Monday, July 3, 2017

All But My Life / Gerta Wiessmann Klein

I have long been fascinated by World War II history. In particular I've been interested in the Holocaust; from my early teens, I read every history I could get my hands on, focusing on the facts, figures, and general psychology of the Nazi regime. Why did they pick on the Jews?* How could a nation stand by and do nothing, while their neighbors and friends and even relatives were shipped to work camps, trampled and shot in the streets, treated worse than the lowliest farm animals - their lives worth less than the dirt upon which the Germans trod. I can't answer these questions to my satisfaction. Neither can many historians, whose words in literature and documentary continue to debate motive and share tales, dates, and figures.
Lately, I have ventured into the realm of Holocaust autobiography and historical memoir. Compiling booklists has become a hobby, because I admit: my previous experience studying the Holocaust often left me feeling sick, angry, and depressed. Given my own personal dealings with post-traumatic stress disorder, I was frightened to pick up a book written by a survivor. Could I read without nightmares? Without nausea? Without feeling hollowed out, stripped of faith, and dwelling on the current horrors I know exist in the world?

Finally, I got the courage. I began my journey with Gerda Weissmann Klein's memoir, All But My Life. After 2 hours of nonstop, can't-put-it-down reading, I finished. And I'm unable to tell what this book has given me with any real clarity.

First published in 1957, her work begins with her experiences as a Jew in Poland on the day Germany invaded, in 1939. She introduces her parents, her well-loved brother, Arthur, and other family members, neighbors, and friends. Immediately she asks the question I have visited time and again: how could her Polish neighbors welcome the Germans into their small village, when they all knew what it meant for the Jews in their midst? Her story continues through the German victory years, with her brother being removed to work camps inside Poland; her father and mother forced into the dank, damp basement of their own home as their belongings are stolen before their eyes; their eventual removal to a ghetto; and their separation as her father is sent to a men's camp, and her mother is sorted into the trains for Auschwitz.

Klein makes it clear that they all knew what it meant to go to that dreaded place.

Because of her age, Klein escapes the death camps and is sent to one of the many German work camps. She is lucky in the first years, overseen by a strict commander, but dealt mercy in many instances. Klein and her 3 friends from home and the trains are together for almost their entire incarceration - though only she survives the long ordeal (all 3 died within 1 week of liberation by American troops, the first days before, the second on Liberation Day, and the third several days after due to amputation complications). In her final chapters, Klein asks once why she survived and her friends did not, sitting among the headstones outside the joint Allied Forces hospital where she recovers from her trauma. And chooses to move forward in honor of her friends, in honor of her promises to her family to be strong, rather than dwell on the horrors and grief.

Any memoir of this kind is heavy. There is death, there is sorrow, and there is the constant head-shaking at the utter lack of humanity experienced by Klein and her fellow Jews. As I read, I kept expecting tears. I kept expecting rage and shock to boil within me, to cause me to close the pages in despair. As each page unleashed new terrors and fear, I was surprised to find myself spellbound - not by the awfulness itself - but by Klein's bravery and commitment to her promise: "Be strong," said her brother. "Be strong," her mother's last words through the screams and cries of a crowded cattle car. "Promise me," from her father, "that you will go on." And she does - for herself, for her friends, for her family.

Klein humbles me. Her determination and sheer force of will are inspiring. I found myself staring at a spot on the page, simply wondering how she did it - how when filthy and hungry, she kept working and found ways to ingratiate herself and her friends with their guards.** In awe I read her account of carrying her best friend in their death march through the snow, Klein herself too weary to keep going, but never stopping. I couldn't do that. I don't think most of us now could do what she did, or any of these survivors managed. How did they hold out in the face of such insurmountable pain? Fear? Grief and sorrow?

I'm amazed by this memoir. I'm astounded by Klein's final pages - how there is such hope pulled from the darkness. I'm blown away by the epilogue, how Klein writes of her healing, of the dark days, and of things that trigger memories*** - and each time they threaten to swallow her up, she perseveres. She overcomes. She is herself in awe of what has come from her experience - that she is never hungry, or cold, or afraid; and that she has turned tragedy into opportunity to help those who do suffer through advocating and volunteer work. Klein writes that helping others has lifted her higher than any activity she could possibly do, has given her courage that she never thought possible. I am again humbled by her compassion and dedication to easing suffering.

I feel things I cannot express. I never "review" books - in fact, this isn't a review to me. This is trying to capture the sheer amazement I feel at this woman's strength. Part of reading for me is empathy - trying to feel and be one with the person or persons whom you read about in a story. And I am overwhelmed. Words are my gift, and words fail describing the sheer energy I feel in my soul.

Read All But My Life. Really read it. You will learn something more than heroism and courage. You will learn gratitude.

* Note that the author repeatedly mentions others who were persecuted, criminalized, and beaten/tortured/killed due to disability, age, and race (such as non-Jewish Hungarians and Gypsies). No mentions are made of individuals of varying sexual orientations. I focus on Jews in my thoughts here because this is the group whom Klein most identifies with and shares common experiences.

** Klein made use of sudden, unknown confidence and blunt honesty to get Polish natives working for the Nazis to assist her and her friends. She demonstrates almost reckless courage to many captors, both male and female. Remarkably, she gets what she needs almost every time. She did not, however, use sexuality to earn favors or get out of trouble. In fact, she refuses this and almost loses her life for it, if not for a friend's quick thinking (which friend is the first of her quartet to perish).

*** There are several instances in the epilogue that hint at post-traumatic stress disorder. I found Klein's responses to these situations inspiring, and I believe that other individuals who live with this illness would find her experiences useful. It certainly has helped me after an initial reading, and a second, more thorough look at the passages and stories shared.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

taking it back...

