gegenwind: Gedichte und Interpretationen. Wien: Zsolnay, 2018.
A collection of essays on poetry.
Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach: Anwältin der Unterdrückten, Wien: Zsolnay 2016.
Printed version of a lecture given in Vienna on the Austrian writer Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach (1830-1916).
Zerreißproben. Kommentierte Gedichte, Wien: Zsolnay, 2013.
Klüger has been writing poetry herself since she her teenage years, and this book makes available her own work, coupled with insightful commentary about its production.
Was Frauen schreiben, München: Deutscher Taschenbuchverlag, 2012.
Klüger’s exploration of gender-specific writing by women writers such as Herta Müller, Nadine Gordimer, J.K. Rowling and Margret Atwood.
Gelesene Wirklichkeit: Fakten und Fiktionen in der Literatur, Göttingen: Wallstein, 2012.
A collection of essays and speeches on the relationship between literature, reality, and history.
Ein alter Mann ist stets ein König Lear. Alte Menschen in der Dichtung, Wien: Picus, 2012.
Printed version of a lecture given in Vienna on the representation of old age in literature.
Gemalte Fensterscheiben: Über Lyrik, München: Deutscher Taschenbuchverlag, 2011.
A collection of essays and articles on poetry.
Unterwegs verloren, Wien: Zsolnay, 2008.
A continuation of her autobiographical account, proving further insights into Klüger’s life in the United States and Europe.
Zwickmühle oder Symbiose: War Heinrich Heine ein Geisteswissenschaftler? Heidelberg: C.F. Müller, 2003.
Printed version of a lecture on the German-Jewish writer Heinrich Heine (1797–1856).
Salomon Hermann Mosenthal. Erzählungen aus dem jüdischen Familienleben, Göttingen: Wallstein, 2001.
Stories by the German-Jewish dramatist Salomon Hermann Mosenthal (1821–1877). Edited by Ruth Klüger.
Schnitzlers Damen, Weiber, Mädeln, Frauen, Wien: Picus, 2001.
Printed version of a lecture given in Vienna on the Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler (1862–1931).
Dichter und Historiker: Fakten und Fiktionen, Wien: Picus, 2000.
Essay on the problematic nature of the writing of literature and that of history.
Else Lasker-Schüler. In Theben Geboren: Gedichte, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1998.
Poetry by the German-Jewish author Else Lasker-Schüler. Edited by Ruth Klüger.
Frauen lesen anders, München: Deutscher Taschenbuchverlag, 1997.
Klüger’s exploration of gender-specific interpretations of texts and representations of femininity in popular culture.
Von hoher und niedriger Literatur, Wallstein: Göttingen: 1996.
Two essays on the relationship between kitsch, memory and representations of the Holocaust.
Katastrophen: Über deutsche Literatur, Göttingen: Wallstein, 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: University Press of Kentucky, 1971.
Selected Scholarship on Ruth Klüger
Alfers, Sandra. “Voices from a Haunting Past: Ghosts, Memory, and Poetry in Ruth Klüger’s weiter leben. Eine Jugend.” Monatshefte für Deutschsprachige Literatur 100, no. 4 (2008): 519-533.
Bos, Pascale. German-Jewish Literature in the Wake of the Holocaust: Grete Weil, Ruth Klüger, and the Politics of Address. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
Costello, Lisa. “Performative Auto/Biography in Ruth Klüger’s Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered.” A /B: Auto/Biography Studies 26, no. 2 (2011): 238-264.
Lorenz, Dagmar. “Evolving Memory Narratives: The Transformations of Ruth Klüger’s Autobiographical Writings.” Colloquia Germanica: Internationale Zeitschrift für Germanistik 48, no. 3 (2015): 183-196.
McGlothlin, Erin. “Autobiographical Re-vision: Ruth Klüger’s weiter leben and Still Alive.” Gegenwartsliteratur, no. 3 (2004): 46-70.
Schaumann, Caroline. “From ‘weiter leben’ (1992) to ‘Still Alive’ (2001): Ruth Klüger’s Translation of her ‘German book’ for an American Audience.” The German Quarterly 77, no. 3 (2004): 324-339.
Sheridan, Ruth S. “The Intersection of Gender and Religious Language in Ruth Klüger’s Still Alive.” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues 27, Fall (2014): 75-96.
Wickerson, Erica. “Seeing the Sites: The Topography of Memory and Identity in Ruth Klüger’s weiter leben,” Modern Language Review 108, no. 1 (2013): 202-220.
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