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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 492

Klemperer's book, his journal account of his life in Germany as an assimilated Jew from 1933 to 1945, is one of the most important first-person accounts of life in Nazi Germany from a Jewish perspective. It is an extremely important text because he is one of the few Jewish witnesses...

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Klemperer's book, his journal account of his life in Germany as an assimilated Jew from 1933 to 1945, is one of the most important first-person accounts of life in Nazi Germany from a Jewish perspective. It is an extremely important text because he is one of the few Jewish witnesses of the entire Nazi period. (Most Jews either left Germany or were exterminated.)

Klemperer survived because he was married to an Aryan wife. He hoped, early on, that his service fighting in World War I would protect him. He also hoped being a convert to Christianity would matter, and he joined the Confessing Church, which tried to offer some protection to converted Jews expelled from Hitler's German Church. Here too, Klemperer was unsuccessful: being a Christian could not rub away the "stain" of Judaism in Nazi Germany any more than being a Christian could save a black from slavery in the pre-Civil War South in the United States. Judaism was defined by the Nazis as a race, not a religion.

Klemperer's diaries have added importance because they are written by an intelligent, insightful person, a professor of Romance languages forced from his university position because of his ethnicity. Klemperer had an ear for the nuances of language and records Nazi rhetoric with disgust, such as the emphasis on spectacle and the bragging about the invasion of Russia as the "biggest" invasion of all time, as if it were a Barnum and Bailey circus event and not a war.

But primarily, the diaries are an ongoing account of the gradual deterioration of Jewish life under Nazi rule. Klemperer lives with a noose around his neck that slowly grows tighter and tighter—and about which, stripped of citizenship and rights, he can do nothing. He often expresses hopelessness and anger, wishing at one point that a former colleague, who now shuns him, be hanged from the tallest lamppost. But mostly, he simply wants to survive.

One of the more poignant and detailed accounts is of his eight days in a Nazi prison for failing to properly install a blackout shade during World War II—a "crime," as he notes, that would have gotten an Aryan at most a fine for the first offense. A great fan of movies, he notes all the jail scenes he has seen in American gangster films—then comments on what he calls a "banal" truth, that you can't begin to understand the torment of an experience until it happens to you. We could say the same of our reading of his journals, even though they do provide us with a powerful and memorable glimpse of what he endured.

He was scheduled for deportation to a concentration camp when, ironically, he and his wife were saved by the U.S. fire bombing of Dresden. Given the catastrophe, the Nazis relaxed the rules about identification papers, and the fleeing Klemperer was able to leave the city as an Aryan and survive the war.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1899

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 than supposition.” By this time, however, with the turning-point Battle of Stalingrad under way but far from decided against Nazi Germany, more than 250,000 Jews from the Warsaw ghetto had been murdered in the gas chambers at Treblinka.

On New Year’s Eve, Klemperer again takes stock. The year 1942, he notes, has been the worst of the ten years he has experienced under Nazi rule. Apart from some reading, he has not been able to do any of the scholarly work that means so much to him. The people with whom the Klemperers spent last New Year’s Eve have all been “blotted out by murder, suicide, and evacuation.” With no end in sight, he constantly feels in “mortal danger.” As the year draws to its close, Klemperer can only conclude that 1942 has been the worst year “thus far.” For him and many other European Jews, he expects that the terror will increase, and it does. Consider, for example, what took place on February 27, 1943.

That morning, Jews remaining in Germany, even those in armaments industries, were rounded up at their work places and assembled for deportation. Even mixed marriages seemed to provide protection no longer, but then something remarkable happened in Berlin. At the Rosenstrasse Jewish community center, where several hundred Jewish men were interned, their non-Jewish wives appeared and protested publicly against the impending deportation. Ordered to disperse, threatened with violence if they did not, the women persisted. Uneasy about the unrest that might spread, the Nazi officials relented and released the Jewish men in mixed marriages. The next day Klemperer makes no comment about the Rosenstrasse protest—probably no news of it reached him—but he does record that “the current action did not concern the mixed marriages.”

