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All But My Life

Gerda Weissmann Klein

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All But My Life is Gerda Weissmann Klein’s memoir of her experiences during World War II. Klein was born on May 8, 1924, in Bielitz (now Bielsko), Poland. She remembers her childhood as being happy, even idyllic. The Weissmanns were a Jewish family, and their town had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before 1919. Like most of the residents in the area, the Weissmann family was bilingual, speaking both Polish and German, and Klein’s older brother, Arthur, studied English as well. Klein’s father, Julius, was a business executive who had lived in Bielitz for more than twenty years, and Helene, her mother, was born there, as were both Klein and Arthur. The family was horrified when German Nazi forces invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Despite the fact that Britain and the United States declared war on Germany two days later, it took the Nazis only eighteen days to conquer Poland.

Soon afterward, the entire Jewish population of Bielitz was forced to register with the police, and soon, sanctions were imposed against the Jews. First, they were required to turn in all gold, automobiles, bicycles, and radios. Many Jews were forced out of their homes, and the local temple was burned down. In October of 1939, all Jewish men between the ages of sixteen and fifty were forced to register, whereupon they were sent in cattle cars to rebuild parts of Poland that had been destroyed by Allied attacks. Klein’s brother was sent to the interior of Poland in one of these transports. In December, the Weissmann family was forced to move into the basement of their home, while the woman who had been their laundress took over the main house. After Christmas, the Nazis restricted the local Jewish population’s food supply by stamping their ration cards with the word “JEW,” entitling them to less than half the amount of food that non-Jews received. Their coal rations were also cut, and they were forced to wear blue and white armbands and, later, yellow stars that identified them as Jews.

Before the war began, Bielitz had a Jewish population of nearly 8,000 people. As news of the German treatment of Jews reached them, however, more and more Jews fled to the Russian-occupied parts of Poland that had not been claimed during the German takeover. By the spring of 1940, the Jewish population in Bielitz had dwindled to little more than three hundred people, most of them children and the elderly. Like Klein’s brother, all of the young men had left in the transports. The young female population was declining as well, as more and more families left or sent their children out of the country. On April 19, 1942, all of the remaining Jews in Bielitz were ordered to move into a newly constructed Jewish ghetto. In May of 1942, shortly after Klein’s eighteenth birthday, all Jews were required to register for work. Those who did not comply were sent to Auschwitz, a nearby concentration camp intended to enable the Nazis to kill those people who were deemed not useful to the German cause. Soon, the Weissmann family was told that they would be sent to camps in order to make Bielitz Judenrein—free of Jews. Klein’s father and mother were taken to death camps, where they were killed, along with one to three million others.

Poland was the center of the Jewish Holocaust, and Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec, Majdanek, Sobibor, and Birkenau, the infamous concentration camps, were all located there. The survival rate for Jews living in Poland during the war was lower than in any other country. Poland’s Jewish population dropped from 3,500,000 to just 50,000 by the end of the war. At the same time that her parents were taken to Auschwitz, Klein and many other young Polish people were taken to labor camps, where they became slaves forced to work for the German war effort. As it became obvious that Germany was losing the war, the Germans started dismantling the camps and forcing the prisoners onto marches that became known as “death marches” because of their extremely high mortality rate. In the winter of 1945, more than four thousand young women were forced onto a three-hundred-mile “death march” from a number of labor camps in Germany and Poland to Czechoslovakia. Among them was Gerda Weissmann Klein—one of only 120 women in her group of 2,000 who survived this march. Klein and the other women were liberated by American troops—including one soldier who eventually became Klein’s husband in the spring of 1945.

All But My Life is Klein’s memoir of the period from September 3, 1939, two days after the Nazi invasion of Poland, until September of 1945. In 1946, Klein moved to Buffalo, New York, with her husband, Kurt Klein, where she began working to raise awareness about the Holocaust, prevent hunger, and promote tolerance. She quickly formed ties with a number of Jewish groups and began lecturing about her experiences as a young woman during the Holocaust. First published in 1957, Klein’s story was the basis for the Academy Award-winning documentary One Survivor Remembers. Klein also went on to write a number of other books, including a collection of her correspondence with her then-fiancé, Kurt Klein, before their marriage in 1946.

All But My Life is just one of many memoirs written in the decades immediately following the end of World War II. In 1995 the memoir was revised and re-released with an epilogue describing Klein’s post-war life.

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