All But My Life by Gerda Weissmann Klein

Nonfiction — print. Hill and Wang, 1995. 272 pgs. Purchased.

At 9:10 a.m. Gerda Weissmann’s life ended; the Nazis invaded Poland and red, black, and white flags with swastikas hung from her neighbor’s windows. Uncertainty turns into upheaval first with the deportation of her brother and then with the loss of her family’s home. Her ill father becomes listless; her mother withdrawals into herself. And almost as quickly as it begins Gerda finds herself in the Bielitz ghetto where she separated from her father, then to a transit camp where she is separated from her mother, and then onto the labour camp, Bolkenhain. This is only the beginning of Klein’s story, a story that ends with the Nazis robbing her of all but her life.

This is the book that’s been missing from my course on the Holocaust. We’ve learned about Merin, a member of the Judenrat who lined his pockets; we’ve learned about the difference between labor camps and concentration camps. And according to our syllabus, in the coming weeks we’re going to learn about death marches. But as well as my professor is at telling stories for lectures instead of saying “these are the facts you need to know,” there is something you can only get by reading the memoir of a survivor. The “I” makes it personal; the “I” makes facts visible realities.

Even on the written side, All But My Life is one of the most, if not the most, well-written written memoirs I’ve ever read. It’s heart-wrenching, emotional, and personal when other Holocaust memoirs are distant. You relive Klein’s past, and I can understand why in the preface Klein says she is now, finally, emancipated from her burden.

It’s so personal, so powerful, and worth every tear I shed.


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