Ruth Klüger, who died Monday in Irvine, California, did not believe that we should no longer write poems after Auschwitz, and that the cinema should refrain from any representation of the camps. She herself was a poet, she remained so after the war, she was already so when she was deported at the age of 11, in 1942, first to Theresienstadt, then to Auschwitz and finally to Christianstadt. “I am not telling anything extraordinary, she writes in Refusal to testify, when I say that wherever I was I recited and composed poems. Many inmates in the camps found consolation in the verses they did not know by heart. […] It was above all the form, the quality of the language that supported us. ”
Refusal to testify was published in Germany in 1992 under the title of Live on, “Continue to live”. It was after having had a serious accident in Göttingen that Ruth Klüger began to write this story, very late, therefore, in the language of her childhood, before translating it herself into English. She was born in Vienna on October 31, 1931, she emigrated at the age of 16 with her mother to the United States, where she became a Germanist – a renowned scholar in her field – in the early 1960s. Her father was doctor. Accused of having performed an abortion, he was imprisoned in 1940, released, then he decided to leave Austria to join Italy. “And there, written by Ruth Klüger, he made the mistake of taking refuge from a fascist country in a democratic country, namely France. The French delivered it to the Germans. From the Drancy camp, he was deported in 1944 to Auschwitz and undoubtedly sent to the gas chamber upon his arrival. ”
Thirst in addition to hunger
No swimming pool, no cinema, except to venture into neighborhood theaters where we do not know her: Ruth Klüger describes the life of a lonely and independent little girl, in a Jewish family, middle-class on the maternal side, in the time of the anti-Semitic measures imposed by the Nazis. Living space is more and more restricted, the apartments more and more cramped. She was deported to Theresienstadt with her mother and paternal grandmother, who died quickly, like all the old and sick crammed into a makeshift hospital. Ruth Klüger joins the children’s building, thirty girls in a room where it would have been better to have three.
“In a way, I liked Theresienstadt, and the nineteen or twenty months that I spent there made me a social being, whereas I had until then been withdrawn, cut off everything, complexed and perhaps even inaccessible. “ Which does not mean that the camp was easy: “I hated Theresienstadt, we read the next page, this quagmire, this cesspool where you couldn’t reach out without bumping into someone else. ” She experiences hunger there. “There isn’t much to say about chronic hunger; it’s still there, and what’s always there is boring to tell. “
Auschwitz is different, it’s worse. For example, thirst in addition to hunger. One day, someone asks Ruth Klüger: “What were you kids doing in Auschwitz?” Did you play? ” Reply : “To play ! We were on call. In Birkenau, I was on roll call, I was thirsty and afraid of death. It was all, and nothing more. “ Thanks to a deportee who makes her understand that she must pretend to be 15 and not 13, and thus saves her, Ruth Klüger can leave Auschwitz for a labor camp, always in the company of her mother. “Simone Weil was right, I have known it since that day, the good is incomparable and inexplicable”, she writes about this woman who gave her good advice to the beard of the Nazi selection officer.
In the title chosen for the French translation (by Jeanne Etoré, in 1997, published by Viviane Hamy), Refusal to testify, you have to hear several things. We cannot speak for the deportees, repeats Ruth Klüger, nor can we expect them to speak. She herself, for example, explains that she hasn’t told her children much. And it is the use of testimony that she questions. The pocket edition of Refusal to testify (Viviane Hamy Bis, 2005) contains a text entitled Misguided memory: kitsch and camps. She expresses in it why she finds “Suspicious” the multiplication of oral history recordings: “We are not witnesses, but raw material. The being who thinks that it conceals and who assumes his life is secondary. Our ability to distinguish facts from memories is called into question. We are no more than documents, living documents that others must read and comment on. It then appears another way of listening which coincides perfectly with its opposite, of not wanting to listen. “
What does she call kitsch? The opposite of s. The “pornography” sentimental, everything that rounds the angles, lessens the horror of reality, «a way around the problems, a complacent lowering». “Inconceivable”, “unspeakable”, “inexpressible” : all the vocabulary used by the generation of baby boomers to qualify what has been called the Holocaust and then Shoah – it is this vocabulary that is kitsch. For Ruth Klüger, it allows us not to try to understand. She rebels against the“Image ban” decreed by Claude Lanzmann, “Joining Adorno’s musical ban, who refuses any euphony about Auschwitz. In full XXe century, astonishing consequence of the Second World War, it is once again affirmed that there are sacred things that we do not have the right to reproduce, nor even to evoke in words ”.
Viviane Hamy editions have also published Lost on the way, where Ruth Klüger recounts and analyzes the double discrimination that awaited her in the United States in the 1950s, and hence the double emancipation, as a Jew and a woman, that she conquered. But it’s mostly for Refusal to testify that it will remain in the history of literature, and in history itself.