All But My Life: A Memoir [NOOK Book]


All But My Life is the unforgettable story of Gerda Weissmann Klein's six-year ordeal as a victim of Nazi cruelty. From her comfortable home in Bielitz (present-day Bielsko) in Poland to her miraculous survival and her liberation by American troops--including the man who was to become her husband--in Volary, Czechoslovakia, in 1945, Gerda takes the reader on a terrifying journey.

Gerda's serene and idyllic childhood is shattered when Nazis march into Poland on September 3, ...

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All But My Life: A Memoir

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All But My Life is the unforgettable story of Gerda Weissmann Klein's six-year ordeal as a victim of Nazi cruelty. From her comfortable home in Bielitz (present-day Bielsko) in Poland to her miraculous survival and her liberation by American troops--including the man who was to become her husband--in Volary, Czechoslovakia, in 1945, Gerda takes the reader on a terrifying journey.

Gerda's serene and idyllic childhood is shattered when Nazis march into Poland on September 3, 1939. Although the Weissmanns were permitted to live for a while in the basement of their home, they were eventually separated and sent to German labor camps. Over the next few years Gerda experienced the slow, inexorable stripping away of "all but her life." By the end of the war she had lost her parents, brother, home, possessions, and community; even the dear friends she made in the labor camps, with whom she had shared so many hardships, were dead.

Despite her horrifying experiences, Klein conveys great strength of spirit and faith in humanity. In the darkness of the camps, Gerda and her young friends manage to create a community of friendship and love. Although stripped of the essence of life, they were able to survive the barbarity of their captors. Gerda's beautifully written story gives an invaluable message to everyone. It introduces them to last century's terrible history of devastation and prejudice, yet offers them hope that the effects of hatred can be overcome.

Klein's openness and warmth are reflected everywhere in her famous book, from the opening account of her family in prewar Poland to her three-year imprisonment in German work camps. On May 7, 1945, she was liberated by the U.S. Army and rescued by Lt. Kurt Klein, whom she married. Photos.

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Editorial Reviews

Jewish Book World
The new expanded edition contains an epilogue to the now classic story of the author's amazing survival during three years of imprisonment by the Nazis. Rebuilding her life after liberation, she chronicles how her experiences have been ever present in her daily routines and have influenced her views of society and her aspirations for her children.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781466812420
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 3/31/1995
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 42,807
  • File size: 440 KB

Meet the Author

Gerda Weissmann Klein was born in Bielsko, Poland, in 1924, and now lives in Arizona with her husband, Kurt Klein, who as a U.S. Army lieutenant liberated Weissmann on May 7, 1945. The author of five books, she has received many awards and honorary degrees and has lectured throughout the country for the past forty-five years. One Survivor Remembers (a production of Home Box Office and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), winner of an Emmy Award and the Academy Award for documentary short subject, was based on All But My Life. She will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom in early 2011.

Gerda Weissmann Klein and Kurt Klein lecture frequently and have written extensively about their experiences during the Holocaust. They have been married for over 50 years and reside in Scottsdale, Arizona.
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Read an Excerpt

All But My Life

A Memoir

By Gerda Weissmann Klein

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1995 Gerda Weissmann Klein
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-1242-0

