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Ruth Kluger, author of searing and celebrated Holocaust memoir, dies at 88

Ruth Kluger’s memoir of the Holocaust, “Still Alive,” was celebrated as “a book of breathtaking honesty and extraordinary insight.” (Daniel Anderson/UCI)

Ruth Kluger, a literary scholar and memoirist whose unsparing account of her coming-of-age during the Holocaust, published in English as “Still Alive,” was celebrated as an essential entry in the canon of books by survivors bearing witness to the horrors of Nazi Europe, died Oct. 5 at her home in Irvine, Calif. She was 88.

The cause was complications from bladder cancer, said her sons, Dan Angress and Percy Angress. Dr. Kluger had retired in 1994 from the University of California at Irvine, one of several American universities where she had taught German literature, among other fields in the humanities, for years.

The only daughter of an affluent Jewish family in Vienna, Dr. Kluger was 6 years old when Hitler’s Germany annexed Austria in the event known as the Anschluss. Her father and older half brother would perish in the Holocaust. Accompanied by her mother, Dr. Kluger survived internment at Auschwitz, a forced labor detail and a death march before they fled into hiding shortly ahead of advancing Russians.

As many as 1.5 million Jewish children were murdered in the Holocaust, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Published in German in 1992 and in English in 2001, “Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered” was quickly recognized as a vital document, written in prose worthy of the literature to which Dr. Kluger had devoted her scholarly career.

“The Holocaust is one of the best-documented events in human history, and every year hundreds more histories and memoirs are published,” a historian, Jon Wiener, wrote in a review for the Los Angeles Times. “Once in a while, one stands out above the rest. ‘Still Alive’ by Ruth Kluger is one of these — a book of breathtaking honesty and extraordinary insight.”

In riveting detail, Dr. Kluger depicts the constriction of life as she knew it after the Anschluss. Austrian girls used scissors to fashion paper swastikas as Dr. Kluger and other Jewish children were expelled from schools, she recalled. Barred from public places, they were left with the Jewish cemetery as their playground.

At age 8 or 9, trying to steal a moment of pleasure, Dr. Kluger slipped into a Viennese movie house to watch Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Seated next to her was the older daughter of a baker, a committed Nazi even in her youth, who threatened to call the police if Dr. Kluger again violated the law prohibiting Jews from entering a cinema.

“The wicked queen of the film merged with my neighbor,” Dr. Kluger wrote, “her fairy-tale malice a poor imitation of the real thing, and it was I, and no innocent princess, who was lost in the woods, offered poisoned apples, and in fear of glass coffins.”

Along with her mother, Dr. Kluger was sent in 1942 to Theresienstadt, a camp-ghetto located near Prague. Recounting her experience there, she challenged readers to “rearrange a lot of furniture in their inner museum of the Holocaust.”

Theresienstadt was “a mudhole, a cesspool, a sty where you couldn’t stretch without touching someone. An ant heap under destructive feet,” she wrote. But “in a way, I loved Theresienstadt.”

“Vienna had treated me as an outcast,” whereas in Theresienstadt Dr. Kluger had “human contacts, friendships, and conversation. It’s amazing how talkative we become when we have nothing but our tongues to distract us from our misery, though of course, the misery must be halfway bearable.”

From Theresienstadt, Dr. Kluger and her mother were deported to Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in German-occupied Poland. On the advice of another prisoner, she lied about her age, saying that she was 15 instead of 12, to claim a spot on a forced labor detail that was transferred to a subcamp of the Gross-Rosen concentration camp in Silesia. She toiled in a quarry through the frigid winter of 1944-1945, nearly starving, before she, her mother and another prisoner she described as a “lifelong sister by choice” fled a death march.

Dr. Kluger had little use for the kernels of hope sometimes extracted from Holocaust survival stories. She rejected the idea that suffering united victims as “sentimental rubbish.” The first American they encountered after their escape did not appear to them as a heroic liberator; rather, she recalled, he covered his ears to spare himself the details of their agony in the concentration camps.

Decades later, Dr. Kluger said, the agony continued to haunt her. A chore as ordinary as waiting in line brought back memories of the interminable roll calls in the camps. “Even today, I find standing — simply standing and waiting — so abhorrent that I sometimes duck out of a queue and walk away, even if I am about to be served,” she said in a speech before the Bundestag, the German parliament, in 2016. “I can’t bear to stand in line for a moment longer.”

Ruth Susan Klüger was born in Vienna on Oct. 30, 1931. Her mother was a homemaker, and her father was a gynecologist who at one point was arrested for performing an abortion on a non-Jew.

Dr. Kluger’s sons said that even at her young age when she was deported, their mother sensed a burden to bear witness to the horrors she saw. She sustained herself in the concentration camps in part by composing poetry in her head.

After living for a time in a displaced-persons camp, Dr. Kluger and her mother immigrated to the United States. They settled in New York, where Dr. Kluger, having had no opportunity to complete high school in Europe, enrolled directly in Hunter College. She received a bachelor’s degree in English from Hunter in 1950, a master’s in English from the University of California at Berkeley in 1955 and a PhD in German literature, also from UC-Berkeley, in 1967.

She described herself in her memoir as “a woman who is perennially on the move, changing jobs and homes at the drop of a hat . . . a person who runs away as soon as she gets nervous, long before she smells danger. Because running away was the best thing I ever did, ever do.”

Dr. Kluger taught German and comparative literature, and Jewish and women’s studies at institutions including Case Western Reserve University, the University of Kansas, the University of Cincinnati and the University of Virginia before joining UC-Irvine in 1976. She also held an appointment at Princeton University.

She oversaw a study abroad program in Göttingen, Germany, where she suffered a bicycle accident in 1989. As she emerged from a days-long coma, she began to recall long-repressed memories of the war, her sons said — the impetus for her to begin writing her memoir. It was translated into numerous languages, including an expanded English edition that Dr. Kluger authored herself.

Her marriage to Werner T. Angress ended in divorce. In addition to their two sons, Dan Angress of Manhattan Beach, Calif., and Percy Angress of Vallejo, Calif., survivors include four grandchildren.

In her memoir, Dr. Kluger urged her readers against “feeling good about the obvious drift of my story away from the gas chambers and the killing fields and towards the postwar period, where prosperity beckons.”

Referring to herself, her mother and the young woman who survived with them, she wrote that “you cannot deduct our three paltry lives from the sum of those who had no lives after the war. . . . I was with them when they were alive, but now we are separated.”

She wrote, she said, “in their memory.”

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