KLEIN, GERDA WEISSMANN (1924– ) and KURT (1920–2002). Holocaust survivor Gerda Klein, author, speaker, and humanitarian, is a testament to the power of hope. She and her husband, Kurt Klein, took tragedy and turned it into triumph – along the way inspiring millions of people to overcome their own personal battles.
Gerda Weissmann was only 15 years old in 1939 when Germans took over her hometown of Bielsko, Poland. She, along with her parents and brother, Artur, had led a happy and comfortable life. It was not long before the Nazis took Artur away. In 1942, Gerda was separated from her parents and sent to work in slave labor camps for three years. Her parents, brother, and entire extended family died in the Holocaust. Gerda was subject to starvation and torture, yet she never stopped praying that liberation day would come. On May 7, 1945, after a five-month death march through Eastern Europe, U.S. Army soldiers liberated Gerda Weissmann and a handful of other survivors. The first soldier on the scene was Lt. Kurt Klein.
Kurt Klein was born and raised in Waldorf, Germany. When Hitler ascended to power, Klein's parents realized Jewish people had no future in Germany. They sent 17-year-old Kurt and their other children to safety in the United States. During the *Kristallnacht attacks on German Jews, the Kleins' home was vandalized and Kurt's parents were deported to Eastern Europe. They ultimately perished at Auschwitz. Kurt Klein was drafted in 1942 and served in the U.S. Army as an intelligence officer. In May 1945, he stumbled upon an abandoned factory in Volary, Czechoslovakia, where about 120 girls, all victims of Nazi concentration camps, were near death. One of the girls guided Lt. Klein to her fellow prisoners, most of whom lay sick and dying on the ground. With her hand, she made a sweeping gesture and quoted the German poet Goethe: "Noble be man, merciful, and good." Perhaps it was her irony – or her composure – or her compassion amidst the tragedy that struck Kurt Klein. Whatever it was, a great love affair began.
Gerda and Kurt Klein married in Paris on June 18, 1946, and settled in Buffalo, New York. He started a business in printing and editing. She wrote her autobiography, All But My Life, in 1957. They raised three children. But their collective experiences during their early lives motivated them to educate others about the dangers of intolerance and hatred. They traveled the world together speaking to diverse groups about the power of the human spirit and the importance of addressing the needs of the hungry.
Gerda was the subject of the Emmy- and Oscar-winning HBO documentary, One Survivor Remembers, based on All But My Life, which is now in its 57th printing. Both Kleins are part of the Testimony film, which is shown as a permanent exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Gerda Klein appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, CBS Sunday Morning, and 60 Minutes. She was also the subject of a Nightline broadcast that highlighted her work with Columbine High School students following the 1999 massacre at the school. Gerda and Kurt Klein helped survivors at the school cope with their feelings and empowered them to begin the healing process. The story of Kurt's indefatigable but ultimately unsuccessful efforts to save his parents was chronicled in the award-winning PBS program America and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference, part of The American Experience series.
In 2000, the Kleins wrote a book together called The Hours After: Letters of Love and Longing. It is a compilation of Gerda and Kurt's loving exchange of letters during their one-year separation after the Holocaust. Over the years Gerda also wrote Promise of a New Spring, The Blue Rose, Peregri-nations, A Passion for Sharing, and, most recently, A Boring Evening At Home.
Because of the war, Gerda's formal education stopped at age 15. But her humanitarian work has earned her numerous honorary doctorates. In 2001, Gerda and Kurt received joint doctorates from Chapman University for their collective work fighting racism and intolerance.