“We Were Like Cancer Patients”: Ruth Klüger’s Still Alive and Patriarchal Silencing

Matthew Brittingham

Ruth Klüger. Photo by Daniel Anderson/UC Irvine.

For professors and graduate students who do not specialize in the Holocaust, but are often called on to teach it, getting students to confront issues related to gender and the Holocaust can be challenging. There’s a massive amount of material available to cover. And there’s the broader tendency to generalize Holocaust experiences, a tendency to which our students and ourselves can certainly fall prey. From the historical perspective, Marion Kaplan’s research on gender and German Jewry under the Nazi regime is standout work centered on women’s experiences and women’s voices in the midst of Nazi domination. But what about female survivors and the gendered silencing of their voices and their memories? The gendered politics of memory and vocalizing trauma is sometimes even harder for students to approach.

One way I bring the voices of female survivors to the classroom is through assigning Ruth Klüger’s memoir Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (Feminist Press, 2001). In it, Klüger offers challenging perspectives on gender, patriarchy, and Holocaust memory. Klüger’s memoir focuses on her often-difficult relationship with her mother, who suffered from mental health issues that were exacerbated by Nazi terrors. Klüger charts their life together: post-Anschluss Vienna, various camp experiences, escape from a Nazi death march, hiding out and passing as non-Jews before the war’s end, postwar European displacement, immigration to the United States, and living in the shadow of the Holocaust. From the very beginning of the memoir, Klüger places her Holocaust memories in the context of war memories in general, which tend to be particularly dismissive of the female voice and even silence women’s trauma. For example, Klüger suggests that she is hardly ever asked about her experiences during the war, in part because “wars,” she writes, “and hence the memories of wars, are owned by the male of the species.... Besides women have no past, or aren’t supposed to have one. A man can have an interesting past, a woman only an indecent one. And my stories aren’t even sexy” (18). As Klüger suggests here, the patriarchally inflected association of war stories with masculinity tends toward silencing female experiences during the war, including the rape of female prisoners, sexual assaults, risky pregnancies, and even abortion. In light of this quote, the very existence of her memoir—populated centrally by herself and her mother—is itself a challenge to male-dominant wartime perspectives that historically omitted female Holocaust survivors and their traumas.

Throughout the memoir, Klüger not only tells her own story, but resurrects such so-called “indecent pasts.” That is, beyond a Holocaust memoir, Still Alive is a broader challenge to World War II’s patriarchal point of view, not only chauvinist, masculine glorifications of the war, but also facile divisions between who did or did not experience violence and trauma during the war. A poignant example is Klüger’s resurrection of histories of rape at the hand of Soviet camp liberators. Far from being simply concentration camp liberators, Klüger “heard from Jewish women who were almost raped in their liberated camps.... Their stories strongly suggested that there were others who were unlucky, and who endured the trauma of rape as a kind of coda to their persecution by the Nazis” (159). The Soviet rape of Jewish women was certainly not the first instance of sexual violence committed against female Jewish prisoners, but it is indeed a story of traumas that complicate our often-simplistic notions of being “liberated.” Of course, before “liberation,” aside from the everyday terrors of camp life, laws and regulations related to Rassenschande (“race defilement,” i.e., sex between so-called “Aryans” and supposed racial “inferiors,” especially Jews) did not stop Nazis soldiers and guards from raping Jewish women under their control, and a total number of victims will never be known. After the war, it was difficult to talk about rape at the hands of the Soviets or the Nazis, as victims of rape still lived in a wider world of gender norms that elevated men’s narratives, might shame rape victims, and made conversations about sexual violence taboo.

Klüger also refers to the Soviet gang rape of German women, an act of revenge often understood by “the patriarchal point of view” as “not necessarily just” but certainly “understandable,” rather than as abhorrently traumatic sexual violence regardless of their being German (159). In postwar Germany, as Klüger notes, the trauma experienced by these victims of rape was hidden because of its associated dishonor and shame (much like the Korean “comfort women” who struggled with testifying about their experiences as sex slaves until only the last several decades, partly due to Korean cultural stigmas). She states this very powerfully: “An act of violence that dishonors its victim will not bring her attention, let alone sympathy. Language favors the male, by putting the shame of the victim into the service of the victimizer” (ibid.). My students often have to wrestle with this “chronicle of German women as victims” (ibid.).

One of the most complex and emotionally challenging passages for my students usually emerges from Klüger’s life in America. Klüger eventually marries a former American serviceman who served in the European theater and later became a teacher of European history. When her husband’s history course reached Hitler and the Nazi regime, Klüger offered to discuss the concentration camps with his class, only to have the proposition flatly rejected. Wondering why, she suggests that her story probably appeared to him as “something improper that reflected poorly on his honor as a decorated veteran who had fought evil” (182–83). Instead, Holocaust survivors “were like cancer patients who remind the unafflicted that they too, are mortal” (183). Klüger uses this episode to reflect on another instance of silencing, only this time one much more explicitly intersecting gender and war memories. While at a dinner party with her husband’s friends, Klüger listens to a former WWII pilot recount a war story where he hunted and pinned down a German soldier. After a considerable period of time without being quite able to finish him, the former pilot “admiring and laughing at his prey ... cheerfully waved to the man with the wings of his plane” (ibid.). Klüger speaks up: perhaps the German soldier did not realize in that moment that he was part of some war game, but rather he was experiencing “the terror of death” (ibid.). Thus, the act of having “cheerfully waved”—a signal to war “gamesmanship”—was probably meaningless to the German soldier. Klüger’s challenge is silenced: “In the end, my husband’s friend is irritated and taken aback by my words. He isn’t prepared for serious objections to his merry memories. I realize that women are tolerated in these circles only when they keep their mouths shut” (ibid.). In this gendered, buddy-buddy moment, Klüger is not counted as a participant. Why not? She experienced the war, after all. As she sees it, her Holocaust experience seems to render her outside the realm of acceptable memories of war, those memories owned by men. This is not to say that Klüger’s specific moment of being silenced was some kind of universally shared experience among women, or that men universally participated in such buddy-buddy moments of war gamesmanship either. Rather, what Klüger’s voice does provide is a door “in”—a means of discussing specific instances of silencing that connect to broader scholarly works on memory, testimony, and the Holocaust, such as that of Anne Reading (The Social Inheritance of the Holocaust: Gender, Culture and Memory, Palgrave, 2002).

What I can say from observations of classroom discussions is that Klüger’s memoir constantly subverts students’ expectations, most startlingly on the patriarchal silencing of female experiences in World War II, the Holocaust, and postwar life. Indeed, based on my students’ end-of-year course assessments, the most commonly uncomfortable aspects of Klüger’s memoir is her commentary on gender and violence that I highlight above. It is precisely this discomfort with female silencing in light of patriarchal narratives with which I want my students to wrestle.