All But My Life
Part OneChapter 1THERE IS A WATCH LYING ON THE GREEN CARPET OF THE LIVING room of my childhood. The hands seem to stand motionless at 9:10, freezing time when it happened. There would be a past only, the future uncertain, time had stopped for the present. Morning-9:10. That is all I am able to grasp. The hands of the watch are cruel. Slowly they blur into its face.I lift my eyes to the window. Everything looks unfamiliar, as in a dream. Several motorcycles roar down the street. The cyclists wear green-gray uniforms and I hear voices. First a few, and then many, shouting something that is impossible and unreal. "Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler!" And the watch says 9:10. I did not know then that an invisible curtain had parted and that I walked on an unseen stage to play a part in a tragedy that was to last six years.It was September 3, 1939, Sunday morning. We had spent a sleepless night in the damp, chilly basement of our house while the shells and bombs fell. At one point in the evening when Papa, Mama, my brother Arthur, then nineteen, were huddled in bewildered silence, my cat Schmutzi began to meow outside in the garden and Arthur stepped outside to let her in. He had come back with a bullet hole in his trousers."A bullet?""There is shooting from the roofs, the Germans are coming!"Then, in the early gray of the morning we heard the loud rumbling of enemy tanks. Our troops were retreating from the border to Krakow, where they would make their stand. Their faces were haggard, drawn, and unshaven, and in their eyes there was panic and defeat. They had seen the enemy, had tried and failed. It had all happened so fast. Two daysbefore, on Friday morning, the first of September, the drone of a great many German planes had brought most of the people of our little town into the streets. The radio was blasting the news that the Germans had crossed our frontier at Cieszyn and that we were at war! Hastily, roadblocks had been erected. Hysteria swept over the people and large numbers left town that day.I had never seen Bielitz, my home town, frightened. It had always been so safe and secure. Nestled at the foot of the Beskide mountain range, the high peaks had seemed to shelter the gay, sparkling little town from intruders. Bielitz was charming and not without reason was it called "Little Vienna." Having been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before 1919, it still retained the flavor of that era. Almost all of Bielitz' inhabitants were bilingual; Polish as well as German was spoken in the stores. In the center of the city, among carefully tended flower beds, stood its small but excellent theater, and next to it the Schloss, the castle of the Sulkowskys, the nobility closely linked to the Imperial Hapsburgs.Nothing in my lifetime had ever disturbed the tranquility of Bielitz. Only now, when I saw people deserting it, did I realize how close, dangerously close we were to the Czechoslovakian frontier; only twenty-odd miles separated us from Cieszyn.There had been talk of war for many weeks, of course, but since mid-August our family had been preoccupied with Papa's illness. Mama and I had been away in Krynica, a summer resort, from early June until the middle of August. Papa and Arthur had been unable to accompany us, and we returned when we received a telegram from Papa, suggesting we come home because of the gravity of the international situation. It had been somewhat of a shock to see how ill Papa looked when he met us at the station. His right arm was bothering him and Mama, alarmed, had called the doctor. The doctor diagnosed the illness as a mild heart attack and Papa was put to bed immediately.The following day two specialists were summoned to Papa's bedside. That same day we received a cable from Mama'sbrother Leo, who was in Turkey. It read: "Poland's last hour has come. Dangerous for Jews to remain. Your visas waiting at Warsaw embassy. Urge you to come immediately."Mama stuck the cable in her apron pocket, saying, "Papa is ill, that is our prime concern."Papa was to be spared excitement and worry at all costs, and visitors were cautioned not to mention the possibility of war to him. Mama little realized the fate we all might have been spared had she not concealed the truth from Papa. Yet on Friday morning, September 1, when German planes roared through the sky, Papa, who had been ill for two weeks, came face to face with reality. It was a tense day. I spent most of it in my parents' bedroom and instinctively stayed close to Papa.As that first day drew to a close, nobody touched supper, no one seemed to want to go to sleep. Mama sat in a chair near Papa's bed, Arthur and I watched from the window. Horses and wagons loaded with refugees continued to roll toward the East. Here and there a rocket, like blood spouting from the wounded earth, shot into the evening sky, bathing the valley in a grotesque red. I looked at my parents. Papa appeared strange, almost lifeless. The yellow flowers on Mama's black housecoat seemed to be burning. Outside, the mountain tops were ablaze for a moment, then they resounded with a thunderous blast that made the glass in the windows rattle like teeth in a skeleton's head. Everything was burning now. I looked at Mama again. Her soft, wavy, blue-black hair clung to her face. Her large, dark eyes seemed bottomless against her pale skin. Her mobile mouth was still and alien. The red glow was reflected in each of our faces. It made hers seem strange and unfamiliar. There was Mama, burning with the strange fire of destruction, and in the street the horses and wagons, the carts and bicycles were rolling toward the unknown. There was a man carrying a goat on his back, apparently the only possession he had. On the corner several mothers were clutching their infants to their breasts, and near them an old peasant woman crossed herself. It was as if the world had come to an end in that strange red light. Then, all of a sudden, Papa spoke to me."Go, call the family and find out what they are doing."I went downstairs. I sat down next to the phone with a long list of numbers. I started at the top and worked to the bottom, but there were no answers. The telephones kept ringing and ringing. I pictured the homes that I knew so well, and with each ring a familiar object or piece of furniture seemed to tumble to the floor.I became panicky. It seemed as though we were alone in a world of the dead. I went back upstairs. My parents and Arthur apparently had been talking. They stopped abruptly."Nobody answered, isn't that right?" Papa asked. I could not speak. I nodded. There was no longer any pretense. Papa motioned me to sit down on his bed. He embraced me with his left arm."Children," he said, "the time has come when I have to say what I hoped I would never have to say. I remember as if it were yesterday the cries of the wounded and the pale faces of the dead from the last war. I didn't think it possible that the world would come to this again. You believed I could always find a solution for everything. Yet I have failed you. I feel you children should go. Mama just told me that Mr. and Mrs. Ebersohn have asked to take you with them to look for refuge in the interior of Poland. I am sick when you most need my strength. I want you to go, children. I command you to go! His voice had assumed a tone of authority that I had never heard before. I saw Arthur look up startled at the mention of his girl friend's parents. More than ever he looked like Mama, but somehow he reminded me of Papa as he stood there tall, erect, and determined.Almost without hesitation, he said, "No! We are going to stay together."My parents' eyes met. I had a feeling there was relief and pride in their faces."I hoped you would say that," Papa said brokenly, "not for my sake, but because I hate to cast out my children to complete uncertainty. I believe that God will keep us together and under the roof of our house."He dropped back exhausted on his pillows. The effort hadbeen too much for him, and sudden stillness fell over the room. Strangely, all sound ceased outside as well and we noted that the sky was no longer red. 
When I awoke the next morning everything was as peaceful as ever. The sun shone so brightly in my room. The fall flowers in our garden were in full bloom. The trees were laden with fruit. In my room everything was as it had always been, and what's more, even Papa was out of bed. His arm was in a sling, but he was up, and it seemed so wonderful I was sure the night before had all been a nightmare. No, not quite, because in my parents' faces I could read something that hadn't been there yesterday.When we met downstairs for breakfast everybody seemed cheerful. Papa was joking. Mama joined in this seemingly carefree banter. The maid had left to be with her relatives. Papa jokingly asked me whether I wanted the job. Nobody mentioned the war. I walked to the radio and turned it on. There was a sharp click, but no sound. I tried the phone, the lights, but all electricity was off. In a way that was good. There was no contact with the outside world. It was a wonderful, peaceful Saturday. But evening brought fury to the end of that last peaceful day. Sporadic shooting started from the rooftops, an attempt at delaying the enemy while our army retreated to Krakow. We looked for shelter in our cellar and sat there through the night. Toward morning the shooting stopped altogether and the vehicles of the Polish army ceased to roll. We came up from the cellar for a cup of tea in the living room. As I sat down on the couch near the window I could see the people outside in an obviously gay and festive mood, talking and laughing, carrying flowers, and everywhere the clicking of cameras."Mama, look," Arthur said. "Do you suppose-?" and he broke in the middle of the sentence, not daring to say what seemed impossible."No," Mama answered, and then Arthur pulled his watch out of his pocket, the roar of a motorcycle broke the stillness of our home, and his watch fell to the floor. It was 9:10 A.M.I looked out again. A swastika was flying from the house across the street. My God! They seemed prepared. All but us, they knew.A big truck filled with German soldiers was parked across the street. Our neighbors were serving them wine and cakes, and screaming as though drunk with joy, "Heil Hitler! Long live the Führer! We thank thee for our liberation!"I couldn't understand it. I didn't seem to be able to grasp the reality of what had happened. What are those people doing? The same people I had known all my life. They have betrayed us.The breakfast tea turned cold on the table. Papa and Mama looked down at the floor. Their faces were blank. Papa seemed so old, so gray. He had changed so much.I smelled something burning. A hot coal from the big green tile oven had fallen through the grill onto the carpet. I remembered a similar accident a year or two before and Mama had been terribly upset. Afterward she had turned the carpet so that the burned spot was under the couch. This time I wanted to shout a warning, but my throat froze when I saw my parents staring at that coal. They saw the carpet burn slowly, but they didn't seem to care. Finally, Papa got up and with his shoe carelessly shoved the coal back to the grill. Nobody spoke.I looked out the window and there was Trude, a girl I had known since childhood. She and her grandmother lived rent free in a two-room apartment in our basement in return for laundry service. Now I saw her carrying flowers from our garden, white roses of which we had been so proud because they bloomed out of season. She handed them to a soldier, breaking her tongue with the unfamiliar German, "Heil Hitler!" The soldier reached for the flowers, but somebody offered him some schnapps. He took the glass instead, the flowers tumbled to the dusty road, the boots of the soldiers trampled on them. I started sobbing, crying, releasing all my emotions and anxieties in that outburst. Arthur jumped over to me, put his hand over my mouth. "Are you crazy? Do you want to give us away?" But I did not hear him. The tears felt so good. He finally slapped me. "Think of Papa's life. Ifthey hear you crying-" I couldn't stop. He pulled me down from the couch, dragged me over the carpet, and up the stairs with Mama holding my mouth. They put me to bed, where I cried into the pillow until, exhausted, I fell asleep.Early in the afternoon the drunken, jubilant mob was still celebrating its "liberation" and hoarsely shouting "Heil Hitler." Papa and Mama smiled. Their smiles seemed more painful to me than my screams and tears, and I learned at that moment that I must not always cry when I wanted. I realized that we were outsiders, strangers in our own home, at the mercy of those who until then had been our friends. Although I was only fifteen I had a strong feeling, more instinct than reason, that our lives were no longer our own, but lay in the hands of a deadly enemy.Mama tried to maintain the pattern of our life, even on that fateful Sunday. She prepared dinner and we sat down as usual, but no one could eat and when the food was cleared away we sat in silence. Arthur got out books about the war of 1914 and looked up data about its development, but Papa said, "This is a different war. This one cannot possibly last four years. Four weeks, perhaps four months at most."Early in the evening, when the shouting of the drunken mob had died away, there was a knock at the door and a whispered, "Mrs. Weissmann." It was our neighbor Mrs. Bergmann, the mother of my friend Escia. She looked pale and shaken as she relayed the news that during the afternoon several Jews had been rounded up in the streets, locked in the Temple, and the Temple set on fire."Men had better stay out of sight," she whispered.Papa and Arthur exchanged glances. Mama's eyes widened and she pressed her lips together. But Mrs. Bergmann told us too that England and France had declared war on Germany that morning. She stayed only a few minutes. When she rose to leave, Mama saw her to the door and I followed them. Before they opened the door Mrs. Bergmann and Mama listened a while, then finally Mrs. Bergmann turned the knob and through a tiny opening glanced up and down the street before she slipped out.We sat a while longer in silence, none of us wanting to go to bed. That was the first evening in my life that I saw Mama without needlework in her hands. She just sat and stared into the fire. After a while she got up, outwardly calm and regal, and said, "Go to bed, children. We all will need rest and strength."Her words climaxed the first day under German rule. 
The next morning, I was in the kitchen with Mama when Mrs. Rösche, one of the neighbors, came in with another woman and asked for our Polish flag."The flag?" Mama asked. "What for?""To make a German one, of course. It's really simple. You leave the red stripe as it is, cut a circle out of the white, and put a black swastika on it."Mama grew pale. At first she looked for our flag in places where she knew she wouldn't find it. Finally she brought it forth, knowing that she would have to sooner or later. Mrs. Rösche asked if Mama happened to have some black ribbon. She said she didn't. The other neighbor produced a piece. She told us it was good ribbon-that it would last for many years!Those two neighbors spent all morning sewing a Nazi flag to hang from our house. Why they did it, I'll never know. Perhaps they felt that we would be inviting trouble not to display the flag.When the flag was finished, they asked, "Where's Arthur? He is big and strong. He could hang the flag."Mama sent me to call him. I found him in his room, lying in listless apathy. When I told him what was asked of him, he shouted,"Are you all out of your minds? Never! Never! I won't do it. Tell them that I am gone, tell them that I am dead, tell them anything!"And so Mrs. Rösche and the other woman struggled to fasten the flag through the little hole in the roof. I couldn't bring myself to look out of the window for days, but when I did, there was the blood-red symbol of the tragedy that had engulfed us.Copyright © 1957, 1995 by Gerda Weissmann Klein

