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.
Gerda Weissman was born in Bielsko, Poland. Not Bielitz.
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