All But My Life: A Memoir
is the true story of Jewish author Gerda Weissmann Klein’s struggle through German and Polish concentration camps during WWII. Published in 1957, the memoir was adapted for film in 1995 under the name One Survivor Remembers
, an Academy Award and Emmy Award-winning short film. For her advocacy in human rights and education about the Holocaust, Klein was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.
The book begins on September 3, 1939. Gerda is an upbeat, popular fifteen-year-old with friends throughout the town. The Nazi’s invade Poland, reaching Bielitz, where Gerda lives with her parents and brother, Arthur. The citizens greet the incoming Nazis, but the local Jewish population knows they are in trouble. Gerda’s family is Jewish and with the Nazi’s in the country, Bielitz is no longer safe. Their father implores that they leave the country, but he is sick and unable to leave. The family decides to stay together.
First, the Germans force the Jewish population to register and wear armbands to distinguish themselves. The registration allots fewer rations to Jews than to the rest of the population. The Germans take away the possessions of Gerda’s family, though they are able to sell some of their belongings beforehand, and force them to live in their cellar while their German laundress takes their house, which has been in the family of Gerda’s mother for decades.
Only eighteen days after Poland is invaded, the Germans begin taking the Jewish men. Arthur is the first family member to be sent to a concentration camp, though Gerda continues to receive letters from him. The Germans confiscate her father’s factory. Two years after Arthur’s departure, Gerda and the rest of the family learn they are to be sent to a concentration camp as well. Her father is sent to a separate male camp in the opposite direction. Gerda and her mother go to the same camp for a time but then are separated: Gerda to a labor camp, her mother to a death camp. Gerda never sees her family members again.
Throughout her journey, Gerda comes in and out of contact with Abek Feigenblatt, a Jewish boy who is in love with her, though she does not reciprocate. His family attempts to free her, but she would be so heavily in their debt, she feels she would have to marry Abek, which she does not want to do. At one point, Abek transfers to a more horrible concentration camp just to be closer to her. She also receives romantic letters from him frequently, but they eventually lose contact.
Gerda spends four years in various camps, each focusing on different labor. In Marzdorff, a specialized camp for weaving, Gerda’s supervisor continues to make sexual advances toward her. She declines and is forced to work more. The friends she makes along the way suffer as she does, and she witnesses starvation, disease, and abuse. Her childhood friend, Ilse, accompanies her through much of the hardship. They hear rumors that they are to be used for entertainment for German soldiers. They procure enough poison to avoid this fate, but they never come to need it. When the Allied forces advance closer to their position, the Germans force Gerda and prisoners from several other camps—numbering in the thousands—to march further into German territory. Many women lose their lives from starvation or cold on the grueling march through hundreds of miles of a bombed-out Germany.
By the time they reach Volray, Czechoslovakia, there are only 125 women remaining. The SS locks them into a warehouse with a bomb, but it never detonates. Instead, they are released by Czech citizens who inform them the war is over. Gerda weighs only 67 pounds at this point, has not bathed in three years, and is white-haired despite being nearly twenty-one years old. All the friends she made in the camps are dead. She is taken to a Red Cross hospital with the other women, where she spends months in recovery. The first American soldier Gerda meets during this liberation is Kurt Klein, whose parents were also killed by the Nazis. The two fall in love. Before he is reassigned, he asks Gerda to marry him. They move to the United States, where Gerda becomes a lecturer and author as a naturalized citizen.
Throughout All But My Life
, Gerda shares her unshakeable hope with those around her; this theme pervades the narrative. Gerda promises her parents in the early stages of the narrative that she will survive, which is what fuels her own hope that one day she will be reunited with her family.
The book is critically well regarded, with Kirkus Reviews
calling it a “simply written and deeply moving” account of a woman on the cusp of maturity experiencing horrible things.