Saturday, March 4, 2017

I Will Bear Witness by Victor Klemperer

Who is Victor Klemperer?

Victor Klemperer risked his life to preserve these diaries so that he could, as he wrote, “bear witness” to the gathering horror of the Nazi regime. The son of a Berlin rabbi, Klemperer was a German patriot who served with honor during the First World War, married a gentile, and converted to Protestantism. He was a professor of Romance languages at the Dresden Technical Institute, a fine scholar and writer, and an intellectual of a somewhat conservative disposition. Unlike many of his Jewish friends and academic colleagues, he feared Hitler from the start, and thought he felt little allegiance to any religion, under Nazi law he was a Jew.

This is actually the second of a two-volume edition of Klemperer’s diary. The first volume, covering 1933 to 1941, I read many years ago (2003, by my reckoning), where…

Klemperer’s life is not yet in danger, but he loses his professorship, his house, even his typewriter; he is not allowed to drive, and since Jews are forbidden to own pets, he must put his cat to death. Because of his military record and marriage to a “full-blooded Aryan,” he is spared deportation, but nevertheless, Klemperer has to wear the yellow Jewish star, and he and his wife, Eva, are subjected to the ever-increasing escalation of Nazi tyranny.

The ever-increasing escalation of Nazi tyranny. That is part of what makes this diary so compelling and so tragic. In his nearly daily recordings, Klemperer indeed allows his reader to bear witness to the often incremental and always humiliating depredations he is compelled to suffer--all of it tinged with the fearful understanding that, unlike the reader, Klemperer has no idea how far things are going to go and how the story is going to end.

Here’s an early and illustrative example. It is February 1942.

At six o’clock a messenger came from the Jewish Community; I had to report at eight o’clock tomorrow morning, in Räcknitz, to shovel snow. That is exactly the work at which my heart protests after five minutes. It is to last “until the early afternoon.” I also lack boots with good soles. It was too late for any kind of objection or any attempt to procure boots. I have to accept it. I can do no more than die.

Remember, Klemperer is a college professor, and he is 60 years old. And when it comes to clearing snow, he is not the only one so compelled.

Yesterday, February 14, the first day clearing snow, from eight till two, but this coming week it will probably last from eight or half past eight until five o’clock, plus a march of one hour there and one hour back. Yesterday left after seven o’clock in the gray of dawn, almost darkness, with Dr. Friedheim. Snow covered streets unrecognizable. Toward Zschertnitz, past the old brickworks, then straight past the Moreau monument as far as the Elysium, a large inn just at the beginning of Langemarckstrasse, formerly Bergstrasse, in Räcknitz. On the way Dr. Friedheim fell twice, once very heavily; later he produced a certificate from Dr. Rostoski: gallbladder, liver, hernia, diabetes...went home. A pitiful group assembled in the house entry. One rupture without rupture belt, one cripple, one hunchback...Seventeen “older” men should have come, two had not turned up, three were sent away, of the remaining twelve several were over seventy, I at sixty literally the youngest. I considered whether I should go to the medical assessor immediately. A man in uniform (municipal street-cleaning department) arrived in a van with tools, took a kind of roll call. Very polite. He advised me: “Try it first, you could get into trouble otherwise.” We shouldered shovel and other tools and first marches to the “Little Toll House.” There a delivery van was struggling at the entry to the Südhöhe road. We got it free, widened the roadway. As I was shoveling here, I was aware of my heart.

One of the elderly men in the snow detail with Klemperer is a doctor.

I became friendly with a doctor working beside me, Dr. Magnus, orthopedist and surgeon, 67, but much stronger and younger than I. Sportsman, horseman, well prepared. He had a supply of coarse mittens and gave me a pair. He asked about my health problems. “Pains from the chest down to my left wrist.” -- “Typical symptoms of angina.” -- It was a blow, nevertheless, to be told so bluntly what I had long known and did not want to know. Angina sounds different from “nervous heart.”

The work is dangerous.

The work is interrupted: “Look out!” and we press up against the wall of snow. I always find it frightening when the heavy long-distance buses with snow chains around their huge wheels roll past a few inches away; they could so easily slide to the side. One with a protruding metal triangle as a plow.

And when it is done, what does Klemperer think of it all?

The Sunday is gone--what have I achieved? Washed myself down [...] brushed potatoes, this diary entry, read aloud a few lines of Ben-Hur, the end of which is very disappointing [...]; a so-far vain attempt to make notes on Levin. And now five quite merciless snow-clearing days lie before me. It keeps on snowing. … Curriculum completely put aside.

How frustrating and humiliating it must have been. The man is a scholar. His proper work is subsumed by the books he should be reading and the curricula he should be writing. But now he is forced--yes, forced, under threat and penalty of death, to clear snow with the other old men too Jewish to be trusted with any other role in their society.

A few months later, in June 1942, in a fit of frustration, Klemperer decided to list all the bans he has been subjected to since the beginning of the Nazi regime.