Excerpted from All But My Life by Gerda Weissmann Klein. Copyright © 1995 Gerda Weissmann Klein. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Reading Group Guide

Note to teachers:
All But My Life is the unforgettable story of Gerda Weissmann Klein's six-year ordeal as a victim of Nazi cruelty. From her comfortable home in Bielitz (present-day Bielsko) in Poland to her miraculous survival and her liberation by American troops -- including the man who was to become her husband -- in Volary, Czechoslovakia, in 1945, Gerda takes the reader on a terrifying journey.

Gerda's serene and idyllic childhood is shattered when the Nazis march into Poland on September 3, 1939. Although the Weissmanns were permitted to live on for a while in the basement of their home, they are eventually separated and sent to German labor camps. Over the next few years Gerda experienced the slow, inexorable stripping away of all but her life. By the end of the war she had lost her parents, brother, home, possessions, and community; even the dear friends she made in the labor camps, with whom she had shared so many hardships, were dead.

Despite her horrifying experiences, Gerda Weissmann Klein conveys great strength of spirit and faith in humanity. In the darkness of the camps, Gerda and her young friends managed to create a community of friendship and love; stripped to the essence of life, they were able to survive the barbarity of their captors. Gerda's beautifully written story gives an invaluable message to young Americans. It introduces them to this century's terrible history of devastation and prejudice, yet shows that with hope and faith, hatred can be overcome.

