- Ruth Klüger on Vienna and AustriaAn Interview
Ruth Klüger (1931–2020) passed away on October 5, 2020, in the United States. Born in Vienna and deported to Theresienstadt, she survived Auschwitz and the Shoah together with her mother. After living in Germany for a short time after World War II, she immigrated to New York. She was educated in the United States and received degrees in English literature as well as her PhD in German literature from the University of California, Berkeley. She taught at several American universities, including Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, the University of Kansas, the University of Virginia, the University of California, Irvine, and Princeton University. She finished her distinguished academic career at the University of California, Irvine. She has numerous scholarly publications to her credit, mainly in the fields of German and Austrian Literatures. She is also recognized widely as a poet, essayist, and feminist critic. She returned to Europe, where she was a guest professor in Göttingen and Vienna. Her memoir, entitled weiter leben (1991), a major bestseller, was a highly regarded autobiographical account and was subsequently translated into more than a dozen languages. It has also generated a vigorous critical discussion in its own right. Ruth Klüger received numerous prestigious literary prizes and other distinctions.
In 2016 I was preparing a lecture that focused on Ruth Klüger's Zerreißproben (2013), to be delivered at a session on contemporary Austrian writing at an international conference in Europe. At one point I decided to ask her if she would agree to answer some questions about her relationship to Vienna and Austria, hoping that her replies would help me to understand her and perhaps [End Page 109] also her poetry better. I did not intend to publish the interview. After Ruth's recent death in 2020, I was going through some old correspondence and papers, and I came across that interview with her. I present it here in its entirety.
Please describe your feelings and relationship to Vienna and Austria today. If possible, please distinguish between the different periods of your life: childhood, after Anschluss, after deportations, during and after the war, in the U.S., after you returned to visit in Europe, and after your return to visit in Vienna, as well. My premise is that your relationship with Germany is much different from your relationship with Austria, and that your feelings about Vienna are complicated and conflicted.
Vienna was home only for the first years of my life. After I was six and a half, it became exile, a place one wanted to leave. That's significantly different from Walter Sokel and Egon Schwarz, who were older.1 They both had time to bond with classmates and come to know the city without restrictions. When I was about nine, I learned about Zionism, and from then on I was firmly committed to the idea and thought I knew where I belonged. After the war, before emigration to the U.S. in 1947, I visited Vienna briefly with my mother, and I didn't like it. I had an eerie feeling that I was visiting a graveyard and that the people living there didn't know it was a graveyard.
Walter Sokel wrote that he had nagging feelings of guilt when he took up the study of German literature in the U.S., given what had taken place in Europe during and after the Shoah. Did you have similar misgivings at any time?
When I decided to write a PhD in German literature, I already had an MA in English and a librarian's degree—and a job as a public librarian. But since I had little money and the German Department in Berkeley needed teaching assistants, it seemed to me to be a chance to spend a life doing something I would love. Still, it was like indulging a vice—the love of things German. And I lost friends as a result, specifically Jews to whom I became suspect. My mother never showed the slightest respect for my profession. And...