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.’

Looking at it coolly from the distance of sixty years, separated by ocean, language, ethnic identity and temperament, I find Klemperer’s stubborn refusal to get out perverse and inexplicable, even irritating in its way. It’s hard not to think that a man who ignores so many warnings deserves what he gets. But refusing to be pushed is also a kind of heroism, and it is a fact that staying put allowed Klemperer to create a unique and powerful work of witness to the darkest episode in human history. Everyone knows roughly what happened to the Jews of Europe – shot or beaten to death at the whim of the Gestapo, machine-gunned at the edge of open trenches in Russia, herded by cattle car to the extermination camps of Poland – but Klemperer gives us something different: the long, ghastly tightening of the noose, as Jews were isolated from the world and each other, deprived of hope, reduced to beggary, and above all cruelly and unjustly tormented until starvation, suicide or gas ended the agony. The fundamental Nazi sin was not simply murder on an unprecedented scale: it was the systematic abuse of a class of human beings, while forcing other people – by no means only Germans – to watch in spite of themselves, do nothing, profit in small ways, and live afterwards with the burden of their complicity and silence. Klemperer’s thousand pages, as translated and edited by Martin Chalmers, are never boring, for all their repetitions, but they are not read quickly or easily. I couldn’t manage more than about thirty pages a day. But those pages bring to life what happened as no list of horrors could even begin to do. ‘The things you write down, everybody knows,’ a friend protested when the end of the war was still a year away, ‘and the big things, Kiev, Minsk etc, you know nothing about.’ He meant the crucial battles, the decisions in high places.

‘It’s not the big things which are important to me,’ Klemperer replied, ‘but the everyday life of tyranny, which gets forgotten. A thousand mosquito bites are worse than a blow to the head. I observe, note down the mosquito bites.’

That’s it but that’s not it. What he does is to bring a group of people to life and show how these entirely ordinary individuals, old women with canaries and men who liked to argue philosophy, widows and young women looking for husbands, were taken from the lives they knew before Hitler and added to the list of six million. The mosquito bites recorded by Klemperer are none of them minor or simply irritating, but go deep, beginning with the wholesale expulsion of Jews from jobs on the state payroll. The loss of jobs, the wearing of the star and the banning from public parks were the only ones I had remembered. There were many more, each bitter in its own way.

A partial list, as recorded by Klemperer: banned from library reading rooms (October 1936), forced to give up the telephone (December 1936), required to add ‘Israel’ or ‘Sara’ to given names (i.e. Klemperer must henceforth sign his name ‘Victor Israel’ – August 1938), restricted to shopping between 3 and 4 p.m. (August 1940), banned from owning a car (February 1941), ‘the milkmaid . . . is no longer allowed to deliver to Jews’ houses’ (March 1941), ‘new calamity: ban on smoking for Jews’ (August 1941), required to surrender typewriters (‘That hit me hard, it is virtually irreplaceable’ – October 1941), banned from use of public telephones (December 1941), banned from the buying of flowers (March 1942), banned from keeping pets (‘This is the death sentence for Muschel,’ their tomcat – May 1942), forbidden to provide for the teaching of Jewish children either privately or communally (July 1942), banned from purchase or possession of newspapers (July 1942), prohibited from purchase of eggs or vegetables (July 1942), prohibited from purchase of meat and white bread (October 1942). ‘Not a day without a new decree against Jews,’ Klemperer writes.

But that wasn’t all. In stages Jews were banned from practising their professions, banned from public transport, banned not only from parks but from the streets bordering on parks, banned from restaurants, banned from theatres and cinemas, banned from being outside after the hour of 9 p.m. These progressive steps were gradually accompanied and finally replaced by a programme of organised murder – for Jews in Dresden deportation to Theresienstadt, a transit camp on the way to Auschwitz, ‘which appears’, Klemperer writes in October 1942, ‘to be a swift-working slaughterhouse’.