Preparing students to read All But My Life:
The questions, discussion topics, and assignments that follow will enrich your students' understanding of All But My Life and significantly expand their knowledge of the Holocaust and the Second World War. Many of your students will have grandparents who remember the war; some may have fought in Germany, others may even be Holocaust survivors themselves. Encourage your students to interview older people who remember the war. They might tape record these interviews and play them to the class. Every student will be interested in the HBO documentary on Gerda

Weissmann Klein, One Survivor Remembers, which won the 1996 Academy Award® for Best Documentary Short. Videocassettes of this film (ISBN 1-55974-587-8) are available from Direct Cinema Limited, P.O. Box 10003, Santa Monica, CA 90418. You should urge your students to watch the films and documentaries about Nazi Europe and the Holocaust which frequently appear on television. Try, too, to have them relate the events that Gerda witnessed to events in our own culture. Could a holocaust happen here? Why, or why not? Current news stories could also be of interest. Where else in the world are people being driven from their homes and forced to starve? What might the rest of the world do about it?

Understanding the story:
Bielitz (Bielsko)
1. What historic event occurred on September 3, 1939? What was its immediate effect on the Weissmanns' lives? What was the Third Reich?

2. On the day of the Nazi invasion, Gerda's parents ask her to telephone the other family members, but when she does so there is no reply (p. 6). Why not? Where have these people gone?

3. Why do Mr. and Mrs. Weissmann feel "relief and pride" (p. 6) when their children insist on staying with them?

4. Why don't Gerda's parents react when the carpet begins to burn (p. 8)?

5. Why does Gerda's brother, Arthur, slap her (p.8)?

6. Why does the "drunken, jubilant mob" in Bielitz believe it has been liberated (9)?

7. When one of Arthur's classmates tells him that young Jewish boys are being murdered in the camps, Arthur says, "Nonsense" (p. 17). Why doesn't he believe this boy?

8. The night before Arthur leaves home, he sits at his desk "looking through the mementos of his youth" (p. 18). What thoughts do you think are going through Arthur's head?

9. Why does Zeloski, the baker's delivery man, use the past tense when he speaks of Arthur (p. 19)? Why does Gerda say, "I hate you"?

10. Why doesn't Arthur want his family to accompany him to the station? Why doesn't he turn around as he leaves the house?

11. Why does Mrs. Weissmann decide to visit the cemetery after Arthur leaves home?

12. What does the young man tell the concert audience at the resort of Krynica? Why is he carried away by the police? Do you think he really is a maniac?

13. Why does Mr. Weissmann decide that the family should sell all of their belongings? What words would you use to describe Gerda's feelings after the sale?

14. What does Gerda's father have in mind when he says, "Whatever you are thinking now is wrong" (p. 32)? What promise does Gerda make to him at this moment?

15. What does Gerda mean when she says that Niania is an "old Austrian" (p. 34)? Who was the Emperor Franz Josef?

16. Why doesn't Gerda tell her parents about her conversation with Arthur's friend Peter, even after they discover that Arthur is still alive?

17. What does it mean to the Polish Jews that the Germans have violated their pact with the Russians (p. 46)? What will it mean to Arthur?

18. Why is Gerda not able to summon a doctor the night her father has a heart attack?

19. What does Ulla represent to the young Gerda? Why does Gerda decide to learn English, despite the danger of doing so?

20. What is Gerda's initial reaction to Abek? Does she feel positive, negative, or uncertain?

21. How are Gerda's life and character affected by the terrible letter from Erika? What changes have the dreadful events wrought on Erika's own character? "I want to kill, just kill," she writes (p. 70). Would you say that acts of hatred engender more hate?

22. How does Gerda deduce Arthur's changing state of mind from his letters?

23. In April 1942 the Jews in Bielitz are ordered to move to the quarter near the railway terminal which would become their "ghetto." What does the word ghetto mean? What was its original meaning, and what has it come to signify today in our country?

24. Why does Gerda "despise" Niania when she goes to say goodbye (p. 75)?

25. Why do Gerda's parents refuse to look back at their old home when they leave for the ghetto? Why does Gerda choose to look back?

26. Why are Gerda's parents in better spirits when they arrive in their ghetto apartment?

27. What does Aussiedlung mean? Why is the word so resonant for the Bielitz Jews?

28. What does Judenrein mean?

29. How would you describe the farewell Gerda's parents take of one another: joyful, sorrowful, or a combination of the two? What legacy do they leave the young Gerda?

30. Who is Merin? Why does he say to Gerda, "Are you crazy?" (p. 90)? Why does he throw her back on the truck and say "You are too young to die" (p. 91)? Is it because he pities her and wants to save her life, or because, as a worker, she will be useful to the Nazi State?

31. Why does Gerda walk away from her mother without looking back?

1. "Now I have to live," Gerda reflects on the train (p. 95). What reasons does she give for wanting to live?

2. What is the Militz? How does it differ from the ordinary police force? Why does the Militz Commander feel so hostile toward his own race? Why does he agree to give Gerda her permit?

3. Why is Abek's family so generous and hospitable to Gerda? What is Gerda's reaction to their kindness?

4. What is a Dulag?

5. Who are the "living skeletons" Gerda meets in the Dulag? Where are they to be sent?

6. Why does Gerda refuse the working card and decide to move on to the camp? What does her decision have to do with Abek? Why doesn't she want any "special privileges" (p. 107)?

7. During the train ride to the camp, why does Suse Kunz say that she feels "pretty good, in spite of everything" (p. 113)? Does this statement reflect Gerda's mood?

1. Who is Frau Kügler?

2. Bolkenhain is Gerda's first view of the "homeland of Nazism" (p. 114). How do the Germans there seem different from those she observed in Poland? What is "propaganda," and what effect has it had on the German people's preconceptions about Jews?

