All But My Life: Characters

Aunt Anna
Gerda’s Aunt Anna is her father’s sister. She has two children, Miriam and David. Soon after the German invasion, Anna and her family try to escape to Warsaw, but the train is attacked and her husband is killed by a bomb. She and fifteen-year-old Miriam manage to make their way to the Weissmanns’ home, where they stay for a while. David escapes death at the hands of the Nazis and joins them. Later, Anna and Miriam leave and make their way to Russian-controlled part of Poland, but they are never heard of again. 

Malvine Berger  
Malvine Berger, usually referred to as Mrs. Berger, is a Jewish woman who, while a prisoner herself, is placed in charge of the other female prisoners/workers at Bolkenhain. She is strict and insists that all the girls follow the rules, because that is how they will all survive. Gerda respects her.

NianiaBrenza  is an Austrian woman who lives in Bielitz. In 1924, a fire destroyed her home and with her young daughter she moved in with the Weissmanns. For thirteen years she lived with the Weissmanns and played an important role in the household, taking care of Gerda. She moved out of their house two years before the memoir begins, at the age of sixty-three. Gerda still goes to visit her.

David is Aunt Anna’s son and therefore Gerda’s cousin. He lives with the family for a while in Bielitz but then along with Arthur is sent away. Gerda later hears that he and Arthur are safe in Russia. This is in March 1940, but David is not mentioned again, his fate presumably unknown.

Erika is a former classmate of Gerda’s who had fled Bielitz with her family to a small town in what at the time was the Russian-controlled area of Poland. She plans to marry her boyfriend Henek. But in early 1942, Gerda receives a letter from Erika saying that her family and also Henek have been murdered by the Nazis.

AbekFeigenblatt is a young Jewish man who takes a romantic interest in Gerda after they meet in Bielitz, where Abek is living in a camp set up by the SS. His family is from Sosnowitz, a little under thirty miles north of Bielitz. He pursues Gerda and wants her to promise to marry him after the war. But Gerda, although she appreciates his friendship, does not have romantic feelings for him. Some while after Abek’s family is sent to the death camp Auschwitz, Abek volunteers to be sent to a harsh labor camp known as Burgberg, just to be close to Gerda, who is working in a weaving mill at Landeshaut only an hour’s march away. They meet every day for a while, since Abek is part of a group that works on a construction project nearby, but Abek is eventually worn down by the harsh conditions and loses his will to live. At the end of the war Gerda gets confirmation that he died.

Hanka is a friend of Gerda’s. They both work in the camp at Grünberg.whenHanka works in the kitchen she manages to filch some extra food, which she gives to Gerda and Llse. On the death march, Hanka remains healthy.

Gerda Weissmann Klein 
Gerda Weissmann Klein is the narrator of the memoir, which begins when she is fifteen years old, living in Bielitz, Poland, with her parents and older brother Arthur. Over the course of the next six years, Gerda goes through a series of devastating experiences. She is separated from her family and coerced by the Nazis into working at various weaving factories and then joining the infamous death march when the war is nearly over. Her long ordeal presents continual psychological and physical challenges, which Gerda meets with courage and fortitude. She is determined to cling on to hope. She forms friendships in the camps with various girls and these relationships help her to survive. When she is finally liberated she meets Kurt Klein, the American soldier, and they fall in love and marry and live after the war in the United States. It is a fairy-tale like end to a horrifying story, and the reader can only admire the strength and resourcefulness that enable Gerda to survive, when so many of the other girls in the camps and on the march do not.

Kurt Klein 
Kurt Klein is an officer in the U.S. Army who is one of the first American soldiers to speak to Gerda after her liberation. He treats her with great kindness and respect, which makes a lasting impression on her. Slowly, a romance between them grows, as Kurt visits her regularly. He then asks her to marry him and live with him in the United States. Kurt is himself Jewish, and he grew up in Germany. He and his two siblings were sent to the United States in the 1930s by his family for his own safety. Tragically, his own family died in the Holocaust.

LlseKleinzähler is one of Gerda’s best friends in Bielitz, and through the years they stick together. Like Gerda, Llse is forced into the camps and works at the weaving mills. She is also forced onto the death march, along with Gerda. Exhausted and sick, she dies in Gerda’s arms during the march. She was eighteen years old. 

