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Analysis of ‘All But My Life’, by Gerda Weissmann Klein

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Author Background

Gerda Weissmann Klein was a Holocaust survivor. Though her parents had lived for decades in the Polish town of Bielitz, when the Nazis invaded Poland, they were moved first to the Jew ghetto were all the Jewish families were herded together. Thereafter in stages they were moved into concentration camps. The male members were separated and taken away, probably to be killed. Gerda was separated from her mother who later died in a camp. All along she was subjected to backbreaking work and given little to eat. Her spirits were kept high by her childhood friend Ilse who fortunately for her was always assigned to the same camp. Towards the end of the war, 2000 women were dispatched on the infamous Death March which killed most of them. Gerda was one of the 120 who survived. Ilse died during the march. As soon as the war came to an end, she was liberated by an American soldier whom she later married.

Relevance of the Title

The title is an eloquent one as Gerda loses all but her life during the Holocaust. It can be said that she did not lose her sanity also unlike many people who lost that too. Till the war broke out, she had had an idyllic life surrounded by a loving family. But that changed in a month. One by one she lost everything that was dear to her. Her secure existence which consisted of school, friends and home became just memories.

Main Themes

The Lasting Power of Hope

Gerda is able of withstand six years of suffering only because she had the belief that things would one day improve. She was not particularly religious by nature but she had the hope that the future would not be bleak. Writing the book long after the war was over and long after she was married to her rescuer, she believes that much good has come to her. No doubt her loses have been terrible – her whole family dead – but she has also gained a very loving and considerate husband and a wonderful family.

Choosing the Moral Option

Using the freedom to act morally even in difficult circumstances is the duty of every human. In the story while there are individuals who act with extreme cruelty, there are also some who choose the moral path. Though the Nazis were under control, if the ordinary Germans wished to, they could have chosen the option to behave with kindness and dignity. In the camps too, some prisoners put themselves at the risk of retaliation by SS soldiers for helping others while some thought of only their welfare.

Characters

Gerda Weissmann Klein

When the oppression begins, Gerda is an innocent girl completely dependent on her family. But as the horror continues, her family is separated from her. Gerda gradually becomes self reliant, focusing only on the likelihood of things improving. With a dispassionate eye she describes all that befell her and what she saw. Turning emotional would have destroyed her resolute optimism. At no point does she lose faith in the goodness of man and the hope that she will find happiness.

Ilse Kleinz̈ahler

Ilse was Gerda’s friend from childhood. Once the girls’ lose their parents, they become family to each other. Throughout the story, they prop each other up. Emotionally and physically, Ilse is not as strong as Gerda but she loses no opportunity to help Gerda even when she is herself in need of help. Once when Ilse finds a wild raspberry, instead of eating it, she carries it all day to give it to Gerda. While on her deathbed, she makes Gerda promise that she will not die till the war is over. Ilse does not want Gerda to ever reveal to her parents that their daughter is dead. Even while dying, Ilse thought about others.

Summary

Gerda is only fifteen when her idyllic life in Bielitz, Poland becomes a nightmare. Poland had a mixed population and the Germans welcomed the Nazi army. For the Polish Jews, life becomes hell. They were herded into ghettos; later the men were taken away and shot dead. Families were separated never to unite again. It happens to Gerda soon and she never sees her parents again. Gerda and her dear friend Ilse are made to work for the German war effort. Periodically they are moved to other camps but somehow Gerda and Ilse are together always.  Ilse is not as strong as Gerda; frequently she falls ill.

Gerda resists the advances of a supervisor who punishes her with continuous day and night shifts. Ilse helps her by having both of them transferred to another camp. Often the girls think of their families; they have no hope they would have survived the terrible conditions of the concentration camps. Being young, they have hope that they will live to the end of the war. But then the war drags on. Abek Feigenblatt is a young Jew who has been in love with Gerda for a long time now. Gerda is fond of him but thinks of him only as a friend. Abek often moves to tough camps voluntarily to be close to Gerda.

After the year 1942, the German successes come to an end. By 1945, Germany is being defeated on many fronts. The Nazis do not want to feed the millions of Jews who are their prisoners. So they send them on the infamous Death March across countries at the height of winter. People die of exhaustion and disease. Gerda and Ilse are on one such march. Ilse is weak and close to death. Gerda tries to help her move but one night Ilse dies. Gerda moves ahead remembering the promise she gave Ilse that she would not die. When they reach the Czech town of Volary, the surviving 120 girls (out of the original 2000) are locked into an old factory, The SS plant bombs outside to kill them. But the bombs fail to detonate. After a few days, the girls are rescued by the Czech people who announce the war is over. A party of American soldiers arrives to take them to hospital. Among them is Kurt Klein, a fellow Polish Jew whom later Gerda marries.

Quotes

1.He looked steadily at me and then answered my thoughts. “Whatever you are thinking now is wrong. It is cowardly.” I couldn’t deny it. He lifted my chin up and looked at me firmly again. “Promise me that no matter what happens you will never do it.”

When it is time to move to the ghetto, Gerda recalls the story of a family that had committed suicide together as they could face the thought of a life without freedom. Gerda wonders whether that is a good idea for them too. As though answering her, her father tells her that ‘it’ is not an option.  He does not elaborate what ‘it’ is but it is clear to both. Later whenever Gerda feels desperate and wonders whether taking her life will end her sufferings, she remembers her father’s words and becomes resolute.

  1. “I hope you will never be disillusioned. To you, life still means beauty, and that is how it should be. Continue to go through mud without dirtying your feet.” She spoke without explanation or introduction and without finishing, and then she stalked away towards our quarters.

For many, life in the camp was the breaking point. Tusia who speaks these lines was one such person. But these are words spoken in a moment of enlightenment. For Gerda, Tusia’s words were prophetic. Even when things were bleak, Gerda took pleasure in nature; she did not ever turn against the other prisoners for small gains.

  1. My eyes remained dry. I felt my features turn stony. “Now I have to live,” I said to myself, “because I am alone and nothing can hurt me anymore.”

These words are spoken by Gerda soon after she is separated from her mother. As a child, she had always been surrounded by a loving family but now for the first time she is alone. But she rises to the occasion magnificently. She resolves that she alone is responsible for her life. She has already lost everything that was precious to her. Things cannot get any worse.

  1. I had reached the summit, as I had dreamed I would in the dark years of slavery, and there, beyond the sphere of human vision, we met and embraced. We would never be alone again.

Coming at the end of the story, Gerda speaks of the dreams she had when she went through years of slavery. She had always hopes that she would come out of the suffering unscathed. Now she has found her soul mate whom she was destined to meet. The end of the war and their meeting seemed to have been decided in heaven.