Visual Motifs: Jewels, Skiing Shoes, a Raspberry
There are a number of recurring visual motifs in the memoir, all of which in their own way represent hope. The Weissmann family owned some jewels before the war, and when they are about to be parted for the last time, they take the jewels that remain—Mama had chosen to give away a valuable ring in order to buy Gerda a birthday present of an orange—and sew them into their clothing: Papa’s jacket, Mama’s corset, and, in Gerda’s coat, a diamond and pearl pendant. Though they must wear the humiliating Judensternon their outer clothing, inside it, in secret, lies something of great value.Gerda keeps the pendant in her coat until one day in Grünberg, where she exchanges it for a packet of poison that another girl possesses. She needs the poison just in case her situation becomes completely intolerable—at this time she had just escaped being sent away to be prostituted—and she would feel the need to take her own life.
Also when the family is preparing for their forced separation, Papa insists that Gerda wear her skiing shoes, even though it is June (in 1942). Gerda is surprised, and wonders why her father makes this demand, but he does not elaborate. It turns out, however, that he was prescient. Those skiing shoes, as Gerda notes, “played a vital part in saving my life. They were sturdy and strong,” (p. 86), and they will remain on her feet throughout her ordeal over the next three years. She refers to them several times. When she sets off on the death march, strong shoes give her a better chance of survival, since the girls worry that their shoes might get waterlogged and ruined. Some of the girls who do not have good shoes suffer from frozen toes, and Gerda sleeps curled over her shoes, afraid that otherwise someone might steal them. Also, the shoes serve another purpose for Gerda: they remind her of her family, since she has managed to hide in them, wrapped in a piece of cloth, pictures of each member of her family. These shoes literally remind her of home, and those pictures are still in her ski boots when she is liberated.
While working at Grünberg, Gerda is plunged into despair after she is beaten by a guard. The next day her close friend Llse brings her a gift that she has been carrying around in her pocket. She presents Gerda with “one red, slightly mashed raspberry” on a fresh leaf (p. 175). The raspberry rolls under a bunk, and Gerda retrieves it, and eats it slowly, “dust and all; its sweet juice mingled with the saltiness on my lips.” The raspberry here becomes a potent symbol of life and nourishment, the fruits of nature managing to find their way into this harsh, life-denying environment. Also, in its red, “slightly mashed” appearance, the raspberry acts as an ironic counterpoint to the description of Gerda just a few paragraphs earlier,after the guard hits her: her face is bruised and “my skin and lips were moist with blood” (p. 174).