Speaking for the Children

Author Ruth Kluger, a UC Irvine professor of German and Holocaust survivor, has been invited to return to her hometown of Vienna, Austria to speak at the country’s Parliament building for The Mauthausen Memorial: an annual memorial session for victims of national socialism during World War II.

Kluger was invited to speak by the Presiding Officer — the Austrian equivalent of the Speaker of the House — for the event that will be televised in multiple European countries on May 5.

Despite having published numerous texts including “Women Read Differently” (“Frauen lesen anders”), Kluger is most well known for her book, “Still Alive,” which chronicles her years in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz concentration camps as well as the time she spent on the run with her mother.

She attributes the notoriety she received for this book as the reason for being invited to speak, saying, “I became known through ‘Still Alive.’ The book is the basis of my reputation and is the real reason they summoned me.”

Austria was the first country Hitler invaded in 1938. After this annexation, (“anschluss”), Austrians saw themselves as Germans and wanted to become better Nazis as a result of it.

“After the war, it took the Germans quite some time to work up the courage to admit having committed these crimes of humanity, but took even more time for Austrians because they were both the victims and the perpetrators,” Kluger said. “They cheered Hitler when he arrived in ’38, but were in store for trouble as well. In the last 10 years, they have come around to admit that they were part of this.”

After receiving news that she had been asked to deliver a 20-minute speech in what she describes as the very “posh and imposing” building of Parliament, her first reaction was one of great surprise.

“Initially, it was a mixture,” she said. “I felt ironic. After all these years, they should remember me. Then, I thought it was strangely funny that I used to walk those streets with that Star of David as a child. I was despised and deported and I was nobody. I couldn’t even go to their schools and now I’m speaking at their Parliament! It is the child in me that enjoys it.”

Children are on Ruth Kluger’s mind as of late, and she has decided to make the subject of the child in the Holocaust as the nub and thrust of her speech, although she adamantly insists she still does not know exactly what she will write about.

“All of us that survived [today] were children then. It makes sense that I talk about children during the Nazi time,” Kluger said. “With my old age I am seeing how much children are being exploited and I don’t see much of ‘never again,’ which is a point I want to drive home.”

The exploitation of children is something Kluger is no stranger to, having been put in two of the harshest concentration camps at the age of 11 and bearing witness to countless acts of child murder.

In Austria and Germany, the practice of euthanasia, the killing of the handicapped, was popular during World War II. Asocial children were also considered handicapped and the Nazis took special care to be rid of them. Hitler called these “handicapped” kids “unnuetze Esser”: a term that literally means “useless mouths” and indicates that asocial children should be killed before they waste more food by simply being alive.

“The thing is, they were killing their own children,” Kluger said incredulously. “There was no question of racism as a justification for the murders, it wasn’t getting rid of people you considered inferior by nature, it was their own children who were handicapped. Often they weren’t even handicapped, they just acted up in class. They begrudged them for the food they ate. I would like to include something about this in my speech, even though I won’t enjoy what I’m speaking about, I mean, how could I?”

Although she feels ambivalent about speaking in front of such a large audience, Kluger still maintains a spark of excitement for this event.

“I think it’s a gas,” referring to her speaking at the Mauthausen Memorial. “In Austria, we would say ‘gaudi,’ it is a term that means something fun. Something exciting. It says, let us enjoy ourselves while we are young.”