Plenty of people die in these diaries, but always offstage, frequently by suicide. A typical case is Klemperer’s friend Moral, a district court judge, who worries that war will bring a general pogrom and wholesale murder of the Jews, ‘properly rounded up and put up against a barracks wall’. He appears frequently in Klemperer’s diary in 1938 and 1939, always worried, gloomy, alone, fearful. In June 1939 Klemperer finds him ‘utterly depressed and in a panic, is having thoughts of suicide, and finds solace with us like a child’. A few weeks after the outbreak of war in September 1939 Klemperer spends an exhausting Saturday afternoon talking him out of suicide. Two weeks later Moral killed himself. In May 1940, forced to give up the house in Dölzschen for a small apartment in a ‘Jews’ House’ in Dresden and depressed by Hitler’s lightning victories in the West, Klemperer confesses: ‘I envy Moral a hundred times a day.’

By the third year of the war the Jews are living in a state of terror, dreading the sudden Gestapo house searches which bring shouts, curses, shoving and hitting, the emptying of drawers, the breaking of crockery, the theft of every valuable or foodstuff. ‘It has by now become a firm rule,’ Klemperer writes in April 1942, ‘on the day after a house search there are suicides.’

There are also arrests: for possession of forbidden items, infractions of the blackout, hoarding food, being out after curfew, failure to wear the star, hiding or concealing the star, listening to enemy broadcasts, spreading rumours. Or for nothing at all. ‘The most terrible thing for me,’ a woman tells Klemperer, ‘is that people always say: “But your husband must have done something, they don’t just kill someone for no reason!”’

One by one the men disappear from the Jews’ House. Ernst Kreidl is summoned to Gestapo headquarters on the morning of 19 November 1941, and does not return. Months pass without word of his fate or even of the charges against him. Finally, in April, ‘something unheard of. After five months, a sign of life from Ernst Kreidl, a card from Buchenwald. The joy of it was shattering.’ Six weeks later comes report of his death, ‘shot while attempting to escape’. At almost the same moment Kreidl’s friend Friedheim is arrested; he lasts a week. A first report claims he died of heart failure; a second says he hanged himself in his cell. Urns containing the cremated ashes of both men are returned to the Jews’ House, placed side by side on a mantel. ‘Painful to me is the empty bench below my window,’ Klemperer writes. ‘All last summer Ernst Kreidl and Doctor Friedheim sat there engaged in a hundred conversations. Now Kreidl has been shot and Friedheim “died” in prison.’ Arrest for any crime, however trifling, is the same as a death sentence. ‘No one comes back, literally no one.’ Who lives and who dies seems completely arbitrary. In a single year five of the six men in the Jews’ House have joined the six million. ‘So many fall around me, and I am still alive,’ Klemperer writes. ‘Perhaps it is after all granted me to survive and bear witness.’

What he witnesses is not only suffering but heroism as well, always on the small, personal scale: enduring when it seems impossible to go on, sharing when there is almost nothing, offering encouragement and hope, refusing to give up. Klemperer himself knows that discovery of his diary by the Gestapo will mean death but he goes on writing; Eva knows that carrying his manuscript pages across the city to a friend’s house is dangerous but she makes the journey every week or two; the friend, Annemarie Köhler, a German, risks arrest by hiding these manuscripts but she does it anyway. One of the great surprises of Klemperer’s diary is the frequency with which he records small acts of heroism on the part of ordinary Germans – greeting Jews on the street, visiting them at home, giving them ration coupons for the purchase of bread, helping to carry potatoes, slipping them something extra in a foodshop, whispering a friendly word. He does not imagine that Germany itself is blameless for Nazi anti-semitism. ‘National Socialism is a German growth,’ he writes – the product of a ‘nation of dreamers and pedants, of cranky over-consistency, of nebulousness and the most precise organisation. Even cruelty, even murder are organised here.’

