A Thousand Mosquito Bites

Thomas Powers

  • I Shall Bear Witness: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer, 1933-41 edited by Martin Chalmers
    Phoenix, 656 pp, £11.99, May 1999, ISBN 0 7538 0684 3
  • To the Bitter End: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer, 1942-45 edited by Martin Chalmers
    Phoenix, 704 pp, £8.99, August 2000, ISBN 0 7538 1069 7

What all men know – that Hitler wanted, intended and tried to annihilate the Jews of Europe – was something largely hidden from the Jews themselves until the job was far along. Hitler had spoken clearly enough in Mein Kampf, but the slow, deliberate and secretive progress of his Government’s efforts somehow lulled his victims in Germany just as it misled and confused most of those who watched from abroad. The minor scholar and writer Victor Klemperer, a German Protestant by his own estimation but a Jew by Hitler’s, witnessed and recorded the disaster as it unfolded in Dresden. He was quick to see that Hitler’s monomania would destroy the Nazi regime, slower to realise that annihilation was Hitler’s goal, and almost – but not quite – fatally late to grasp that he would certainly be killed as well if he did not bestir himself.

Klemperer was the son of a rabbi, cousin of the well-known conductor Otto Klemperer, youngest brother of two doctors and a lawyer, and a man convinced, until Hitler came to power, that he was a German among Germans and accepted as such. His own career had not come to much. A journalist in his youth, by 1933, in his early fifties, he was the author of several academic studies and held a post as professor of Romance languages and literature at the Technical University, where he worried about his health, his slow progress on a history of French literature in the 18th century, his failure to succeed on the scale of his brothers, and his inability to come up with the money for a house his wife Eva was determined to build in the nearby suburb of Dölzschen.

All of these worries, and many more besides, were recorded in voluminous detail in the diaries he kept all his life. One of the interesting oddities of Klemperer’s diaries is the way in which the new worries brought by Nazi oppression slipped in beside the old worries of a man for whom self-doubt, hypochondria, pessimism and anxiety were lifelong constants. When the Nazi Government in one of its first acts expelled Jews from public employment, a category which included almost every academic post in Germany, Klemperer was considered one of the lucky ones: as a decorated veteran of the Great War he was permitted to go on teaching. By the time he was forced to retire in April 1935 the first wave of Jewish academic emigrants had already flooded the world’s universities and Klemperer’s half-hearted efforts to find a job outside Germany soon sputtered to a halt.

To go or not to go is one of the recurring themes of Klemperer’s diary during the early Nazi years. The fact that his wife Eva was German – an ‘Aryan’ according to Nazi racial theory – protected Klemperer to a degree but didn’t mitigate the fundamental hostility of the regime towards Jews. His brother Georg, a famous surgeon who had treated Lenin, declared that ‘he would rather starve outside than live in comfort and dishonour here in Germany.’

‘Very nicely put,’ Klemperer recorded shortly after the axe fell and he was reduced to living on a pension half his previous salary. ‘But . . . he does not know my situation.’

Klemperer considered his situation beyond remedy. The obstacles as he saw them are seeded throughout his diaries: he couldn’t take his pension abroad, there were no jobs for professors of literature, he had no other skills, his wife didn’t want to leave her house and garden, Jews couldn’t take money abroad even if the house could be sold, they had a cat, Klemperer’s English was marginal and his French was ‘rusty’, Germany was his home, he was not about to place himself in his brother’s debt, he was too old, the frequent pounding of his heart convinced him he had not long to live . . . On and on it goes. ‘We must stay here and scrape by,’ he wrote in June 1935. ‘I cannot imprison Eva.’

That was specious: Eva was already a virtual prisoner at home. Friends and siblings departed: brother Georg to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1935; their friends Blumenfeld and Isakowitz for Peru and Britain in 1935 and 1936; Klemperer’s niece Ilse for Brazil in 1936; their friend Gusti Wieghardt to Britain in 1939. Klemperer was invariably sad saying goodbye but those he was saying goodbye to clearly felt the lifting of a great weight. Isakowitz was ‘in high spirits. Because at 45 years of age he is once again making a new start.’ Gusti thrilled at the prospect of walking straight into a cinema whenever she pleased – something by that time forbidden, with a great deal else, to the Jews of Germany.

It wasn’t deluded hope that made Klemperer hesitate. ‘I truly expect that one day our little house will be set alight,’ he wrote in the summer of 1936, ‘and I shall be beaten to death.’ He knew his Jewish friends and neighbours would all be added to the list of the dead, and he even recorded a friend’s guess at the right number – ‘six to seven million’. After a run-in with the Gestapo he and his wife were ‘tormented by the question, go or stay. To go too early, to stay too late? To go where we have nothing . . .’ As late as January 1941, he fantasised of escape to a free life in America. ‘But I am going to be sixty and my heart rebels every day.’ That summer the emigration of Jews was prohibited once and for all and Klemperer accepted almost with relief the final closing of the door. ‘As long as the war lasts,’ he wrote, ‘we can no longer get out, after the war we shall no longer need to, one way or another, dead or alive.’

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