Speech by Ruth Klüger on 27 January 2016 in remembrance of the victims of National Socialism
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The winter of 1944/45 was the coldest of my life and was surely never forgotten by those who survived it in Europe. I am now 84 years old, but back then, I had not lived through many winters: I had just turned 13. Even so, to me, none of the many winters that followed were ever as cold as that last winter of the war. The cold, and the feeling of being defenceless against it, will always be associated in my mind with forced labour in Christianstadt, a women’s sub-camp of Gross-Rosen, a concentration camp in what was then Lower Silesia, now part of Poland.
When we hear the words “forced labourer”, we think of grown men, not half-starved little girls. But far from being an object of pity, I was a very lucky girl, and I was proud of that. During the selection at Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in summer 1944, when the gas chambers and crematoria were working at full capacity, I had managed to pass myself off as fit for duty in a work unit of women aged between 15 and 45. I was waiting in line, and as the SS officer asked my age, I told him I was 15. In fact, the lie was scarcely credible, for I was just 12 years old and after almost two years in Theresienstadt [Terezin], I was malnourished and underdeveloped. The lie had been whispered to me by one of the women writing down the information, a prisoner like me, only two minutes earlier: “Tell him you’re 15,” she said, so I did. The SS man eyed me up and down. “She’s very small,” he said. And the woman taking notes summoned up her courage and said: “No, no, she looks strong. Look, she has strong legs, she can work.” And the SS man shrugged and let it go. It was a chance encounter, lasting only a minute or two, with a kind young woman who I had never seen before and have never seen since, but I owe her my life, my survival, for everyone else who was with me on the transport from Theresienstadt was sent to the gas chambers in the days that followed. We chosen ones were loaded onto railway trucks and sent off to a labour camp.
The first few days in Christianstadt were a blessed relief, if not a time of happiness, for me. It was warm, the grass was green, there were trees in a forest close by and the air was clear – good for the soul after the deathly pall from the crematoria that shrouded the camp at Auschwitz. And above all, the oppressive fear of death had passed.
These positive emotions didn’t last long. It began to rain and everything was soaked through. Then came the cold. Every morning, we were woken by a siren or whistle and forced to line up in the dark for roll call. Even today, I find standing – simply standing and waiting – so abhorrent that I sometimes duck out of a queue and walk away, even if I am about to be served, because I can’t bear to stand in line for a moment longer. We were given a black coffee-like brew to drink, a ration of bread to take with us, and in serried ranks of three, we would march off to work. A female overseer with a whistle trotted alongside us, trying to make us march in time. All her whistling was to no avail: it didn’t matter how angry she became – we never learned to keep pace. In my childlike, pre-feminist defiance, I was secretly pleased that it proved impossible to teach Jewish housewives how to march properly. We hadn’t been drilled in marching. Men were easier to train.
As for the work itself, it was men’s work. We cleared the forest and dug out and hauled away the stumps of felled trees. We chopped wood and carried railway sleepers. The land was to be used for some kind of building, but of course no one ever told us what, and in any case, I wasn’t interested in finding out. By their very nature, forced labourers either see no purpose in their work or hold it in contempt. Marx would have been both delighted and, I would hope, appalled at this practical example, this test of his theories. Any physical work which is imposed and not freely chosen creates a sense of lethargy in the worker as a defence mechanism. I myself engaged in as much sabotage as possible: out of weakness and boredom, but also out of conviction, I would recite poems that I knew off by heart, for example. Whatever it was that was supposed to come into being as a result of our labours in Christianstadt … well, suffice it to say that it wasn’t completed on schedule.
Sometimes, some of us would be hired out to local civilians, and then we would find ourselves sitting in attics braiding onions for the winter, for example. It was better than working outside: it took less effort and, most important, it wasn’t so cold. The villagers would stare at us as if we were savages. If they ever gave a moment’s thought to what was happening to the ragged prisoners in the labour camp nearby, they put it out of their minds once the war was over, for everyone claimed to have had no idea what was going on in the camps, and certainly no one would ever admit that people in the village had sometimes profited from their labour.
