Remembering Holocaust survivor, author and Oscar winner Gerda Weissmann Klein, a ‘testament to tenacity’
Gerda Weissmann Klein, the Holocaust survivor, author, speaker, and activist died on April 3, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona at the age of 97.
Her book, “All But My Life,” first written 1957 and continuously in print for the past 65 years, was among the earliest Holocaust memoirs. Her riveting survivor testimony is shown as the final statement of the memorable film “Testimony” that concludes the permanent exhibition of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
In 1995, her biography was made into a 38-minute film, “One Survivor Remembers,” by Kary Antholis and HBO. I was a co-producer on the project. The movie won an Emmy, an Academy Award for best short documentary, and the Cable Ace Award. Gerda’s speech at the Oscars is widely regarded as one of the most memorable ever at the Academy Awards, given not by Hollywood star, but by a Holocaust survivor.
“I have been in a place for six incredible years where winning meant a crust of bread and to live another day. Since the blessed day of my liberation I have asked the question, Why am I here?,’” she said. “I am no better. In my mind’s eye I see those years and days and those who never lived to see the magic of a boring evening at home. On their behalf I wish to thank you for honoring their memory, and you cannot do it in any better way than when you return to your homes tonight to realize that each of you who know the joy of freedom are winners.”
The audience listened in hushed silence and then rose as one to thunderous awards.
“One Survivor Remembers” has been selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry as one of the nation’s films of significance. Now distributed for free online by the Southern Poverty Law Center, it has been seen by tens of millions of students and their teachers in classrooms throughout the world. All we producers had to do was to get out of the way and let Gerda speak, directly, compellingly, virtually uninterruptedly to the camera.
Gerda Weissman was born on May 8, 1924 in Bielsko-Biala, a southern Poland city, near the Czech border with a significant ethnic German population. She spoke both the languages of the city of her birth. Her father Julius was a manufacturing executive, her mother Helene a housewife.
Her pleasant life was ended by the German invasion of Poland which began shortly after she turned 15. The German annexed Bielsko and made it part of the Reich. Her family was forced to move into the basement of their spacious home. Her brother Arthur was deported in 1941, his fate is still unknown.
“My mother refused to make his bed for the longest time,” Klein recalled in her testimony. “She did not want to lose the indentation of his head on the pillow.” That loss, she said, “was the hardest.”
In June 1942, the Jews of Bielsko were deported and Gerda was separated from her parents. She tried to run to her mother but Moshe Merin, the controversial leader of the region’s Judenrat, forced her on a separate truck. “You are too young to die,” he said, knowing full well that the destination for the other trucks was Auschwitz.
For three years Gerda was in a series of labor camps, toiling endlessly, in the freezing cold of the Polish winters, or in the blazing heat of the summers, with little to eat, no medical care, sleeping on straw, being beaten at work. Many of her peers could not take it.
She too contemplated suicide but remembered the admonition of her father. Suicide, he told her, “was the final solution to a temporary problem” — words she was to recall again and again as she spoke to high school audiences throughout the country, comforting students after tragedies such as Columbine.
She was on the death march in the Czech countryside in the final days of the war that ended in Volary. She survived while her closest friends, her companions during the long ordeal, did not. She pondered a question that haunted many survivors, “Why did I survive when others did not? I am no better.”
She never answered that question directly, but the quality of her life, the causes she championed, the testimony she gave again and again, her grace and compassion were the answer. She endowed her survival with healing purpose.
Her experience of liberation is among the most moving testimonies we have. A Jeep appeared on the horizon, not with a swastika but a star, an American star. A young American soldier appeared.
“We are Jewish, you know,” she told him.
He hesitated and then said,“So am I.”
Her liberator, Kurt Klein, was a German-born American Jewish refugee who enlisted in the U.S. Army, one of many refugees who went back to fight an enemy they knew. He too has been featured in documentaries, most especially “America and the Holocaust.”
“May I see the other ladies?” Kurt asked.
It was, she recalled, “a form of address we had not heard in years.”
Gerda continued: “And he opened the door for me and asked me to precede him. And that soldier who opened the door is now my husband, he opened the door to my heart, the door to my future.”
As Gerda recalled, she weighed 68 pounds and hadn’t had a bath in years.
Nevertheless, Kurt could see who she was, and they soon became husband and wife, overcoming all the bureaucratic hurdles that would not allow American GIs to marry “local girls,” never quite distinguishing between former enemies and their victims.
After considerable immigration difficulties, they moved to Buffalo, New York, and Gerda, who always wanted to write, wrote one of the earliest Holocaust memoirs, with Kurt meticulously going over her newly learned English sentence by sentence, word by word.
Gerda was the author of 10 books, including some wonderful books of fiction for younger readers. Theirs was a storybook romance, their marriage a true partnership, only broken by Kurt’s death in 2002.
Gerda was also one of the first survivors to tell her story to the American Jewish community. For many years she was a most sought after speaker for the United Jewish Appeal, working tirelessly on behalf of Jewish causes, most especially its women’s groups where she had a considerable following for generations. She spoke in the 1940s and 1950s, well before the Holocaust was in vogue and when many Jews, including survivors, were advising silence, suggesting that we forget the past and build the future.
In later years, as the experience of the Holocaust commanded attention well beyond the Jewish community, Gerda was invited to speak all over the globe to princes, presidents and kings, to audiences of prominent and prosperous members of influential global communities.
Yet among her proudest achievements was her encounter with high school students in Columbine shortly after the mass murder, where in both a large assembly hall and in individual meetings she worked with the students, their parents, and their teachers to begin the process of healing, invoking her own experience of rebuilding a life of purpose and meaning at the catastrophe of her youth.
She used the story of her own survival and the authority of her experience during the Shoah and most especially in its aftermath, to reach out to others, to heal, to help, to offer hope and promise.
In 2008 together with her granddaughter and with another prominent Arizonan, retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, she started an organization, “Citizenship Counts,” promoting fellow immigrants to become citizens and fellow Americans to welcome them as she had once been welcomed.
Her experience in the Shoah had demonstrated to her the enormous importance of the rights of citizenship and perils of living as an unprotected immigrant. The work of Citizenship Counts only became more urgent as it became more controversial under the previous President.
Gerda’s last years were lonely — when Kurt died she lost part of herself — yet richly rewarding to her emotionally. She and Kurt had three children, Vivian of Scottsdale, Leslie of Las Vegas, and James of Chevy Chase, Maryland, 8 grandchildren and 18 great grandchildren — to quote Gerda, “and counting” — the magnificent rewards of a long life.
In her mind, each child was a testament to the triumph of life over death, proof that Hitler lost the war.
She was named to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council by President Clinton. She was awarded the President’s Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor by President Obama. Her citation read in part:, “Gerda Weissmann Klein’s life is a testament to the tenacity of the human spirit. By sharing her stories and encouraging others to see themselves in one another, Gerda Klein has helped to advance understanding among all people.”
She continued to receive correspondence from students and adults who were impacted by her work. She read every letter, cherished every note. She not only saved them but savored them, reinforcing for her the very purpose of her survival.
Gerda’s post-Holocaust life, her “life after death,” was in the deepest sense of the term a blessing. She was a model of conscience and the most wonderful and gracious of friends. To recall her, one can recite the words of Job, not with anger, not with irony but with joy.
The Lord has given.
The Lord has taken.
May the name of the Lord be blessed.
The world was graced by her presence. Her absence — especially at this time — leaves a void.