George Saunders Recommends "I Will Bear Witness"

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The author of "Lincoln in the Bardo" recommends Victor Klemperer's two-volume diary that reads as a slow-motion picture of what the Holocaust looked like before it was known Holocaust.

I want to recommend a book called "I Will Bear Witness" by a writer named Victor Klemperer.

This is a two-volume memoir by a Jewish German citizen who is married to a Christian woman. It's basically his diaries from that period. He was an academic and to him, this diary was just something he was doing on the side — he didn't intend to publish it.

It's a slow motion picture of what the Holocaust looked like before it was known as the Holocaust. One critic described it as "the first full color picture of that which we'd only see in black and white before."

So you hear a lot of complaining about his health. He's learning to drive a car and he knocked down a fence. His colleagues at work are bothering him. And just every now and then, a slight, offhanded mention — almost as if it's beneath him — about a radio broadcast and this guy Hitler.

But then slowly you start to see things picking up speed. And what was so riveting to me was to see the way that the Holocaust actually showed up in real time. It wasn't as if this race of unrecognizable demons came down and transformed everything. He was getting the news of the repression of the Jews from his neighbors, from a butcher in one case, who apologized profusely as he explained that he couldn't give this professor the better cuts of meat.

So if you are at all interested in the way that a culture degrades into a kind of demagoguery and brutality, this book is a real time depiction of how that happened in Germany. What I found really terrifying about it is that it's not like 'Hollywood' Nazis. These are regular people who've known this guy his whole life. And often they're apologetic rationale is "you know, it's those guys in Berlin. I would never do this, but you know the orders are coming on from above."

It's a really wonderful and kind of terrifying experience [to read].