Frau Kügler
Frau Kügler is a German woman who is the Lagerführerin, or camp supervisor, at Bolkenhain. She looks severe, but she actually has a kind heart. She develops an affection for the Jewish girls in her charge and even saves Gerda’s life on one occasion, making sure she is not in the sick room when the SS come to the camp, which would have meant that Gerda would have been sent to a death camp. Frau Kügler also helps to facilitate a meeting between Gerda and Abek, and she fights back tears when the girls are transferred to another camp.

Suse Kunz
Suse Kunz is a friend of Gerda’s. They meet on the train to Bolkenhain. Suse is originally from Vienna, and is cheerful and confident about the future. She laughs a lot. She and Gerda remain friends to the end, working together in the mills and then as companions on the death march. But Suse dies on the morning of Liberation Day.

Uncle Leo 
Uncle Leo is Gerda’s mother’s brother. He lives in Istanbul, Turkey, and sends Gerda food packages during the war. Soon after the war ends he writes to Gerda offering to help her in any way he can. He is the only relative Gerda mentions who survives the war.

Lotte is a friend of Gerda’s who works in the kitchen at the Grünberg camp. She dies on the death march in February 1945.

Merin is a Jewish leader who collaborates with the Nazis to send Jews to their deaths. His headquarters are in Sosnowitz. It is said that Merin lives in luxury, that he is wealthy, and owns a car. He is known derisively as “the king of the Jews” (p. 90).  Merin is present when Gerda and her mother are separated, and when Gerda tries to get off the truck she has been put on, Merin picks her up and puts her back on it, saying she is too young to die.

Peter is a friend of Arthur’s. In February 1940s he arrives in Bielitz from Krakow with the news, via Arthur’s girlfriend Gisa, that Arthur is well. Peter later tells Gerda that actually, Gisa knows nothing about Arthur’s whereabouts; she is just trying to comfort his parents.

Mr. Pipersberg 
Mr. Pipersberg is a widower, and a friend and business associate of Gerda’s father. They co-own the factory in Bielitz. Gerda is very fond of him. When Mr. Pipersberg takes the risk of going to the factory after the Nazis have taken it over, they beat him. He flees to the part of Poland that is not yet controlled by the Germans and lives under an assumed name. Gerda knows nothing of his ultimate fate.

Liesel Stepper
Liesel is a friend of Gerda’s. They become friends when they are both working in the Grünberg camp. Liesel is optimistic and she and Gerda talk a lot and dream of the beautiful lives they will have when the war is over. Liesel survives the death march but dies soon after following an amputation.

Tusia is a Jewish girl who works in the camps. Gerda describes her as “tall, thin, and ugly” (p. 127). With her small head and long neck, she reminds Gerda of a giraffe. She and Gerda share the same birthday, May 8. Tusia dies during the death march.

Arthur Weissmann 
Arthur Weissmann is Gerda’s older brother. In 1939, he is nineteen years old, and Gerda loves and admires him. He makes friends easily, everyone likes him, and he is planning to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry. Arthur is sent away, possibly to a labor camp, in October 1939, and that is the last time Gerda sees him. She does receive a few letters and at first it appears that he is safe, either in Russia or working in a chemical factory in Russian-occupied Lwow, in eastern Poland. But at some point he must have perished.

Helene Weissmann 
Helene Weissmann is Gerda’s mother, referred to in the memoir as Mama. She is forty-five years old and has been married to Julius since the end of World War I. She is a resourceful, optimistic woman who does her very best to support her family in the most trying of circumstances. She makes sacrifices, such as when she sells a valuable ring in order to buy Gerda an orange as a birthday present. She uses her skill at needlework and embroidery to make with Gerda’s help, sweaters and dresses which they then sell in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, however, Mama has a tragic destiny, since in June 1942 she is parted from Gerda and her husband and forced onto a train that is likely bound for Auschwitz.

Julius Weissmann 
Julius Weissmann is Gerda’s father, referred to as Papa. He is an educated man who studied medicine in Vienna and was a surgeon in the Austrian army in World War I. But he decided that medicine was not his true vocation, and he became a businessman instead. He is co-owner of a factory in Bielitz. At the time of the Nazi invasion of Poland, Papa is already under strain because of illness, but he does the best he can to fulfill his role of head of the family under ever-worsening circumstances. In May 1942, he is sent to work on fortifying a river in Sucha, about two hours by train from Bielitz, and then a month later told he must live in Sucha. When he boards the train early in the morning, it is the last time Gerda will ever see him, although he lives on in her memory. 

Meister Zimmer
Meister Zimmer is the foreman of the weaving factory at Bolkenhain, and an enthusiastic Nazi. Gerda hates him, although she finds him more fair as a supervisor than she was expecting.