But the cruelty Klemperer records comes almost entirely from institutions like the Gestapo and the SS, whose central ethos and discipline is cruelty. ‘I am German,’ he writes, ‘and am waiting for the Germans to come back; they have gone to ground somewhere.’ But on his own evidence the Germans he seeks are there all the time – powerless, but still people possessed of ordinary decency and humanity. In spite of ‘new Gestapo cruelties all the time’, he records in June 1942, ‘no day passes now in which someone does not report: “An Aryan told me: ‘Bear up – it’s all falling apart, here and at the front.’”’ Seeing someone wearing the star, a bus driver tells him, means ‘you can speak your mind for once!’ Even a Gestapo officer whispers to an elderly housemate of Klemperer’s ordered to report to headquarters: ‘Take some good advice, don’t go there tomorrow morning.’

There is no easy way to weigh up such evidence. Klemperer also records incidents when he is shouted at in the street, cursed as a parasite, ridiculed by Hitler Youth out on a hike, but he classes genuine anti-semites together with true believers in Hitler and final victory. ‘I think for every one believer . . . there are by now’ – March 1942 – ‘fifty unbelievers. And the proportion of those who . . . shout abuse to those who express sympathy is probably the same.’

The ordinary German he comes to trust the most is a man named Richter, the official ‘trustee’ responsible for Klemperer’s house in Dölzschen, which he has been forced to rent to a German. Klemperer is placed under increasing pressure to sell the house on terms which amount to giving it away, but Richter helps him slip through the web of regulations. It is Richter who repeats to him a Gestapo officer’s claim that ‘the whole race was going to be exterminated.’ In May 1942 Klemperer tells Richter of all they have suffered. ‘Richter was horrified. Again and again: “such bestiality”, “such sadism!” . . . People were hardly aware of the cruelty inflicted on the Jews.’ In September they talk again. Richter says: ‘Ninety per cent of all Germans know that victory is impossible.’ Klemperer gently declines an offer of shaving soap – it is death to be caught in possession of prohibited items. Richter, for all his human sympathy, is equally frightened and cautious: ‘I must strictly keep my distance from you.’

Klemperer: ‘Of course, Herr Richter, you have a wife and child, you are quite innocent.’

Richter: ‘No one in Germany is innocent. Why have we tolerated this regime so long?’

Early in 1943 they meet again. Richter says a coup will soon topple the Government. ‘Where will you go?’ he asks Klemperer. ‘You must remove yourself immediately to the country . . . there could be massacres here.’ Klemperer scoffs at the idea of escape but Richter insists; he offers him a house near the railway, a dozen miles out in the country. Of course there is no coup. Eventually Richter is arrested. It’s not clear if his crime has been a role in some kind of plot against the state, or simply being ‘too friendly with Jews’. In May 1944 Klemperer hears that Richter has been imprisoned in Buchenwald. He is never mentioned again in the diary and his fate – like his first name, which Klemperer neglected to record – is unknown.

Richter’s greatest gift to Klemperer was not understanding and friendship but the suggestion that at the right moment he must remove himself – escape, go into hiding. Something in Klemperer’s character makes this almost unthinkable. Even in the early Hitler years it never crosses his mind that he is capable of protest or resistance, and on the evidence of his diaries it rarely occurred to anyone else either. Until late in the war the subject is never mentioned. Years of oppression, hardship and ever-growing danger turn Klemperer into a fatalist: he might live, he might die, he can do nothing to alter the outcome. He records the remark of a man who ‘felt like a calf at the slaughterhouse, looking on as the other calves are slaughtered and waiting his turn’. And adds: ‘The man is right.’ The Jews married to Germans are like ‘Odysseus in Polyphemus’ cave’, Klemperer writes. ‘“You I will eat last.” Except that none of us can play Odysseus. Help must come from outside.’

In March 1944 a friend asks if Klemperer cannot think of some place he might hide ‘when the time came’. Eva suggests he might pass as a German for a day or two but the friend says no, ‘he mustn’t mix with people, he would stand out immediately.’ Klemperer was crushed when she explained the reason for her caution: ‘Because of all the years of persecution the professor looks like a beaten dog.’ Klemperer agrees: ‘I walk with a stoop, my hands shake, and at the least excitement I have difficulty breathing.’

