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Book Review: 'All but My Life' by Gerda Weissmann Klein, a Personal Account of Concentration Camps

Updated on January 28, 2020
MG Singh profile image

MG is a senior service officer and now a senior corporate advisor. A prolific writer with varied interests and hobbies


There are two words that I must elucidate here. The first is the "Holocaust". This was a mass genocide program approved by Adolf Hitler for the extermination of Jews. Hitler who was the head of the `Nazi party, felt that the Jews were an inferior race and deserved to be executed. The second is the "concentration camp." This was an invention of Vladimir Lenin. It was used to good effect by Vladimir Lenin and was a camp where people were herded in subhuman conditions.

Gerda Weissmann Klein is a Holocaust survivor. The Holocaust despite all the doubts expressed by the Iranian President is a fact of history and 6 million Jews perished in the gas chambers of the Third Reich. Gerda Klein had a close association with the prison camps of Nazi Germany. It is a miracle that she lived to tell her tale.

Gerda Klein

Gerda Klein was born in 1924 at Bielsko, Poland. Klein is one of those rare persons who survived the concentration camps, set up by Nazi Germany. She was rescued by the US army when she was at Volary, Czechoslovakia in 1945. She later married her rescuer, Lieutenant Kurt Klein in 1946. Kurt Klein died in 2002 at the age of 82.

Account under Nazi Rule

Gerda Klein has documented her experience under Nazi rule in her book ‘All but My Life’. The book is a story of her life from 1939-45 when the Nazi party was in power in Germany. This was the period when Germany had occupied Poland and had reduced it to a vassal state. As she was a Jew and Polish, she had to bear the brunt of the wrath of the Nazi state.

Gerda Klein’s story starts from 3 September 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland. She recounts how her idyllic world was shattered with the German invasion. She expresses her surprise when people they had known for years began to fly the Nazi flags from their house. For the first time, she came face to face with anti-Semitism. She realized that the Nazi’s had a pernicious race theory.

Nazi Atrocities

Her parents were both sent to the Nazi death camp and probably died there. Her brother was asked to report for enlistment in the army and never returned. Probably he was killed by the Nazis. This makes shocking reading now, but one can imagine the effect it would have had on a young girl like Gerda, to see her world crumbling for no fault of hers.

Concentration Camp and Rescue

Gerda survived six years of concentration camps and forced labor with an iron will. She always hoped something good will occur. In the last stages of the war, she along with 300 other women were forced to march in very bad weather by the Germans to escape the advancing US army. She was one of the 120 women, who survived this ordeal. The US army finally rescued her at Volary (Now in Czeskoslovokia).She was unrecognizable when the US army rescued her and the first man who treated her as a woman was the man she married later, a US army officer Kurt Klein.

A Moving Account

Throughout the book, her steely character in the face of adversity stands out. Gerda’s description of the despair and darkness of the prison camps makes compelling reading. She recounts how she and her friends created their world of friendship and love in the concentration camps.

Gerda Klein writes a moving story. It focuses on one of the events that shook mankind; the Holocaust. More than six million Jews were killed by the Nazis. It was a barbarous act without parallel. Gerda Klein writes movingly about death and despair. The reader will be captivated by the character of the author, who survived the death and labor camps through sheer will power.

The book is a poignant tale of one of the greatest acts of genocide during the Second World War. When one reads the book, one can just wonder how in the 20th-century, the man was more uncivilized than his ancestors of a thousand years back. The sad part is that her best friend in the concentration camp died just a few hours from freedom. This is a poignant moment in the book.

Freedom in America

After the war, Klein became a naturalized American citizen. She has three children and eight grandchildren. Her story is presented in the film ‘Testimony’, which is a permanent exhibit at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. She was appointed by Bill Clinton to the governing council of the museum in 1997.


On 11 February 2011; President Obama presented Klein with 2010, Presidential Medal of Freedom along with 14 other recipients. This recognition is a fitting tribute to a woman of great character. It shows that America remains a free country where people of all races have a chance to make a living.


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