The Lives of Victor Klemperer
At the beginning of February 1945, there were 198 registered Jews, including Victor Klemperer, left in the city and the district of Dresden. The remainder of the 1,265 who had been in the city in late 1941 had been deported to Riga, to Auschwitz, to Theresienstadt. Many were shot or gassed on arrival. Some had committed suicide on receiving notice of deportation. A handful survived.
All the remaining Jews in Dresden had non-Jewish wives or husbands. This had placed them in a relatively privileged position but dependent on the courage and tenacity of their marriage partners. If the "Aryan" spouse died or divorced them, they would immediately be placed on the deportation list. The majority of such couples and families had been ghettoized, together with the less privileged Jews, in a dwindling number of "Jews' houses."
On the morning of Tuesday, February 13, all Jews considered capable of physical labor were ordered to report for deportation early on Friday, February 16. The "mixed marriages" of Dresden were finally to be split up. Victor Klemperer regarded this as a death sentence for himself and the others. Then, "on the evening of February 13 the catastrophe overtook Dresden: the bombs fell, the houses collapsed, the phosphorus flowed, the burning beams crashed onto the heads of Aryans and non-Aryans alike, and Jew and Christian met death in the same firestorm; whoever of the bearers of the star was spared by this night was delivered, for in the general chaos he could escape the Gestapo." Victor Klemperer and the other Jews who survived the Allied raid and the subsequent firestorm had experienced a double miracle, had been doubly lucky.
In the confusion following the destruction of the city, Victor Klemperer pulled off the yellow Jew's star, and he and his wife merged with the other inhabitants fleeing the city. It was easy enough for them to claim they had lost their papers. Nevertheless, afraid of being recognized and denounced, they went on the run across Germany for the next three months, until the village they had reached in southern Bavaria was occupied by American forces.Contradictions
On the night of the Dresden firestorm, when Victor Klemperer escaped both the Allied bombs and the Gestapo, he was already sixty-three. He was born in 1881, the youngest child of Wilhelm Klemperer, rabbi in the little town of Landsberg on the Warthe (today the Polish town of Gorzow Wielkopolski), in the eastern part of the Prussian province of Brandenburg. Three brothers and four sisters survived into adulthood; the famous conductor Otto Klemperer was a cousin, but there was little contact between the two parts of the family. By the time Victor was nine, his father, after an unhappy interlude with the Orthodox congregation at Bromberg (today Bydgoszcz), had been appointed second preacher of the Berlin Reform Congregation. The whole family appears to have felt relieved at the change, and according to his autobiography, Victor immediately relished the freedom and excitement of the big city.
Observance at the Reform Synagogue was extremely liberal. The services themselves were conducted almost entirely in German, and on a Sunday, heads were not covered, and men and women sat together. There was no bar mitzvah; instead, at the age of fifteen or sixteen, boys and girls were confirmed together on Easter Sunday. There were neither Sabbath restrictions nor dietary proscriptions. The sermons seem, to some degree, to have expressed the ethical tradition of the German Enlightenment. In other words, services approximated Protestant practice, and Judaism here became as rational and progressive as it could be while retaining a Jewish identity. This was not the norm of Jewish congregations, but it is nevertheless exemplary of a tradition of merging with the dominant culture. The Reform Synagogue can perhaps be regarded as something of a halfway house to conversion to Protestantism, which had become common in Prussia since the early nineteenth century. (The parents of Karl Marx and Felix Mendelssohn were among only the most prominent examples; conversion, of course, remained for a long time a condition of state service.) Wilhelm Klemperer raised little objection when his own sons were baptized as Protestants. Indeed, Victor Klemperer's three elder brothers seem to have gone out of their way to deny their Jewish origins. The biographical note prefacing the doctoral thesis of Georg Klemperer, the oldest brother, begins with the words, "I was born the son of a country cleric."
Georg Klemperer, sixteen years Victor's senior, was only in his thirties by the time he had become a noted surgeon and one of Germany's most respected medical men. Felix and Berthold Klemperer were also successful, the former as a doctor, the latter as a lawyer. Berthold even married a general's daughter. The sisters were much less free and had Jewish husbands more or less chosen for them.
Wearying of school and perhaps even more of the tyranny of Georg, who dominated the family after the move to Berlin, Victor Klemperer did not continue into the upper grades. He became a commercial apprentice in a company that exported trinkets and souvenirs for sale in English seaside resorts. This move seems to have convinced the eldest brother of Victor's lack of ability and determination. Victor Klemperer was never to shake off the feeling that his brother condescended to him and regarded him as a dilettante.
The apprenticeship, at any rate, did not lead anywhere. Victor Klemperer had entered it with dreams of future independence. Within three years, however, intellectual and literary interests gained the upper hand; he also became a passionate theatergoer. (It was during this period, in his seventeenth year, that he began to keep a diary.) He went back to school, attending the same grammar school in Landsberg as his brothers, and lived in lodgings in the town. This time he completed his schooling and became primus in his final year-something like head prefect.
He then enrolled at Munich University to study literature and languages and was increasingly drawn to French literature. He spent terms in Geneva and Paris before returning to Berlin to complete the first part of his university studies. It was in Geneva that he discovered Voltaire as a writer and found his own spirit of tolerant skepticism confirmed. "Ferney [where Voltaire lived in exile from France] was the best thing about Geneva," Klemperer later wrote, and the visit to Voltaire's house was like a pilgrimage.
Victor Klemperer had now found his way intellectually, but a commitment to a figure like Voltaire was unlikely to make for a smooth academic career. Before 1914, the study of Romance literatures and culture in German universities was dominated by hostility to the "superficial" ideas of the French Enlightenment. In fact, Klemperer was unable to find a suitable professor with whom to undertake a doctoral thesis on Voltaire and, to his brothers' consternation, threw up his studies once again. For the next few years, from 1905, he tried to make a living as a writer and literary journalist. At this point it may be worth noting that, for all the scholarliness he was to display in the future, Klemperer never seems to have felt really comfortable with other academics, even liberal ones, or in conventional middle-class settings in general. Although he loved teaching, he did not deal very well with the social aspects of his profession. In his diaries he often appears more at ease with "practical" people or with craftsmen.
Excerpted from I Will Bear Witness by Victor Klemperer. Copyright © 2001 by Victor Klemperer. Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.