3. Who is Mrs. Berger? What does she imply in her short speech to the young women (p. 116)? Do you believe that her methods for dealing with the inmates were good ones? Do you find her a sympathetic character?

4. Why does the moon become Gerda's "loyal friend"? What does the moon signify to her?

5. Why do the inmates of Bolkenhain have to wear three stars? Why is it necessary that they be identified as Jews from every angle?

6. Who is Meister Zimmer? How do his attitude and behavior differ from those of Frau Kugler?

7. How does Mrs. Berger get Gerda to acknowledge her father's death? Do you think Mrs. Berger's method is kind? What method does Gerda use to cope with the dreadful knowledge?

8. Under what government did Gerda's grandfather live? Why was he exiled to Siberia? Why was he not given a trial? Why was he released and allowed to go home?

9. What is Yom Kippur? Why do the prisoners decide to fast, and what satisfaction do they derive from doing this fast?

10. Why is Lotte weeping at the camp fence? Why is she, unlike Gerda, unable to draw on happy memories to help her survive?

11. What makes Gerda sense that she will never see Arthur again after receiving his frayed, dirty letter?

12. How did Frau Kugler save Gerda's life? Do you believe that genuine affection existed between Frau Kugler and the girls under her care?

13. How did Abek's mother and sisters die? What mixed emotions does their fate inspire in Gerda? Why is she ashamed of her own feelings?

14. What message does Gerda communicate in the play she writes and performs for her fellow prisoners? In what way does the play manage to convey hope? What does Gerda get out of the experience of putting on the play, and why does she count it as the "greatest thing I have done in my life" (p. 142)?

15. In the summer of 1943, a change comes over Bolkenhain: incoming mail is cut off, Meister Zimmer becomes abusive, and there is not enough raw material for spinning. What is the meaning of this change? What turn is the war taking for the Germans?

1. How do the Marzdorf Judenalteste and Lagerfuhrerin differ from their counterparts at Bolkenhain? What does this mean for the inmates?

2. Who is Frau Aufsicht?

3. Why is the supervisor's question to Gerda, "Are you hungry?" (p. 147) a "tricky" one?

4. What keeps Gerda from throwing herself under a train and ending her life?

1. Upon seeing Litzi, Frau Kugler, and Mrs. Berger again, Gerda's reaction is "This was home!" (p. 153). What has she learned from her experiences at Marzdorf?

2. What does Gerda state to be the most important quality in a future husband? Why do the other girls laugh at her opinion? Do you agree with her or with them?

3. Why did Abek volunteer to come to Burgberg? Gerda feels responsible for his coming. Do you think that she is responsible? If so, does she make up for it by her loving behavior to Abek during his last days?

4. Why do Italian prisoners suddenly appear in Burgberg? What has happened in the war to turn the Italians and the Germans into enemies?

5. Why did Gerda decline to see Abek in Burgberg, writing him a note instead?

1. Who is the Betriebsleiter? This man is what one would describe as a sadist. What is a sadist, and which of the Betriebsleiter's characteristics are sadistic?

2. What is the Spinnerei? Why is it so dangerous to work there? 3. What is tuberculosis? What happens to the girls who contract it in Grunberg?

4. What impact does the beating by the SS guard have on Gerda? How does it affect her will to survive? How does it affect the other girls?

5. Why are the girls undressed and given numbers (pp. 178-179)?

6. Why does Gerda want to procure poison?

The March
1. Why do the authorities decide to embark on the march to Czechoslovakia? What turn in the war has prompted this flight?

2. Why do Gerda and Ilse not carry out Gerda's plan to go to the police station? What might have happened to them had they done this?

3. What does Tusia mean when she says that Gerda has given her "belief in humanity" (p. 197)? What is Gerda's response? Is her decision to make up "good news" for the other girls a good one?

4. Why do the guards abandon the marchers?

5. What is the significance of the white flag hanging from the church steeple in Volary?

1. What is Gerda's first impression of Kurt Klein? What does he represent to her? Why does she feel compelled to tell him they are Jews? What is his response?

2. When does Gerda finally admit to herself that her parents are dead? Why has she delayed the acknowledgement until this moment?

3. What does Kurt mean when he says, "It seems we fought a war against the Nazis, but I haven't met a Nazi yet" (p. 221)?

4. Why does Gerda compare herself to Hans Christian Andersen's mermaid?

5. What are Gerda's emotions on seeing Liesel, Suse, and Ilse's graves? Why does she turn abruptly away from them?

1. Gerda writes, "Survival is both an exalted privilege and a painful burden" (p. 247). What does she mean by this? In what way is it a burden?

2. What does the State of Israel symbolize to Gerda?

3. What are Gerda's feelings about suicide? What has formed these opinions?

4. What is the significance of Gerda's guilt over having, long ago, purloined a rum ball? How does this guilt carry over into her current life?

5. Why was Gerda unable to speak German on the radio? Why does Gerda prefer speaking English to any other language?

Questions for class discussion
1. In her Preface, Gerda writes "I feel at peace, at last. I have discharged a burden, and paid a debt to many nameless heroes." What burden has she discharged, what debt has she repaid? What has been achieved by her relating the stories of Lotte, Erika, and others?

2. What motivations kept the Weissmanns from fleeing Poland before the Nazi invasion, as Uncle Leo suggested they do? Did Mrs. Weissmann make a mistake in making her husband's health their primary concern? Why did the Weissmanns continue to hope that everything would be all right? Later, Aunt Anna urges the Weissmanns to accompany her into the Gouvernement. Why do they refuse to go? Was their decision justified?

3. Gerda couldn't understand why her neighbors made a Nazi flag to hang from the Weissmanns' house. What do you think their motivations were? Might this action have helped the Weissmans?

4. At the ruins of the Jewish Temple in Bielitz, Arthur gives Gerda a little piece of glass. Why does Gerda keep the glass for so long? What does it come to signify to her?

