Gerda Weissmann Klein
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Gerda Weissmann Klein
May 8, 1924
|Occupation||Writer, human rights activist|
|Spouse||Kurt Klein (1946–2002)|
Gerda Weissmann Klein (born Gerda Weissmann, May 8, 1924, Bielsko, Poland) is a Polish American writer and human rights activist. Her autobiographical account of the Holocaust, All but My Life (1957), was adapted for the 1995 short film, One Survivor Remembers, which received an Academy Award and an Emmy Award, and was selected for the National Film Registry. She married Kurt Klein (1920–2002) in 1946. The Kleins became advocates of Holocaust education and human rights, dedicating most of their lives to promoting tolerance and community service. A naturalized U.S. citizen, Gerda Weissmann Klein also founded Citizenship Counts, a nonprofit organization that champions the value and responsibilities of American citizenship. She has served on the governing board of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which features her testimony in a permanent exhibit. On February 15, 2011, Klein was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States. In 2013, she published a children's adventure story called The Windsor Caper, which had remained hidden away since the 1980s, when it was a weekly serial in The Buffalo News.
Born in 1924 in Bielsko (now Bielsko-Biała), Poland, a town known for its textile industry, Gerda Weissmann was educated first in public school and then in a Catholic school for girls. She was one of two children born to a middle-class Jewish family; her father, Julius Weissmann, was a business executive, and her mother, Helene (née Mueckenbrunn), was a homemaker.
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, ethnic Germans living in Poland, 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 trucks, she leapt out, pleading not to be separated from her sole remaining family member. Moshe Merin, head of the Jewish Community Council, tossed her back inside 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). She was in several camps throughout the war. First, she was in Bolkenhain working on the looms (July 1942-August 1943). Gerda was then transferred to Màrzdorf working physical labor (August 1943-?). She was quickly moved to Landeshut, thanks to the help of several people from Bolkenhain. In Landenshut, she was working the looms once again. The Germans were losing the war, and Landenshut was shut down (?-May 1944). The last camp Gerda was in was Grünberg. Gerda was once again working the looms, but it was very different from her former camps. Bolkenhain and Landenshut were both better than other camps, and the girls were treated (somewhat) fairly at those two camps. Marzdorf was very bad. Gerda almost died from being overworked, but her childhood friend, Ilse, helped get Gerda out. Grünberg was very different. The director was very violent and very often beat the prisoners. The girls who worked outside managed to stay healthy, but the girls who worked on the looms died quickly due to the bad conditions (May 1944-January 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 as a teenager in 1937. Both of his parents had been killed by the Nazis at Auschwitz. When Gerda and Kurt first met, Weissmann was white-haired, weighed 68 pounds, and was one day shy of her 21st birthday. 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 became engaged in September 1945 and married in 1946.
Life after the War
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.
The story of Gerda and Kurt's 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.
In 2013, she published The Windsor Caper (2013), a children's story that had been hidden away since the 1980s when it was a weekly serial in The Buffalo News; it is now available both as in ebook and paperback form. The book tells a charming story of two little American girls who have a great, night-time adventure in Windsor Castle, England. It features strange dreams, a foiled robbery, and some wonderful heraldic beasties, plus various historical characters including King Henry VIII. Gerda describes it as the only one of her books that is "not rooted in pain". It is written to provide kids with pure enjoyment from start to finish.
Awards and recognition
On February 15, 2011, President Barack Obama presented Gerda Weissmann Klein and 14 other recipients with the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom. At the ceremony in the East Room of the White House, President Obama announced, "This year's Medal of Freedom recipients reveal the best of who we are and who we aspire to be." He stated the following as Klein 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.
President Obama then read a statement from Klein: "I pray you never stand at any crossroads in your own lives, but if you do, if the darkness seems so total, if you think there is no way out, remember, never ever give up."
Klein was selected to be the keynote speaker at the United Nations' first annual International Holocaust Remembrance Day 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, with such other notable figures as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., Ronald Reagan, and General Norman Schwarzkopf.
In 1997, President Bill Clinton appointed her 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.
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. Klein has spoken at Chapman University several times, most recently in November 2011.
In 2008, Klein co-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, with her granddaughter, Alysa Cooper. 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. Klein's wish is that this organization 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. She expressed her passion for the mission of Citizenship Counts:
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.
- 1957: All But My Life. New York: Hill & Wang, 1957, expanded edition 1995. ISBN 0809024608
- 1974: The Blue Rose. Photographs by Norma Holt. New York: L. Hill, 1974. ISBN 0882080474
- 1981: Promise of a New Spring: The Holocaust and Renewal. Illustrated by Vincent Tartaro. Chappaqua, N.Y.: Rossel Books, 1981. ISBN 0940646501
- 1984: A Passion for Sharing: The Life of Edith Rosenwald Stern. Chappaqua, N.Y.: Rossel, 1984. ISBN 0940646153
- 1986: Peregrinations: Adventures with the Green Parrot. Illustrations by Chabela. Buffalo, N.Y.: Josephine Goodyear Committee, 1986. ISBN 096166990X
- 2000: The Hours After: Letters of Love and Longing in the War's Aftermath. Written with Kurt Klein. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. ISBN 0312242581
- 2004: A Boring Evening at Home. Washington, D.C.: Leading Authorities Press, 2004. ISBN 0971007888
- 2007: Wings of EPOH. Illustrated by Peter Reynolds. [S.l.]: FableVision Press, 2007. ISBN 1891405497
- 2009: One Raspberry. Illustrated by Judy Hodge. Klein, 2009. ISBN 0615356230
- 2013: The Windsor Caper. Illustrated by Tim Oliver. Martin Good, 2013. ISBN 9780956921352
- Personal Histories: Gerda Weissmann Klein and Kurt Klein Archived 2006-08-05 at the Wayback Machine, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Retrieved 2013-06-15.
- Gerda Weissmann Klein, Contemporary Authors Online, Gale Literary Databases 2002
- Gerda Weissmann Klein's testimony at "THE DEATH MARCH TO VOLARY" - an exhibition at Yad Vashem website
- "Voices on Antisemitisim interview with Gerda Weissmann Klein". United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 2006-12-07. Archived from the original on 2007-06-22.
- White House Press Office, Remarks by the President Honoring the Recipients of the 2010 Medal of Freedom, February 15, 2011. Retrieved 2013-06-15.