My hero, Gerda Weissmann Klein, died at age 97 on April 3, 2022. She was a young Holocaust survivor who grew up in Poland. Her brother was first taken from the family by the Nazis, and then Gerda was separated from her parents at age fifteen and never saw them again. Her father told her in June of 1939 when she was taken from her family to wear her ski boots that day. She spent six years in slave labor camps and concentration camps. She later discovered that her parents and brother had all died during the Holocaust.
American Kurt Klein had grown up in Germany and came to the United States at age seventeen, but his parents were sent to Auschwitz, despite his efforts to bring them to the U.S. as well. Kurt joined the U.S. Army to fight his homeland and became an intelligence officer.
Gerda married handsome Kurt Klein who liberated her on May 7, 1945, the day before her 21st birthday, after she survived the cold and brutal Nazi death march. She says the ski boots her father insisted that she wear in summertime were instrumental in saving her life on that winter march. She remembers that the night before she was liberated, she was herded into an abandoned factory rigged with a bomb – but the bomb did not go off.
Gerda and Kurt had three children, as well as eight grandchildren and eighteen great grandchildren. They moved to Buffalo, N.Y. for many years and then in retirement lived in Scottsdale, Arizona. She was an author, optimist, activist, storyteller, public speaker, educator, and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She later created a non-profit organization called Citizenship Counts with her granddaughter Alysa.
She was my friend and I adored her. She was the strongest, most resilient, most courageous person I have ever met. She was kind and compassionate and she loved her country. Her son Jim says in the forward to her book A Boring Evening At Home that one of his parents’ greatest achievements was that they overcame incredible loss at such a young age and created a normal life for themselves and their children with a lot of fun and a lot of laughter.
Gerda and Kurt spread a message of love and hope in their speeches around the world. The principal of Columbine High School said, after Kurt and Gerda visited to comfort that community, “many of us will have physical and mental scars that will remain with us for a lifetime, but the words of inspiration, wisdom, and love provided by Kurt and Gerda have given us the hope to carry on into the future and hopefully our efforts will make the world a more loving and caring world for future generations.”
I have wonderful memories of Gerda in Buffalo. My mother introduced me to Gerda, and her daughter Vivian taught my Sunday school class. The Klein family lived around the corner from my cousins. I heard Gerda speak about her experiences for the first time at my high school in Buffalo. Years later, I saw Gerda’s first book, All But My Life, in our temple library. Memories flooded back, and I asked her to come speak to our northern Virginia community. I thought my oldest daughter would want to meet her. Gerda must have been in her 80s then and she had the energy of someone decades younger. She boarded a plane and came to our temple. She spoke to two different standing room only audiences and signed her most recent book, A Boring Evening at Home. Later on, my children and I visited Gerda at her home in Arizona. Kurt died in 2002 while on a lecture tour and vacation with Gerda in Guatemala.
When she spoke, Gerda would tell the story of her childhood friend Ilse, who once found a raspberry in the concentration camp and carried it in her pocket all day to present to Gerda that night on a leaf. She would say, “Imagine a world in which your entire possession is one raspberry and you give it to your friend.” Gerda had the ability to greatly impact her audiences with her soft spoken voice telling stories and anecdotes from the past. She truly empowered her audiences, young and old, by showing them that no matter how difficult life may be, we all can find beauty and meaning again like she did.
Her books are all beautifully written, and All But My Life tells part of her story. The book was turned into a documentary called "One Survivor Remembers" that won the Oscar and an Emmy. I also loved her other books including Promise of A New Spring, The Blue Rose, and The Hours After.
'Hope is the light to the future” is what she said after the pandemic began. And “we discover the extent of our strength in our most hopeless moments”. As usual, she was full of wisdom, resilience, and optimism in dealing with the challenges of the pandemic.
Below is an April 23, 2022 Washington Post article about Gerda that includes her memorable speech. when she won the Oscar. The music tried to play her off but she gave her acceptance speech, and it was beautiful and eloquent.
Rest in peace dear Gerda.
Ellice Halpern, J.D., is a Virginia Supreme Court certified general and family mediator.