Gerda Weissmann Klein
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|Gerda Weissmann Klein|
|Born||May 8, 1924 (age 88)
|Occupation||Memoirist, human rights activist and noted speaker|
For over six decades she has captivated audiences worldwide with her powerful message of hope, inspiration, love and humanity. In her speeches and books, she draws from her wealth of life experiences: from surviving the Holocaust and meeting her future husband on the day of her liberation, to her journey to the United States, accepting an Academy Award and Emmy for a documentary based on her life, and her constant fight to promote tolerance, encourage community service and combat hunger. "Gerda depicts herself as an innocent and naïve teenager. As she loses her family members one by one, she is forced to become entirely self-reliant" Despite her horrifying experiences, Klein conveys great strength of spirit and faith in humanity. In the darkness of the camps, "Although stripped of the essence of life, she was able to survive the barbarity of their captors." "She lost everything, and when most people would give up she kept going."
Life under the Nazis 
On September 3, 1939 fifteen year-old Gerda's life changed forever as German troops invaded her 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 myocardial infarction heart attack, and doctors advised that he not be moved or subjected to undue stress.
When the invasion ended, 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 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 both her parents, who were sent to Auschwitz, a death camp (it is not certain as to what exactly happened to her mother and father); she was sent to the Dulag (Durchgangslager, a transit camp). Later on, she was sent to labor camps in Sosnowitz, Bolkenhain, Märzdorf, Landeshut and Gruenberg; Bolkenhain being the most benign camp and Märzdorf being the worst one. On January 29, 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.
In May 1945, Gerda was liberated by forces of the United States Army in Volary, Czechoslovakia; these forces included Lieutenant Kurt Klein, who was born in Germany and immigrated to the United States to escape Nazism. Both of his parents had been killed by the Nazis at Auschwitz. When Gerda and Kurt first met,she was wearing rags and had not bathed in three years. Kurt simply opened a door for her, and she immediately felt human again. The two fell in love and became engaged in September 1945.
Life after the War 
In 1946 Gerda and Kurt Klein were married in Paris, France. They settled in Kenmore, New York and had three children and eight grandchildren. Gerda became involved with several local and national charities and soon began to speak about her experiences during the war. Gerda’s account of her experience is documented in her classic autobiography, All But My Life, which has been in print for 54 years, published in 63 editions, and used in high schools and colleges around the world. It is the foundation for the Oscar and Emmy-winning HBO documentary, One Survivor Remembers.
One of the most remarkable chapters in Klein’s life began when her future husband, Kurt Klein, a U. S. Army intelligence officer—and himself a refugee from Germany—liberated her on May 7, 1945. Klein, white-haired and 68 pounds, was one day shy of her 21st birthday. Their story of meeting and life together has been featured on numerous television shows including Oprah, 60 Minutes and CBS Sunday Morning. A book of their letters, The Hours After, is a poignant collection of correspondence between Gerda and Kurt Klein following the war.
Awards and recognition 
The Kleins’ story is also portrayed in the film Testimony, a permanent exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. In 1997, President Bill Clinton appointed Gerda Klein to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Governing Council. In 2007, the museum bestowed Klein with its highest honor at The Arizona Biltmore before 1,000 guests.
On February 15, 2011 at 1:40 pm EST in the East Room of the White House, President Barack Obama presented Gerda Weissmann Klein, along with 14 other recipients, with the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom. President Obama announced, "This year’s Medal of Freedom recipients reveal the best of who we are and who we aspire to be." President Obama read the following as Gerda was presented with her Presidential Medal of Freedom, "By the time she was 21, Gerda Klein had spent six years living under Nazi rule -- three of them in concentration camps. Her parents and brother had been taken away. Her best friend had died in her arms during a 350-mile death march. And she weighed only 68 pounds when she was found by American forces in an abandoned bicycle factory. But Gerda survived. She married the soldier who rescued her. And ever since -- as an author, a historian and a crusader for tolerance -- she has taught the world that it is often in our most hopeless moments that we discover the extent of our strength and the depth of our love." Then President Obama read a statement from Gerda which read “I pray you never stand at any crossroads in your own lives,” she says, “but if you do, if the darkness seems so total, if you think there is no way out, remember, never ever give up.”
In recognition of her international reputation and her inspiring message, Gerda was selected to be the keynote speaker at the United Nations First Annual Official Observance of the Holocaust in January 2006. She has spoken to school children in each of the 50 United States and the District of Columbia and has traveled the world to spread her message of tolerance and hope, meeting with world leaders, including Golda Meir and Menachem Begin, as well as Eleanor Roosevelt and U.S. Presidents Harry Truman, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. In 1996, Klein was one of five women to receive the prestigious international Lion of Judah award in Jerusalem. She has also been featured on the cover of the McDougal-Littell high school textbook, The Americans, alongside such other notable figures as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., Ronald Reagan, and General Norman Schwarzkopf.
In May 2001, Chapman University awarded Kurt Klein and Gerda Weissmann Klein an honorary doctorate of humane letters, the only married couple to be so honored by the university. Gerda has spoken at Chapman University several times, most recently in November 2011.
In 2008, Gerda founded Citizenship Counts, a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to educate students on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, inspire their pride in America and encourage them to participate in community service. Citizenship Counts empowers young people to be responsible, participatory and socially-just citizens who appreciate the benefits of living in a diverse, inclusive, democratic country. Its multi-disciplinary core curriculum provides middle and high students across the country a unique opportunity to plan for and host a community-based naturalization ceremony in their school setting. The vision of Citizenship Counts is to create a well-informed, responsible citizenry of individuals who are motivated to participate in both local and national community service. Gerda’s wish is that this organization will serve as her legacy and that its efforts will give her an opportunity to give back and thank the United States of America for all that she has been given over the years since she became a naturalized citizen in 1948. Her passion for the mission of Citizenship Counts is best expressed in her own words:
- "America is a unique, diverse and wondrous country, comprised both of those who know its magnificence as their birthright, and others, like me, who are privileged to call our adopted country ‘our own.’ What we all share is a desire for our families to enjoy America’s boundless opportunities while extending to all our fellow citizens justice and the blessings and freedoms upon which the nation was founded.
- To perpetuate the miracle that is America we must teach our children about its rich history as a nation of immigrants who chose this country and have given meaning to its ideals.
- Citizenship Counts will engage today’s students in civics education, combined with active participation in a naturalization ceremony, to help ensure that the citizens of tomorrow will continue to foster tolerance, understanding, service to one another and a greater appreciation for the privilege and responsibility of citizenship.”
Books by Gerda Weissmann Klein include:
- All But My Life (1957)
- The Blue Rose (1974)
- A Boring Evening At Home
- The Hours After: Letters of Love and Longing in War's Aftermath (2001, co-written with Kurt Klein)
- A Passion for Sharing: The Life of Edith Rosenwald Stern (1984)
- Promise of a New Spring
- Peregrinations: Adventures with the Green Parrot (1986)
- One Raspberry (2010)
- The Wings of Epoh
- "Voices on Antisemtisim interview with Gerda Weissmann Klein". United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 2006-12-07.