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All But My Life



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About The Author

Gerda Weissmann Klein

Gerda Weissmann Klein was born in Bielsko, Poland, in 1924, and now lives in Arizona with her husband, Kurt Klein, who as a U.S. Army lieutenant liberated Weissmann on May 7, 1945. The author of five books, she has received many awards and honorary degrees and has lectured... More

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Questions for Discussion
 
1. In her Preface, Gerda writes, “I feel at peace, at last. I have discharged a burden, and paid a debt to many nameless heroes.” What burden has she discharged, what debt has she paid? What has been achieved by her relating the stories of Lotte, Erika, and others?

2. What motivations kept the Weissmanns from fleeing Poland before the Nazi invasion, as Uncle Leo suggested they should do? Did Mrs. Weissmann make a mistake in deeming her husband’s health their primary concern? Why did the Weissmanns continue to hope that everything would be all right? Later, Aunt Anna urges the Weissmanns to accompany her into the Gouvernement. Why do they refuse to go? Was their decision justified?

3. Gerda couldn’t understand why her neighbors made a Nazi flag to hang from the Weissmanns’ house. What do you think their motivations were? Might this action have helped the Weissmanns?

4. At the ruins of the Jewish Temple in Bielitz, Arthur gives Gerda a little piece of glass. Why does Gerda keep the glass for so long? What does it come to signify to her?

5. How does Gerda’s vision of her parents change during the course of the book? What words would you use to describe her feelings about them when she is a young girl at the beginning of the war; at the end of the war, after their deaths; and as an older woman, a mother herself, looking back over the years?

6. On the door of Mr. Weissmann’s factory, the Nazis place a sign that says: Dogs and Jews Not Allowed to Enter (p. 26). Do you think the Nazis treated the Jewish people better, or worse, than dogs? In what ways did they consider the Jews useful to them and therefore worthy to be kept alive?

7. When the Weissmanns move into the basement of their house, Trude, who is about to move from the basement to the main part of the house, says “without malice or sarcasm” (p. 33) that she will be glad to have a nice place to spend Christmas. Do you think that Trude is really without malice? Do you think she might feel resentment for the difficult, impoverished childhood she has led? Why might she, and people like her, irrationally blame the Jewish population for their troubles?

8. What role does religion play in the lives of the Weissmann family? How do Gerda’s religious beliefs evolve over the course of the book? Why, during the final march through Czechoslovakia, does Gerda stop praying?

9. Of all the Germans Gerda meets during the war, only two—the officer in Bielitz who discovered her English textbook and Frau Kügler—“behaved as though they were human” (p. 51). What can account for the fact that so many people acted with such incredible cruelty? Do you believe that the German nation should be held collectively responsible for the atrocities against the Jewish people? Or do you think that the kind of madness that overtook them is latent in all human beings?

10. How would you describe Abek’s character? Can you understand Gerda’s negative feelings toward him? How do their characters differ? How do their attitudes toward religion differ? Do you think that Gerda led Abek on, or that she dealt with him in the most sympathetic and humane way possible? How does Erika’s letter about her love for Henek help to make Gerda understand her own feelings for Abek?
 
11. Reflecting upon the horrible scene in which families were separated and thrown into trucks, Gerda wonders, “Why? Why did we walk like meek sheep to the slaughterhouse? Why did we not fight back?” (p. 89). What answer does she give? Does that answer seem sufficient to you? What other reasons might you give?
 
12. Frau Kügler “appeared grim and forebidding,” but “her harsh appearance turned out to conceal a kind heart” (p. 114). What lesson does Gerda learn about the difference between appearance and reality? What other characters in her story present a deceptive exterior? A terrible situation, especially one like war, can bring out evil and rapacious qualities in some people. Does it seem to you that it can also bring out extraordinary and unexpected qualities in others? What other examples does the book provide?

13. Gerda relates the dramatic story of her grandfather’s exile in Siberia and his return home (pp. 125-126). In what ways does his story resemble that of Gerda and her family? How does this memory help her to accept her situation in the camp? To what extent, in your opinion, were the governments of Czarist Russia and Nazi Germany similar to one another? How highly did they value human life? Would you say that the word “authoritarian” describes both systems?

14. Although Gerda loses her family early in the war, she enjoys firm friendships with girls like Ilse and Suse. What does friendship come to mean to Gerda? How instrumental is it in keeping her alive and full of hope?

15. Could Gerda and her fellow prisoners be described as slaves? How do Gerda’s definition of freedom, and her feelings about freedom, change over the course of her imprisonment? How does she manage, occasionally, to achieve feelings of freedom?

16. How would you describe the character of Lt. Kurt Klein? Why is he so well matched with Gerda? What does he, as an American, a Jew, and a liberator, symbolize to Gerda? How does Kurt’s character differ from Abek’s?

17. Gerda describes her childhood as “safe and sheltered, too sheltered perhaps for what the years ahead were to bring, but full of lovely memories from which to draw strength” (p. 24). Do you believe that Gerda’s happy childhood and loving family contributed to her ability to survive where so many others did not? At the end of the book, she says that her childhood “in all probability was not as perfect as I have chosen to remember” (p. 258). Why has Gerda chosen to remember only the happy times with her parents? What other char-acteristics have helped to make Gerda a survivor?

18. Gerda writes, “Throughout my years in the camps, and against nearly insuperable odds, I knew of no one who committed suicide” (p. 250). Why do you think these people, who suffered such great loss and pain, did not resort to suicide, when many people take their lives for seemingly lesser reasons?

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