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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 alsosuccessful, 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.
Posted April 29, 2000
Klemperer's second volume is better than his first. This hard-to-put-down story of a Jewish German WWI veteran married to a Protestant German woman is both an interesting and an important historical statement, as his privileged position enabled him to survive the war in Nazi Germany without going into hiding. Just barely avoiding the dreaded transports to the death camps, Klemperer witnessed and recorded the brutality of ordinary Germans in Dresden till the horrific bombings, when he and his wife managed to escape. Yet he also experienced and noted the kindness and consideration of some of Dresden's inhabitants, including those who tried selfishly to ingratiate themselves with the remaining Jews just before the end of the War, and others who risked their lives to help the Jews throughout the War. A must read for anyone interested in what day-to-day life was actually like for a Jew in Nazi Germany.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 16, 2000
Having read widely in the vast WWII literature published since the end of the war, I've often been both amazed and moved by vivid descriptions of wanton brutality, cruelty, and blood-lust that is so often detailed in these books. Yet seldom have I been so consistently moved and disturbed by what I read as in these two unforgettable volumes written in diary form by a German Jew who was in the curious position of being spared (due to his WWI veteran staus and the fact that he was married to a gentile) and who decides, therefore, to bear 'precise' witness to the particular constellation of horrors visted on himself and his fellow Jews during the fifteen year period of the Nazis' reign of terror. He concentrates on the day-to day details that give one a unique sense of the flavor of living in the times, and has an usual gift for detailing small but important aspects that make for interesting reading. What is especially provocative and special about his work, then, is the day to day details of the horror, the all too commonplace cruelties of the ordinary German people as well as by the formal Nazi regime. Of course, this is tempered somewhat by individual acts of compassion and heroism, but one shudders at the indifference and casual cruelties of so many ordinary gentile Germans toward their neighbors and countrymen just because of their Jewishness. Both this and the first volume (available now in paperback) are living testimony to those who doubt or question the reality or the extent of the 'final solution'. One does well to remember our recent experience with the so-called 'ethnic cleansing' in Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo and the casual slaughter of innocents there to recall how easily humans of all colors and backgrounds seem to slip into barbarism. This books goes a long way toward documenting, in an unforgettable fashion, the particulars of one such descent into the depths of human depravity.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.