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Personal Memory Versus History

Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered by Ruth Kluger, The Feminist Press, $24.95

Ruth Kluger, the author of Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered, is a Jewish woman born in 1931 Vienna (“a city that hated children—Jewish children, to be precise”). The very title of her book raises a challenge to the field of Holocaust studies—the credibility of memory. Is memory, fifty years after the fact, reliable? What is the relationship between personal memory and cultural or collective memory? And, as Kluger poses, What is the relationship between knowledge and memory?

Still Alive is informed by both a feminist perspective and a conviction that knowledge is power: “War, and hence the memories of wars, arc owned by the male of the species. And fascism is a decidedly male property, whether you were for or against it. 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.” She is clear about the limitations of memory and the ways in which knowledge confuses memory: “Imagined pictures have a lower priority than remembered ones. . . .There is a gap between knowledge and memory. “Remembered pictures account for the vivid clarity of her lonely childhood in post 1938 Vienna, dominated by cold adults and their rigid habits. She recalls being forced to eat a “revolting, sticky mess washed down with a sweetish cocoa drink covered by that skin like layer of milk which nauseates all children in the world, unless they are starving. “And when she was starving in Terezin, she remembers that the girls in her barrack “acted as if the skim milk… was whipping cream and [they] beat it into a foam, a popular pastime [which] could take hours, because it’s difficult to make skim milk foam with a fork.”

In the summer of 1944, deported to Auschwitz in a crowded cattle car, she began to hold fiercely to life: “To hope was my duty.” With a gripping reality, she recalls the ordeals of survival:roll call, selection, an act of “perfect goodness” from a stranger that saved her life, her unbearable thirst. When, at the age of thirteen, she was transferred to yet another camp, she had grown confident that she would survive. Of course, confidence was not the essential factor in survival, but it was a helpful one.

Kluger’s childhood was short lived. But despite her horrific travails in concentration camps, she became assertive and self-assured. Her memoir is an interpretation of her experiences from the lens of a wise, educated, exacting woman—a scholar, a wife, a mother, and a friend. It is as devoid of sensationalism and sentimentality as it is full of mature insights. We are the beneficiaries of her memory, her knowledge, her impressive intelligence.  

Myrna Goldenberga Holocaust scholar, is director of the Humanities Institute and professor of English at Montgomery College. She also teaches at the University of Maryland and in the graduate faculty at Johns Hopkins University.