I've missed writing because I've been super busy and felt like hiding away. So here is a long, truly scary confession post for me with *gasp* a photo with MAKE UP ON. 

Triggers here. Fyi.

I don't wear make up pretty much ever. If I do, it's basic mascara and some pink blush used as eyeshadow. Nondescript. Barely there. Fiance is cool with it - "You're naturally beautiful.  Women really are. I wish you - all of you - could see it too." Love him, right? Anyway. We did engagement photos a week ago, and so I did the thing you do and put on my face - and though I look very Jane Austen? I about had a panic attack walking out of the bookstore restroom to go meet up with our photographer.

Fiance immediately asked what was wrong - and I almost cried off my face as I told him I hate wearing make up. "People look at me more. They see me. Men see me. I want to be left alone. I don't want them to look at me." He was confused. And as I thought about it from his perspective - I found myself analyzing why I think this way.

Guy from high school who locked me in his car and threatened to rape me? He wouldn't let me wear make up. Or cute clothes. "I don't want other men to look at you. You're mine." Checking my phone, playing mind games, making me change outfits before dates if I looked "too hot." Don't be seen.

Supervisor who locked me in the janitor's closet with him. He let me go when I stared too hard at him, wide-eyed and more confused than scared. "Close your eyes, girl. What the hell you doin' with those?" Don't be seen.

Ex who repeatedly abused me for two years - "You attract so much attention just because of your face. Especially your eyes. Stop looking at me. Look down." "Take off the eyeliner, you look stupid." "Did you see that guy checking you out? Don't wear that shirt when we go places anymore." Don't be seen.

I've always been shy. Awkward. Looking at the ground. But to have a panic attack because I put on make up? Unable to breathe because my eyes shine? Afraid to show fiance my face when I put this stuff on because he might see something he's suddenly afraid of or made angry by and tell me to disappear? He wouldn't. He won't. But my crazy brain says he might - it's ridiculous.

So guess what? This cleansing confession post now has a DARE. A BIG ONE.

Be seen. With or without make up on. With or without a nice outfit. I'll Be Seen. I'll see others. I'll smile and laugh and walk with my head held high.

I'm taking back my face.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016


I've always found it silly and cliche to call myself a writer.

"Hi, I'm Sarah Anne -- a 20-something volunteer addict who checks out more books from the library than she can read in a month, stresses over everything you can possibly imagine and more, owns a dog, is engaged, and has a bunch of other things she should be doing but is probably watching Netflix instead.

Oh, and I'm also a writer."

It's always an afterthought. Almost a confession, like it's embarrassing to admit because I, like some others, hear people say, "I'm a writer" and immediately do a silent eye-roll while smiling enthusiastically, "Oh, are you ? That's great!" Never asking their genre or subject or storyline. Never offering help or the tidbit about being a 5-star writing tutor for over a year in college. Just the internal eye-roll and the smile.

Let's just say I've helped with far too many terrible writing projects of which the author was over-proud and overzealous.

So now that I have this confession -- I'm a bit embarrassed.

I. Am. A writer.

Like many self-conscious and conflicted students of words, I keep it to myself. Mostly. And, I go through long periods of inactivity. Days and weeks and months of time pass without setting a pen to paper or fingers to keys, because writing? Writing really well?

It's exhausting.

And the thing about writing and writing well is that when you know how to do it, and you've seen all of the ways people go wrong. . .well. You get even more blocked than you did before. You edit as you go -- instead of word vomiting all over the page and saying, "Hell yeah, that's a plot hole -- Ima fix it on the next round. Deal with it." You get paraylzed by the need for just the right word; just the perfect way of expressing all that stuff swirling around inside your head.

Justice is served with the perfect word.

Falling short. Because it's an injustice to the story and the feeling and the experience if the words aren't just right. That's the main thing for me. I can't find the perfect word, the just-right piecing together of the dictionary's tenants into a party that screams THIS IS IT! THIS IS THE ONE!

The sentence of the year. The story of the decade.

It's not that I want people to think that the story is perfect. It's that I want how I feel and think to be expressed perfectly -- for myself. So I can represent all of the twisting mess of feeling and strangeness taking place inside my head.

Why else would I be awake at 3am every night? Unable to sleep because images that need description plow through my mind with reckless speed. Yet, I can't find the words. "Play on!" says Shakespeare, "Play on!" Like an old VHS recording on fast forward, my static-filled mind joins with him -- play on!

But there is Hamlet, standing with his now iconic skull, posed as the Boy in Black. "To sleep -- perchance to dream."

Dreaming isn't the problem. It's sleeping that makes no sense to me.

Because words, words, words are the real issue. Which one to use, which to strike from existence, weighing the options of this one and that one. Literally keeping me up at night. Even the placement is cause for grief. Put it there? Or over there? A comma? A colon? I use that form of punctuation (the colon) and think of cancer every time. Probably because someone I know died of it a few months ago.

What I'd write about?

I'd write about dad's cancer.

I'd write about our cancer jokes.

I'd write about how when I make cancer jokes in public, few and far between people get offended, saying angrily "You shouldn't talk like that, it's offensive!" and I shrug and say, "Well, seeing as my dad is terminal, it's kind of how we deal with it"; and then they just sit there, quiet, like dad is dead instead of dying.

I'd write about my own kind of cancer, the flashbacks and post-traumatic stress disorder episodes; silent killers that come out of nowhere like a poisonous viper and strike when the sun is out and you're in love and then WHAM. The snake bites your ankle while you stare at it wondering why you didn't see the thing lying on the pavement.

Plenty of colons and commas and heres and theres to satisfy even the pickiest of word readers -- unless of course you're including me in the bunch.

Reading is easy. Writing, and those who can accomplish it -- now, that deserves all of the glory.