The Klüger Campaign

The 7th annual Ein Stadt, Ein Buch festival celebrates a novelist and Holocaust survivor

The Rathaus in colorful splendor for Ein Stadt, Ein Buch | Photo: C. Spencer

Novelist Ruth Klüger | Photo: J. Jobst

This town really honours its honoured folk;  I expected the Gala evening for Eine Stadt, Ein Buch (One City, One Book) at the Rathaus celebrating author Ruth Klüger would be a respectable affair. The Viennese émigré’s seminal work Weiter Leben (Still Living) was selected as this year’s ‘Vienna book’ for the week-long celebration of reading.  Finally, after the years of literary and academic semi-obscurity – a moving story recounted in the recently published sequel to her Holocaust memoir, Unterwegs Verloren (Lost on the Way) – she has at last gained deserved  respect. German literature scholars, and critics the world over, celebrated the intensity and honesty of her prose, described as timeless and astute as Primo Levi’s renowned If This is a Man.

The Rathaus in colorful splendor for Ein Stadt, Ein Buch | Photo: C. Spencer

But if Eine Stadt, Ein Buch conjures up a municipal reception in, say, Birmingham or Manchester – with neat little canapés and some bubbly to swill it all down  —  nothing could have been farther from the truth. In Vienna, TV crews danced between the tables; the gilded candelabra in the magnificent dining hall glistened with the flash of photographers and waiters swarmed, laden with anything and everything. Piles of glorious food backed by a jazz trio with a hint of Django Reinhardt and, well, this was a different thing altogether.

Ruth Klüger headed up onto the podium after a hearty speech from Vienna Mayor Michael Häupl, a man who clearly delights in all the pomp and circumstance.  He diligently creased his lapel and tweaked the ends of his moustache as he rose to the lecturn, where he spoke of the importance of the book initiative, now in its seventh year — an annual drive to unite the city in literature.

“The main criterion for me,” he said, “is to have a book that brings something of the joy of reading — the joy which I discovered when I was young – and which is about life, about people, about love.”

Introducing Klüger’s, co-host Christian Pöttler of Echo Media talked of the “trivialisation” and “reduction” of the Nazi past, which has been a feature of much creative work and histories written in the years that followed.

For Klüger herself, Weiter Leben is intended as the kind of book to be read and read again, and trusted in all its gruesome, unembellished truth.

“In writing this book, I achieved a duty,” she said. “ It didn’t help me forgive, forget, or come to terms with what happened to me, but it let me fulfil a duty.”

Two school pupils joined Klüger on the podium to talk about a trip to Auschwitz.

Novelist Ruth Klüger | Photo: J. Jobst

“It definitely changed me”, one said.

But Ruth Klüger  wasn’t satisfied, and pressed the girl for a more precise explanation.  There was embarrassing silence, as she struggled to offer an explanation; she had none. Perhaps she was nervous. Perhaps she was learning the facts of history but not its heart, the actions and circumstances that make it real.  Despite the German-speaking world’s dedication to Holocaust education, it seems that pupils are learning too carefully.

Ruth Klüger seemed well aware of this.

“Jews have been treated like a protected species since the end of the war,” she said, with efforts directed at repentance, rather than acknowledgement. And turning to the pupils as they left the stage, she said,

“We were, and are, just normal people, like the rest.”

Editor: The English translation of ‘Weiter Leben’ has been changed from ‘Living On’ to ‘Still Alive’.

 

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