Museum Fellowship Book Reviews


Jacket design used by permission of Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.All But My Life
Gerda Weissman Klein
New York: Hill and Wang, 1995

Reviewed by:
Darryle Clott

La Crescent High School
La Crescent, Minnesota


Gerda Weissmann Klein was 15 years old when the Germans invaded her city of Bielitz and shattered the lives of Gerda and her family taking 18 short days to conquer Poland. In this true story, Gerda reflects on the ideal life her family shared before the war, the dissolution of her family under the hands of the Nazis, the three frightening years she spent as a slave laborer in work camps, and her miraculous liberation. 

How does this book apply to the classroom? I use Gerda's memoir with my freshmen first and foremost to teach my students what Jewish life was like before the Nazis destroyed their thriving, flourishing society. I have been privileged to attend the Teachers' Seminar on the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance in Poland and Israel under the leadership of survivor Vladka Meed. From this experience I learned the importance of teaching more about Jewish society before the Nazis' arrival. It is also critical to put names and faces on Jewish individuals rather than to depict them simply as victims. I have found this book an excellent tool in this quest. Publisher Hill and Wang also provide a free Teacher's Guide to the book.

My freshmen students get to know Gerda as a young woman exactly their own age when she begins her horrid ordeal. Students are with her as she is forbidden to enter her own garden and is ordered to turn into the Nazis her bicycle, radio and even her fountain pen. They accompany her when her family is banished to their dark, damp, cold basement as their Aryan maid moves into their lovely home. They accompany her as her family leaves their home behind forever and enters the crowded ghetto. They sit with Gerda and her parents their final night together listening to them reminisce about their wonderful lives together, knowing that they will be saying their final good-byes the next morning. On liberation day after Gerda's three hellish years working in Nazi work camps, they rejoice with her when she, weighing only 68 pounds, meets the young Jewish-American soldier, Kurt Klein, who will eventually become her husband. This wonderfully inspirational book connects them to a world they hopefully will never have to enter and allows them to celebrate Gerda's strength and heart-felt belief in the goodness of humanity.

This book touched me more than any I have read on the Holocaust. Gerda connected with me personally through her passion for life in her beautifully written story. No matter what happened to her and her family, she continued to have a positive outlook and to inspire others with her positive thinking. 

The book also is very significant to my students. I quickly learned that primary sources held much more relevance for them. For instance, I used excerpts from Friedrich by Hans Richter. Even though students learned a valuable lesson by contrasting the lives of an Aryan and a Jewish boy through their friendship of many years under the Nazis, the first question they would ask when I would introduce a new book or short story was, "Is this true?" By Gerda personally relating the spiraling loss of rights under Hitler, I was able to constantly compare her life to theirs, therefore removing the distance that students feel from historical events and to connect them more intimately with the past. In this way I recreate a sense of "being there," a sense of seeing history through the eyes of the very people who were living it. This helps develop historical empathy, to realize that history is not an impersonal process divorced from real people like themselves. 

When we discuss the poignant experience of Gerda's mother trading a valuable ring-her last piece of jewelry-to obtain one orange for Gerda as a gift for her 18th birthday, we reflect on the availability of oranges in our own lives. This book is an excellent tool to help students reflect on history and not to merely study facts and figures. Reading this book provides students with a means to conduct an inward journey into their own hearts and souls, thus connecting history to the present.

The attached study guide is fairly comprehensive and helps students stay focused in their reading of this memorable book.

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