When I was a teenager, my favorite book was All But My Life, written by Gerda Weissman Klein. Gerda is a Holocaust survivor who for many years lived in Buffalo, where I grew up, with her family. One of Gerda’s daughters, Vivian, was my Sunday school teacher. Gerda, throughout my life, has always been my hero because she radiates strength, hope, optimism, resilience, and love.
I remember my mother, who died in 1992 at age 55, telling me Gerda’s story as well since they were friends. I could not wait to meet Gerda’s husband and great love, Kurt, who I pictured as a young, handsome soldier -- and one day, I did.
Gerda spoke to my high school classmates and me in the 1970s and shared her story about her parents and her brother and life after the Germans invaded her hometown in Poland when she was 15 years old in 1939. Flash forward to many years later, maybe around 2004, and my oldest daughter did not want to go to Sunday school in northern Virginia. I happened to be at our temple and walked into the temple library with her where I saw All But My Life – my book that had been so special to me and that I had not thought of in years.
My daughter and I read the book together, and I decided to get in touch with Gerda and invite her to speak at our temple. She had written several newer books – including The Hours After, Letters of Love and Longing in War’s Aftermath and A Boring Evening at Home. It turned out that Gerda’s son James lives in Potomac, Maryland. We were able to arrange for Gerda to fly from Arizona to the East Coast, stay with her son, and I would pick her up and bring her to the temple in Falls Church. Gerda spoke to the northern Virginia community in two sessions – one presentation for children and another for teens and adults.
Later, when I was traveling to Phoenix with my three kids, Gerda invited us to visit with her in her home and we had a wonderful time. Then, in 2008, I was watching the Academy Awards and there was my Gerda up on the podium accepting an Oscar for her story that was told in the documentary One Survivor Remembers. You can see her remarks here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5zn-fPM4KS0. The film also won an Emmy.
In 2011, I opened up the Washington Post to see that Gerda had been honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the U.S. The award recognizes people who have made "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors".
In her talks to various audiences around the world, Gerda described hiding in her basement, living in a Jewish ghetto, and being separated first from her brother and then from her parents in 1942. The last words her mother spoke to her were, “Be strong”. Her father told her to wear her ski boots – in June – when the family was separated from each other. She never saw her family again. Gerda was taken to various slave labor and concentration camps and endured unspeakable horrors. She hid pictures of her family in her ski boots, which she wore on a forced 350 mile death march from Germany to Czechoslavakia through the snow and cold in 1945. Of 2000 Jewish women who were forced to march, just 120 survived.
I remember Gerda telling the story of her best friend Ilse, “Ilse, a childhood friend of mine, once found a raspberry in the concentration camp and carried it in her pocket all day to present to me that night on a leaf. Imagine a world in which your entire possession is one raspberry and you give it to your friend.” Ilse did not survive the death march and died just a few days before liberation.
At the end of the war and the death march, Gerda and the other surviving girls were left by the Nazis in an old abandoned bicycle factory along with a bomb that was set to detonate but somehow did not. Kurt Klein found Gerda. Kurt was an American who had been born in Germany and had emigrated to the U.S., settling in Buffalo, N.Y. in 1937 at age 17 without his parents -- who were unable to leave Germany and died in Auschwitz. Kurt joined the U.S. Army and was trained in military intelligence. Kurt describes the moment he met Gerda:
…I saw a girl standing and I decided to go, walk up to her…I asked about her companions… And we went inside the factory...There were women scattered over the floor on scraps of straw…some of them quite obviously with the mark of death on their faces…The girl who was my guide made sort of a sweeping gesture over this scene of devastation, and said the following words: "Noble be man, merciful and good." And I could hardly believe that she was able to summon a poem by the German poet Goethe, which…is called "The Divine," at such a moment. And there was nothing that she could have said that would have underscored the grim irony of the situation better than…what she did. And it was a totally shattering experience for me.
Gerda describes the moment she met Kurt: “He looked to me like a god…” Nervously, before asking for help, she apprised him of what had been a dangerous truth. “You know, we are Jews,” she told him…He paused, then said, “So am I.” Gerda and Kurt were engaged four months later and married the following year.
The other day, I saw an article in the Arizona Republic about Gerda. The headline stated: 96 year old Phoenix Holocaust Survivor Becomes Beacon of Hope During Covid-19 Crisis. As she always does, Gerda provided words of hope and comfort. Quoting from the article:
"If we have hope even in the darkest moments, I think it's the most important weapon," Klein said. 'We all have an incredible amount of strength that we are not familiar with until we are really tested."
"Even in the most difficult times, you have to have hope. Hope is the light to the future, to everything,"
She said it's important not to let one's mind wander into the dark doubting corners of fear. "I think we should always have hope and never give into the frightening thoughts," Klein said. "We always have the 'what ifs.' Well, what if we have incredible strength?"
"Ten years from now, you will look at it entirely different. You'll think, 'Things were really tough then, but how fortunate that I am now that that all belongs to the past,'" Klein said.
Sadly, Kurt died at age 81 in 2002 while on a lecture tour in Guatemala with Gerda. Gerda’s son James talks about his dad's death in the forward to Gerda’s book A Boring Evening at Home: “...in tribute to Dad, who believed in both the vital importance of their life’s work as well as Mom’s unique ability to convey eloquently their message of tolerance, hope, and the redemptive power of love, Mom has somehow mustered the strength to go on…” James also talks about his belief that his parents’ greatest achievement was to create a normal life for themselves and their children and a home in which the family all genuinely had a lot of fun and spent a lot of time laughing.
I find Gerda's words, as always, to be encouraging and helpful to me during this pandemic. I hope you find comfort in her words as well.
Sources: Chicago Tribune, April 30, 1995, Arizona Republic, April 11, 2020
Ellice Halpern, J.D., is a Virginia Supreme Court certified general and family mediator.