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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.
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.
Relations with several of his siblings went from bad to worse with Klemperer's romance with Eva Schlemmer, a musician from a Protestant family in Königsberg. They married in 1906. The wedding did not find favor with either family-on Eva's side because some of her relatives objected to her marrying a Jew, on Victor's side because his brothers did not consider her a good enough match. Nevertheless, Victor Klemperer was to share his life with her for the next forty-five years. And in this marriage, "share" is the appropriate word. In a speech on the occasion of Klemperer's seventy-fifth birthday in 1957, the couple's longtime friend Auguste "Gusti" Lazar, who appears in the diaries under her married name Wieghardt, said, "What especially fascinated me about the two Klemperers, was the 'community of intellectual property' in which they lived and worked."
In his autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, Klemperer wrote that as a young man he had been convinced of the justice of women's emancipation. Whatever difficulties in the relationship are evident and implied from the diaries and given that Victor Klemperer's writing and then academic career took precedence, it is clear that every aspect of intellectual and political life was subjected to intense discussion.
Having abandoned the university and living in Berlin once more, Klemperer demonstrated a tremendous energy in producing poems, stories, anthologies, articles, reviews, and biographies, largely on contemporary German themes. One of his most reliable sources of income came from lectures on literary subjects that he gave to Jewish societies throughout Germany, though it was in fact toward the end of this period that he converted fully to Protestantism. The young couple had a particular enthusiasm for the cinema and, in addition to a number of shorter pieces, Victor Klemperer wrote a study of Berlin film theaters and their audiences. It was also at this time that he became friends with Siegfried "Friedel" Kracauer, later to become famous for his writings on film and as a cultural historian and theorist. They lost touch during the First World War.
It was a struggle to make ends meet in Berlin's literary world. Nevertheless, Der Kinematograph, of September 25, 1912, as part of a feature entitled "The Cinema in the Opinion of Prominent Contemporaries," introduced Victor Klemperer in the following terms: "A young combative literary man who writes with rare courage and is not afraid to speak out against established authorities."
Inclination, as well as the need to make a living, pushed Klemperer toward literary journalism, which he clearly practiced with some success. He did not, however, make his mark as an author. He judged his efforts to be failures, later even refusing a publisher's offer to reprint one of his stories. Subsequently, he also had mixed feelings about his freelance years altogether, not least because he never quite managed to shake off the accusation or suspicion that his scholarly work still had something journalistic about it.
Incidentally, although Klemperer was undoubtedly progressive in his views, his "bohemian phase" did nothing to modify a lifelong aversion to bohemian lifestyles, and he retained an enduring suspicion of long hair and extravagant dress.
Return to University
Klemperer concluded that a doctorate would, if nothing else, enhance his position as a journalist. Financially supported by his brothers once again, he returned to Munich, found a sympathetic professor and in 1913 quickly completed a dissertation on Friedrich Spielhagen, a nineteenth-century German novelist. Spielhagen had been a liberal-democratic supporter of the ideals of the 1848 revolutions and was one of the favorite writers of Klemperer's father. In Munich, Victor Klemperer also made the acquaintance of Karl Vossler, a liberal professor of Romance literature and language. For all the differences-and resentments, not always justified, on Klemperer's side-that emerged later, Vossler was to remain an abiding influence. Klemperer wrote a postdoctoral habilitation thesis (in Germany a habilitation thesis is a condition for professional appointment) on Montesquieu. In it he argued for Montesquieu to be seen as a writer as well as a theorist or philosopher and that esthetic criteria were of determining importance in the composition of the latter's major works. This dissertation too was completed very rapidly, and with the distinction summa cum laude. Then, in 1914, as he was turning the Montesquieu study into a book, he accepted a post as lecturer in German literature at the University of Naples, although still continuing as one of Vossler's assistants.
Finally at ten o'clock we were sitting in the garden of the Hotel "Zur Sonne" [in Riva, then in Austria]. It was June 28. The waiter came running toward us and cried out: "The heir to the throne and his consort have been murdered in Sarajevo!" I said regretfully: "Oh!" and added with an apologetic smile: "But we are dreadfully hungry."
What was to become known as the First World War began just as Victor and Eva Klemperer had returned to Munich for the summer from Naples. In 1940, when Klemperer was working on his autobiography, he chose to interrupt the narrative at this point. Not to falsify his own responses, he simply let his diary entries speak for his mood in the weeks immediately preceding and following the outbreak of hostilities. From these it appears that although he was not carried away by bellicose sentiments, he was convinced, as a good liberal and patriot, that Germany's cause was a just one. He nevertheless returned to his post in Naples, where he remained until shortly before Italy entered the war on the Allied side in May 1915.
Back in Munich, Klemperer was declared fit for military service-he had been rejected in 1903-and was enlisted as a cannoneer in the Bavarian field artillery. He saw duty on the Western Front from November 1915 to March 1916 before succumbing to serious illness and being hospitalized. (His front-line service would be a source of "privilege" during the Third Reich.) Klemperer was out of danger for the rest of the war. Following convalescence, he was transferred to the army's book censorship office on the eastern front, working first in Kovno (now Kaunas) in Lithuania, then in Leipzig, where he was allowed to live in private accommodations with his wife.