Remembering Gerda Weissmann Klein

Tue, 04/05/2022 - 1:47pm

Above: Gerda Weissmann Klein with her granddaughter Alysa Cooper

USC Shoah Foundation mourns the loss of Holocaust survivor and Institute friend Gerda Weissmann Klein, who passed away on April 3, 2022. She was 97.

Gerda Klein (born Gerda Weissmann), daughter of Julius and Helene, was born in Bielsko, Poland, on May 8, 1924. The family kept a kosher home and observed all the Jewish holidays. Both of Gerda’s grandmothers lived with her family for a time, and almost every weekend, the extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins spent time at the Weissmann house. Gerda attended public elementary school and Catholic high school. A rabbi would come to the Catholic school to teach the Jewish students during their religious instruction classes.

On September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. Then 15, Gerda recalls seeing planes with swastikas flying over her hometown. Bielsko was occupied by German troops two days later. Life quickly began to change for Polish Jews like the Weissmann family; identification and ration cards were issued, and Jews had to wear armbands with a blue star.

Gerda’s older brother, Arthur, was taken away on October 19 never to be seen again. The family was thrown out of their home and forced to live in their basement. To help support the family, Gerda and her mother knitted and sold sweaters.

In April 1942, the family received notice that they had to move into the Bielsko Biala ghetto. Gerda and her parents lived in one room. Gerda and her mother sewed uniforms at a factory in Wadowice, and her father worked to fortify a river in Sucha.

Gerda’s father was taken away in June 1942, and shortly thereafter, Gerda was separated from her mother. Gerda never saw her family again. In part, Gerda credits her survival to the ski boots her father told her to wear.

Between June 1942 and May 1945, Gerda was sent to Sosnowitz-Dulag, a transit camp in Poland; Bolkenhain, a labor and concentration camp in Germany; Merzdorf, a labor and concentration camp in Germany; Landeshut, a labor and concentration camp in Germany; Grünberg in Schlesien, a labor and concentration camp in Germany; and Helmbrechts, a labor and concentration camp in Germany. Throughout her time in labor and concentration camps, Gerda worked in factories and was forced to do slave labor.

In January 1945, Gerda was sent on a death march that continued until May 1945, when she and a group of prisoners were liberated in Volary, Czechoslovakia, by American troops. One of the soldiers she met that day was Kurt Klein, a German-Jewish refugee himself. His parents sent him to the United States when he was 17, before they were deported to Auschwitz and killed. Kurt and Gerda married in 1946, and they moved to Buffalo, New York.

The couple had three children, eight grandchildren, and 18 great-grandchildren.

Gerda wrote a weekly column for the Buffalo Evening News.

Her memoir about her Holocaust experience and survival, All But My Life, was first published in 1957 and became the subject of a 1995 Oscar-winning short documentary, “One Survivor Remembers.” The film’s director, Kary Antholis brought Gerda to the stage when he accepted his award. After his acceptance speech, Gerda took the opportunity to say a few words about the true meaning of winning.

President Bill Clinton appointed Gerda to the governing council of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1997.

Her husband Kurt Klein passed away in 2002. In the below clip, he recalls meeting his wife for the first time.

Along with her granddaughter Alysa Cooper, Gerda founded the non-partisan Citizenship Counts in 2008 to educate middle and high school students on citizenship and encourage them to appreciate their rights and responsibilities as Americans.

In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Gerda the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor. On that day, she offered advice to anyone struggling, “I pray you never stand at any crossroads in your own lives, but if you do, if the darkness seems so total, if you think there is no way out, remember, never ever give up.”

Gerda Klein’s interview for USC Shoah Foundation was conducted on December 7, 1995, in Scottsdale, Arizona, where the couple moved after Kurt’s retirement.