5. How does Gerda's vision of her parents change during the course of the book? What words would you use to describe her feelings about them when she is a young girl at the beginning of the war; at the end of the war, after their deaths; and as an older woman, a mother herself, looking back over the years?

6. On the door of Mr. Weissmann's factory, the Nazis place a sign that says: Dogs and Jews Not Allowed to Enter (p. 26). Do you find that the Nazis treated the Jewish people better, or worse, than dogs? In what ways did they consider the Jews useful to them and therefore worthy to be kept alive?

7. When the Weissmanns move into the basement of their house, Trude, who will move from the basement to the main part of the house, says "without malice or sarcasm" (p. 33) that she will be glad to have a nice place to spend Christmas. Do you think that Trude is really without malice? Do you think she might feel resentment for the difficult, impoverished childhood she has led? Why might she, and people like her, irrationally blame the Jewish population for their troubles?

8. What role does religion play in the lives of the Weissmann family? How do Gerda's religious beliefs evolve over the course of the book? Why, during the final march through Czechoslovakia, does Gerda stop praying?

9. Of all the Germans Gerda meets during the war, only two -- the officer in Bielitz who discovered her English textbook and Frau Kugler -- "behaved as though they were human" (p. 51). What can account for the fact that so many people acted with such incredible cruelty? Do you believe that the German nation should be held collectively responsible for the atrocities against the Jewish people? Or do you think that the kind of madness that overtook them is latent in all human beings?

10. How would you describe Abek's character? Can you understand Gerda's negative feelings toward him? How do their characters differ? How do their attitudes toward religion differ? Do you think that Gerda led Abek on, or that she dealt with him in the most sympathetic and humane way possible? How does Erika's letter about her love for Henek help to make Gerda understand her own feelings for Abek?

11. Reflecting upon the horrible scene in which families were separated and thrown into trucks, Gerda wonders, "Why? Why did we walk like meek sheep to the slaughterhouse? Why did we not fight back?" (p. 89). What answer does she give? Does that answer seem sufficient to you? What other reasons might you give?

12. Frau Kugler "appeared grim and forebidding," but "her harsh appearance turned out to conceal a kind heart" (p. 114). What lesson does Gerda learn about the difference between appearance and reality? What other characters in her story present a deceptive exterior? A terrible situation, like war, can bring out evil and rapacious qualities in some people. Does it seem to you that it can also bring out extraordinary and unexpected qualities in others? What other examples does the book provide?

13. Gerda relates the dramatic story of her grandfather's exile in Siberia and his return home (pp. 125-126). In what ways does his story resemble that of Gerda and her family? How does this memory help her to accept her situation in the camp? To what extent, in your opinion, were the governments of Czarist Russia and Nazi Germany similar to one another? How highly did they value human life? Would you say that the word "authoritarian" describes both systems?

14. Although Gerda loses her family early in the war, she enjoys firm friendships with girls like Ilse and Suse. What does friendship come to mean to her? How instrumental is it in keeping her alive and full of hope?

15. Could Gerda and her fellow prisoners be described as slaves? How do Gerda's definition of freedom, and her feelings about freedom, change over the course of her imprisonment? How does she manage, occasionally, to achieve feelings of freedom?

16. How would you describe the character of Kurt Klein? Why is he so well matched with Gerda? What does he, as an American, a Jew, and a liberator, symbolize to Gerda? How does Kurt's character differ from Abek's?

17. Gerda describes her childhood as "safe and sheltered, too sheltered perhaps for what the years ahead were to bring, but full of lovely memories from which to draw strength" (p. 24). Do you believe that Gerda's happy childhood and loving family contributed to her ability to survive where so many others did not? At the end of the book, she says that her childhood "in all probability was not as perfect as I have chosen to remember" (p. 258). Why has Gerda chosen to remember only the happy times with her parents? What other characteristics have helped to make Gerda a survivor?

18. Gerda writes, "Throughout my years in the camps, and against nearly insuperable odds, I knew of no one who committed suicide" (p. 250). Why do you think these people, who suffered such great loss and pain, did not resort to suicide, when many people take their lives for seemingly lesser reasons?

Expanding your knowledge
1. Read a short history of World War II, either in a book or in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Then divide a piece of paper in half. On the left half place events from All But My Life and the dates they took place. Look up what events took place in the war on those dates and place them on the right half of the page. How can the events that immediately affected Gerda be explained by the larger history of the war itself? Which dates does the author consider most important? Which do you consider the most important?

2. Find a map of wartime Europe. Locate Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia; within them, locate Bielitz, Sosnowitz, Bolkenhain, Marzdorf, Landeshut, and Grunberg. Trace the route of the march from Grunberg to Volary.

3. Interview someone who lived during World War II (if possible, find someone who fought in the war or who lived in Europe at that time). You may want to ask the following questions: How did you first learn about the war? How did your life change as a result of the war? How did you follow war news? When did you hear about the Holocaust and how did this news affect you?

4. Although Nazi Germany constituted the most notorious chapter in the history of anti-Semitism, it did not invent this particular prejudice, which dates back almost as far as Christianity itself. Research the history of anti-Semitism. How did it begin? Why did it continue? In which countries, and in which centuries, was it most pervasive? Have there been other Jewish holocausts in history? Have you observed incidents of anti-Semitism in your own community?

5. Many people called World War I (1914-1918), in which many millions died, "the war to end all wars," and most Europeans, like Gerda's father, found it impossible to believe that such devastation could occur again. World War I ended with the defeated Germans being forced to sign the Treaty of Versailles, which demanded excessively harsh reparations from the already devastated country. Research World War I and the Versailles treaty. In your opinion, was the treaty unfair or unreasonable? Might it indeed have sown the seeds of Nazi hatred?

6. Read a book on the history of Nazism (you might choose one from the suggested reading list below, or find one of your own choice). How did the movement begin? Why did so many people listen to Hitler and take him seriously? How did Nazism compare with the Fascism of the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini? In America in the last few years there have been numerous cases of neo-Nazism, accompanied by the desecration of Jewish cemeteries and other acts of hate. These neo-Nazis claim that their hate-inspired writing and speech is protected by the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech for all. Do you believe that such hatred should be protected? Likewise, should the Ku Klux Klan be legally permitted to march, burn crosses, and spread racist and anti-Semitic literature?

