by Jason Mednick, University Communications
Almost 20 years ago, Ruth Kluger wrote an account of her remarkable wartime experiences to share with a few friends. Today, her story of growing up Jewish during the Holocaust continues to resonate with countless people worldwide.
"I wanted to present as honestly as possible what I remembered of that period — what people might not yet know even though the major events had been documented and talked about for many years," says Kluger, UC Irvine professor emerita of German.
Originally published in Germany in 1992 as weiter leben: Eine Jugend (To Continue to Live: A Childhood), the surprise best-seller recounts Kluger's life as a young girl in Nazi-occupied Austria; her deportation and imprisonment in the Theresienstadt, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Christianstadt concentration camps; and her postwar years in occupied Germany and eventual journey to America.
The book includes Kluger's experiences of discrimination in an increasingly anti-Semitic post-annexation Austria. It also relates how she and her mother narrowly escaped Auschwitz for a forced labor camp — though she was three years younger than the minimum age — after a sympathetic SS clerk advised her to lie and tell the SS guards she was 15. Kluger and her mother found out weeks later that all the remaining Auschwitz prisoners had been murdered.
Kluger translated and revised the text for its U.S. publication in 2001, titled Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered. This edition, she wrote, is "another version, a parallel book, for my children and my American students."
The Washington Post named the book one of its 10 best for 2001. Later that year, the paper reported, first lady Laura Bush gave a copy to her daughter Jenna as a Christmas present.
Born in 1931, Kluger had planned ever since the war ended in 1945 to write about her experiences, but she didn't begin her memoir until she returned to Germany in 1988 with the University of California's Education Abroad Program.
"I had mixed feelings. It was the first time I'd been to Germany since my emigration," she says. "But going back stimulated my desire to write the book."
She spent the next two years penning the manuscript while serving as EAP director in Göttingen, in central Germany.
Kluger holds master's degrees in English and German and a doctorate in German. A renowned German literary scholar, she also has been recognized for her work in literary criticism.
She first came to UCI in 1976 as a professor of German and returned to campus in 1986 after six years at Princeton. She retired in 1994.
"UCI has been a good place to work," she says. "I picked the right field."
Kluger continues to give readings from her memoir. In January she did so for UCI students in the Humanities Core Course, which uses the text to teach about the Holocaust.
Kluger's book has been translated into other languages, including French, Italian, Spanish and Japanese. It remains a perennial best-seller in Germany and is required reading in a number of German schools. Austrian filmmaker and talk show host Renata Schmidtkunz is working on a television documentary about Kluger scheduled to air this summer in Austria and Germany.
Last year, Kluger's hometown of Vienna, Austria, honored her memoir during its annual einestadteinbuch (one city, one book) celebration by reprinting and distributing 100,000 free copies of it. Also in 2008, Los Angeles German Consul General Christian Stocks presented Kluger with the Federal Republic of Germany's Order of Merit, First Class, for helping a generation "confront history again and again, and on such a very personal level."
"I never expected the book would take off the way it did," Kluger says. "I feel its success is an unexpected gift."