Gerda Weissmann Klein’s story begins on September 3, 1939, when she is fifteen. This day, she says, was the beginning of a tragedy that lasted six years. She is living in Bielitz, Poland, the town of her birth, and she reacts with horror as she watches her neighbors greet the invading Nazis with joy. The family had been trying to hide the possibility of war from Gerda’s father because he was ill and they didn’t want to upset him. Once their town is invaded, though, they can no longer keep it a secret from him. Sanctions start being imposed on the Jews, and Jewish men are being abducted by the Nazis.
In October, Gerda’s brother, Arthur, is forced to leave in a Nazi transport with all of the other young men in town. Gerda never sees him again, although she receives letters from him throughout much of the war. The situation becomes more and more dire for the Jews, as their Aryan neighbors take advantage of the situation as much as they can, buying their possessions for a fraction of their worth and taking over the factories they own. The Weissmanns are forced to switch homes with their laundress, who has been living in their basement, and not long after, they are told they will soon be forced to move into a Jewish ghetto. Gerda travels with her childhood friend Ilse to visit a camp for young Jewish men and meets Abek Feigenblatt, who quickly falls in love with her, although his feelings are not reciprocated. Gerda thinks of Abek is a friend and nothing more.
Gerda becomes increasingly aware of how truly horrifying the situation has gotten when she receives a letter from her friend Erika, telling her how her mother, baby brother, and boyfriend were forced to lie naked on the cobblestones of their town and were then trampled to death by Nazis on horseback.
In 1942, the family is forced into a Jewish ghetto and ordered to work for the German war effort. However, it is not long before all the Jews are told they will be moved out of town so Bielitz can be Judenrein—free of Jews. Gerda is separated from her parents and never sees them again.
Gerda goes to a transit camp in Sosnowitz, where Abek’s family makes sacrifices to try and get her freedom. However, she chooses to not go with them because she realizes that she will be so thoroughly in their debt that she will be forced to marry Abek, which she does not want to do. Gerda and Ilse are then transported to a labor camp that specializes in weaving, which they are forced to do for the German war effort. Gerda regularly receives loving letters from Abek while in the camp.
In August of 1943, the girls are divided into groups and told they will be leaving the camp and taken to Märzdorf, another labor camp. Luckily, Gerda and Ilse are in the same group. Märzdorf is almost unbearable for Gerda once she refuses a supervisor’s advances and is punished by being forced to work both the day and night shifts. Ilse manages to save her by having them both transferred to a weaving camp in Landeshut.
They discover that there is a men’s camp next door, reputed to be the worst camp in all of Germany. Gerda is shocked and guilt-ridden when she hears that Abek has voluntarily transferred there to be closer to her.
On May 6, 1944, the girls find out that they are to be transferred again. Ilse and Gerda continue to mourn the loss of their families but still have hope for their own survival. The new camp, Grünberg, is brutal, but still not as bad as Märzdorf. In November, the girls are forced to strip naked and be visually inspected by the SS (stands for Schutzstaffel, the term for Hitler’s elite group of soldiers). They hear rumors that they may be sent to provide “amusement” for wounded German soldiers. Gerda manages to buy enough poison for both herself and Ilse so that they will be able to avoid this fate.
As the war progresses and Germany begins to falter, the situation at the camp becomes worse and worse. In January 1945, they find out that Germany is being invaded by the Allies. Girls from other work camps arrive, increasing the camp population to over 4,000 young women. They are divided into two groups and told they will be marching to a concentration camp. Gerda says that her group was doomed—only 120 of them survived—but she expresses no regrets about being assigned to this group. They begin their march, and after only a few days, girls begin to die of starvation and cold. They march for weeks through bombed-out cities of Germany and, in March, finally arrive at another camp, Helmbrechts.
The next month, however, they are forced to begin marching again, and they soon cross the Czechoslovakian border. Ilse grows weaker and weaker, and Gerda tries in vain to protect her. Ilse dies on the march, as do most of the other prisoners. One night, in a town called Volary, they are locked into a factory building and left there by the SS with a bomb outside.
The bomb does not go off, however, and the Czech people unlock the doors, announcing that the war is over. The surviving girls are taken to a makeshift hospital by the Red Cross and American soldiers. One of these American soldiers is Kurt Klein, who continues to visit Gerda while she is in the hospital. Before he is forced to go back to America, he asks Gerda to come with him and be his wife. She says she knows she will never be alone again.