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Gerda Weissman Klein, Holocaust survivor and activist, dies at 97

When Gerda Weissmann Klein was liberated by American soldiers in May 1945, a day before her 21st birthday, she weighed 68 pounds, had a premature tuft of gray hair, and had not bathed for three years. Her parents and only brother were among the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, and her best friend had died in her arms the previous week on a 350-mile death march.

The Nazi regime and its collaborators had taken ‘everything but my life’, as Ms Klein later put it in the title of a 1957 memoir. But then she spread a message of hope and tolerance, espousing the ‘one of her liberators and lecturing to audiences around the world with her husband, Kurt Klein, a German Jew who had immigrated to the United States as a teenager and returned to Europe as an intelligence officer in the ‘army.

In partnership with HBO and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Ms. Klein turned her memoir into a 1995 film, “One Survivor Remembers,” which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short and the Emmy Award for Live Entertainment. exceptional information. Taking the podium at the Oscars, she delivered one of the most moving acceptance speeches of the ceremony, recalling that for six years of persecution and captivity, “winning meant a crust of bread and living another day.”

“Since the blessed day of my release, I have asked the question, ‘Why am I here?’ she said. “I’m no better. In my mind I see those years and those days and those who never lived to see the magic of a boring evening at home. On their behalf, I hold to thank you for honoring their memory, and you can’t do that better than when you come home tonight to realize that each of you who knows the joy of freedom is a winner.

Recognizing her decades of advocacy and education efforts, President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2011. Ms. Klein continued to lecture until he a few years ago, and was 97 when she died on April 3 at her home in Phoenix. His daughter Vivian Ullman confirmed the death but did not give a cause.

In its detail and specificity, Ms. Klein’s testimony – like that of survivors and victims like Anne Frank – has become a crucial resource for young people and others trying to understand the horrors of the Holocaust.

“She wanted to empower young people to make a difference,” said Sara J. Bloomfield, director of the Holocaust Memorial Museum, who said that in telling her story to new generations, Ms. Klein “was not just honoring the past. , but educated the future.”

Speaking off the cuff, with her seldom cracking composure, Ms. Klein reminisced about memories that were still vivid more than seven decades later. There was the family cat who stayed outside when Ms. Klein and her family were forced to move into their basement because a non-Jewish family took over the bedrooms upstairs. There was the intimidating, bulldog-faced German supervisor who once saved her life by getting her out of the infirmary after an SS inspector began sending sick patients to the gas chambers. And there was the raspberry—slightly bruised—that her friend Ilse had found in a gutter on her way to a factory, then kept in her pocket and given to Mrs. Klein as the two women starved.

For Ms Klein, the raspberry was a reminder that love and friendship could endure even in times of desperation and despair, and could serve as a “supporting force” when survival seemed impossible. “Imagine a world in which all your good is a raspberry,” she would often say, “and you give it to your friend.”

Gerda Weissmann was born in Bielsko, Poland on May 8, 1924. Her mother was a homemaker and her father was a textile manufacturing executive at a fur company. Pets rushed into the house, violets sprouted in the garden, and on September 1, 1939, Nazi fighter planes began to roar overhead.

In three days, the German army had taken the city. A sign was posted outside the family’s garden – ‘No dogs or Jews’ – and Ms Klein’s brother was sent to a forced labor camp. She and her parents were moved to a ghetto before being separated in June 1942, with her parents sent to die in Auschwitz and the youngest, able-bodied Mrs. Klein transported to the Gross-Rosen concentration camp system.

She spent much of the next three years in textile factories, where she was forced to weave fabric for the German army. She and the other girls and women were randomly killed, beaten, disfigured and went days without food. Towards the end of the war, with an Allied victory within reach, she and about 2,000 others were sent on a three-month march from the German-Polish border to southern Czechoslovakia. About 120 of the women survived, according to Ms Klein, who attributed her endurance in part to a pair of ski boots her father had insisted she take with her before he was deported.

The women were freed in a factory building in the town of Volary, discovered by a group of American soldiers including Kurt Klein, then a 24-year-old first lieutenant. ‘He looked like a god to me,’ Ms Klein later said, recalling the moment her future husband ‘asked if he could see the other ladies’ and then ‘held the door for me’.

“At that point,” she told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “my humanity was restored.”

In an oral history with the Holocaust Memorial Museum, Kurt recalled that Ms. Klein led him to a group of emaciated women “scattered on the floor on bits of straw” and then “made a sort of sweeping gesture on this scene of devastation” and quoted a line from the German poet Goethe: “Noble be the man, merciful and good”.

“There was nothing she could have said that would have better underscored the dark irony of the situation. … It was a totally upsetting experience for me.

Ms. Klein was hospitalized and visited almost daily by Kurt. They were separated for about a year as she struggled to get permission to immigrate to the United States, but married in Paris in 1946 and then moved to Buffalo, where they raised three children. While Kurt ran a printing and publishing business, Ms. Klein learned English and launched a career as a writer, publishing a weekly column, “Stories for Young Readers”, which ran for 17 years in the Buffalo News.

Reviewing her memoir in The New York Times, Herbert Mitgang wrote that “her story, like that of Anne Frank, is not morbid but intriguing and human”. Ms Klein later wrote children’s books, including ‘The Blue Rose’ (1974), about a girl with an intellectual disability, and ‘Promise of a New Spring’ (1981), which used the allegory of a fire forest to teach young people about the Holocaust.

Her other books include “A Passion for Sharing” (1984), a biography of philanthropist Edith Rosenwald Stern, and “The Hours After” (2000), a collection of love letters she and her husband wrote before their marriage.

Like Ms. Klein, Kurt often spoke of his own experience during World War II and the Holocaust, when his parents could not reach him in the United States and perished in Auschwitz. Her story was featured in a 1994 episode of the PBS documentary series “American Experience.”

Both Kleins were interviewed for a film set at the end of the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s permanent collection. (Ms. Klein was appointed to the museum’s board of trustees by President Bill Clinton.) They were also invited to speak at Columbine High School, following the 1999 mass shooting that made more a dozen dead.

“My parents’ motto was ‘pain should not be wasted,'” his son James said in an email, “and they used it as a motivating force for their life’s work.” The Gerda and Kurt Klein Foundation was founded in the 1990s to promote their message of tolerance, and Ms Klein later teamed up with one of her granddaughters to create Citizenship Counts, a civic education program in school that promotes “the benefits of living in a diverse environment. , inclusive and democratic country.

Kurt Klein died in 2002. Survivors include their three children, Ullman of Paradise Valley, Arizona, Leslie Simon of Las Vegas and James of Chevy Chase, Md.; eight grandchildren; and 18 great-grandchildren.

“For her family, her greatest achievement is that somehow she and our father managed to emerge from the crucible of the Holocaust and create an absolutely normal life for themselves and their children. “, said James. “How people who went through what they did and still were able to establish that normalcy is, to us, truly remarkable.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misrepresented Ms Klein’s estimate of the number of women who survived the 350-mile death march south from Czechoslovakia. It was around 120, not 350. The story has been updated.

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