IRVINE, Calif. — When Holocaust survivor and author Ruth Klüger addressed the German parliament in 2016, her remarks were stripped of rhetorician gesticulations or inflections. Her hands remained clasped or folded, and her voice was even.
It was January 27, Germany’s day of remembrance for the Holocaust victims of the country’s last great war. It was a time of horror during which Klüger survived hunger, forced labor, and the evils of Auschwitz.
Klüger, a professor emerita of German at UC Irvine, died October 5 at the age of 88. Her memory and life’s story are preserved in the speech, and her internationally bestselling memoir, Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered.
“She just thought it was important to capture her story and present it to the Germans,” said John Smith, chair of the Department of European Languages and Studies. “In many ways, Germans grappled with the Holocaust and their anti-Semitism, but I think she felt a lot of Germans hadn’t.”
The acclaimed memoir, translated into more than 12 languages, was lauded by the Washington Post as "a book of surpassing, and at times brutal honesty." The book, known as Weiter Leben: Eine Jugend in her mother tongue, was published in Germany in 1992. The country, divided by the Berlin Wall until 1990, was reunifying.
She translated her story into English herself, publishing it in 2001.
Klüger, born in Vienna, Austria, in 1931, was just six-years-old when German troops arrived in the country. This, Smith said, is when Klüger’s love of German poetry gestated. In the growing brutality of the war, Klüger remembered the poetry of her school lessons, repeating the words and rhythms in her head.
Two years later, her father fled the city. Two years after that, she was deported alongside her mother to Theresienstadt, where they were held until being sent to Auschwitz.
“The gas chambers were working at full capacity,” she said in her speech all those years later.
It was there a young woman whispered to her that she should lie to the officer. She was 12-years-old, half-starved and convinced an SS officer she was 15, the cutoff for labor. It was the last time she saw the young woman.
“I owe her my life,” Klüger told parliament.
She escaped with her mother in the closing months of the war, falling in among other German refugees. Both emigrated to the United States in 1947, where Klüger attended Hunter College in New York City before earning her Ph.D. at UC Berkeley.
She arrived at UC Irvine in 1976, briefly leaving for Princeton from 1980-86, before her return to campus and her retirement in 1994.
She returned to Vienna in 2008 for the city’s festival One Book One City, for which 100,000 copies of a chosen volume is distributed. Klüger’s book was selected for distribution and discussion.
When she went before parliament eight years later, she offered a snapshot of her life as an immigrant and refugee as the war in Syria displaced millions of people.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel had been lobbying to welcome refugees, all along repeating the phrase “we can do it.”
Klüger agreed, ending her speech in Berlin in support of Merkel’s policy, the final four words the borrowed language of the country’s head of state.
“I am one of the many onlookers whose response to this has shifted from bemusement to admiration,” she said. “That was the main reason why I was so pleased to accept your invitation and take advantage of this opportunity to speak about the atrocities of the past here, in this setting, in your capital city – in a country where a very different kind of example is being set with the seemingly understated and yet heroic words: ‘We can do it.’”