Friday, December 2, 2011

One Survivor Inspires: Gerda Weissmann Klein shares life experiences with Randolph audience

When Gerda Weissmann Klein was rescued from the Holocaust, a small act of respect began her healing process.

On that day in April 1946, she stood outside an abandoned bicycle factory, where many other Jewish women were lying sick. A car drove up and an American soldier hopped out to speak with her.

He asked her to take him into the factory so he could survey the condition of the women there. Then the soldier—whom Klein would marry a year later—opened the door for her.

“I was 68 pounds, dressed in rags, and I had not had a bath in three years,” Klein told an audience at Randolph College Thursday night. “And here was this very handsome American officer opening the door for me. … With that simple gesture, he restored me to humanity.”

During her speech in Smith Hall Theatre, Klein summarized her experiences in slave labor and concentration camps during the Holocaust, and how her marriage and experiences in the United States helped her overcome fear and dedicate her life to service and inspiration. Hundreds of people attended to hear her story.

“My story is not unique. It happened to everyone who was unfortunate to be born in that time in that part of the world,” said Klein, who was born in Bielsko, Poland, in 1924.

During World War II, she was separated from her family and sold as a slave to work in a German textile mill. After enduring the cruelty of a concentration camp, she was one of about 120 women who survived a 350-mile death march as their captors sought to evade the Allies conquering Germany.

After Kurt Klein, a U.S. Army Intelligence officer, liberated her from the Holocaust, the two began a correspondence. They married after one year, and settled in Buffalo, N.Y.

Klein then embarked on a life of humanitarian service. She started The Gerda and Kurt Klein Foundation and Citizenship Counts, two nonprofits that work to help people to appreciate freedom, tolerance, and community service.

Her autobiography, All But My Life, was the subject of an academy-award winning documentary, One Survivor Remembers. This year, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from U.S. President Barack Obama.

She said many people have asked her what it was like to receive an Oscar for One Survivor Remembers. She recalled the wonder of being surrounded by the famous actors and actresses. But she also remembered hearing women crying because they had not won.

“What didn’t they win? It’s a very lovely golden figurine,” she said. “It stands in my living room, and when the sunlight hits it in the afternoon, it looks golden.

“But it is very cold.”

“In the loneliness after losing my husband, it hasn’t spoken to me,” she said. However, “The embraces of my grandchildren are tender and warm.”

Klein described the concept of “a boring evening at home.” Although she languished such nights as a child, her experiences in the Holocaust changed her perspective. “To come home to an evening at home with my family is now the greatest treasure,” she said.

She encouraged listeners to find joy in the fact that they can have such time with their family.

“When you return to your homes tonight, approach them slowly,” she said. “Approach them as a humble stranger would…and, through the eyes of a stranger, see what your homes and your lives contain.”

“Don’t focus on what might be missing, because there’s bound to be something missing from every life. Ask yourself the most important question: Why am I so lucky? Why am I so blessed? And if I am, what can I do for those people all over the world and in my own country for whom an evening at home is still utopia?”