Last Thursday I had the opportunity of a lifetime, and I am thankful that I took it. Author and Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein was speaking at a local high school, and I went to hear her speak. She has written several books, and when I heard she was coming to Dayton, I ordered a copy of her book All But My Life: A Memoirwhich details her experiences during World War II. It was the basis for a documentary, One Survivor Remembers that won both an Emmy and an Oscar.
I am somewhat obsessed with World War II, for whatever reason, and I have read so many books about all aspects of the war, but especially the Holocaust. Recently I saw a documentary which showed Holocaust survivors giving tours of the Holocaust memorial in Miami, Florida. One older gentleman, the sole survivor of his extended family of 26, told a group of middle schoolers, “If some guy comes up to you and says ‘I don’t like black people, or I don’t like Hispanic people, or I don’t like Jews’, you tell that guy, ‘Get the hell away from me!’” His message to the kids was two-fold: stay away from racists, and be thankful for your country. “This isn’t a country,” he half-shouted to the teens, “it’s a heaven!” I recalled his words as I sat in the audience waiting for Mrs. Klein’s talk to begin.
When Mrs. Klein, who will be 89 next month, took the stage for her talk last week, tears pricked my eyes as soon as I saw her. I had read her book and learned of her losses (her parents and older brother were all killed) and her courage. She was enslaved at various textile factories throughout the war and at the very end, survived a 3-month long death march as the Germans began losing the war (did you read that? THREE MONTHS). At the beginning of the march, her fellow Jews numbered about 2,000. 120 survived. Her best friend from childhood died in her arms.
Locked in a factory by the SS, who beat a hasty retreat from the approaching armies, Mrs. Klein was liberated the day before her 21st birthday – May 7,1945. She weighed just 68 pounds and her hair had turned completely white. The American soldier who liberated her spoke German. “We are Jews,” she told him, so conditioned was she to reveal her race up front. She heard that catch in his throat when he said, “So am I.” He was a German Jew who had emigrated with his older siblings to America shortly after Hitler came to power. He became a US citizen and joined the army to fight against Hitler’s regime. His parents, who were unable to get out of Germany, were killed. His name was Kurt Klein, and he kept up with Gerda during her recovery. They fell in love and were married a year later. They moved back to the US and had three children, and eventually Gerda became a US citizen as well. They now have eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren! What a legacy.
Mrs. Klein’s talk was amazing, but it did not focus entirely on her survival. Rather, the main point, which she hammered home several times, was how great a country the United States of America is. Be thankful, be grateful, hold precious your birthright, she said. Your citizenship is a privilege, don’t take it for granted, she beseeched us. She touchingly thanked us for anyone in our families who had served in World War II. All these years later, and she thanked us. That made me smile and be proud of my grandfathers.
To demonstrate her gratefulness of her adopted country, she told a story of how shortly after she emigrated, she and her husband went out to dinner with another couple. Her husbands’ friend decided to give her a lesson in free speech. At a crowded restaurant, he stood up and started denouncing President Truman. Gerda gasped and squeezed her husband’s hand. “Make him stop, make him stop!” she whispered. She was terrified he would be arrested immediately. The friend then grinned and announced he was just kidding and was showing his European friend about the liberties Americans enjoyed. “I couldn’t sleep that night,” Mrs. Klein said, “and in the morning I made my husband call his friend because I was sure he had been imprisoned.” Free speech was such a foreign concept to her – can you imagine?
Hearing Mrs. Klein speak really gave me a new perspective on freedom, one I am very grateful for. After the talk she signed my book. I must admit I am giddy to have something signed by someone who SURVIVED, whose life was meant to be snuffed out, who not only lived but had children and now has many descendants, and who spreads her message tirelessly.
The terror attack at the Boston Marathon earlier this week made me think immediately of Mrs. Klein and her message for us to cherish our country. Clearly there are people and groups out there who do not want us to have these freedoms she spoke so passionately about. They are trying to take our liberties away by forcing us to be afraid to practice them. They hope we will be afraid to attend big events, to congregate, to get on a plane, maybe even to go to work.
Let’s not be afraid.
For those who cannot, let’s revel in our freedoms. Let’s be brave, speak out, gather, congregate, celebrate, and follow our hearts. Let’s love one another as we love ourselves. Let’s remember always those who have sacrificed so that we could. Let’s be thankful for and make use of our birthright.
Thank you, Gerda Weissmann Klein, for continuing to spread your message of hope, survival, and of citizenship. I am so thrilled I was able to hear you bear witness.