The choker is being pulled ever tighter; they are wearing us down with ever new tricks. All the things, great and small, that have accumulated in the last few years! And a pinprick is sometimes more agonizing than a blow with a club. I shall list the decrees once and for all: 1) To be home after eight or nine in the evening. Inspection! 2) Expelled from one’s own house. 3) Ban on radio, ban on telephone. 4) Ban on theaters, cinemas, concerts, museums. 5) Ban on subscribing to or purchasing periodicals. 6) Ban on using public transport: three phases: a) buses banned, only front platform of tram permitted, b) all use banned, except to work, c) to work on foot, unless one lives 2½ miles away or is sick (but it is a hard fight to get a doctor’s certificate). Also ban on taxicabs, of course. 7) Ban on purchasing “goods in short supply.” 8) Ban on purchasing cigars or any kind of smoking materials. 9) Ban on purchasing flowers. 10) Withdrawal of milk ration card. 11) Ban on going to the barber. 12) Any kind of tradesman can be called only after application to the Community. 13) Compulsory surrender of typewriters, 14) of furs and woolen blankets, 15) of bicycles--it is permissible to cycle to work (Sunday outings and visits by bicycle are forbidden), 16) of deck chairs, 17) of dogs, cats, birds. 18) Ban on leaving the city of Dresden, 19) on entering the railway station, 20) on setting foot on the Ministry embankment, in parks, 21) on using Bürgerwiese [street] and the roads bordering the Great Garden (Parkstrasse, Lennéstrasse, and Karcherallee). This most recent restriction since only yesterday. Also, since the day before yesterday, a ban on entering the market halls. 22) Since September 19 [last year] the Jew’s star. 23) Ban on having reserves of foodstuffs at home. (Gestapo also takes away what had been bought on food coupons.) 24) Ban on use of lending libraries. 25) Because of the star all restaurants are closed to us. And in the restaurants one can still get something to eat, some “dish of the day.” if one has nothing at all left at home. Eva says the restaurants are packed. 26) No clothing card. 27) No fish card. 28) No special rations such as coffee, chocolate, fruit, condensed milk. 29) The special taxes. 30) The constantly contracting disposable allowance. Mine at first 600, then 320, now 185 marks. 31) Shopping restricted to one hour (three till four, Saturday twelve till one). I think these 31 points are everything. But all together they are nothing as against the constant threat of house searches, of ill-treatment, of prison, concentration camp, and violent death.

Can you imagine? Can you even imagine living under these circumstances? Skip over Klemperer’s last sentence for a moment. Just look at the 31 points. They are all clearly designed to keep the Jews out of sight. Off the streets, out of the stores, off the public transportation. Just shuttered up inside their homes with no food to eat and nothing to do.

Nothing to do except be afraid. From August 1942:

During these last few months I have learned again and again: Jewish religion, the “law,” the many hundreds of prescriptions that bind a Jew at every hour of the day, even when carrying out the least act, to his religion and remind him of God, has existed since the prophet Ezra. The Gestapo is like Ezra. I should like, for once, to lay down the timetable of an ordinary day (without anything exceptional like a murder or a suicide or a house search). On waking up: Will “they” come today? (There are days that are dangerous and days that are not--e.g., Friday is very dangerous, then “they” presume purchases have already been made for Sunday.) While washing, showering, shaving: Where to put the soap if “they” come now. Then breakfast: taking everything out of its hiding place, carrying it back to its hiding place. Then doing without a cigar; fear while smoking a pipe [filled with blackberry tea leaves], for which one doesn’t go to prison but does earn blows. Doing without a newspaper. Then the postwoman ringing the bell. Is it the postwoman, or is it “them”? And what will the postwoman bring? Then my hours of work. A diary can be fatal; book from the lending library earns blows, manuscripts are torn up. Every few minutes a car goes past. Is it “them”? To the window every time, the kitchen window is at the front, the workroom at the back. Someone or other will certainly ring the doorbell at least once in the morning, at least once in the afternoon. Is it “them”? Then shopping. One suspects “them” in every car, on every bicycle, in every pedestrian. (I have been abused often enough.) It occurs to me that I have just now been carrying my briefcase under my left arm--perhaps the star was concealed, perhaps someone has denounced me. As the husband of an Aryan I do, nevertheless, not have quite as much to fear as the others when I am shopping. If Frau Kreidl gets back a couple of small coupons without a J, when she had handed over a big Jewish coupon (which cannot be avoided), then she sticks the “Aryan” ones inside the lining of her handbag, because it is forbidden to have Aryan coupons. Also Frau Kreidl is always carrying some scarce commodity that someone has slipped her. In these respects, too, I am a little safer. Then I have to call on someone. Question on the way there: Will I be caught up in a house search when I get there? Question on the way home: Have “they” been to our house meanwhile, or are “they” there even now? Agony, when a car stops close by. Is it “them”? Then the hiding place business again, as at morning and midday. (On my visit, talk was of course only and exclusively of the most recent distressing cases.) A little calmer toward nine o’clock in the evening. Now there is at most the policeman making his inspection. He is courteous, he is not Gestapo. Last thought on going to sleep: I usually sleep without dreaming, now I shall have peace until tomorrow morning. But recently I dreamed, nevertheless: I was to be hanged in a prison cell. I had execution dreams as a very young person. Not since then. In those days it was probably puberty; now it is the Gestapo.