Sometimes, my friend Susi, who was 16, and I would be sent to the quarry, the oldest working area in Gross-Rosen and the reason why the camp was built in the first place. In the quarry, the cold was killing. We would huddle together for warmth, but it made little difference. There was nothing we could do to protect ourselves: our clothes were much too thin. We would wrap our feet in newspaper, which helped, but not enough. We had running sores on our legs, which – like all wounds – were very slow to heal. We longed for the next break – for lunch and then for the end of the day. Doubt bordered on despair: how much longer could I endure this? Every morning, I hoped that I might be assigned to camp duty, which meant staying behind and cleaning. But that was a rare privilege.
Some 12 years later, I’m in California and I meet up with Susi – who has become my lifelong sister by choice. I watch her playing with her two young children in the warm sand. I hear her soft and soothing voice, guiding and encouraging the little ones. Suddenly, an image of the two of us flashes into my mind … I see us huddled together in the quarry, in the cold. Susi puts her arm around me, I turn away, for the sand hardens into Silesian granite and the children’s game has become darker. I sometimes still dream about the quarry. It’s a desolate place. In my dream, I’m trying to get warm, but where?
Later, I wrote a poem about this dreamlike, amorphous desolation. I call it “Landscape Poem”. It consists of a series of disconnected dreamlike images, impressions which epitomise the labour camp as I experienced it. Let me read it to you:
“On the dark slope, there stands a bright-lit house.
In the quarry, children are freezing. One snatches up a lizard. It slips out of his grasp.
A faceless figure searches for itself and rolls into its grave.
A girl clutching cloth-covered bowls runs sobbing into the house.
In the quarry, children freeze in the rusty air.
Under iron trees, wordless couples stoop and gather metal fruit.”
Most of the women – my mother was one – worked in a munitions factory alongside some deportees from France. These men were better fed than we were because they were better qualified for the work. That made them more valuable. It also meant that they were better at sabotage. Sometimes, they would wander over to the women, give them a smile and say: “Plus de travail, les filles” – Work’s over, girls! That was always a sign that they had disabled one of the machines by loosening a screw or making some other minor adjustment that the Germans wouldn’t notice for a while and which would have to be fixed. Using slave labour, forced labour, has its drawbacks, and for the Nazis, it often yielded less by way of profits than they had reckoned on. Unfortunately, it was still too much.
In reality, forced labour is worse than slave labour because a slave is someone’s property. He – or she – therefore has a financial value to the owner, who incurs a loss if he lets his slave starve or freeze to death. The Nazis’ forced labourers had no value: after all, their exploiters had an endless supply. They had so much “human material”, as they called it, that they quite literally had enough to burn. That applied especially to the women, who couldn’t work as hard as the men. Some of the men, like the French deportees I mentioned, were trained in occupations that were useful to the war effort, but the women could simply be worked until they starved. Menstruation was almost unknown in the camps, for only healthy bodies menstruate. Most of the women were housewives. They belonged to a generation that rarely worked outside the home. They were middle-class women, my mother’s generation, born around the turn of the century, well brought up and raised in the expectation that their menfolk would feed and care for them their whole lives. They had almost nothing to offer apart from their limited dexterity and the impaired physical strength of the starving.
