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Kurt Klein
Address for Opening Reception of "When Books Burn" exhibit
Tucson, Arizona
May 10, 2001

I offer some reflections of what happens when free speech and thought is abrogated, because that is, after all, what this event is all about. Aside from the larger picture, I hope I can give you some idea of how those twelve years, during which the Third Reich visited its barbarism on the world, affected ordinary people, whose only "crime" was that they happened to be born into a different faith.

All of us are keenly aware of the events of that past, and here at this institute of learning, in an atmosphere that is especially conducive to our appreciation and admiration of the best and noblest man has created in the humanities and in science, it is appropriate that we should also give thought to the basest man was capable of devising and inflicting on his fellow humans. What this university represents, the teaching of the thoughts of the world's greatest thinkers, must stand as a reminder alerting us to the danger of what happens when inhumanity and intolerance are allowed to run rampant and go unchecked. It is our attempt to prevent such unthinkable and unspeakable tragedy from ever happening again to anyone anywhere. That is our only defense against what the world permitted to happen during that dark era of the past century, a time when civilized thinking was censored and perverted to bring out the most bestial of which man is capable. That was what the Nazis inflicted on the world, carried out enthusiastically by only too many people who were quite willing to commit unspeakable acts of inhumanity on their neighbors. This in a nation that had always prided itself on its poets, its writers, composers and scientists.

This will not be a recitation of the statistics of that era, rather it is a personal perception of how those events played out for me and my family, along with the other Jews of Germany. I was directly affected by the political strife of that time, having been born during the relatively short period between the two great world wars. Growing up in Germany during the years of the Weimar Republic, I saw the monster of Nazism forcing its way in to the political arena, its propaganda drawing ever more of the masses into its spell, until it became unstoppable. That, as we know, resulted in Hitler's assumption of power in 1933, something that, for us, the Jews, marked the end of a life in which we had thought we were no different from the rest of the population.

What we are reflecting on tonight is something I myself witnessed. Early after Hitler's assumption of power, we, as Jews, had felt the first effects of government policy directed against us. We had hardly recovered from the boycott of Jewish businesses and homes, early in April '33, designed to prevent the German population from buying goods from Jews or from "consorting" with them, when, on May 17, 1933, a time when I was thirteen years old and attending high school in Heidelberg, I was to be witness to another incident. Having spent a few after-school hours with some of my classmates, I was now following the usual routing of taking the train back to my home, in a town called Walldorf, located some eight miles from Heidelberg. As it happened, my route took me past a plaza, surrounded by University of Heidelberg buildings. From a distance I noticed a commotion, lots of uniformed men which I took to be Nazi storm troopers who appeared to be burning something on a large bonfire while the crowd roared and shouted approval. Little did I realize that what I was witnessing was one of the initial steps the Nazis were taking in the systematic destruction of the life my family had known in Germany over many generations. The following day we read in the newspaper that this had been an action by the students against the "un-German" spirit" that prevailed in literature, in order to combat the "smut and trash in art and literature." And what did they replace it with? Their legacy of blind hatred, intolerance, cruelty and murder on an unprecedented scale.

Thanks to Lisa Bunker, who has done so much for this exhibit, I have a clipping from the New York Times, dated May 18, that describes those events as follows: [add here]

For some time after that, many Jews in Germany still deluded themselves that this was a passing phase in their relationship with the new government. After all, hadn't they been patriotic Germans for generations? Hadn't they fought in WWI and sustained losses of family members who had fallen for the Fatherland? The rationale also went that they had been good citizens, had moved easily and constructively among German society, to which they had contributed in every way. Measures such as these would eventually diminish, once the Nazis had a firmer foothold on the country and its population. We know of course what followed and I needn't go into it.

While I personally was fortunate to leave this inferno in 1937, my sister having preceded me to the shores of this country and my brother following a year after me, we were in the end unable to save our parents from Hitler's machinery of death. During those traumatic years, I had been condemned to be a powerless bystander while the (to us) predictable events unraveled. It was only once I was inducted into the American Army in 1942 that I had the feeling that at long last I might be able to do something on a personal level to fight this great evil. As fate would have it, I never succeeded in rescuing my parents, but I could play a role toward the end of the war in the liberation of a group of young women, slave laborers of the Nazis. That encounter turned into a rendezvous with destiny for me, for it enabled me to find the woman I had been searching for until that day. You are no doubt familiar with our story and that would make another discussion. Suffice to say that I feel fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time, and that out of the debris of the past, Gerda and I could build a new and meaningful life, which we consider a gift of life. It has become that for the 14 others in our family that we are blessed with.

It was only much later that I could search my mind and verbalize all that had happened during those traumatic years. Some of those thoughts crystallized when my sister passed away some years ago and I felt compelled to articulate them in a poem, because that always lets me say things I could never express any other way. Here, then, is an excerpt from that poem:

The Far Cliffs by Kurt Klein (excerpt)

... Do you remember the endless sessions
Spent in the company of seamstresses,
Preparing the crinoline rococo costume
For the merriment of the next masked ball?

