DC at Night

DC at Night

Friday, May 10, 2013

Why Me - I Am No Better?

The young Gerda before the Nazis
After surviving 3 brutal years in a Nazi labor camp where all human comforts were missing and an extra crust of bread was considered a great victory, young Gerda Weissmann now found herself facing her biggest challenge yet.

With all the 1945 signs clearly pointing to an Allied victory over Germany, in a last-ditch attempt to cover up their horrific crimes, her S.S. guards were forcing her labor group by gunpoint and whip to trek by foot through winter snows from Germany to Czechoslovakia. Death was everywhere. Some girls fell in the snow, never to rise again. Others were shot by their captors. One of Gerda's best friends was kicked in the head by an S.S. guard when she asked for a drink of water. She died in the night, huddled next to a shivering Gerda.

More than 4,000 young women started that long walk. When the guards finally abandoned the survivors in a large building in a small Czechoslovakian town in May, there were less than 150 left. Gerda weighed 68 pounds. One day shy of her 21st birthday, her hair had turned white. She had watched thousands - including her 3 best friends - die. But she had survived.

Her survival raised a question - a question she still asks herself today - Why me? I was no better.

Gerda Weissmann Klein, now 89, like the rest of us, will never be able to fully answer that question. "When I remember where I was, it would be easier for me to reach a star than to be in this incredible place I am in," Weissmann Klein says.

But there are some clues to be found in her harrowing, tragic, yet ultimately uplifting story. They are the things -  both simple and profound - that play a role in all our lives.

Of course, there is luck.  "No matter how much you want to live, it always could have been your last day," said Mrs. Weissmann Klein. Then there were the winter ski boots, the boots that she wore on the death march. When her family was forced from their Polish home by the Nazis, her father ordered her to wear her boots. "Oh, but Poppa it is spring. Why should I wear boots?" the young Gerda asked. But her father was insistent. Gerda wore those boots everyday for the 3 years of her captivity. During the march, while she was in boots, others were wearing sandals. "I saw many girls breaking their (frost-bitten) toes off at night," her voice hesitating as she recalled that particular horror.

There was a pledge. When she was separated from her mother, father, and brother, never to see them alive again, she was told to be strong and survive. "There were many times when I didn't want to go on. But then I would tell myself, at the next stop my brother will be there."

There was her basic life philosophy. "I am very hopeful. If I wasn't an optimist, I wouldn't be sitting here tonight," she said..

But above all, there was, in the face of unimaginable evil, an abiding sense of love. There was a love of family, a love she still holds in her heart today. There was the love of friendship. Gerda remembers the last words of her best friend, one of the millions of victims of Nazi atrocities. "I am angry at no one," she said. And later in life, there was the magic love she shared with her husband Kurt Klein. In fact, their love story rivals any ever constructed in literature. At the time of their first meeting, Kurt, an American G.I, was actually her liberator. He was one of the 2 soldiers riding in the jeep that discovered the survivors of the walk. "I told him I was Jewish. He told me he was Jewish, too." In less than a year, Gerda married Klein, whose mother and father had also been killed in a German concentration camp. They moved to America where they started a new life and raised 3 children together until Klein's death.

Mrs. Weissmann Klein today (picture from Bruce Guthrie Photos)
Last night, those children and their children and other family members, friends, and supporters filled the auditorium in the National Archives to hear Gerda Weissmann Klein, now the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary, the author of an autobiography that is in its 68th edition, the founder of Citizenship Counts, and a 2010 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the nation's highest civilian honor) tell her story, and equally important, share her hopes for the future.

"When you have freedom everything is possible. We should all rejoice to be here tonight," she said. "I was not Mother Theresa spending my life among the poor. I have not found a cure for cancer. I am just a middle-class woman who has realized her dreams. I wanted to give back to our country. Everyone in the world wants what we have and often take for granted."

"If there is any sort of advice this old woman can give you it is that we all have a tremendous resource of strength. Ninety-five percent of the things you worry about won't happen to you, but, if it does, you can find the strength," she said.

One woman asked Mrs. Weissmann Klein if she had ever returned to her childhood home. She said she had once with her American family. "It was very strange and not very comfortable. We also went to Auschwitz (the concentration camp where her mother and father died). It was painful, but I needed to tell my parents they had grandchildren in the United States."

Another woman, apologizing in advance for her question, asked Mrs. Weissmann Klein if she believed in God. "Yes," she said. "It's not like God is the fire department and, if you call, God will come. But when you hold a newborn baby in your arms, how can you not believe there is more? Maybe when God gave people the freedom to do the right thing, he removed the power to interfere. All we can do is hope. Unfortunately, there is still all this hatred and racism in the world. But we can hope."

Mrs. Weissmann Klein said that hope - along with right actions - can help prevent future Holocausts. "You are the messengers to a time I shall not see. I have great confidence in young people. They need to reach out to each other. We all have the capacity to help each other," she said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips

The event was moderated by Charles Haynes, director of the First Amendment Center at the Newseum.  Haynes said he believed that every American student should read Weissmann Klein's autobiography All But My Life before they graduate high schools. "In this building (the Archives) we have national treasure, but tonight we have an international treasure," Haynes told the audience.

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