I say “almost” because there was one profession – a female occupation, as it was called – which women could carry out, and that was prostitution. In some of the camps for men, including Mauthausen, the only concentration camp in my native Austria, there were “special buildings” where women, most of them recruited in Ravensbrück women’s camp, were made available to certain inmates. According to Himmler, with his unspeakable arrogance and contempt for humanity, it was considered beneficial to “provide the hard-working prisoners with women in brothels”. I won’t quote Himmler any further. The cultural scientist Robert Sommer quite rightly calls this “sexual forced labour”, with the emphasis on “forced”. Right after the war, countless pornographic books and magazines were published which purportedly described prostitution in concentration camps, often with many photographs. Perhaps they still exist, I don’t know. Of course, they were staged for the dubious purpose of entertainment, as a business – one which attracted readers and found a market. The reality was very different: it was camp reality and it was certainly anything but erotic. The women were constantly at risk from venereal disease or pregnancy, and were forced to have serial sexual intercourse, spending no more than 20 minutes with each “client”, while other men stood in line waiting outside the barracks. This was not freely chosen work, despite the cynical accusations sometimes levelled at these abused women after the war. Even with the passage of time, prostitutes were not recognised as forced labourers and the survivors were not entitled to or didn’t attempt to claim restitution – reparations, in other words. Their families were even less inclined to do so, for they felt so ashamed. These women were never accorded the respect usually, if not always, given to camp survivors. Only recently has their fate been studied in more detail. This discrimination and concealment of the truth of course reflect age-old prejudices – the belief that sexual intercourse dishonours women but strengthens men. And yet these women prisoners did less to support the Nazi war effort than any other forced labourer. The only damage was to the women themselves, physically and emotionally. As we remember female forced labourers today, our thoughts should turn to these women as well. Incidentally, neither the “hard-working” privileged prisoners nor the women were Jewish; that would have been Rassenschande – racial defilement.
Anyway, back to my story. While we were cutting down trees and laying sleepers, we often came into contact with German civilians; in fact, some of them were our overseers. Once, during my break, I found myself sitting on a tree stump next to a thick-set, corpulent man, who must have spoken to me first, for I would not have sat down beside him of my own accord. I could tell that he was curious and wanted to find out more about me. Clearly, I didn’t fit in with his notions of what a forced labourer was supposed to look like. I was a dark-haired, starving child prisoner, but one who spoke perfect German, and a girl as well – someone who was obviously unsuited to this kind of work and who should have been in school. He asked how old I was. I remember wondering whether the truth should have any place in my reply. After all, I had to tread carefully, given that only recently, I had added three years to my age as my survival strategy. I don’t remember what I told him, but I do recall that I had just one aim in mind: to persuade him to give me some of his bread and dripping – not just because I was starving, but because with hunger gnawing at my belly, it would have been a real achievement to take such an untold delicacy back to the camp to share with my mother and Susi. I can’t remember what I told him, but I do recall that I didn’t manage to get my hands on his lunch. He did cut a piece off for me, though, and I was so grateful that I simply couldn’t resist temptation and devoured it straight away.
So I was very careful in answering him, for I had no intention of jeopardising my situation through idle chatter to an unknown German. He, on the other hand, was quite happy to talk: he told me that even the German children were no longer in school and that they were all being enlisted in the army. And he told me that Germany was starving, a fact which didn’t stop him enjoying his lunch.
I imagine that after the war, he would remember me as a little Jewish girl who, in his mind, didn’t have such a bad life, all things considered. After all, I never told him any horror stories even though his encouraging manner gave me plenty of opportunity to do so – in fact, he had more or less demanded that I talk about my life. And in his mind, this little Jewish girl obviously wasn’t scared, because otherwise, she wouldn’t have talked so freely. Perhaps he used our encounter as proof that during the war, the Jews were no worse off than anyone else.
My next attempt to get something to eat was even less successful. It was shortly before the camp was emptied and the inmates were dispersed, when we could already hear the gunfire from the Soviet army and work had ceased. By then, there was so little to eat that all I could think about was food. When I was given my daily ration, I would bite hard into the bread, trying to resist the temptation to stuff the whole piece into my mouth at once. Sometimes, I saw myself as others might see me and felt ashamed.
One evening, Susi told me that scraps of food were being handed out by the back door of the kitchen barracks; the cooks apparently wanted to give it to the children. I ran over to the kitchens, along with some of the other women. In my impatience, I raced up the steps to the entrance, the others behind me, and hurtled down the brightly lit corridor towards the back door of the kitchens. Then a side door opened and a tall SS man came out. He calls me over and I stand before him, my plate in my hand. He asks me what I want, so I tell him we had heard that scraps of food were being distributed. He says something like, “You’d better watch out!” (in an unforgettable Prussian accent, at least to my Austrian ears) and I think he is about to let me pass – surely he wouldn’t want the scraps to be thrown away, not with all this starvation? And then he suddenly hits me hard across the face. I reel backwards, the length of the corridor, and hit my head. My wooden clogs fall off my feet and my plate flies out of my hands. Susi helps me up and we walk back to our barracks, with me cursing like a fishwife: “He’ll cop it, sooner or later, that man who hit me, he’ll get what’s coming to him!” Decades later, I am in Schmidt’s Drogerie-Markt in Göttingen, and I hear a man, a pensioner, complaining about what he calls “foreign parasites” from Poland. “These foreigners, they should be gassed, along with the politicians,” he said. I glance at him, trying to guess his age. Yes, he’s old enough, it could be him. “What did you say?” I challenge him, my heart in my mouth. I look him in the eyes – and I think to myself, my friend, we’ve met before. And he fixes me with his cold contemptuous gaze. “Yes,” he says. “You heard right.”
