Remembering Gerda Weissmann Klein’s legacy

Written By Rachel Ross, Co-Opinions Editor

On April 3, 2022, Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein passed away at the age of 97. Gerda’s life was forever changed in 1939, at just 15 years old, when the Nazi regime invaded her home country of Poland. After being forced to live in the basement of their house for almost three years, Gerda and her family were relocated to a Jewish ghetto, before being relocated again to concentration camps. Gerda spent the next three years being moved between concentration and slave labor camps. In 1945, she was forced to walk in a death march, which went on for nearly four months and 350 miles; she was one of about 100 survivors. Gerda was liberated on May 7, 1945 by a US soldier that would become her husband about a year later.

Gerda went on to devote her life to activism and promoting tolerance and Holocaust awareness. Her work won her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was bestowed upon her by President Obama in 2011. She founded the Gerda and Kurt Klein Foundation as well as Citizenship Counts, which worked to promote tolerance and Holocaust education and civic education respectively. She wrote several books, most of which were about the Holocaust, the first and most famous being her personal memoir, “All But My Life.” She was also the subject of the documentary, “One Survivor Remembers,” which won an Oscar and an Emmy.

I first became aware of Gerda and her story when I was about 12 or 13 years old. Over the years, as I have learned more about her and her experience, she has remained a constant pillar of inspiration for me. The strength that she has carried throughout her life, and the profound way in which she describes her experiences and thoughts on the world around her are absolutely astonishing and awe-inspiring. The lessons I have learned from her have been innumerable, and their effects have been immense.

The first concept that comes to mind when I think about what Gerda has taught me is what it truly means to be grateful. For me, her story redefined gratitude and appreciating every single opportunity or gift one is given. When I was about 15, I heard Gerda’s Oscar acceptance speech for “One Survivor Remembers” for the first time. It is a beautiful speech in its entirety, but there is one line that has always stood out to me among the rest. Gerda said, “In my mind’s eye, I see those who never lived to see the magic of a boring evening at home.”

I remember hearing this and feeling so impacted by it. I stopped and reflected back on times I had been resentful to be bored or to be participating in an event I didn’t want to participate in. I suddenly felt ridiculous and selfish to have complained about such things. I was safe, I was healthy, I had choices and freedoms; what right did I have to complain about not knowing what to do on a summer afternoon? Gerda’s words completely changed my outlook on the reaches of gratitude; it’s about recognizing everything that you have, and not taking anything as a given. It’s about appreciating the things that are often overlooked, or sometimes taken for granted.

She showed me this further in speaking about the city that she called home at one point in her life, and that I call home currently: Buffalo, New York. Gerda and her husband moved to Buffalo after getting married in Paris; she has described it as being, “The most beautiful city in the world.” I take pride in where I’m from, and the way that it has shaped me into the person I am today, but hearing what Buffalo meant to Gerda makes it all the more special, and reminds me not to take it for granted. I’m proud to be able to come from the city where Gerda and her husband were able to take refuge and start their life together after everything she endured.

Once you consider how Gerda, and a horrifying number of others like her, lost everything but their lives simply for their religious faith or having other attributes viewed as undesirable, it completely changes your mindset on your complaints and problems; suddenly, a lot of them don’t feel as significant anymore.

Gerda also changed my view on the reaches of kindness. She showed me that no matter the circumstances, there is always room to care for others and show them compassion. The very first story I heard about Gerda’s experience was from my mom, when she read me a quote from her about an extreme act of kindness shown to her in a concentration camp. Gerda’s childhood friend found a raspberry somewhere in the camp and carried it around with her all day to give it to Gerda that night. Gerda said, “Imagine a world in which your entire possession is one raspberry, and you give it to your friend.”

Years later, that story still sticks with me, as I’m sure it will always. Even during one of the most horrific situations that anyone could ever be subjected to, someone took the time to think about a friend before themself, and did what they could to make them happy or show that they were cared for. It proves to me that there is no limit on kindness or time that is so desperate that you can’t think about others and their feelings. It demonstrates the impact that an act of kindness can have on someone else, and that it’s not always about the thing you’re presenting or doing, but the fact that you thought to do something for that person at all. That story has instilled an unwavering hope for humanity in me, and the power of human beings. Even amid horrible evil and corruption, there are still those who strive to be compassionate and caring.

Of course, Gerda showed me the power of strength as well, but also that of humbleness. Throughout the horrible atrocities that Gerda endured, the ways she suffered, and the people she lost, including all of her immediate family and several very close friends, Gerda maintained her faith and hope. She remained strong in the face of unimaginable torture. When her future husband liberated her at 21 years old, she weighed a mere 68 pounds and had white hair. She endured through conditions no human being should ever have to go through: starvation, exhaustion, illness…and yet, she was extremely humble.

A few years ago, when she was 8 years old, my sister sent a letter and a few drawings to Gerda; much to our amazement and disbelief, someone from one of her foundations reached out to us, saying that Gerda was interested in speaking to my sister. A phone call was set up for a few weeks later; I was fortunate enough to be able to sit in on it. For all of the descriptions I come up with to describe the experience, none of them quite do it justice; Gerda was so extremely kind, caring, and thoughtfully spoken.

But what probably amazed me the most was her humbleness. At one point during the conversation, my sister told her that it was an honor to be speaking to her, and Gerda’s reply was, “Not really.” I was absolutely baffled that this woman, who had been through one of the most horrifying ordeals imaginable, and went on to do so much important activism work, could be so modest. If anyone had a right to be boastful of their accomplishments, it was Gerda, and yet she wasn’t. She was constantly thinking of others, and what she can do to help them. In so many ways, Gerda set examples for how we should all strive to carry ourselves; that there is never an achievement so great that you should consider yourself to be above or better than others.

Then there is the lesson that encouraged me to write this piece in the first place: the importance of remembering the Holocast, and of the power of activism. Gerda’s experience, as well as that of the millions of others who were subject to the same torture and cruelty, deserves to be honored always. They must never be forgotten. Gerda devoted her life to honoring those who died at the hands of injustice and prejudice; this work must continue on. It is essential that we continue to educate future generations on the Holocaust, and what can happen when we fail to stand up for what is right.

Although I am deeply saddened by Gerda’s passing, I am happy in knowing that she lived a very long and full life, beyond the experiences of her young adult years. Her legacy will continue on, as well as the principles she stood for, and the lessons she passed on to others. For at the root of everything, beyond her accomplishments and struggles, is an incredibly wise, insightful, and caring woman who deserves to be celebrated.