Book Of A Lifetime: I Shall Bear Witness; To the Bitter End, By Victor Klemperer

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The Independent Culture

This is one of the great masterpieces of the Second World War. Victor Klemperer was a German Jewish professor and, miraculously, one of a handful of Jews who survived the entire war - living, until the last three months, openly in Dresden. Throughout the entire period of the Third Reich, at considerable risk, he kept a diary (translated by Martin Chalmers) documenting his life and the daily humiliations as the Nazis gradually tightened the noose around the Jewish inhabitants of the city. He owed his remarkable survival primarily to the fact that he was married to an Aryan, a category of Jew that the Nazis had decided to leave until last. By early 1945, his luck appeared to have run out.

On 13 February came the order that all remaining Jews capable of physical labour should report for deportation. It was at this point a second miracle occurred. That very night Allied bombers unleashed a firestorm over Dresden, destroying much of the city, including – crucially - the Gestapo headquarters and, with it, the official records. For the remaining months of the war, Klemperer and his wife went on the run in southern Germany, making their way home in June 1945.

Like all good diarists, Klemperer had an eye for detail. The great events of the war scarcely feature except by way of background. Instead he documents the day-to-day life of himself and his diminishing circle of friends. He lost his job at the university in 1935, and he and his wife survived on a small pension which, remarkably, continued to be paid almost to the end.

Some sort of normal life remained possible until Crystal Night in November 1938. Thereafter began a succession of indignities leading to the Final Solution. Jews were banned from owning cars, using libraries, cinemas, parks, trams, owning telephones, typewriters; they were evicted from their homes and – from September 1941 – required to wear the Yellow Star. Soon after, the deportations began. Klemperer meticulously documents the nightmare. He also records the small kindnesses – the shopkeepers who quietly slipped an extra portion of meat or vegetables into his bag, fellow citizens who (often to his dismay – it was risky for both parties) went out of their way to greet him, the Aryan friend who, at great risk, stored his diary.

Although we know that he survived, we share with him the growing tension as his friends disappear and the net closes. Throughout, he is confident that the Nazis will fall. What he doesn't know is whether he can outlive them. He is continually calculating for how much longer he and his wife can survive on their meagre income. "We can just make it if the war is over by Christmas", he says at one point. We know, of course, that it has another two years to run.

Chris Mullin is MP for Sunderland South. His diaries, 'A View from the Foothills', are published by Profile