Gerda’s maturation takes place gradually throughout All But My Life, under the shadow of the Nazi regime. At the beginning of her memoir, Gerda depicts herself as an innocent and naïve teenager. As she loses her family members one by one, she is forced to become entirely self-reliant, and only then does her resolute spirit truly become apparent. Most notable about Gerda is her ability to remain optimistic in the face of the Holocaust and despite everything, to focus on the positive aspects of her life. This optimism allows Gerda to make her memoir a tale of love and community set against the backdrop of the horrors of the Holocaust, rather than a tale that focuses on the cruelty that she has endured.
Though Gerda encounters almost unbelievable evil during her life, she also witnesses many instances of kindness, though she never becomes sentimental when she describes them. She relates the events as they happen but leaves out a certain element of emotional complexity, which keeps us from getting to know her better. However, the distance that Gerda maintains offers an insight into her character as well. Her inability to attach emotional resonance to the events that she witnesses shows just how damaged she is by the events of the Holocaust. Her insistence on paying homage to the goodness of her peers in the camps epitomizes her belief that bearing witness to what happened is more important than merely telling her own story, and this belief illustrates her unselfish character. Gerda’s personality is typified by her steadfast hope, brave optimism, and willingness to help her comrades despite personal risk.
Ilse, one of Gerda’s childhood friends, eventually becomes Gerda’s only family. Ilse is a talented musician who plays the piano with emotional intensity and gives herself entirely to her music. Although Ilse is more timid than Gerda, she is intensely brave in her own way and is willing to sacrifice much to assist her friend. She is not envious of Gerda’s good fortune when Gerda is given the opportunity to leave the transit camp to be with Abek’s family; rather, she is genuinely happy for Gerda. They hold hands constantly throughout the memoir, both to give each other strength and to demonstrate their unbreakable friendship. They are even holding hands when Ilse dies during the last week of the death march.
Perhaps because Gerda wrote her memoir after Ilse’s death, she attributes a sort of otherworldly goodness to Ilse and credits her with saving her life many times. She attaches great significance to the time that Ilse found a slightly crushed raspberry and carried it all day to give it as a gift to Gerda that night. This moment—when Ilse’s only possession in the world is nothing more than a bruised raspberry, yet she chooses to give it to her friend—provides an intimate view of Ilse’s character. Not only is she kind and sweet, but she is self-sacrificing and willing to do anything she can to help Gerda. Even on her deathbed, she expresses concern for her friends and her family, forcing Gerda to promise to live to see the end of the war, and asking that Gerda spare Ilse’s parents the pain of hearing that Ilse died as she did. Her character is that of an admirable martyr without whom Gerda would have probably not survived the war.
Abek is an intense and passionate young man who falls in love with Gerda at first sight and continues to love her despite her constant rejections. He is a Jewish Hebrew scholar and has a superior air about him when he speaks to people. He is intelligent and has sound judgment, and even Gerda’s father respects him. Abek is convinced that Gerda’s love is all he needs in order to maintain the courage required to get through the war. He is determined and forceful, yet Gerda sees his neediness toward her as a sign of weakness. She feels that were he more forceful, perhaps he could be the man she is searching for, but his weakness disillusions her.
In Gerda’s life, Abek takes the role of an older brother, although he would prefer to be her lover. His love for her is intense—he forces his family to help Gerda, at great personal sacrifice, and he truly believes that one day he will be able to change her feelings toward him. Abek writes to Gerda faithfully, even when he receives no response, and eventually he voluntarily transfers to the worst camp in Germany to be closer to her. Though Abek initially functions as an older brother in Gerda’s life, he eventually becomes the focus of the guilt she feels when she recognizes that he has made his life nearly unbearable in order to be closer to her. Only when he truly realizes that Gerda does not love him does he give up hope completely and begin to lose the desire to live.
Kurt is an American soldier who helps liberate the remaining girls from the death march, and Gerda believes that he is her soul mate. Kurt was born in Germany, and he moved to the United States a year after Hitler came to power, leaving his parents behind. His parents were put in a camp, and his letters to them were marked “Undeliverable.” The suffering and guilt he feels regarding his parents’ fate allow him to understand Gerda’s feelings, and this helps the two connect more deeply. Intuitively, Kurt understands what Gerda feels and needs, and his instinctual understanding of her makes Gerda believe that they are truly destined to be together. While she is in the hospital, he does not bring her clothes and food, though she needs them, because he wants her to feel that this is a normal courtship and that he does not see her as victim. Although Gerda doesn’t explore his character very thoroughly in her memoir, his deep and abiding love for Gerda, and hers for him, is clear.
Gerda Weissman was born in Bielsko, Poland. Not Bielitz.
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