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All but My Life

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All but My Life
By Gerda Weissmann Klein.
Publisher: Hill & Wang Pub; (April 1995)
ISBN: 0-8090-2460-8

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - November 2, 2001

When the Nazi's invaded Poland on September 3, 1939, Gerda Weissmann's life changed forever. Initially, she was not aware of the monumental significance that the impeding Holocaust would have on her family and on her own life. All But My Life is Gerda Weissmann Klein's description of the six years she spent under Nazi tyranny, during which she spent three years in forced labor camps as a slave laborer. Perhaps most chillingly, she recounts the three months she spent on a forced Death March. Of the possibly four thousands girls that began the march, only 120 remained when it drew to its macabre end. This memoir also chronicles Klein's liberation and her consequent marriage to one of her American liberators, Kurt Klein.

When the Nazis invaded Poland, Gerda was living in Bielitz, Poland with her family. An uncle living in Turkey, who realized the threat that the Nazi's posed to all Jews, arranged exit visas for the family. However, her father was ill, and her mother declined to embrace this fleeting opportunity. This was to be but a brief respite, during which the Weissmann's were "allowed" to live in the basement of their house. The Nazi's genocidal endeavors to slaughter all the Jews in Europe soon encompassed the Weissmann's. Gerda, her parents, and her young brother were sent to concentration and slave labor camps. After the war she learned that her parents had died in Auschwitz and that her brother had died somewhere in Poland. Gerda was the only member of the family to survive.

All But My Life is a horrific and heart wrenching story, one which is also surprisingly uplifting. Gerda was born on May 8, 1924. She fifteen when the Nazi's invaded Poland, and her brother Arthur, merely thirteen. This narrative recounts not only the events that she witnessed, and endured, but also her feelings, her dreams, and the incompressibility of the situation that the Jews found themselves engulfed by. When her family was sent on 'transports' that ended in slave labor camps. Gerda was sent to work in a mill as a weaver. Gerda accounts, in excruciating details, the three endless years that she spent toiling in the mills. She talks about life in the camps, the friends she made, and the all too many friends that died. Almost to the very end, Gerda shared her ordeal with her friend Ilse. This connection between the two girls helped them to survive. Even after Ilse's death, she helped Gerda to hang on until she was liberated.

Throughout this book, Gerda's indomitable spirit and faith shines through. No matter how oppressed she was, or the dehumanizing tasks she was forced to perform, she always looked to the future, to a time when she would be reunited with her family. Gerda always knew, in her heart, that the Nazi's regime was doom to fall. It was merely a matter of surviving longer than the Nazi's did.

In the winter of 1945, as the war drew to an end, the Germans forced a large group of young women, including Gerda and Ilse, to march nearly 1,000 miles. Their journey began in a German labor camp and ended near the town of Volary in Czechoslovakia, near the German boarder. Ilse did not survive the Death March. As the Allies advanced on the German forces, the guards surrounding the remaining girls, forced them into an old factory and abandoned them, leaving a bomb to destroy this remnant of Jewish womanhood. Fate was to intervene. The bomb did not explode. Shortly afterwards, they were liberated, but their safety was not assured. The women were ill, malnourished, and near death. Many were too weak to survive the joys of liberation.

Gerda was liberated in May of 1945 and shortly after being liberated, Gerda met a young, Jewish, American G.I. by the name of Kurt Klein. Her recitation of her meeting with Kurt justifies the faith that sustained her throughout the war. Gerda recounts their courtship, and their eventual marriage which took place in June of 1946. Their love and marriage has a phoenix like aspect. From out of the ashes of the Holocaust, Gerda and Kurt proved that life would go on, and that it could be as happy and fruitful as life was before the advent of the Nazi's.

Gerda Weissmann Klein's narrative offers a first hand account of this horrific period and the Nazi's antagonism for the Jews. Much like Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, this book offers the reader a personal glimpse in the hellish world of the Holocaust. This personalization of the events helps the reader to empathize with the victims of the Holocaust. I would highly recommend this book for anyone, young or old, who wishes to better understand the Holocaust. I'd also recommend this book to anyone looking for a story that emphasis the righteousness to be found in the world.

This book is a poignant testament to one woman's will to survive, and her enduring faith in man. In short, All But My Life is a moving and inspiring memoir that will touch your soul. The Nazi's took everything away from Gerda, her family, her home, and her friends. They took "all but my life." This is the one fact that resounds throughout this narrative - where there is life, there is hope!

Related Reviews:

After Such Knowledge - Memory, History and the Legacy of the Holocaust, by Eva Hoffman.
A series of contemplative essays on the Holocaust and the responsibility of the 'second generation' to preserve the legacy they have inherited from their relatives who survived the horrors of the Shoah.

Auschwitz: A New History, by Laurence Rees.
A sweeping history Auschwitz, the notorious death camp. This account includes information garnered from more than a hundred interviews that Rees conducted with both camp survivors and Nazi perpetrators.

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