Although no further action against Jews in mixed marriages would be taken until the war’s final months, Klemperer saw that his safety was ever more precarious. On February 28, 1943, he recalls that his wife recently heard a German woman’s account of a postcard message sent by her son from the eastern front. “I’m still alive”—repeated three times—is all it said. “That is also how far my feelings go,” writes Klemperer, “depending on my mood, and changing from hour to hour, the emphasis is now on alive,’ now on still.’” About four months later, on June 12, Klemperer estimates that only a handful of Jews remain in Dresden. He hears contradictory rumors: Mixed marriages will be broken up; mixed marriages will still be safe havens. His mood, he says, keeps shifting “between fear, hope, indifference.” Still, as the Klemperers hold out, the reader becomes increasingly aware that despite the threats of despair and death, the husband-and-wife team are expanding and deepening the meaning of “resistance.”

Back on May 27, 1942—it was the same day that Czech resistance-fighters fatally wounded Heydrich in Prague—Klemperer noted once again how hunger exhausted him. Although he had fought for Germany during World War I, armed resistance against the Third Reich was scarcely a wartime option for a Jew in Dresden. Writing would be Klemperer’s chosen form of resistance instead. “I will bear witness,” he vows, “precise witness!” Although he could not know that his diary would achieve best-seller status more than fifty years later, there are moments when he senses that he may be writing for history, that it is crucial to record his everyday existence because that detail will be essential to document what Nazi Germany did to the world and to the Jews in particular.

On June 8, 1942, Klemperer mentions that he has heard about Heydrich’s death, but the diarist’s personal situation remains the focus. The result is that his diary becomes an extended lamentation for the Jews of Dresden, an anguished indictment of the Germany he still loves in spite of its Nazi ways, and a sustained record of the efforts that he and his wife make to endure, to preserve the semblance of a decent life in inhuman circumstances, and to survive for better times. Whether those times will be theirs remains unclear, for in addition to his jeopardized existence as a Jew under Nazi rule, German civilians are endangered as the war is brought close to home by the Allies’ air raids, which intensify in 1942 and reach devastating proportions by the end of 1943. The end of that year finds Klemperer observing that Dresden has not yet been hit; nevertheless, it is a place of fear for all the city’s inhabitants, not only its very few Jews.

Six months later, Klemperer’s wife brings him news that the Allies’ D day invasion at Normandy is under way, but on that day, June 6, 1944, he is “no longer or not yet able to hope.” His ambivalence was not misplaced, for even though the war had definitely turned against Nazi Germany, the Holocaust still raged in 1944. On March 19, for example, while Klemperer did air raid duty, German troops occupied the territory of their faltering Hungarian ally and the last large group of European Jews came under the Nazis’ genocidal control. By July 9, when Klemperer wrote that he could “no longer imagine myself transformed back into a human being,” some 437,000 Hungarian Jews had been deported to Auschwitz, where most of them were gassed. On September 3, as Klemperer reports that Dresden’s Hitler Youth is marching and singing, another diarist, a young Jewish woman named Anne Frank, is deported to Auschwitz from the Netherlands with her family and hundreds of other Dutch Jews. Klemperer knows nothing of her, but his September 1 judgment—written on the fifth anniversary of World War II’s beginning—sums up the situation: “no safety anywhere.” The year ends with air raid alerts in Dresden, with the numbed feeling that the war will end “perhaps in a couple of months, perhaps in a couple of years.”

On February 12, 1945, the last of the Dresden Jews learn that they must report for special labor duty. No illusions remain; the orders are a death sentence. Klemperer is not included in the first groups, but he carries the orders to others and expects no mixed-marriage reprieve. Then, on the night of February 13, the situation changes. The Allied air raids begin. The resulting firestorm reduces Dresden to rubble, enabling the city’s surviving Jews to destroy the documents and yellow stars that identify them and perhaps eventually to rebuild their lives in the Third Reich’s ruins. The Klemperers managed to do so.

Of all the documents from World War II and the Holocaust, Klemperer’s diary is among the most unusual. Few others chart day-to-day life in Nazi Germany from the Third Reich’s start to finish. From a German Jew’s perspective, none does so as thoroughly. Bearing precise witness, Klemperer not only recalls how much was lost but also warns that human beings forget at tremendous peril.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 96 (March 15, 2000): 1337.

Commentary 109 (June, 2000): 44.

Library Journal 125 (February 1, 2000): 101.

The Nation 270 (June 12, 2000): 44.

Publishers Weekly 247 (January 31, 2000): 89.

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