1. He looked steadily at me and then answered my thoughts. “Whatever you are thinking now is wrong. It is cowardly.” I couldn’t deny it. He lifted my chin up and looked at me firmly again. “Promise me that no matter what happens you will never do it.”
In Part One, Chapter 5, when Gerda finishes selling the family’s possessions to the neighbors to finalize their move to the ghetto, she recalls hearing of a family that committed suicide together. She half-heartedly wishes that her parents would suggest this. As she is considering the idea, her father walks into the room and forces her to promise to never do it—though neither he nor Gerda specify out loud what “it” is. This scene is the first of two major events during which Gerda’s father gives the impression of omniscience—he knows what she is thinking without her saying a word, and he knows what is best for her. The second instance of her father’s wisdom is when he insists that she wear her ski boots despite the fact that it is summer—a request that ultimately saves her life.
Throughout the book, Gerda gives the impression of her father’s impotence in the face of the Nazis—he cannot save his family or stop what is happening to them. However, this scene makes clear that no matter what the Nazis’ power, Gerda’s father still has the power to save her through small acts such as this one. Once Gerda is sent to the labor camps, she remembers the promise she made to her father, and it motivates her to go on. In the Märzdorf labor camp, where Gerda is working both the day and night shifts, she considers jumping onto the railroad tracks. At that moment, she gets a feeling in her neck that reminds her of how her father had held her head while making her promise to never give up. At that moment, when death seems like the only solution, the memory of this conversation, and of her father’s love for her, gives Gerda the courage to stay alive.
2. “I hope you will never be disillusioned. To you, life still means beauty, and that is how it should be. Continue to go through mud without dirtying your feet.” She spoke without explanation or introduction and without finishing, and then she stalked away towards our quarters.
In Part Two, Chapter 5, Tusia says this to Gerda while they are in Bolkenhain together. Tusia’s words in the book have a prophetic tone, particularly when she gives a similarly worded outburst in a fit of madness immediately before her death at Helmbrechts. Despite Tusia’s apparent lunacy, her words are largely accurate. The idea that cruelty can breed cruelty is reflected in Gerda’s descriptions of the girls in the camp who steal one another’s shoes, and the girl who betrays her fellow inmates by having an affair with an SS guard. However, these are behaviors that Gerda would never exhibit, and her reaction to the brutality she is forced to endure provokes quite the opposite reaction in her. If anything, Gerda becomes more dedicated to remaining kind and generous. The Nazis may destroy her body, but she refuses to let them consume her soul.
The slave labor camps and the death march are the mud that Gerda is going through, both literally and figuratively, yet despite the hunger and deprivation that she must suffer in order to survive, she continues to treat her peers with respect and dignity, thus not “dirtying her feet.” Although Gerda recognizes the viciousness that is possible in humankind and that which she sees in the Nazis, she also stops to notice the beauty that exists in nature and in the hearts of the other girls in the camps. Her memoir focuses more on the friendships that she manages to develop in the camps than on the harsh treatment that the girls endure. Although the title of Gerda’s book, All But My Life, describes what the Nazis have taken from her, she also succeeds at holding onto her own humanity, no matter what the circumstances.
3. My eyes remained dry. I felt my features turn stony. “Now I have to live,” I said to myself, “because I am alone and nothing can hurt me any more.”
Gerda’s thoughts, which appear in the first chapter of Part Two immediately after she has been separated from her mother, are paradoxical, for she implies that to lose everything is a kind of liberation. The natural reaction to losing all of one’s family members might tend toward becoming more self-destructive, but Gerda takes the opposite view. Thanks to Gerda’s unique optimistic viewpoint, even her most morbid thoughts, such as this one, reflect her positive perspective. Gerda finds that losing her family prompts her to go on living. She sees this loss as a new kind of freedom: now she doesn’t have to worry about her parents’ welfare or being forced to make the “right” decisions, and she can put her own desires before her duty to her parents, which feels like a reprieve from responsibility. Knowing that her only duty is to look out for her own survival allows her the discretion to express the feelings, such as rage she shows here, that she has kept inside for fear of upsetting her parents.
The idea that all suffering comes from attachment is reflected in Gerda’s thoughts: she believes that now that her family has been taken from her, she can no longer be hurt. However, this conclusion is much like her mother’s belief that once the Nazis took their house they were safe, because that was the worst injustice they could place upon them. Obviously, this is a miscalculation on both of their parts, for the Nazis continue to prove that they can always commit worse injustices. In a sense, though, the freedom Gerda now feels is very real. The loss of responsibility to her parents allows her the audaciousness to behave in ways that she would not have considered before, such as barging into the commander’s office at Sosnowitz, which ultimately benefits her.
4. There is a watch lying on the green carpet of the living room of my childhood. The hands seem to stand motionless at 9:10, freezing time when it happened.
The first lines of All But My Life reflect Gerda’s belief that the Nazis stole her childhood, and that, in a way, time stopped for her when her town was invaded. Many times throughout the book, Gerda writes about feeling that her childhood ended when the Nazis first came to Bielitz, and that at that moment her life changed dramatically. From the first days of the invasion, the burden of responsibility in her family was placed on her shoulders. Jewish adults who freely walked the streets were often abducted or assaulted, so Gerda is the only member of her family who can come and go from their house unchallenged, forcing her to assume responsibility for many important decisions. Her role with her parents switches after the invasion, for she becomes the caregiver in many respects, causing her to feel that she must behave as an adult at all costs.
The idea that time stops for Gerda when the invasion occurs is a notion that she visits again in her epilogue. She says she experienced a break in her social development because she was not allowed to participate in ordinary adolescent activities during the six years of war. Her normal emotional growth was slowed. Although she had more horrifying experiences in her teenage years than most people see in a lifetime, she also had a huge gap in her social development. In a sense, time did stop for Gerda when the war started, for after she was liberated she was still a girl of fifteen in many respects. She writes that, at the age of twenty-one, she was afraid that Kurt would attempt to kiss her, much as she feared Abek’s romantic attempts as a teenager.
5. I had reached the summit, as I had dreamed I would in the dark years of slavery, and there, beyond the sphere of human vision, we met and embraced. We would never be alone again.
The last lines of the memoir summarize Gerda’s feelings about life and love. She believes that no matter what happens in a person’s life, there is no pain or suffering that love cannot heal. While she does not believe she will be rewarded in life just because she has suffered, she recognizes that in order to reap the rewards of a wonderful life, one must be willing to endure the pain of that life as well. Gerda has endured the suffering of the Holocaust (which she terms “the dark years of slavery”), and she now sees her love for Kurt as her reward. She believes that they are not merely engaged to be married, but that they are soul mates who connect on a level beyond what we as humans can understand—perhaps even in a place where only God makes the decisions. The idea that a power greater than either Kurt or Gerda brought them together is implied when Gerda says that they met beyond the sphere of human vision. This idea comforts Gerda, who has been through so much in the preceding years.
For a woman like Gerda, who has lost her entire family and seen how readily a person can lose everything in life, the idea that now she and Kurt will never have to be alone again is radical. Gerda knows all too well how easy it is to lose someone you love—love in itself does not protect against that loss. However, Gerda feels that her relationship with Kurt is not merely physical, but spiritual as well. Although their bodies may be taken, their souls cannot be captured, and in that sense, Gerda and Kurt will remain together forever.
Gerda Weissman was born in Bielsko, Poland. Not Bielitz.
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