The fear is overwhelming. Klemperer makes it come palpably off the page, and it is easy to understand that his writing about it is a conscious strategy he employed in an attempt to dissipate it just enough to make it bearable.

Sometimes, however, it hits shockingly close to home. From August 1943:

Since Saturday afternoon I’m facing death. Card from the Gestapo: “Requested to appear at 16 Bismarckstrasse, third floor, Room 68, at 7:30 A.M. on Monday, August 2, 1943. Concerning: Questioning. With reference to goods in storage. Transport and Warehousing Ltd.” Yesterday I talked to Jacobi and Steinitz: The fact that they give a reason for the “questioning,” as well as Room 68, makes it likely that the danger is small. But nothing can be said for certain, and few of those “questioned” have come home again. Perhaps they want only my furniture, perhaps my life. I have so far successfully managed to maintain my composure. I have worked hard and put creature fear aside. [...] We also had visitors, Glaser in the morning, Lewinsky in the afternoon. I said nothing to either about what was impending.

Perhaps this is my last entry, perhaps everything I have worked at over these years is lost.

I do not intend to take sentimental leave of Eva. We know what we feel for each other. I hope I shall maintain my composure to the end. Before Eva, before the Gestapo, before the gallows. A pity that I lack belief in a life to come; I find it so hard to part from Eva. She herself is stoical again, but I know that her life, too, is at stake.

This, thankfully, is not his last entry. The matter was minor and quickly resolved. But imagine if it had been. Imagine if this remarkable document ended with those words and those sentiments. It is again a reminder that Klemperer, as he scratches these words out with his pen, has no idea what will happen next, and that every entry he makes could, in a very real sense, be his last.

One fascination I had with the text was trying to determine exactly when Klemperer realized that the people being taken off to the concentration camps were being deliberately killed there. He writes of friends and neighbors being taken off, and of news being received of their deaths, but at first, it almost seems as if he believes--or wants to believe--that their demises are the result of some unfortunate accident. Fallen ill. Slipped and fell. Even shot while trying to escape. Even that more acceptable than the reality of their intentional extermination. But eventually it becomes clear that he fully understands what the Nazis are doing to the Jews.

Klemperer also experiences a wide variety of reactions from his fellow Germans as he makes his difficult way through the Nazi regime. Many, perhaps surprisingly to the modern reader, express impotent sympathy. From July 1943:

On Sunday afternoon as I was coming from the cemetery, an elderly gentleman--white goatee, about seventy, retired senior civil servant--crossed Lothringer Strasse toward me, held out his hand, and said with a certain solemnity: “I saw your star and I greet you; I condemn this outlawing of a race, as do many others.” I: “Very kind--but you must not talk to me, it can cost me my life and put you in prison.” -- Yes, but he wanted to say it and he had to say it to me. -- The chorus of voices of the people. Which voice dominates and will be decisive?

And others cover Klemperer with their hostile hatred. He is also frequently accosted on the street, mostly by young men and boys, who tar him with slurs, proclaim him to be the source of all their troubles, and threaten him with future extermination at the hands of the Reich.

It is easy to sympathize with Klemperer, to feel the outrage and anger that he, above all, was unable to express anywhere but in his diary. And it is there, finally, where we find him confronting a real and aching guilt, the guilt of the correspondent, who documents the suffering of himself and others, and who puts others at greater risk in doing so. From September 1944:

My diaries and my notes! I tell myself again and again: They will not only cost me my life, if they are discovered, but also Eva’s and that of several others, whom I have mentioned by name, had to mention if I wanted them to have documentary worth. Am I entitled, perhaps even obliged, to do so, or is it criminal vanity? And again and again: I have published nothing for twelve years, been unable to complete anything, have done nothing but record and record. Is there any point to it, will any of it be completed? The English, the Gestapo, the angina, my sixty-three years. And if it is completed, and if it is successful, and if I “survive through my work”--what is the point of it all for me? I have so little talent for faith, in fact none at all; of all possibilities nothingness appears to me, as far as the individual personality is concerned, and that is all that counts, because what do I care about the “universe” or the “nation” or anything else that is not I myself?--nothingness appears to me the most likely. And I recoil from that alone, not from the “eternal judge,” in whatever shape. But I am writing all this down (which goes through my head every day, several times a day) only because I do not want to send away an empty page. And immediately afterward I shall go on working, i.e., reading and taking notes. Not because I am so full of energy, but because I am unable to do anything better with my time.

There is a lot I recognize here. There is no point, but he keeps on working, because there is, of course, a point. Through the work, he lives. Not in the completed future (although it can be said that Klemperer lives there, too) but in the tortured present. Without the work, he would not survive. And despite the frustration that comes across above, Klemperer actually know this. From December 1944:

I am incapable of somehow becoming reconciled to the thought of death; religious and philosophical consolations are completely denied me. It is solely a matter of maintaining one’s dignity until the very end. … The best means for that is immersion in study, to behave as if the accumulation of material had a real purpose.

At once depressing and uplifting. His work--meaningless in the context of suffering, yet immersive for him and transcendent for us. It is a remarkable product of a remarkable mind.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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