You were too young, and too ingenuous,
Could not suspect what lay behind
Many of those bizarre, invidious masks:
The firestorm, the specter of genocide,

Biding its time, waiting to be unleashed.
But that was well before your friends
Forsook you for their vainglorious dreams,
And you got caught up in the whirlwind.

It was the unfathomable,
Giving rise to the ineffable,
Known in the loathsome lexicon of horror --
For lack of better words -- as the banality of evil.

After that, nothing was the same again.
Our parents gone, along with the multitudes,
A flowering of millennia of civilization
Wiped from the face of the earth.

Before that, there were the trains;
Always, there were the trains,
Taking you to and from the venerable town
On the bank of that other river of no return,

The ancient seat of learning, of a culture
Perverted now to cynical mockery. ...

Something else also triggered a host of recollections and it happened when I unexpectedly came across a photo I had taken of my parents in 1936, a year before leaving home. The details of that scene brought back those times as nothing had ever done before, and again I allowed those thoughts to take poetic form. Just one more word of explanation: a good friend of ours. Alvin Gilens, who, over the years, has made his mark as a photographer of note, saw the poem and felt compelled to bring it to another dimension to it in his superbly artistic way. May I read you then what I have called "song of the Earth," after one memory that literally jumped out of that photo. It appears on a calendar of Jewish events on the kitchen wall, announcing a performance of Mahler's great symphony, Das Lied von der Erde, with voice accompaniment, given by a Jewish orchestra, at a time when Jews could no longer attend general public performances of that sort.

Song of the Earth
by Kurt Klein, ©1985

The moment captured by capricious choice
frozen in time, stunning the eye
through it which coursed so many years ago
by its inadvertent revelations.

Under the glass, the scene becomes magnified
in this remote, abandoned childhood kingdom;
the kitchen attains dimension, a mock-proximity,
at once palpable and keeping its rigid distance.

I must ask now, as if the question posed
would suffice to unravel the inexplicable events,
and we could have a replay; another beginning
and certainly, another end: Why?

The years have made you younger, Father.
To think that I have surpassed your days,
have known fulfillment of what for you
was always to remain a distant dream:

To feel the tough of yet another generation.
You look through the lens, your thoughts
inscrutable at this late stage,
Bald-pated and about to sip your

customary after-dinner café noir.
I know: one lump of sugar from the
blue-white delft bowl, the indispensable
cigar butt held in your left hand.

I never noticed as a boy, watching you groom it,
how much your mustache resembled that of your
ex-emperor's, for whom you fought during the
first of two great global conflagrations.

In due time, your country rewarded you for valor
by tearing you from roots, from basic pursuits,
on half an hour's summons by the Gauleiter,
hauling you to one of Hell's antechambers

somewhere near the Pyrenees -- and then ... ?
But first, there would be a moment now recalled:
You standing on the far bank of the river Styx,
full of dark foreboding about this final parting.

And I, floating toward the distant shore
called Life, tossed toward the promontory
of the Promised Land, access to which --
try as you might -- would ever be denied you.

And you, Mother, your gentle face set somber
and out of character, as well it might be;
your ready smile, your resolute strength
forced into hiding by the dictates of harsh times.

I see you, a bewildered real-life Alice,
Lost behind the icy prism of the unyielding
looking glass, your world about to be undone
by powers far beyond the ken of ordinary people.

That home-baked cake in your careworn hand:
plums of a bitter, much-diminished harvest,
plucked from the tree outside the window
during that haunted fall of thirty-six.

I want to shout in perfect hindsight -- a child,
mesmerized by the ultimate Punch and Judy show:
Watch out...behind you! Can you not read
the symbols of the writing on the wall?

Look a the Calendar of Jewish Cultural Events
behind your back, agenda of delusive normalcy!
Can you not heed Mahler's impassioned outcry
before his Lied turns into one of lamentation?

Dark is life ... is death.

Theme in a minor key, obbligato to the demons
of the thirties, the furies of the forties.
Would that you had related it
to your own small plot of earth.

But in the end, would all this culture,
every quirk of history, have cautioned you
against the cataclysm of a decade of
blind hatred and destruction run amok?

Throughout the years of anguish, I was
to learn of your nobility of spirit, which
fairly leapt from the pages of your tortured,
selfless letters which kept coming for awhile

with their hidden code of desperation.
And when my own tormented scribbling
was returned "Address Unknown,"
my mind cried out O, but I know it well,

that "unknown" destination in the East,
the trembling that is Treblinka,
the obscenity that is Auschwitz!
What has remained elusive is, Why?

It is our fervent wish that the memory of those events may perhaps make some impact, and that an awareness of them will bring better understanding, and with understanding, greater tolerance for others, different as they might be. One way of looking at life is that we are here to interact with those we encounter, face up to challenges that are thrust upon us, and do that to the best of our ability. In time, many of you will be in positions that can change the course of the twenty-first century for the better. I know you will heed the lessons of history and will be vigilant and keep that memory alive. And for all your efforts to help make this a better world, my profoundest thanks!

Speech and poetry copyright ©Kurt Klein. Printed here with the permission of the author.


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