All But My Life

Life under the Nazis

On September 3, 1939, German troops invaded fifteen-year-old Gerda's home in Bielsko, Poland. Shortly after the invasion began, the family received a telegram from Gerda's uncle saying that the Germans were advancing quickly, and the family should leave Poland immediately. However, Gerda's father had just suffered a heart attack, and doctors advised that he not be moved or subjected to undue stress.

After the invasion, Gerda and her family watched in disbelief as people whom they had considered friends began flying the Nazi flag and using the Hitler salute. In mid-October, Gerda's older brother Arthur received a letter from the Germans: as a male between 16 and 50, Arthur (19) was required to register for the army. On October 18, 1939, Arthur complied with the summons and never saw his family again.

Gerda and her parents were forced to live in the basement of their home and later in a Jewish ghetto. In 1942, Gerda was separated from her father, who was sent to a death camp where he eventually perished that April. In June, her time in the ghetto was over. Left with only the company of her mother, they approached the guard; her mother was sent left, she went right. She had to be torn from her mother kicking and screaming. As both females boarded separate trains, she leapt out, pleading not to be separated from her sole remaining family member. Moshe Merin, head of Jewish Community Council, tossed her back inside the train, saying, “You are too young to die.” He had saved her life, yet sentenced her mother to death. She was sent to the Dulag (Durchgangslager, a 9) 1945, Gerda was among 4000 women who began the 350-mile death march to avoid the advance of the Allied forces. During the death march, Gerda's best friend Ilse died in her arms. The forced journey went through Dresden, Chemnitz, Zwickau, Reichenbach, Plauen, Germany and on through Volary (in what is now the Czech Republic), and she was one of fewer than 120 women who survived exposure to the winter elements, starvation, and arbitrary execution. Despite such atrocities, Gerda never lost the will to live.

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