7. Mrs. Weissmann says, "It will be as it was with Napoleon" (p. 44), trying to believe that Hitler's swift progress will soon be reversed. Where, and how, did Napoleon's fortunes change? Did Hitler's eventual defeat resemble Napoleon's? Research the history of Central Europe, Gerda's home. How many wars have taken place there in the last five hundred years?

8. "Neutrality with Russia had been violated; German troops had crossed the frontier" (p. 46). For the Weissmanns, this meant that things would get worse for Arthur; but for the Nazis, it was to mean a new, and powerful, enemy. As you research the history of World War II, look up the Nazi-Soviet pact. How and why did Communists and Fascists, who had such different ideologies, join forces? What caused their falling out? What was Russia's enmity to mean for Germany?

9. In the Nuremberg war crimes trials that were held immediately after the war, most of the Nazi leaders were tried and many were sentenced. But not all of the war criminals were caught; even today, a few who have lived in hiding for decades are being caught and brought to trial. Find the names of some Nazis who have been brought to justice in the last twenty years. What were their crimes? What sort of lives did they lead in hiding? What punishments were they finally given?

10. Follow news reports of murder and genocide that are coming out of present-day Bosnia and Africa. How do these events resemble, or differ from, the Holocaust during World War II? How is the international community responding? What is the UN doing about it? What should be done?

Suggestions for further reading:
Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl; Melissa Fay Greene, The Temple Bombing; Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf; Thomas Keneally, Schindler's List; Chaim Potok, In the Beginning; Art Spiegelman, Maus; Studs Terkel, The Good War; Emile Zola, I Accuse.

Suggested films:
The Diary of Anne Frank; Europa, Europa; Pillar of Fire; The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich; Schindler's List; Shoah; The Sorrow and the Pity.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 86 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 86 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 15, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    The true story of a young girl who had lost all but her life.

    I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in the holocaust because it demonstrates how strength and love can be found in unlikely places and how hope can still exist when all else is lost. Gerda, a real holocaust survivor, writes in a way that is so personal that you feel like you are in the story with her constantly battling for life and overcoming hopelessness. When each member of Gerda's family is shipped separately to different camps and until she is liberated Gerda is constantly telling herself lies and holding the picture of her homecoming in her heart for strength by believing that she has something left to live for after the war. This really is still something I think about and how after the war she never returned to the home of her childhood because deep down she knew that her family was dead and was never coming back home. Another part that made me put down the book and think about was when Gerda had put together a play to entertain her fellow prisoners and to amuse her jailers. Gerda was glad to make them all forget about their doomed futures and make them smile. This gave all the girls hope that someday everything might be normal and reminded them that the rhythm of the work camps is not the only thing that exists in the world. Gerda finds love and kindness from an unlikely American solider to a German officer who risks everything to bring the girls notes into the camp they work at. Gerda is an extremely strong woman to overcome the slaughter of her childhood home, her family, her friends, and the loss of all but her life.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 19, 2013

    Great Book in context not so grest in editing

    This was a well written memoir. I would recommend for anyone who is interested in this subject matter. HOWEVER, I am very disappointed with the editing. I was reading along & when I turned the page it wouldn ' t make sense. Sometimes a phrase would be missing but once it must have been several sentances. I have no idea why the SS picked her out to go into the woods. The next page they were marching again. For several other books this has happened and there have been other typos. But they were free. I paid for this one. I AM VERY UNHAPPY WITH BARNES AND NOBLE

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 19, 2013

    It was one of the best inspirational books i've read in a long t

    It was one of the best inspirational books i've read in a long time. I finished this book within 2 days because i couldn't put it down.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 5, 2014

    Highly recommended.

    I recommend this book for anyone who likes reading about the Holocaust. I could not put this one down. I just find it amazing how
    some of these people survived and love reading their stories.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 23, 2014


    I had the opportunity to listen to her speak while attending St Cloud State University. I will never forget that day. I highly recommend this book to others.

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  • Posted September 15, 2014

    I cried. This was way more than I expected. Her story is so hear

    I cried. This was way more than I expected. Her story is so heartfelt. I could identify with many of her feelings even though I was not there at that moment in time. Her resolve to go on is inspireing. Finding the love of her life at the end was beyond dreams. I am so happy for the author.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 2, 2014


    A very good book. But also very sad

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 3, 2014

    It goes on the shelf with the book thief

    I loved this book and read it in a day. It definitely goes up on the shelf with the book thief and between shades of grey.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 10, 2013

    Loved it!!!

    This book was so awesome. I really felt the emotion from Gerda!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 22, 2013

    Highly recommended

    Is so detailed about her feelings

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted April 8, 2013

    I highly recommend this book, I saw Gerda Weissmann Klein on a m

    I highly recommend this book, I saw Gerda Weissmann Klein on a morning talk show here in Phoenix and got very interested in her story, so glad I went out and bought the book, she is a woman to admire, I will never forget her story, she is truly admirable!

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  • Posted January 12, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Must-read Holocaust memoir

    Gerda is a bit different than many of the Polish Jews during the Holocaust, in that her little town was a bit fluid its German/Polish identification. As a border town, it used to be a part of Austria-Hungary, so many of its citizens spoke German as their first language (she actually admits that it was her first, and the language of her mother). So she had a fairly strong German connection, spoke the language, and was generally pretty immersed within the culture. In fact, in the beginning, when she describes the town's reaction to Hitler invading, and all the celebrations surrounding his arrival in Poland in 1939, she hints off-hand that the town was never that welcoming to Jews in general; her family and many other Jews had always had a sense of being "below" the rest of the population, and the coming of Hitler had simply allowed a physical manifestation of the already-present anti-Semitic mentality.

