Gerda Weissmann Klein, Honored Holocaust Survivor, Dies at 97

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Her story was told in an Oscar-winning documentary, and her message of hope and love in the face of overwhelming evil was an inspiration to millions.

The Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama at the White House in 2011.
Credit…Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Clay Risen

Gerda Weissmann Klein, whose harrowing story of survival through a series of concentration camps and a 350-mile death march during the Holocaust became the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary, and whose advocacy for tolerance and civic education won her a Presidential Medal of Freedom, died on Sunday in Phoenix. She was 97.

Her daughter Vivian Ullman confirmed her death.

The 39-minute film “One Survivor Remembers” (1995), directed by Kary Antholis, appeared on HBO to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust. In it, in eloquent, unflinching words, Mrs. Klein recounted how she managed to survive nearly six years of horror, even as her family and friends were murdered around her.

“One Survivor Remembers” won the Oscar for best documentary short subject. It also won an Emmy for outstanding informational special.

“Gerda’s ability to render with a certain level of poetry her experience and both the ordinary and extraordinarily individual feelings and emotions that she had, in a way that was relatable to any listener, was just palpable,” Mr. Antholis said in a phone interview.

Born on May 8, 1924, Gerda Weissmann was one of about 8,000 Jews in the Polish town of Bielsko (now Bielsko-Biala), near the Czech border. Her father, Julius Weissmann, owned a factory that made fur goods, and her mother, Helene (Muckenbrunn) Weissmann, was a homemaker.

Their quiet middle-class life exploded on Sept. 3, 1939, when a roar of aircraft and artillery was followed by a column of German trucks and soldiers in green uniforms entering Bielsko. Gerda recalled how her non-Jewish neighbors poured into the streets to greet them, waving Nazi flags.

Her older brother, Artur, her only sibling, was immediately taken away; the family never heard from him again. The rest of the family was forced to live in their basement to make room for a German family, one of thousands the Nazis brought east to “colonize” parts of Poland.

“Spring was very difficult, because I always loved my garden,” Mrs. Klein said in “One Survivor Remembers.” “And the sign appeared that dogs and Jews were not permitted to enter.”

Her father, already in poor health from a heart attack just before the invasion, was sent to a death camp in April 1942 and murdered there. Before he left, he told her that if the Germans came to take her away, she must wear her ski boots. She protested that summer was approaching, but he insisted.

Two months later, the Germans liquidated the Bielsko ghetto, marching its inhabitants through the center of town to a line of trucks. Older adults and children were placed to one side, young adults to the other. Gerda lied about her age, saying she was 18, but when she realized she was being separated from her mother, she ran after her. The head of the Judenrat, a Nazi-imposed Jewish council, stopped her.

“You are too young to die,” he said, and he put her back on her truck. She later learned that her mother was murdered in a Nazi death camp.

Over the next three years, Gerda and three friends, along with hundreds of other young women, were sent to a series of work camps, barely kept alive on meager rations. At one point she considered suicide, even trading a piece of her jewelry for a small amount of poison.

By early 1945, with the war turning decisively against the Germans, Gerda’s captors evacuated their camp. Though the weather was freezing and snow piled on the ground, the captives were forced to march west. Hundreds died along the 350-mile trek. Gerda survived — in part, she said, because while many others wore sandals, she had her ski boots. She also had her imagination.

“If unfortunately you were a person that faced reality, I think you didn’t have much of a chance,” Mrs. Klein said in the film.

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Credit…Photo by Robert Lachman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

They crossed into what was then Czechoslovakia and finally arrived at an abandoned bicycle factory in Volary, near the German border. On May 7, the day before her 21st birthday, Gerda awoke to find her captors gone.

Then she heard a noise. Weighing just 68 pounds, her hair turned white from malnutrition, she made her way slowly to the door. Across a hill she could see a vehicle approaching. As it neared, she saw two men seated in front, and on its hood the giant white star of the United States Army.

The jeep pulled up, and one of the men walked over to her. He asked if she spoke German. She nodded, then said, “We are Jewish, you know.”

The man, hale and hearty and wearing sunglasses, was silent. Finally, he said, “I am, too.”

He asked her if he could see the other “ladies,” using a formal address in German that Gerda had not heard for almost six years. Then he held the door for her.

“That was the moment of restoration of humanity,” she said.

The soldier’s name was Kurt Klein. He was born in Waldorf, Germany, but his parents had sent him to the United States in 1937. They had promised to follow, but only got as far as France before they were captured by the Nazis. They both died at the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex.

As Gerda recovered, she and Kurt fell in love. They married in Paris in 1946 and settled in Buffalo, where he had lived before the war and where he later owned a printing company.

Mrs. Klein wrote a memoir, “All but My Life” (1957), and nine more books, many of them dealing with her experience during the Holocaust.

After Kurt Klein retired, they moved to the Phoenix area. There they founded the Gerda and Kurt Klein Foundation, which promoted tolerance and Holocaust remembrance through education, and also through a nearly nonstop speaking schedule by the Kleins.

Mr. Klein died in 2002. Along with her daughter Vivian, Mrs. Klein is survived by another daughter, Leslie Simon; a son, James; eight grandchildren; and 18 great-grandchildren.

She continued her busy speaking schedule after her husband’s death. In 2008, she and her granddaughter Alyssa Cooper founded another nonprofit organization, Citizenship Counts, to promote civic education.

Along with Representative John Lewis, the artist Jasper Johns and others, Mrs. Klein received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor, in 2011, bestowed by President Barack Obama in a White House ceremony.

At the Oscar ceremony in 1996, both Mrs. Klein and Mr. Antholis, the director of “One Survivor Remembers,” went onstage, but the exit music began before she could speak. She approached the podium anyway, and the music stopped.

In what has come to be regarded as one of the most moving acceptance speeches in the history of the Oscars, Mrs. Klein said:

I have been in a place for six incredible years where winning meant a crust of bread and to live another day. Since the blessed day of my liberation I have asked the question “Why am I here?”

I am no better. In my mind’s eye I see those years and days and those who never lived to see the magic of a boring evening at home.

On their behalf I wish to thank you for honoring their memory, and you cannot do it in any better way than when you return to your homes tonight to realize that each of you who know the joy of freedom are winners.

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