I Will Bear Witness: A Diary Of The Nazi Years, 1933-1941

Norah Vincent reviews 'I Will Bear Witness' by Victor Klemperer

Published November 23, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Though Victor Klemperer lived through the bleakest, most godless moments of the 20th century, when you contemplate his life and work, it's hard not to believe in God. For most atheists, the Holocaust belies divine providence. "What deity," they ask, "could countenance such horrors in impotent silence?" The faithful have always replied that God is present precisely at the center of atrocity, but, for the sake of human free will, does nothing. That doctrine has made little sense to many of us, and given even less comfort. But when you read the unflinching testimony in Klemperer's diary, and you work out the details of Klemperer's life that placed him so perfectly, and ultimately untouchably, at the center of the Third Reich, you can't help but feel divine grace quietly but firmly asserting itself. The words "God is my witness" never made more sense.

A rabbi's son who would later convert to Protestantism, Klemperer fought for Germany in World War I. After the war, in 1920, he became a professor of Romance languages and literature at Dresden Technical University, but was dismissed in 1935 for being a Jew. Because he had converted to Protestantism and was married to a woman who was considered an "Aryan" -- and because he had served on the front lines in WWI -- Klemperer was treated marginally better than others classified as Jews "by law" or "by descent." In fact, it was this strange confluence of factors that forced Klemperer to endure the indignities of "living without rights" as a Jew in Hitler's Germany while at the same time allowing him narrowly to escape being sent to a concentration camp.

He walked the streets of Dresden with a strange kind of relative immunity, but he also walked them as a Jew and, most importantly, as a man equipped with discerning eyes, ears and intellect. His diary is filled with harrowing details: Klemperer notices a swastika printed on a child's toy ball as early as 1934; he tells of a rabbi "with his beard alight" being chased around the market fountain by a mob on New Year's Day, 1939; and he writes of his "unsuspecting tomcat," whom he will be forced to poison when he and his wife are evicted from their house -- they are forbidden to have pets because they are, as a couple, considered Jewish. Aside from dutifully recording these small but telling instances of mounting terror, which in themselves are so affecting, Klemperer struggles, as a scholar, to make sense of the Zeitgeist they express, as well as the anger and depression they engender in him.

"If one day the situation were reversed and the fate of the vanquished lay in my hands, then I would let all the ordinary folk go and even some of the leaders, who might perhaps after all have had honorable intentions and not known what they were doing. But I would have all the intellectuals strung up, and the professors three feet higher than the rest; they would be left hanging from the lampposts for as long as was compatible with hygiene ... The sadistic machine simply rolls over us ... We continue in this simultaneously crushing and stupefying chaos, the empty and breathless busyness, this absolute uncertainty."

When Klemperer spends eight days in a local jail for failing to "black out" a window one night, he passes the time thinking even more deeply and existentially about human nature and human life. His terse observations are stunningly beautiful: "We know nothing at all except what we have experienced ourselves. Pity is such a shabby thing ... I had arrived at awareness of my cell again, at the feeling of being in a cage ... the torment of the four paces in a state of semi-stupefaction began again. They were accompanied by a single line of poetry, which I constantly repeated: 'The feeling of his nullity pierces him.'"

One hesitates a long time before applying the hackneyed words "required reading" to a book, especially a book like "I Will Bear Witness," which most readers will find difficult to attempt. Yet what other words can one choose for a book that is, as Hegel might have said, the embodied spirit of history itself, or, better yet, history self-consciously writing itself? The act of reading Klemperer's diary is also a continuation of that process, an act of history-making all its own, for, as Klemperer wrote: "Historical development takes more time than an individual human being has."

By Norah Vincent

Norah Vincent is a New York journalist.

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