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Originally published in the Ketchikan Daily News, February 2022; written by Pat Tully

As a young teenager I became interested in the nature of evil—why people are sometimes cruel and inhumane towards each other. I read many books about Nazi Germany, trying to fathom how just 30 years before, a regime could coldly organize the persecution and murder of millions of people. Through the years I have read historical accounts of the Holocaust, books by members of Hitler’s inner circle, and diaries of survivors. Although this reading has not provided many answers, it has helped me to understand at least the worst that human beings are capable of, and to recognize and curb my own mean, selfish impulses.

One of the best diarists I have ever read is Victor Klemperer. He was born in 1881 to an accomplished German Jewish family (his cousin Otto became a famous orchestra conductor, and Otto’s son Werner was a well-known actor in the 1950s and 60s). Victor Klemperer was a scholar and Professor of Romance Languages at the Technical University in Dresden. Klemperer kept an almost daily chronicle of his experiences under Nazi rule, and the slow loss over several years of his citizenship, job, car, house, and freedom of movement. The entries from the early 1930s in which he debates with himself whether or not to move to France or the United States are difficult—you so want him to move! But he decides to stay—determined that the Nazis will not chase him out of his own country.

Despite the increasing restrictions through the 1930s, Victor and Eva are able to enjoy their lives—until Kristallnacht in 1938. Restrictions quickly become persecution, and Klemperer’s terror is evident in his diary entries from then on. Klemperer and his wife Eva survive the war by the merest chance—the night before he is to report for transportation to the camps, the Allies bomb Dresden and in the chaos the Klemperers escape the city. The Ketchikan Public Library has a translation of Victor Klemperer’s diaries during the Nazi era, I Will Bear Witness, (943.086 KLEMPER)

The graphic novels Maus and Maus II, by Art Spiegelman, were originally a series of short comic book pieces published from 1980 through 1991. They tell the story of Art’s parents Anja and Vladek Spiegelman, who were born in Poland and sent to Auschwitz in 1944. The stories shift back and forth from Art’s difficult relationship with Vladek, to Anja and Vladek ‘s horrific experiences during the war. The Ketchikan Public Library has both Maus, which focuses on Anja and Vladek’s life in Poland before Auschwitz, and Maus II, which continues the story of Vladek’s experiences in Auschwitz.

Anja and Vladek Spiegelman’s experience of persecution and hardship during the Nazi era was very different than that of Eva and Victor Klemperer, but just as shocking. Neither book is easy to read because they show the horrors people can inflict on others. In light of this knowledge of the worst human beings are capable of, we can choose instead to develop qualities of empathy, compassion and brotherly love.

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