A View from the Interior of Nazi Hell

Victor Klemperer’s Editor At Brandeis University

By: - May 02, 2012

Walter Nowojski spoke at Brandeis University recently. He is not exactly a household name in history or literary circles. But, then again, neither was Mies Giep, the Austrian/Dutch secretary to Otto Frank, who bravely rescued Frank’s daughter’s incomparable “Diary,” thereby giving—at the least—the lie to Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites around the world.

Nowojski, now in his 80's, rescued the estimated 16,000 pages of WWII Dresden romance professor Victor Klemperer, years after Klemperer’s death in 1960 at age 78.

Rescued, by heroically transcribing, editing, searching for and after repeated rebuffs, publishing—and then promoting—an internationally acclaimed chronicle, an unbroken record of daily life inside the Third Reich from 1932-1945.

What became an improbable best seller in Germany as I Shall Bear Witness, in two thick volumes, later UK, and then Page 1 New York Times, where Yale’s Peter Gay pronounced them one of the most valuable accounts in the German—or any—language. “They offer a view from the interior,” wrote Gay, “that tells the horrifying story of the evolving Nazi persecution…”

Invited by Boston’s Goethe Institute, and Sabine Von Mering who directs Brandeis’ German/European Studies program, Nowojski did not disappoint. White-haired but alert in response to questions, he vigorously lauded his former teacher’s memorable post-war “rehabilitation.” These included not only his East German home, auto, garden, and typewriter, but other less tangible though no less essential belongings taken from him by Hitler’s obedient bureaucrats-- Klemperer’s students, his professorship, his right to write, speak, work with colleagues, his right to even think himself German, German-Jew, or Jew.

By his speech covering a dozen increasingly threatening years, we experienced, with the seemingly timid and withdrawn journalist turned academic what focused, relentless physical suffering and emotional humiliation feeling more like, rather than Heydrich’s Wannsee “Final Solution” luncheon notes or Speer’s “insider” reflections but, like Anne’s acute, detailed, concrete, measured observations (and self-critical reflections), on the ground, close up and almost unbearably personal.

Recall Anne had to leave her beloved cat when the Franks fled to the Prizengracht Annex, so Klemperer must put down his Maschel. Removed to a worsening succession of “Jew Homes” with others of “special status”—no Iron Cross, 1st class—his loyal wife Eva was Aryan and, like Klemperer, Protestant. Klemperer must wear the odious Yellow Star, is “boxed” by young Gestapo on their frequent and increasingly violent apartment searches; Eva abused as a “pig,” “slut,” and more.

What motivated Nowojski, an admittedly working class student with, as he said, barely a “second-class, substandard education” and nothing of the broad intellectual range of Klemperer’s immense erudition, much less pre-war experience (Berlin, Paris, Geneva) or complex German-Jewish heritage to attempt decades-long reclamation efforts?

When asked about transcription problems, Nowojski encouraged his Brandeis audience to imagine a doctor’s worst scribbled prescriptions. “Klemperer’s [handwriting] was worse.” And, “He knew so much, he spoke Greek, Latin, Spanish, English and Russian.”

Two answers were quickly given. Two years after WWII ended, as a 16-year old, Nowojski passed a bookshop and a title caught his eye, LTI [Lingua Tertii Imperii], or, as published in English, The Language of the Third Reich. “The bookshop owner had to explain the title and how…words got into our lives and without our awareness changed us as youth.” Nowojski used the word “fanatic”—with Goebbels it became positive, a good thing; Nazis turned normal meanings on their heads.”

Klemperer’s study had a transformative effect upon post-war students’ minds. “It really liberated our heads, especially in the East under Communism.” Grateful for those insights as how language had created and conditioned, reflexively racist attitudes, Nowojski was additionally influenced by attending Klemperer’s lectures.

“You cannot express what it was like hearing him,” said Nowojski. “Here was an old man who had suffered a great deal, kept from his post 13 years, and yet he made literature and its larger and interior meanings come alive.” Whether students were in science, engineering or humanities, “everyone could understand, it was so clear it was fit to print, then and there.” Klemperer did not only have “great knowledge” but the willingness to communicate it to any student, in often unconventional ways. “During the lecture breaks he would actually leave the lectern and speak with us, ask us if we understood? No professor other than Klemperer ever asked us what we thought.”

Nowojski felt doubly in Klemperer’s debt. “We were his hope, Klemperer said.” So when a newspaper notice announced Klemperer’s “papers” had been deposited in the Dresden library after his death in 1960, Nowojski who was working as a professional editor, drove there, “requested to see them, read all day, asked for the address of his widow.” He went to see her that evening, asking, finally, if he could work on them.

“I wanted readers in Germany to put Klemperer’s almost daily account of life in Hitler’s Germany against the official texts,” Nowojski said. “What Klemperer reported “for a Jew in a huge German city was not taking place in a cave, but under the eyes of everyone.” Yet, said Nowojski, “no one wanted to see it.” The apathy, the “historical amnesia,” he says of virtually every older German he spoke with, kept him at it 16 years.

Admittedly, a dozen years of anticipating and then experiencing war, with every family losing a father, brother, uncles, cousins, neighbors; pattern bombing of cities and defense installations from 1940-1945, as well as fierce assault in the end by the juggernaut Red Army—encouraged understandable repression.

But what amounted to the murder by starvation, forced labor, or the death camp ovens not only was going unacknowledged but those murdered appeared not even to have existed.

Klemperer’s diary, intimate and distanced by turns, “was the only document that recorded from a single perspective from the first to the last days of Nazi times,” Nowojski said. The diary “showed it happening, showed precisely where and how it happened, not in a camp, not deep in some woods, but in what had been called the ‘Florence of the North.’” Happening “under the eyes of the conductors, police, post men, shop keepers, fellow teachers, and one’s students.”

This diary was of “the greatest importance,” Nowojski said. "After Victor Klemperer’s diaries were published, “and only 4,000 of 16,000 manuscript pages at that, no one could say they never saw it.” Like the existence of Auschwitz, “if one wanted to know about what happened to Jews, what went on in those hells, you could learn.”

Small of stature, modest in appearance, and quiet in voice, Klemperer was a hypochondriac, something of a pedant and certainly not a risk-taker. His loyal wife Eva, as he wrote again and again, was “the courageous one.” Klemperer was ashamed of how he tried to keep his head down and often called himself a coward. Yet in Hitler’s Germany the seemingly innocuous act of keeping such an account—imagining a future different from the Master Race plan, where others might and would be called to account for their actions—meant certain death.

Klemperer agonized over the thoughts he was putting on paper, what he heard and saw--the names, dates, places on page after page. Time and again he urged himself to stop. Yet forces anyone else would term courageous kept him going. At one point he simply wrote, "I will bear witness." Not given to random speculation or wild rumor, Klemperer nevertheless was uncannily tuned into a torrent of underground information about the course of the war and the situation of the Jews that he sifted as though his life depended upon it.

His life did depend upon it.

“I do believe many did not know specifically about Auschwitz,” said Nowojski, “but in Klemperer’s diaries, a few weeks after the ovens started working, you can see an entry, a single word—Auschwitz.’'