Gerda Weissmann Klein
For decades, author, historian, and speaker Gerda Weissmann Klein has captivated audiences worldwide with her powerful message of hope, inspiration, love, and humanity. In her speeches and books, Klein draws from her wealth of life experiences: from surviving the Holocaust, meeting her future husband on the day of her liberation, to her journey to the United States, accepting an Oscar and Emmy for a documentary based on her life, and her constant fight to promote tolerance and combat hunger.
In 1939, 15-year-old Gerda Weissmann’s life changed forever as German troops invaded her home in Bielsko, Poland. After being forced to live in the basement of her childhood home for nearly three years, Gerda was separated from her parents. Never losing hope, Klein would spend the next three years in a succession of slave-labor and concentration camps, until she was forced to walk in a 350-mile death march in which 2,000 women were subjected to exposure, starvation, and arbitrary execution and fewer than 120 of them survived. Despite such atrocities, Klein never lost the will to survive. Klein’s account of her experience is documented in her classic autobiography All But My Life, which is now 51 years in print in 62 editions. It was the foundation for the Oscar- and Emmy-winning HBO documentary One Survivor Remembers.
One of the most remarkable chapters in Gerda’s life began when her future husband, Kurt Klein, a U. S. Army intelligence officer—and himself a refugee from Germany—liberated her. 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.
In 2004, Klein released A Boring Evening at Home. This book of essays offers glimpses into her life, and into the thoughts that have always vindicated her belief that the most treasured place on earth is home, and that the most beautiful and desirable aim for people is to spend “a boring evening” there with family. The book is dedicated to her late husband, to whom she was married for 56 years.
The Kleins’ story is portrayed in the film Testimony, a permanent exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. In 1997, President Bill Clinton appointed Klein to the Holocaust Museum’s governing council.
Gerda Klein has authored eight books on a wide variety of topics for an array of different audiences. These include The Blue Rose, a story about a mentally disabled child. The book subsequently became a film in India. Her work Promise of a New Spring is devoted to teaching young children about the Holocaust, while A Passion for Sharing is a biography of New Orleans philanthropist Edith Rosenwald Stern, which garnered its author the Valley Forge Freedom Award. In 1996, Klein was one of five women to receive the prestigious international Lion of Judah award in Jerusalem. More recently, she has 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 Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. In January 2006, Klein was the keynote speaker at the United Nations’ first annual official observance of the Holocaust.
Klein’s constant striving for the preservation of human rights and dignity has earned her seven Doctorates of Humane Letters, along with countless other awards. In 1998, along with her husband, Klein founded the Gerda and Kurt Klein Foundation (www.kleinfoundation.org). Dedicated to easing human suffering wherever it may occur, Gerda Klein has worked tirelessly with her foundation to fight hunger, violence and prejudice, and to promote tolerance as well as encourage and teach young people to engage in community service and social action.
In 2003, 2005 and again in 2007, The Klein Foundation partnered with TIME Classroom to create a unique multimedia educational kit sent to over 20,000 high school teachers across the country. This curriculum presents the Kleins’ experiences as the basis to teach students about the value of respect, responsibility and acceptance of differences and, most importantly, to provide them with skills to take action. This Klein Foundation/TIME Classroom program—entitled Stand Up, Speak Out, Lend a Hand—was nominated as one of four finalists for outstanding student publications from the prestigious Educational Publishers Association of America in 2004.
In the fall of 2005, a significant and exciting partnership was created between The Klein Foundation and Southern Poverty Law Center to address the issues of anti-Semitism and intolerance in a larger context. To date, there have been over 102,000 requests for this unique educational curriculum. This project is available at no charge to every school in the country upon request.
Kurt Klein (1920-2002)
With the simplest of gestures – a door held open, a gentle voice – Kurt Klein and Gerda Weissmann brought a sense of humanity to a scene of horror. He was a U.S. Army lieutenant. She, one day shy of her 21st birthday, at 68 pounds, with gray hair, at the end of a 350-mile death march, was a Holocaust survivor.
Their first encounter outside a booby-trapped warehouse in Europe on May 7, 1945, blossomed into a 56-year love affair with a tireless mission: to battle intolerance and hunger and to turn heartache into hope for generations ranging from Holocaust victims to Columbine High School survivors. Mr. Klein died on April 19, 2002, in Guatemala on a lecture tour to deliver their message of hope. He was 81.
“Their life together was like a fairy tale,” their friend from Buffalo, Ruth Kahn Stovroff, told The Buffalo News. “They carried a message around the world … how you can turn any horrible degree of evil into good, with enough courage and faith.”
Following Mr. Klein’s retirement in the late 1980s, the couple established The Gerda and Kurt Klein Foundation, and spread their message through an international lecture tour. Their story was also retold in a variety of settings. Gerda Klein was the subject of HBO’s Academy-Award winning documentary One Survivor Remembers, in which she delivers a quiet, personal, shattering account of her three years in a concentration camp. She also wrote a book about her experiences and liberation called All But My Life, for which Mr. Klein was the editor. The two are featured prominently in videotapes shown at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC.
Born in Walldorf, Germany, Kurt Klein was forced to leave school shortly after his bar mitzvah as conditions worsened for Jews. He taught himself English by reading about America, and when he was 16, his parents sent him to the United States. Mr. Klein arrived in Buffalo with $10 in his pocket and worked as a typesetter, dishwasher, and cigar store clerk to help pay for his parents’ passage from Germany. They made it as far as France, but efforts to get U.S. visas were snarled by red tape and a lack of interest by U.S. Embassy officials, and the war caught up with them. They were sent to Auschwitz, where they died.
Mr. Klein’s efforts to save them from the Nazis were recounted in the PBS film America and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference. Mr. Klein joined the U.S. Army and fought against his homeland. As the war dragged to a close and hundreds of thousands of Germans began surrendering, U.S. intelligence agents tapped his ability to speak German.
He was on patrol when he heard that a group of concentration camp survivors had been found near a warehouse. That group included Gerda Weissmann. After three years in a German concentration camp, Gerda had been forced to march with 2,000 other camp survivors toward Czechoslovakia. By early May, when SS officers abandoned them in a booby-trapped warehouse and joined the German retreat, fewer than 150 of them were still alive.
“All of a sudden, I saw a strange car coming down the hill, no longer green, not bearing a swastika, but a white star,” Mrs. Klein later said of the U.S. jeep. When Lieutenant Klein walked up to her, he asked if anyone spoke German or English. Her response was a warning.
“We are Jewish, you know,” she said in German. She said the soldier hesitated. “Then his own voice sort of betrayed his own emotion and he said, ‘So am I,’ ” she later recounted. “It was the greatest moment of my life.”
“Then he asked an incredible question: ‘May I see the other ladies?’
“It was a form of address I hadn’t heard in six years. Then he held the door for me and let me precede him—and in that gesture restored me to humanity.” When she took him inside to stand among the sick and dying young women, she made an
encompassing gesture with her hand and said, “Noble be man, merciful and good.”
The soldier recognized the words. “What shocked me was that she could recall the opening lines of a poem by Goethe under those unspeakable conditions,” he recalled.
In addition to bringing his future wife to safety, Lieutenant Klein also helped arrange safe passage into American hands for a group of suspected German prisoners who turned out to be concentration camp escapees. Only in 1987, when one of the prisoners wrote him, did Mr. Klein learn that among the group he saved was a person who became famous decades later for his own heroics. His name was Oskar Schindler.
—Associated Press obituary, April 25, 2002