Victor Klemperer was born October 9, 1881, in Landsberg-on-the-Warthe in the province of Brandenburg, Germany. Klemperer was the youngest in a family of three other brothers and four sisters. When Klemperer was nine, the family moved to Berlin, where his rabbi father, Wilhelm, was summoned to a liberal Reform Synagogue. As an unorthodox rabbi, Wilhelm was supportive of his four sons converting to the national religion, Lutheranism, in adulthood.
Klemperer married a concert pianist named Eva in 1906. His brothers disapproved of the union because they thought Eva was their brother’s social inferior. As for Eva’s family, some of her relatives disapproved of her marrying a Jewish man. During World War I, he served as a cannoneer in the German army, earning a Distinguished Service Medal. This service, along with his marriage to an Aryan woman, protected him from deportation to the concentration camps that sealed the fates of millions of Jews during Hitler’s rule.
Upon returning from his service in World War I, Klemperer worked for a few years as a freelance journalist. In 1920, he accepted a position at Dresden Technical University as a professor of Romance languages and literature. He occupied this position until 1935, when he was forced to retire. After World War II, he was reinstated.
From the age of seventeen, Klemperer kept a detailed diary of his life. He continued writing during the Nazi years, despite knowing that if the Nazis discovered his diary, he would be killed. The exercise of writing his thoughts and interpretations of changing Germany was a necessary outlet for him, and it was also his personal brand of heroism. He was determined to ‘‘bear witness’’ to the horrors he saw, no matter the risk.
At the beginning of 1945, Klemperer was one of only 198 registered Jews still in the entire city of Dresden, all of whom were still free because of their marriages to Aryan spouses. On February 13, all Jews who were deemed fit to work were to report for deportation in three days. This meant that their ‘‘privileged’’ status would come to an end. Klemperer knew this was a death sentence, so when the Allies bombed the city that very evening, he and Eva took advantage of the chaos and escaped Dresden. Eva tore the yellow star from his clothing, and they kept running for three months until it was safe. After the war, the couple returned to Dresden, and Klemperer joined the Communist Party.
Klemperer died of a heart attack while attending a conference in Brussels, Belgium, in 1960, nine years after Eva’s death. His diaries were taken to the Dresden State Library where one of Klemperer’s former students found them and, recognizing their historical value, began transcribing them for publication. The diary was a bestseller in Germany, and critics generally voice their hope that the diary will be as widely read in its English translation.
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