(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The first volume of I Will Bear Witness, Victor Klemperer’s diary about his life as an endangered Jew in Nazi Germany, ends with the New Year’s Eve observation that 1941 was the most dreadful year that he and Eva, his non-Jewish wife, had experienced. On Klemperer’s mind were the ever more constrained and dangerous conditions that the intensification of war and Nazi anti-Semitism inflicted upon them. In late June, the Germans had invaded the Soviet Union. That autumn, German Jews were ordered to wear the “yellow star,” and the Nazis halted all Jewish emigration from Germany and German-occupied territory. Klemperer was among the 163,000 remaining German Jews who were trapped in a regime that was rapidly moving to implement its murderous “final solution.”

At the time, dependent as he was on rumors and secondhand reports from foreign news broadcasts, Klemperer could not have known the details of those developments. They included Chelmno, the Nazi death camp that become operational on December 8, and construction projects at Belzec and Auschwitz-Birkenau, two other Polish sites where millions of Jews would be gassed to death. Klemperer’s last words for 1941 refer to murder and deportations—often he speaks of “evacuation” instead—but as his diary’s second volume reveals, it took time for Klemperer to realize that the worst was yet to come.

The Holocaust destroyed about 2.7 million Jews in 1942, making that year the most lethal in Jewish history. Primarily because of his “mixed” marriage, which gave him fragile privileges as the Jewish spouse of an “Aryan” woman, Klemperer remained alive. Unbeknownst to him, while Klemperer dealt with his personal dilemmas in Dresden’s severe winter cold, the fate of Jews in such marriages was being discussed during an important meeting in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee on January 20, 1942. There, under the leadership of Reinhard Heydrich, the SS lieutenant general who was also chief of the Reich security main office, fifteen government and SS officials, many with doctorates from German universities, convened at a comfortable lakeside villa to coordinate the “final solution.” One proposal at the Wannsee conference was to dissolve mixed marriages so that the Jewish spouses could be targeted more easily, but at that time no further action was taken on the matter.

While the Wannsee conference took place, Klemperer’s diary entry indicates that he was spending time with Paul Kreidl, a Jewish resident in the special Dresden Jews’ house where the Klemperers were also forced to live. A week earlier, Kreidl had shared a disturbing rumor: Jews sent from Germany to Riga, Latvia, had been shot. The rumor was true. On January 21, Kreidl was one of 224 Dresden Jews deported to the Riga ghetto, a victim caught in a power struggle between Nazis who were willing to postpone Jewish death while Jews did labor in key wartime industries and those who wanted to make Germany judenrein (free of Jews) immediately.

Klemperer’s reflections reveal the forlorn mixture of anxiety and ambiguity, gossiped information and nonsensical incongruity, and immediate need and tentative hope that make his diary compelling because of the desperate plight it conveys. On March 16, 1942, he writes about the Hitler jokes he heard during a morning work break, the hearsay about the military situation at the eastern front, a report about lenient anti-Jewish policies in Hungary, a new ban in Germany that prohibited Jews from buying flowers, and the growing scarcity of food and fuel. In his eclectic list of experiences mentioned on this date, Klemperer writes that he has also heard of a place called Auschwitz, which was described to him as “the most dreadful concentration camp.” How dreadful Auschwitz was he could not know, but within days of his Auschwitz reference, while he notes the latest rations reductions in Dresden, gas chambers are put into operation in a renovated farm house at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the main killing center in the Auschwitz complex, with Polish Jews as the victims.

Six months later, on September 19, Klemperer observes that the decree requiring German Jews to wear the yellow star is one year old. “What indescribable misery has descended upon us during this year,” he writes. “Everything that preceded it appears petty by comparison.” Two days later, on Yom Kippur, the sacred Day of Atonement, he describes visits to the Pinkowitzes and Neumanns, who will soon be deported. “Going into a beyond,” as Klemperer puts it, his friends’ situation is grim, and yet the diarist resists the direst conclusion, for the available reports have been “no more...

(The entire section is 1899 words.)