Early in 1945, Christianstadt camp was closed and the inmates were transferred to Bergen-Belsen. At first, they were forced to march, but later, they were loaded onto trains, or so I heard after the war. But Susi, my mother and I were no longer among them. On the second evening, we managed to escape – and survived the war. But that’s another story.
After the war, the German civilians claimed that they had known nothing about the mass murder. This cannot possibly be true: the mass exploitation of forced labour was common knowledge. Many years later, when I had visited Germany many times and had made many friends here (I have many friends here now), I occasionally encountered people whose families had employed forced labourers in their homes during the Nazi era. My friends had positive, even affectionate recollections of these deportees. “They had it good,” they say. “They played with us when we were children. They laughed and sang songs.” These well-meaning narrators didn’t know, or didn’t want to know, about the guarded reticence of their unpaid domestic help, or their concealed mistrust, contempt, envy or under- or overestimation of the enemy. And even if some of these workers were comfortably situated despite being in enemy territory and may even have been held in affection, this means, after all, that the enemy had finally subjugated them and robbed them of part of their identity. If those Germans who were children at the time, and who are adults now, dust off these recollections for my benefit but fail to recognise this conflict, it is because no one ever sees themselves as the enemy. The enemy is always the Other – so how can one possibly be the enemy, especially if one is kind to strangers and the apple of one’s parents’ eye? The word “forced labourer” was always avoided in these recollections and because I never hesitated to use the words “slave labour”, there was always a sharp intake of breath.
In Oldenburg, for example, I was giving a lecture at the university on a literary topic (as I recall, the talk focused on Kleist and the slaves’ revolt in what is now Haiti, in Santo Domingo, described in one of his great novellas). Afterwards, over a glass of wine, a retired academic tells me that there were “guest workers”, as she calls them, on the farm where she grew up during the war. “They were not guests,” I insist. “They were forced labourers.” “Yes, yes,” she replies, lost in her memories. “Prisoners of war, they were. From Poland.” I refuse to let it go. “They weren’t prisoners of war,” I say. The war with Poland was over, it didn’t last long. “The people you are talking about were civilians, deportees. Some of them were women who had families back home.” She looks at me in all seriousness, and I think to myself, she is a better person than I am because unlike me, she is not bitter and aggressive. “Yes, yes,” she says. “Forced labourers… How sad. In our home, we had a man and a woman, both Poles.” And she recounted how the man, the Pole, wasn’t filled with hate. In fact, he went out and retrieved a horse that had been stolen by a Polish gang. He was very conciliatory, she said. Even so, I forced her to admit that there was a reason why (re)conciliation was necessary in the first place.
Ladies and gentlemen, I have spent quite some time talking about modern slavery in the form of forced labour in Europe under the Nazis and given you some examples of the customary denial practised in post-war Germany. Since then, however, a new generation – no, not one but two or even three generations – have grown up, and this country which, 80 years ago, was responsible for the worst crimes of the century is now applauded by the world for its open borders and its willingness to welcome Syrian and other refugees with such kindness and warm-heartedness. I am one of the many onlookers whose response to this has shifted from bemusement to admiration. That was the main reason why I was so pleased to accept your invitation and take advantage of this opportunity to speak about the atrocities of the past here, in this setting, in your capital city – in a country where a very different kind of example is being set with the seemingly understated and yet heroic words: “We can do it.”
Thank you for inviting me to be here today.