May 17, 2011

Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (Best Holocaust books review)

Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (Best Holocaust books review)

While Ruth Kluger's life trajectory shares certain features with other survivor stories, the way in which she narrates it-with deep intelligence, unblinking honesty and searing incisiveness, as well as the poet's facility for metaphor-puts STILL ALIVE apart. Her account avoids sentimentality and clichés; it eschews escapism and sanitizing as it unabashedly mines the depths of experience in extremis and brings to the surface a myriad of difficult truths.

Attempting to please no one, Kluger's courageous voice demands uncommon rigor of her reader as she debunks a number of myths-of roots, for example, ("...running away was the best thing I ever did...."); the myth of the moral superiority of survivors and the hope that some good must have come from the camps, ("Auschwitz was no instructional institution....You learned nothing there, and least of all humanity and tolerance"); the patriarchal myth and "old prejudice" that men will protect their women (whereas in reality the weakest were most exposed and often died abandoned and in misery). She dares heartbreaking speculations about her father's death and suggests that a "pornography of death" functioned in the camps.

Kluger is equally at home with the adult's capacity to analyze and the child's unerring eye for injustices, betrayals and humiliations as well as the inextinguishable nature of human desire. The story of her paranoid mother, who refused to release her to the safety of a Kindertransport, who as often as not gave unreliable guidance that nevertheless saved their lives at a crucial moment-the examination of this lifelong relationship becomes an exquisite and excruciating portrait of human connectedness in all its perplexities.

While the reader is compelled to agree with Kluger's insight that nothing good came of the concentration camps, and while one would wish for her a different past, STILL ALIVE is an unparalleled achievement that flies in the face of the murderers of Nazi Germany and of all brokers of hatred. One can only hope that her belief-that aside from love, reason constitutes the greatest good-is embraced by readers everywhere.

In the 1950s, when Kluger's children were small and growing up in the U.S., she caught German measles from them. Her family doctor said, "You must have led a sheltered childhood." In reality, she spent her early years in Theresienstadt and Birkenau-Auschwitz. Kluger's memoir which has already become a bestseller in Germany is a startling, clear-eyed and unflinching examination of growing up as a Jewish girl during the Holocaust. Calmly, and chillingly, relating the everyday events of her youth Aryan students making colored paper swastikas and then asking Jewish students to judge them, breaking the law to go to an Aryan movie house to see Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and being challenged by a neighbor Kluger charts how she and her family moved from a middle-class Viennese life to dealing with the constant threat of death in the camps. Kluger's style is wry ("the muse of history has a way of cracking bad jokes at the expense of the Jews"), and she can shock readers with simple, honest admissions, such as her embarrassment, in the 1970s, when her mother asks unanswerable questions of a speaker about the death camps. Kluger, who is now professor emerita at UC-Irvine and has won awards for this memoir as well as her literary criticism, has written a deeply moving and significant work that raises vital questions about cultural representations of the Holocaust (why did the highly praised, socially conscious 1947 film Gentleman's Agreement never mention "the Jewish catastrophe"?) and searches for what it means to be a survivor. Already compared by European critics to the work of Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, this is an important addition to Jewish, Holocaust and women's studies. (Nov.) Forecast: This is a standout in the crowded field of Holocaust memoirs and should have strong sales.

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