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Vol.26, No. 15 Feb. 16, 2001

Klempererís Diary of Nazi Years Brought to Life in Deutsches Haus Performance

By Jason Hollander

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, inside a formal hall in Deutsches Haus, one man’s voice took spectators on a harrowing journey back to the beginning of Hitler’s stunning rise to power. A one-hour reading of Victor Klemperer’s diary offered unique insight into the horror this German-Jew endured as his countrymen strode further and further into a spiral of madness and destruction.

German-born actor George Bartenieff performed part of the Off-Broadway play, “I Will Bear Witness: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer,” to a packed room on Feb. 18. The play stars Bartenieff and is directed by Karen Malpede, who earned her M.F.A. in theater from Columbia. Bartenieff hauntingly conveyed Klemperer’s attempt to understand a transformation in German society that appeared too monstrous and surreal to be true.

The play is based on Klemperer’s diaries, which were discovered nearly 30 years after his death in 1960 and published by Random House in 1998 under the title “I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years.”

The reading was followed by a panel discussion that included Eva Fogelman, psychologist and author of Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of the Jews During the Holocaust; Peter Gay, director of the scholars and writers program at the New York Public Library and author of My German Question, and Robert Jay Lifton, professor at John Jay College and author of The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide.

“It’s very unusual to have something written day by day with this sort of thoroughness,” says Mark M. Anderson, director of Deutsches Haus, professor of Germanic languages and the event’s moderator, “Most people were not in a position to keep a diary.”

Anderson notes that most Jews enduring persecution did not have time to document their daily struggles and for those sent to camps, the effort was impossible. Working on the diary was forbidden by law and Klemperer was repeatedly subjected to Gestapo home searches, often in the middle of the night, which included shouting, violence and destruction of his property. If the diaries, which eventually totalled more than 1,600 pages, were found, it probably would have meant a death sentence for Klemerer. “It was a very dangerous enterprise,” says Anderson. “Most people didn’t risk it.”

Anderson calls Klemperer’s diaries a goldmine of information, noting that historians can now reference specific dates in the diary to correspond with the dates of Nazi aggression and imposed restrictions, revealed by Klemperer’s personal reactions. “He was forced inside himself,” says Anderson. “He couldn’t use the library, he couldn’t lecture anymore, so he turned to writing.”

The event, which was attended by members of the German Consul and the German Attaché for Cultural Affairs, was Deutsches Haus’ first performance to incorporate a panel discussion. “It was a successful combination of art and analysis,” says Anderson. “People often go to the theatre and are left wondering about something. This is a way to answer those questions.”

Born in Poland, Klemperer moved with his family to Berlin in 1890, at age 9. He and his three brothers all converted to Protestantism as young men, a government requirement for any form of state service. He married a Protestant woman, Eva, in 1906 and fought in World War I, receiving a medal for bravery. In 1920, Klemperer was offered a chair in Romance languages and literature at the Technical University in Dresden. He was, by all perspectives, a model German citizen. However, the model changed in 1933 when Adolf Hitler became the nation’s new chancellor.

Klemperer, a committed diarist since age 17, began documenting Nazi influence as soon as it began. Year by year he tells how Jews were excluded from the corners of life where they had always been welcome. He was eventually forbidden to use the telephone, own a pet (the family cat, Muschel, was put to death by the Gestapo), own a car, own a typewriter, go to a movie, enter the local library, buy a newspaper, buy eggs and vegetables, buy meat and bread, buy flowers, walk in the park or smoke. Being forced to wear the yellow Star of David punctuated the sense of separation from society.

“It’s not the big things that are important, but the everyday life of tyranny,” wrote Klemperer. “A thousand mosquito bites are worse than a blow on the head. I observe, I note the mosquito bites.”

There were many more humiliations: the loss of jobs, the loss of homes and possessions, the destruction of synagogues and Jewish stores, curfews, the forbidding of teaching Jewish children in all schools public or private, the banning of Jews from public transportation except to stand on small platforms on the back of trains.

With the attention of a scholar, Klemperer used great detail to note his daily struggles—often lamenting his failing health, and the overwhelming depression that he and Eva battled.

As the husband of a gentile, Klemperer was afforded a little more protection and privilege than other Jews. Most importantly, he was spared from being “resettled” to the work camps. Still in the early years of the Nazi regime, Klemperer and his wife were “tormented by the question, go or stay. To go too soon, to stay too late.”

Fearing his heart would not stand up to a move, that his wife would be unhappy in a foreign country, that he couldn’t learn a new language, that life abroad would have little to offer, they decided to stay in their small house outside Dresden. The couple would remain there until 1940 when they were forced to relocate to a tiny apartment in a “Jews House.”

Eventually, Klemperer would see his existence in Germany—a Jew surviving amidst those trying to destroy his people—as one serving great purpose. “This is my heroics,” he writes. “I want to bear witness, precise witness, until the very end.”

Klemperer documents the frequent harassment he experienced—being cursed in the street and ridiculed by the Hitler Youth. The SS and Gestapo, with their unpredictable rage, were responsible for inflicting on him the greatest terror and cruelty. He was aware of the existence of concentration camps and knew that people often died there, but the diaries do not indicate that Klemperer knew the extent of the atrocities that occurred inside them.

The diaries also bring to light stories of non-Jewish Germans who show him sympathy and offer help even when it puts them in danger. He records acts where ordinary Germans would greet Jews on the street, visit them in their home, whisper a friendly word and slip them ration coupons for bread.

Eventually, it was the Allied fire bombing of Dresden in 1945—which killed as many as 135,000—that led to Klemperer’s escape to safety. In the confusion of the city’s destruction, his wife ripped the Star of David from his coat and they fled towards Bavaria and the approaching U.S. Army.

After the war, Klemperer and his wife returned to their home in the Dresden suburb of Dölzschen and he lived there for another 15 years until his death in 1960. The diaries were stored away safely by Eva and were discovered years later in a Dresden archive by one of Klemperer’s former pupils. Having written the diaries under the constraints of paralyzing persecution, Victor Klemperer never found out how far his words would someday travel.

“I Will Bear Witness: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer,” is running through April 1 at the Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street. For more information, call 212-677-4210, Ext. 2, or go to www.