Not all German Jews felt so helpless. Some went into hiding, even in Berlin, and survived the war. Others fabricated new identities and passed as Germans. Klemperer was long incapable of conceiving, much less doing, any such thing but Richter’s suggestion lodged in his mind and at last a day arrived when he shook off the cringing passivity of the beaten dog and quit waiting on fate.

It happened in February 1945. On Tuesday the 13th Klemperer was called to the offices of the Jewish community and assigned the painful task of delivering deportation notices to a list of addresses scattered throughout the city. The official explanation was a call to ‘outside work duty’ but the list included the very old and very young. Everyone understood it was not work that the Nazis intended for those ordered to appear early on Friday morning at the Jewish offices with hand luggage and provisions for two or three days of travel. The stricken faces, the panicked protests, the reluctance to sign the receipt form held out by Klemperer made it clear they knew what was coming.

Even more pitiful was Frau Bitterwolf in Struvestrasse. Again a shabby house; I was vainly studying the list of names in the entrance hall when a blonde, snub-nosed young woman with a pretty, well-looked-after little girl, perhaps four years old, appeared. Did a Frau Bitterwolf live here? She was Frau Bitterwolf. I had to give her an unpleasant message. She read the letter, several times said quite helplessly: ‘What is to become of the child?’, then signed silently with a pencil. Meanwhile the child pressed up against me, held out her teddy bear and, radiantly cheerful, declared: ‘My teddy, my teddy, look!’ The woman then went silently up the stairs with the child. Immediately afterward I heard her weeping loudly.

Back at the Jewish community offices that evening after the delivery of his dozen notices Klemperer listened to his friend Waldmann (no first name recorded)

set forth the gloomiest hypothesis with very great certainty. Why are the Jewish children being taken as well? Lisel Eisenmann [eleven years old] can’t do work duty. Why does Ulla Jacobi have to go alone – as cemetery superintendent her father is still classified indispensable. There are murderous intentions behind it. And we who remain behind, ‘we have nothing more than a reprieve of perhaps a week. Then we’ll be fetched out of our beds at six o’clock in the morning. And we’ll end up just like the others.’

How the others ended up is not recorded, but as fate unfolded they had the same chance – no more, no less – as was given to Klemperer himself. The organisation and attention to detail which killed all but a handful of Dresden’s Jews was interrupted some two hours after Waldmann’s grim prediction by what can only be called an act of divine intervention: the Allied fire-bombing raid which destroyed the city. This was one of the truly horrific events of the war, equalled only by the destruction of Hamburg, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Holocaust itself. The centre of the city was broken up by conventional high explosive, then set alight with incendiary bombs which created a huge conflagration leading to a firestorm – a blaze of such intensity that it begins to suck in the surrounding air with hurricane-like winds. Large areas of the city were utterly destroyed and scores of thousands of people died by blast, flames and heat so intense that the gutters ran with melted human fat.

But the horror visited on the city somehow spared Klemperer and his wife. Separated in the confusion and smoke, barely escaping one danger after another during the long night, luck brought them together again. ‘Someone called out to me: Eva was sitting unharmed on the suitcase wearing her fur coat.’ She told him that during the night she had tried to light a cigarette from something burning on the ground, then realised it was a human body. Lugging their suitcases they began to make their way through the destroyed city. Their own house no longer stood. As Jews they were forbidden from entering the parks, public buildings, certain streets and districts. During the night Klemperer had wrapped himself in a blanket which covered his yellow star: now he realised he had to get rid of it. ‘Eva thereupon ripped the star from my coat with a pocket knife.’ This moment, recorded so flatly, somehow represents a triumph of the human will to survive. Beaten down for a dozen years, in daily terror, resigned to fate, Klemperer with this simple act reclaims his fundamental autonomy as a human being.

