IN 1988, RUTH KLÜGER, at that time a visiting professor at Göttingen, was crossing the road when she was hit by a young cyclist speeding around the corner. The consequences of what could have been a quite minor accident were major: Klüger spent months in hospital, with a combination of amnesia, brain damage, and physical impairment to mobility. During her recovery, Klüger, a survivor of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, had a flashback to the accident, and realized why she had smashed her skull so badly. Instead of putting her arms down to soften the impact of the fall, as one might naturally do, she had flung them forwards to protect herself from what she felt, deep inside, to be the greater danger: an attacking German; in her instinctive perception, a Nazi. Of course, there is nothing instinctive about perceiving an oncoming, threatening young German as a Nazi; it was some deeply internalized reaction rooted in Klüger's childhood experiences. Pondering this incident as it resurfaced to consciousness, Klüger decided she would finally have to write out her experiences and reflect on the ways in which her innermost self had been shaped historically. Her reflections have contributed substantially to a growing literature on the long-term reverberations of the Nazi past, both among those who were victims and those who were perpetrators or bystanders (both being problematic terms) at the time, and among the generations that followed.
Klüger's reflections raise interesting questions about the nature of life writing as not only a product of the historical periods out of which it arose and the later contexts in which it was produced, but also as a historical source for exploring the changing character of social selves over time. Klüger, for all her distinction and individual talent, was also part of a particular generation — children during the Third Reich — and a specific group, victims of Nazi racism; and she was part of a later, transatlantic community of educated debate. Her writing is of a particular genre: that of articulate, self-conscious reflections on a traumatic past and its implications for the changing self at a later date.