Night by Wiesel. Survival in Auschwitz by Levi. When thinking of Holocaust memoirs, these are two of the most familiar names that come to light. Historically, the Holocaust, as an event and in memoirs in particular, has been told from the male perspective. With the publication of ”All But My Life” in 1957, Gerda Klein became one of the first female survivors to shed light on the Holocaust.
Who is Gerda Klein?
In September 1939, Gerda Klein was a fifteen year-old Jewish teenager living with her father, mother, and older brother Arthur in the village of Bielitz, Poland. For the next six years of her life, she was shuttled from concentration camp to concentration camp (both in Poland and Germany), until World War II ended and she was liberated. From her own account, she and her family were close and Bielitz was known as the Little Vienna, with a charming city center, a theater, and a castle. Klein’s home was a refuge and a safe haven for her. She describes it in All But My Life as follows:
We had never lived anywhere else before. There had always been our home: the garden, the attic, the shacks in the yard, the garden house. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I always felt that the walls of our home would protect us. Now I fully understood why we had dreaded the move to the ghetto (p. 78).
Separated from her family, Klein was shipped to her first German labor camp known as Bolkenhein.
Life in the Camps
Each author that writes about his or her time in the concentration camps has different ways of describing the atrocities that they experienced. Most of us have heard of Auschwitz, and even if we aren’t familiar with precisely what happened there, we know that just the name of that camp is synonymous with death and unspeakable horrors. At Bolkenhein, Klein is struck by the beauty of the camp and its similarity to her hometown of Bielitz. She describes how the roses bloomed, the spring-like weather, and the fields she could see outside of the camp’s locked doors. Later, at Gruenberg (another camp), she writes, ‘It was cruelty set against a backdrop of beauty. The gentle vineyard covered hills siihouetted against the sapphire sky seemed to mock us’ (p. 167).
Throughout her writing, Klein remains optimistic even when in the most dire of circumstances, but she does not shy away from including harsh details about her and the other girls’ lives in the camps. She writes of girls ‘half starved…with decaying teeth and the pallor of death already on their faces’ (p. 167) She recounts the todesmarsch (death march), where she watched the group of girls she began with get smaller and smaller as many of them succumbed to death from hypothermia, starvation, or pure exhaustion. At the end of the march, forced to live in a barn, she writes that all the women suffered from diarrhea and lice. While working in the German factories (those sent to labor camps were forced to work for the German government, often sewing uniforms for the very soldiers that held them prisoners), Klein describes punishment doled out in the form of head shavings or beatings.
Paradoxically, Klein also writes of the kindness she encountered with some of the Germans working at the camps. Each camp had a lagerfuhrerin, or camp supervisor. At Bolkenhein, Frau Kuegler saved the author’s life when she forced the sick with fever Klein to leave the infirmary to go and work in the weaving factory, knowing that all those in the infirmary would be sent to Auschwitz for their death. Of Kuegler, she writes ‘The German woman who worked for the SS saved my life’ (p. 133). She also recounts the kindness of the Czech people, who, seeing the woman as they struggled on the todesmarcsch, threw food at them, for the knew they were starving.
Klein and the women she was with on the todesmarsch were liberated by American troops. Too stunned to realize what happened, Klein writes that her ‘mind was so dull, my nerves so worn from waiting, that only an emotionless vacuum remained’ (p. 213). Many of the women did not even realize what had happened, and those that did sat around, essentially waiting for what was next. Klein and these women had been through so much horror that they were not able to celebrate their freedom as one might think. Eventually, they were taken to German hospitals, where the wounded German soldiers were moved to make room for the women. The irony was not lost on Klein: ‘How strange: in a matter of one day, the world had changed: Germans put out to make room for us’ (p. 216).
Klein met and married one of the American soldiers who was involved in her liberation: Kurt Klein. Kurt was a German Jew who had been sent to the United States before the war, and he owned a printing business. His parents stayed in Germany, and eventually perished at Auschwitz. Gerda Klein never learned exactly what happened to her own family, but it was assumed that they, too, perished in the Holocaust.
After their marriage, Klein moved with Kurt to Buffalo, NY, knowing little English and little of American customs. She and Kurt had three children, and raised them in the city. Of America, Klein writes ‘I fell in love from the moment I first stepped upon its soil. It felt so right, so expansive, so free, so hospitable’ (p. 248). She later became an author (of her memoir and children’s books) and is also a world renowned motivational speaker. She is an active volunteer in the Jewish community and with the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum. As Klein herself writes, ‘Survival is both an exalted privilege and a painful burden’ (p. 247).
The Holocaust remains one of the most horrific events in world history. Even today, it is difficult to comprehend the levels of atrocities that were committed. Gerda Klein was born in Poland. In 1939, at the age of 15, she was shipped to her first concentration camp, Bolkenhein. After she was liberated she married Kurt Klein and they moved to his hometown of Buffalo, NY. There, they had three children. With the publication of her memoir All But My Life, Gerda Klein was one of the first female authors to describe what life was like before, during, and after the concentration camps, and how it feels to not ever know what happened to one’s family. Ever since the publication, Klein has been an active volunteer in the Jewish community, and she continues to speak about her experiences in the Holocaust.