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Feb 2010 Journal

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Letter from Israel

No, not the conductor Otto Klemperer, but his cousin Viktor, Professor of Romance Languages at Dresden University. Most of Viktor’s extended family had left Germany for the US well before 1939, but Viktor had no children, was married to a non-Jew, had fought in the German army in the First World War, and considered himself a true German patriot. Besides, he and his wife had just built themselves a house. In addition, oddly enough for someone who was an expert in eighteenth-century European literature, he did not feel his command of English was sufficient to enable him to earn a living in the USA or England, and he did not wish to become a burden on his relatives or the Jewish community.

So he remained in Germany. Viktor Klemperer’s story is probably no different from those of many Jews who were unwilling or unable to leave Germany (except that he survived), but Viktor wrote a diary in which he kept a precise record of the daily indignities, punitive legislation and increasing privations endured by Jews who had the temerity to remain in the Third Reich in the years leading up to and during the Second World War. The diary, referring to the period from 1933 to 1945, was published some years ago.

As time went on, even keeping a diary was punishable by deportation or execution, so Klemperer’s loyal and courageous wife Eva would smuggle pages of it to Gentile friends outside the city. In common with other Jews still in Germany, the couple were obliged to live in a crowded Jews’ house. Nonetheless, Viktor continued to read scholarly books and make notes for his philological project on the language of the Third Reich. He was required to do forced labour, digging earthworks or shovelling snow, leaving him ever weaker and exhausted. At the last moment, he was saved from deportation to the east when Dresden was bombed by the Allies at the end of the war. Subsequently, he and Eva tramped for miles through the countryside in an effort to find food and refuge. Later, once the war was over, they trecked for hundreds of miles to get back to Dresden. Miraculously, they survived all these hardships, their property was returned to them, and Viktor was able to resume his post at the university.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold, child prodigy and noted Viennese composer, managed to flee from the Nazis and build a successful career writing music for films in Hollywood. He returned to Vienna after the war, but found his music was no longer appreciated, and after his death in 1957 was soon forgotten. However, in October 2009 his opera Die tote Stadt (City of Death) was performed in Paris to general acclaim. Throughout that month, his music was played constantly on the French classical music programme France Musique and, in France at least, his name is no longer consigned to the mists of oblivion.

I happened to be in France in October, and had taken my copy of Viktor Klemperer’s diary with me. Although it was not exactly holiday reading, I had decided it was time to tackle it after having had it in my possession for several years. To read it is to live through those terrible times together with its author and, as I did so, I listened to the radio and heard the music of his contemporary, Korngold, coming over the air-waves.
Returning to Israel, basking in its sunshine and being surrounded by friends and family was like emerging from the long, dark tunnel of the Second World War. But it took some time before I could shake off the gloomy mood aroused by that book and that dark, brooding music.


 

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

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