Ruth Kluger was born in Vienna in 1931. In 1942 she and her mother were sent to the concentration camps, ending up in Auschwitz-Birkenau. In the chaos near the war’s end they made their escape while being “evacuated” by the Germans. They migrated to America where Kluger eventually became an academic specialising in German literature. Her career also took her to the University of Gottingen as a guest professor.
Landscapes of Memory (NY, Feminist Press 2001 and London, Bloomsbury 2004) is the kind of feminist writing guys should read, and the kind of Holocaust memoir — but much more than that — everyone should read.
I never went back to Auschwitz as a tourist and never will. Not in this life. To me it is no place for a pilgrimage. I am told they exhibit my Auschwitz poems in their museum, against my express wishes. That doesn’t make me furious anymore: one gets old and indifferent. I could be proud to have survived what some have called the asshole of creation, proud that it held me and couldn’t keep me. But it is dangerous nonsense to believe that anyone contributed much to her own survival. The place which I saw, smelled, and feared, and which has now turned into a museum, has nothing to do with the woman I am.
Definitely unsentimental, this memoir is simply an astonishing human document, and a great case for the use of literature — despite everything.
…But short of violence, that is, short of the ultimate abolition of meaning, art and literature can be a home for those without citizenship, because they remind us of our common race, the human race, and they sop you up, yet simultaneously feed you, like a magic sponge. They make you part of what you see and hear and yet let you stand back and choose.
The various Shoah museums and reconstituted concentration camps do the exact opposite. That’s why I find them so hard to take: they don’t take you in, they spit you out. Moreover, they tell you what you ought to think, as no art or science museum ever does. They impede the critical faculty.
Landscapes of Memory is a work to respect and learn from; it enlarges one’s perspective. What more can you ask?
Whatever one thinks of the tragedy that is 21st century Israel/Palestine, have no truck either with those who deny the injustices done there or with those who would deny the reality of the Holocaust. That to me is square one.