All But My Life: theme

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Cruelty and Murder

The horror unleashed by the Nazis both before and during World War II are known, or should be, to everyone. Examples can be found on virtually every page of Weissmann Klein’s memoir. The persecution, cruelty, and murder is especially abhorrent because it is perpetrated against an entire people based solely on their ethnicity. The Jews are not enemy combatants, they are civilians, but they are treated as if they are subhuman. It probably goes without saying that no normal individual or group would treat a dog the way the Jews are treated, as recorded in the memoir.  DOGS AND JEWS NOT ALLOWED TO ENTER, says the sign posted by the Nazis outside Papa’s factory in Bielitz. No cruelty is too much for the Nazis. Jewish property is looted and stolen; families are forced out of their own houses into ghettos and then removed altogether to create “Jew-free” zones. Older people are sent to death camps, while the younger ones, like Gerda, Arthur, Abek, and others, are forced to work in factories and live in camps under appalling conditions. Random massacres can take place, seemingly at any time, as Gerda learns from a letter she receives from her friend Erika in early 1942. Erika is living in another part of Poland, and this is what she reports: “Old people, young people, and children all had been taken to the market place. There they had undressed and lain naked on the stones, face down, and the murderers on horses and brandishing guns trampled on that screaming human pavement. Many were killed by the horseshoes, the whips left bloody traces” (p. 69). Another example of despicable cruelty and murder, out of dozens that could be cited, occurs at a transit camp in Sosnowitz in mid-1942, before Gerda is sent to the factory at Bolkenhain. Gerda and a few other girls enter a closed room and see the following: “Several living skeletons, clad in rags that crawled with vermin, stretched out begging hands. Some had only one leg, or were maimed in other ways. Their faces were drawn, their eyepits burned feverishly. They told us they had become or had been injured in accidents. . . . They knew they were now going to Auschwitz to be gassed and cremated” (p. 105).


Weissmann Klein carefully describes, in page after page of lucid prose, her experience of one of the darkest periods in recorded history, and yet in spite of the horrors she experienced and witnessed over a period of years, there are also many examples of the presence of love even in the depths of despair and pain. The love takes many different forms. There is familial love of the Weissmanns, including the love between Papa and Mama. When they know they are about to be separated, perhaps forever, Gerda realizes that “they faced what the morning would bring with the only weapon they had—their love for each other” (p. 86). Gerda adds immediately a paean to love: “Love is great, love is the foundation of nobility, it conquers obstacles and is a deep well of truth and strength.” She writes that it was the memory of her parents’ love that has sustained her during her entire life. The love Gerda finds with Kurt Klein immediately after the war is another example of the triumph of love, as are the many small ways that the women prisoners find to help each other during their captivity. The cruelty of the guards does not rub off on them. They retain their humanity and their ability to love, in spite of everything.


Desire to Live

No one could have blamed Gerda had she given up hope completely and lost the will to live, but the memoir repeatedly comes back to the unquenchable desire to live. Early on, Gerda does indeed think that death would be better than what they are enduring. The family has been told they must move out of their house, andshe is tormented by fears about what may have happened to her brother Arthur, who has been sent away. That night she longs for death, but her father guesses what she is thinking and tells her it is wrong. He makes her promise that she will never take her own life. She regards the promise she gives as “my most sacred vow” (p. 32). (She remembers that promise at one dark moment in the camp at Märzdorf, when she is tempted to jump in front of a train.)

Later, just after she has been separated from her parents, she thinks to herself, “Now I have to live, because I am alone and nothing can hurt me any more” (p. 95). On the death march, when the number of women on the march has shrunk to one-quarter of its original size, Gerda wonders “Why should I hope?” But she quickly realizes that she must not encourage any negative thoughts. She must choose life. “I had to hope,” she writes. “I had to go on to the end” (p. 192). So she finds the strength to go on as the will to live asserts itself yet again. Others in the camps recognize this in Gerda. Tusia, for example, says to Gerda at Helmbrechts, “Your spark has not gone out, it never will” (p. 197). In the midst of cruelty and death, Gerda somehow always finds ways to affirm life, and it seems that this was one of the reasons she was able to survive when so many did not. 

Nature Contrasted with Human Actions

Gerda is very alive to the beauty of nature, and she often juxtaposes descriptions of natural phenomena with the human atrocities that are taking place. She recalls that in the summer before the war began, she and her mother were traveling back by train to Bielitz after visiting a resort. War is in the offing, but it is hard for her to imagine, because “The forests were green and looked so peaceful, the wheat stood ripe and rich in the fields” (p. 24). Some years later, Gerda is at the camp in Grünberg, and she describes it as “cruelty set against a backdrop of beauty. The gentle vineyard-covered hills silhouetted against the sapphire sky seemed to mock us” (p. 167). Here, the human cruelty is so insidious that it seems to have infected nature also, and even the sky seems to harbor malicious feelings. Another example is on the death march in the depth of winter. Snow is falling, and the women are half-starved and subject to beatings if they fall behind. Two such girls are shot. Gerda, marching on as ordered says “God!” and looks up to the sky: “The sky was blue, the snow was clean, the snowy pine trees were beautiful in the sunlight” (p. 184). The contrast again between the serenity and beauty of nature and the hideous acts being perpetrated by humans is stark indeed.

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