    Gerda originally penned her memoir in 1957, a little over ten years after her liberation, and then wrote an epilogue for the re-issue in 1997, a contrast which I found very illuminating. In her original memoir, her voice is very simple, very straight-forward, and somewhat immature and unpolished. She is a teenager interrupted, and her interpretations are through her own limited young perspective, without the ability to relate past her own self. Her original telling of her own reactions and thoughts are very genuine and raw, and it reflects much of her culture of quiet disbelief, yet an immense patience to simply wait for a time when things will eventually get better again, as they always have during times of historical persecution. She even mentions why she thinks the Jewish people went so quietly to their own deaths: They still had faith that humanity couldn't commit such atrocities.

    Her later voice, in the epilogue, is one that has seem many years since, and relates her own experiences differently. She mentions her parents, how she herself, having become a mother three times over, now knows the terror and the quiet courage that her own parents and many other must have felt, her disappointment that she couldn't relate at the time, and her immense appreciation for things and instances that most people would never be able to appreciate. It is a voice that has seen much more reflection than the voice in her original memoir, and the contrast is beautiful.

    The Holocaust and atrocities might have sprouted roots and gained initial momentum from the rife antisemitism and hatred in the Nazi regime, but it was only allowed to come to full fruition by the passivity and indifference from those surrounding. Individual memoirs like this, and people like Gerda who share their experiences and appreciations remind us that terrible things happen, but those that chose to do nothing are ultimately just as guilty as those that committed the crimes

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 20, 2012

    Worth it!


    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 23, 2012


    Amazing story told by a brave girl. A must read for all ages. W
    This book will stay in your heart forever!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 28, 2012


    Absolutley one of the best books i have ever read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 11, 2010

    A Story With Hope

    In Gerda Weissmann Klein's masterpiece All But My Life, elucidates the tragic story of a adolescent girl who is drawn into the Holocaust. Throughout the novel, the adolescence and her family are shipped to different concentration camps one at a time, to a point where all of the members have vanished from existence. She endures the journey of pain, through the dark, and difficult and trying times of the various slave-labor camps. Although through her own character, unexpected sacrifices of her dear friends, and many coincidences, the youth survives the horrid camps. All But My Life, clearly depicts the themes of how morality is truly an option, which shows that no matter if people have freedom or not, they will forever have the choice to act with morality and compassion. Also, in order to survive the dramatic events, Gerda shows that sustaining the power of hope in the course of harsh times can provide others with hope and joy. Reading this novel, I did like the flow of the story and the various themes in the book, which give people a clear understanding of them. Along with the flow of the story, I also liked the characters of the tale, which provide different backgrounds and added emotions. I suggest this novel to those who are very interested in the events and experiences of the Holocaust, or are just looking for something to pass the time with. I would also recommend the Schindler's List.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 9, 2010

    I think everyone should read this book

    It will be a book that stays with you. It should no matter what you are dealt in life that you can overcome it and move on. It is also a time in history that should not be forgotten and not repeated again. It is difficult to read and times but needed. I also saw the documentary that was done and highly recommend it. Please have this book recommended or on required reading lists.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 17, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    A uniquely touching personal account.

    When I was in elementary school the author came to give an inspirational talk by sharing with us some of the experiences that she had been through, to show us that no matter how bad things get, life is always worth living. At the time I was so young that I remember focusing more on the tale of her journey through the war and less on the aspects of her personal relationships with her family and love interests. I happened across this book from a friend whose family member purchased it as a result of our meeting with the author all those years ago. It was my fist time reading the book and I do have to admit that it is not as engrossing as I would have hoped, and there were a lot of chapters where I really had to force myself to stick with it. Overall, though, I do think that it is a wonderful story and definitely worth the time and effort it took me to finish it, and I can definitely see all the aspects of her struggle better now as an adult than I did before.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 25, 2010

    Hopeful read

    A wonderfully written, first-person account, by a truly inspiring woman. I have read many books on the holocaust. Few make you feel hopeful at the end, the way All but My Life made me feel. Mrs. Weissmann-Klein's writing style is so personal, I found myself inside her story. A courageous account that I highly recommend!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 8, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    One Survior Remembers

    Millions fought for their lives in the Holocaust of WWII, millions died, and some survived, Gerda Weissmann Klein, a survivor, gives to the world a moving and inspiring story that will forever be in the hearts of her englightened readers.
    Gerda Weissmann Klein recounts the darkest, most evil parts of humanity, while at the same time, never loses hope in humankind. Being born a Jew, the escape from the terrifying holocaust and Nazi camps was nearly inevitable for the Jews in Poland. Gerda grew up in Poland and WWII had struck Europe when she was fifteen. From the time her home was invaded, to the next six years of her life, Gerda would face numerous death camps and murderous death marches, yet she fights through it all with courage and hope. In the novel, Gerda recounts many stories and struggles she had faced during the times she was in the camps and on the death march. She was striped of her family and ultimately striped from life she had once known. This book is a fast reader! Page after page is filled with horrifying images of the barbaric cruelty of the Nazis, and the power in hope possessed by Gerda and her friend IIse. Gerda believes in her suffering -she believes that there is a greater purpose behind all the pain and struggles. She believes there is good in everything: in humankind. Throughout her memoir she recalls the intolerable evil of humanity and also the compassion that every human has the ability to possess, pointing out that all people have the choice to act humanely or act in cruelty. Gerda maintains the mood of fear of what is next with, also, an underlying optimism. This book is thought provoking and emotional; questioning human goodness and a comfort of hope. This book is a tough one to put down. The power in this book makes Gerda's story a moving memoir, reminding the readers of the terrors human kind can create. Despite the struggle and difficult, risky choices, Gerda survived her nightmare and lived to tell her remarkable story. Her telling this story is one of the many goods that have come out of her unimaginable experience. There are many books written by Holocaust survivors and about victims, and every story is different and touching in its own way, but Gerda's book is one of the forerunners for best holocaust stories because it has raw emotion and intricate themes. There is no doubt this book is a classic reminder of what hope and optimism can make one achieve.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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