Ruth Kluger, UCI professor emerita of German, today addressed Germany’s federal parliament, the Bundestag, during a memorial ceremony marking the nation’s annual Day of Remembrance for Victims of National Socialism. The event has featured renowned politicians, authors and activists as speakers, including Nobel laureates Elie Wiesel and Imre Kertesz. The theme of this year’s memorial was forced labor, which Kluger participated in as an inmate of a concentration camp in her youth. Among those attending were the chancellor and president of Germany, members of parliament, representatives of civic organizations and the press.
Here is an excerpt from her talk: “When we hear the words ‘forced laborer,’ we think of grown men and not half-starved little girls, but far from being an object of pity, I was a very lucky girl. During the selection at Auschwitz–Birkenau extermination camp in the summer of 1944, when the gas chambers and the crematorium were working at full capacity, I had managed to pass myself off as fit for duty in a work-unit of women 15 to 45. I was waiting in line and as the SS officer asked my age – I was 12 at the time – I told him I was 15. In fact, I was scarcely credible, for after almost two years in Theresienstadt, I was malnourished and underdeveloped. That lie had been whispered to me by one of the women writing down the information just a couple of minutes before that and I repeated it, very bravely.
“The SS man eyed me up and down and said, ‘You’re very small,’ and the woman taking notes summoned up her courage and said, ‘No, no, she has strong legs, she can work,’ so the SS man shrugged and let it go.
“It was a chance encounter lasting only a couple of minutes with a kind, young woman who I had never seen before and have never seen since, but I owe her my life, my survival. For everyone else who was with me on the transport from Theresienstadt was sent to the gas chamber in the days that followed.”