Despite the horrors that the Nazis perpetrate on the Jews, Gerda is quick to point out that there is still beauty in the world, although perhaps it exists only in nature. When the Germans first invade Bielitz, Gerda is brought to tears when her neighbor picks Gerda’s mother’s white roses to give to the Nazis. He drops them, however, and she watches as the soldiers’ boots trample the roses in the dust. She points out the incongruousness of the Nazis’ depraved behavior when set against the backdrop of the glorious natural world. Gerda describes the Grünberg labor camp as “cruelty set against a backdrop of beauty.” Her surprise at seeing a camp lined with tulips in full bloom yet filled with skeletal girls underscores the horror of the scene. During the death march, a few girls stop and are unable to go on. Gerda looks around and admires the beauty of the snowy pine trees while she hears the gunshots as the girls are executed. She cannot understand how a world that is so full of beauty can also be inhabited by people who are so heartless.
Throughout All But My Life,Gerda lovingly describes her childhood home. The day before she is moved to the ghetto, Gerda takes a serious risk, saying, “I did not care whether I was caught or not, I had to see my beloved home once more!” In the camps, Gerda often thinks of her parents and brother, always set against the backdrop of her home as it was before they were forced to sell their belongings and move out. She uses fantasies of returning home and meeting her family to help her get through the horrors of her days in the camps, and her longing for home sometimes comes close to overwhelming her while she is on the death march. The feeling of security she gets from picturing her childhood home does not diminish until she is liberated. Only then does she slowly start to realize that her home no longer exists in the way she remembers it. In her epilogue, however, Gerda recalls her first steps on American soil, with Kurt, her husband, embracing her and saying, “You have come home.” Only then does Gerda realize that home is not a physical place but, rather, a set of feelings that has survived the destruction of the war and will live on through her new family.
Rather than portraying her survival as the result of her own cunning or of divine intervention, Gerda is quick to note the many times that sheer luck determined whether she would live to see the end of the war. Gerda’s brushes with death are too numerous to count, and only because of a series of close calls and coincidences does she avoid being exterminated with the rest of her family. The police officer who lets her go when she is caught studying English, her father’s insistence that she wear her ski boots before she leaves their home, Merin’s forcing her onto the truck to the camps instead of to Auschwitz, and Ilse’s backing out of their escape plan at the last minute are all examples of the role that chance plays in her eventual survival. By accentuating these moments, Gerda makes clear that she does not believe herself to be superior to those who did not live. Rather, she portrays the wartime world as a terrifying place where matters of life and death are again and again determined completely by chance.
The Holocaust is one of the most dramatic instances of people behaving inhumanely and treating others with hideous cruelty, yet Gerda chooses to focus on the deep friendships she develops during the war and the acts of generosity she witnesses. Other Holocaust memoirs, such as Night by Elie Wiesel, detail not only the brutality of the Nazis but also the cruelty of the Jews toward one another as they are forced to struggle for their own survival. In contrast, Gerda in almost every case shows the acts of kindness among her peers in the camps and tries to act as charitably as they do. Despite the fact that she and her fellow prisoners are near starvation, Gerda gives her food away many times and, when she is weak, is given food by Ilse and Hanka. Much like Anne Frank, the author of the Holocaust memoir Diary of a Young Girl, Gerda is inspired by the horrors of the war to be more generous and kind rather than less so.
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