All But My Life
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Sustaining Power of Hope
Despite all she endures, Gerda never loses hope that her life will improve and that her suffering has some greater meaning. Gerda is not strongly religious, but she has faith in humanity, nature, and the belief that no matter what happens, something good can come from it. When Gerda writes about being in the group sent on the death march from Grünberg, of which only 120 out of the 2,000 in her part of the group survived, she says of another group that was liberated earlier, “Had I been part of it my fate would have been different. Less suffering, yes, but less happiness, too, I am sure.” Gerda clearly believes that the pain and hardship in her life have been more than offset by the happiness she has experienced. From her perspective, the war took her family, but it brought her a new family as well: because of the war and the Holocaust, she met the man who became her loving husband and the father of her children. The idea that one must persevere through pain in order to experience joy has helped Gerda come to terms with her experiences.
The Importance of Bearing Witness
In the epilogue, Gerda writes that she hopes her lifelong efforts to raise awareness about the Holocaust have given back some small part of what she has received. One way she does this is by bearing witness to the life and death of those who have no other voice. Gerda strives to provide as much first-hand information as she possibly can about her fellow prisoners. In the section describing her time in Bolkenhain, she describes what happens to a fellow prisoner, Lotte, saying, “I cannot help but want to tell her story, for I might be the only one left in the world who knows it.” Gerda believes her duty is to be as detailed as possible when she writes about the others in her camp. Just as she does not know what her family’s last days or weeks were like, she recognizes that most Holocaust victims died in obscurity, and she uses her memoir to try to right that wrong. In many instances, she includes people’s full names and their fates, even if they are such minor characters that they are mentioned in only one or two sentences. For Gerda, telling the stories of others who died is just as important as telling her own story, and she does so in a way that is both respectful and deeply moving.
Morality Is a Choice
No matter what their circumstances or situation, people have free will, and they always have the option to act with morality and humanity. Gerda illustrates this theme by writing about people who behave in unexpected ways, such as the decision by Frau Kügler, who works for the SS, to save Gerda’s life. By giving examples of people who, while working for the Nazis, nevertheless behaved with humanity, Gerda illustrates that it was not impossible for Germans during the Nazi era to act decently toward Jews, forcing the reader to question why it was only these few specific people who chose to behave humanely. By pointing out that some people chose to show compassion, she makes the parallel point that those who behaved cruelly were making a choice as well. She also gives numerous examples of girls who helped one another in the camps, at great personal risk to themselves. Even under the harshest conditions, whether working for the Nazis or imprisoned in a slave labor camp, people are not entirely powerless or entirely unable to make a moral choice. Some become monsters, and some choose to treat others as fellow human beings and thereby reaffirm their own humanity.
The Beauty of Nature
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.
Gerda mentions flowers dozens of times in her memoir: roses, buttercups, daisies, lilacs, tulips, and violets. These references often point to the beauty of nature and the goodness of which the world is capable. Flowers are also important symbols for the memories of home that sustain her during her ordeal. When Kurt brings Gerda lilies-of-the-valley early in their courtship, he brings her to tears by reminding her of her childhood garden. To keep hope alive during her time in the camps, she often recalls images of flowers. She uses the beauty of these images to underscore all that she has lost in the war and to remind herself that, despite what she has endured, the world is still capable of producing beauty and inspiring hope.
In the world of the Holocaust, shoes represent the difference between life and death. Many times in her memoir, Gerda says she believes that the fact that her father insisted she wear her skiing shoes before she left for the camps saved her life. She sleeps curled around her shoes on the death march, to protect them from the shoeless girls who would otherwise steal them during the night, for those who are properly shod have the best chance of surviving. She writes of seeing a girl break off her own toes after they become thoroughly frozen, and of other girls who leave bloody trails in the snow when they walk. Gerda keeps poison in her shoe as well, to be used as a last resort. Her shoes not only have the power to assure her survival—they also contain the means of her death, if she so chooses.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!