For the remaining months of the war Klemperer and his wife made their way west on foot, by horse-drawn cart and occasionally by train to a village near Munich, where they were overtaken at last by the Americans. During their months on the run Klemperer confessed his identity to no one. With the end of the war ordinary Germans seemed to shake off the Nazi years with relief and a kind of mute incomprehension. ‘The Third Reich is already almost as good as forgotten, everyone was opposed to it, “always” opposed to it.’ Klemperer isn’t quite sure what to make of this. For years he has recorded endless small acts of consideration and kindness. He is convinced there was something uniquely German about the oppression of the Jews but he has never believed the cruelties represented any kind of genuinely popular feeling. ‘What is “gestapo?” I’ve never heard the word,’ Klemperer records a woman saying. ‘Is this true not-knowing?’ he asks himself. He does not know the answer. If a German were to write any such thing it would be dismissed instantly as dishonest special pleading but Klemperer is a witness who must be taken seriously. ‘Ever more puzzling to me,’ he writes only three days before the formal end of the war, ‘despite Versailles, unemployment and deep-seated anti-semitism, ever more puzzling to me is how Hitlerism was able to prevail.’

It is no easier to explain now. The power of Klemperer’s book in part comes from his frank inability to understand what unleashed the cataclysm. Nor does he seem to worry overmuch about this failure of theory. It is the fact of Nazism which engages him. He had been recording his life for years and soon realised that the record itself would be his contribution to understanding the Nazi era.

This record achieves two things. It tells us what was experienced by German Jews; Klemperer’s experience was typical in every way except its outcome – he survived. His vivid accounts of many others who didn’t, his careful record of what he overheard in the street or was told by others, his account of his own human diminishment as he was progressively stripped of every right and freedom, his gradual awareness of the enormity of what was happening to Europe’s Jews, his refusal to omit any gesture of courage or generosity, his discovery that he was a Jew after all, his care to notice the deprivations of war as food, fuel and clothing were at first rationed and then disappeared altogether: these observations preserve what can so easily be lost – a sense of what happened. For this alone his book will never be forgotten.

Much of what the Jews of Dresden suffered was not wrong because it was hard or painful, but because they were singled out to suffer it. From the first day of the war most of the luxuries and all of the staples of life entered into short and diminishing supply, but these deprivations hit Jews the soonest and the hardest – because they were Jews. The actual killing of the Jews was only the inevitable final step in a process begun by defining them, as opposed to describing them, as Jews. Klemperer quotes a German as asking: ‘What on earth does “non-Aryan” mean?’ It came to mean someone excluded, first from the protections of the law, and then from the human family. On 22 May 1942, Frau Elsa Kreidl learned that her husband Ernst had been killed in Buchenwald. A week later her sister-in-law had to deliver her pet canary to a central killing location – no pets for Jews. Furthermore, it was forbidden to give the canary to anyone else and illegal to kill it at home: that had to be done by the authorities. So Frau Kreidl was required to carry the canary in its cage to a far corner of the city on foot – no Jews on public transport. One Frau Kreidl’s husband and the other Frau Kreidl’s canary were killed for the same reason – because the Kreidls were Jews. Our deepening understanding of human rights grows from the awful example of the Holocaust, when Jews ceased to have rights because they ceased to be human.

With the end of the war Klemperer and his wife Eva walked back home. Of the 4675 Jews living in Dresden in 1933, and of the 1265 who remained in late 1941, and of the 198 who still survived in February 1945, only a handful survived the war. Stubborn as ever, refusing to consider what life in Russian-occupied Eastern Germany might be like, determined to pick up the severed strands of his life precisely where he had left them, Klemperer returned to the house in Dölzschen. He lived there another fifteen years, even remarrying after Eva’s death. His second wife transcribed his diary from the scraps of paper on which he had recorded it; the collapse of the Communist Government in 1989 made it possible at last for the diary to be published. A worrier and pessimist to the end, he never knew that he had written a book as great as any he had ever read.