All But My Life

by: Gerda Weissmann Klein

Themes

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.


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