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.