Gerda Weissman Klein has an incredible story. Born to fur manufacturing executive Julius Weissmann and Helene Weissmann on 8 May 1924, in Bielsko, an independent town till 1950, noted for its textile industry, in Poland. She attended Notre Dame Gymnasium, a Catholic girl’s school in Bielsko, until the Germans invaded Poland in 1939. Shortly after the German troops invaded Bielsko on 3 September 1939, the family received a telegram from Gerda's uncle, advising them to leave Poland immediately, as the Germans were advancing rapidly. Unfortunately, the family was forced to stay behind, since Gerda's father had suffered a heart attack and his doctors advised him not to take the undue stress of moving him elsewhere.
As German fighter planes appeared overhead on Friday, the 1st of September 1939, many settled people left the town in terror, but Gerda's family had to live through the intense shelling that followed on Sunday evening. In the following morning, two German soldiers raced up the street on a motorcycle amid enthusiastic welcoming cheers of the Bielsko townspeople.However, the family was dumbstruck to watch from their window, the ethnic Germans living in the town and considered to be their friends, shouting Heil Hitlerwith raised-arm salutes,while a black, white and red swastika flag suddenly fluttered from a window across the street.
By October, Gerda’s elder brother, 19-year-old Arthur, was sent off to do forced labour, like other Jewish boys of his age. Although he later escaped into the Russian-occupied zone of Poland, Gerda never saw him again.
Meanwhile, following the other members of the community, Gerda and her parents took shelter in the basement of their home in apprehension, but they could not avoid being shifted to the Jewish ghetto in Bielsko. In 1942, Julius was deported to work in a textile mill in Bolkenhain, Silesia and died in April, 1942. In June 1942, with the liquidation of the ghetto in Bielsko, Gerda Weissman Klein was separated from her mother, when Helene was deported to the death camp at Auschwitz and Gerda was sent to a slave labour camp. When she was separated from her mother and put into a separate truck, Gerda jumped out and tried to get back to her mother. However, Moshe Merin, the head of the local Jewish Council Judenrat, took an immense risk and immediately picked up and threw her back into the track, shouting that she was too young to die.She never saw her mother again.
Gerda Weissman had to serve several labour camps throughout the war. From July 1942 to August 1943, she worked on looms in a textile mill in Bolkenhain, a sub camp of Gross-Rose. But due to hunger and backbreaking work, she soon fell sick and was admitted to the camp hospital. During that time, she was saved by the badmouthed German supervisor, Mrs Kugler. She knew that the camp hospital was being inspected by a SS man and the sick would be immediately deported to be gassed. However, humanity prevailed, as she mercilessly dragged Gerda back to the factory, started her loom and set her in front of it. Although poor Gerda was delirious from fever, she passed the inspection and was saved. After that, she was transferred to the textile factory Kramsta-Methn in Màrzdorf in August 1943. When she almost died there from extreme exhaustion due to overwork, she was again saved by a childhood friend, Ilse Kleinzahler, who helped get her moved to Landeshutand then to Gruenberg, when Landeshut was shut down in May 1944.
It was a miracle that Gerda Weissman was still alive in January 1945, even after three years of forced labour in different camps in horrible conditions, which included malnutrition, overwork, whippings, sexual harassment, disfigurement, arbitrary killings and the constant threat of deportation to Auschwitz for extermination.Apart from working hard in different textile factories, they had to shovel coal out of railroad cars, lay bricks and labour in quarries.The condition became worse, when Germany started to lose and the Allies were closing in. During that time, the Germans were desperate to eliminate the human evidence of the Holocaust. In their attempt to vacate the camps, the SS forced around 2000 Jewish women to make a 350-mile death march from Germany to Czechoslovakia to evade the advancing Allied armies. Gerda Weissman was one of those marching women, along with her three friends, Ilse Kleinzahler, Liesl Steppe and Suse Kunz.
The death march, without sufficient food, rest and sufficient garments in freezing conditions, wentthrough Dresden, Chemnitz, Zwickau, Reichenbach, Plauen in Germany and on through Wallern, now Volary, a town in the South Bohemian Region of the modern Czech Republic. During the death march, hundreds of women died, along with Ilse Kleinzahler, a childhood friend of Gerda Weissmann Klein. While in the Grunberg concentration camp, she once found a raspberry in the gutter on the way to the factory and carried it in her pocket all day, only to give it to Gerda that night on a leaf.
Ilse died in her sleep after telling her she would not be going any further. Weissman Klein was one of the 120 women, who survived the fateful march and she attributed her survival to her father's apparently peculiar instruction to wear her ski boots, when it came time to leave home. Her friends, Ilse Kleinzahler, Liesl Steppe, and Suse Kunz, were buried in a cemetery in Volary, in the Czech Republic, along with 92 other women.
Weissmann Klein, along with the other survivors were liberated in May 1945, by the United States Army in Volary. The night before, they were herded into an abandoned bicycle factory and spent the night hearing the roaring American planes overhead. When the morning came, they could hear the sounds of people running and shouting outside the doors and when the doors were thrust open and someone urged them to go out, assuring them that the war was over, Gerda saw something which seemed to be rather incredible. She saw a strange car coming down from a close-by hill, which was not green and instead of a swastika, it was marked with the white star of the American Army on its hoods. Apart from the man at the wheel, there was another soldier in the vehicle, who jumped out as the vehicle approached nearer and came running towards her to enquire about the other inmates. When Gerda Weissmann apprehensively informed him that they were all Jewish women, he kept on looking at her for quite a long time before assuring her that he was also a Jew.
The soldier, who came into the life of Gerda as her rescuer and married her later, in 1946, was Lieutenant Kurt Klein. He was born in Germany, escaped Nazism as a teenager in 1937 and settled in Buffalo in the United States, where he had relatives and took the job of a printer. He tried hard to bring his parents out of Germany and although they reached France, they could not get the US visas, mainly due to the snarls of red tape and were ultimately murdered at Auschwitz. However, Kurt Klein was drafted in 1942 and was assigned to military intelligence, due to his proficiency in German. Subsequently, he returned to Europe in 1944 via Utah Beach at Normandy and was given a field commission. Later, he also played an important role in saving Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist and Nazi party member who took the immense risk to save 1,200 Jews from the Holocaust and was the subject of the Academy Award-winning movie Schindler's List (1993).
When Kurt Klein first encountered Gerda Weissmann, she was one day shy of her 21st birthday, white-haired, weighed 68 pounds, dressed in rags and had not bathed in three years. He took her took a hospital, where she remained several months, as she was suffering from pneumonia, fever, malnutrition and frostbite. Klein visited her while she was in the hospital and got her a job in the American occupation zone, when she was discharged. He tried to get her a US visa, when he was transferred back to the States and as his effort failed, he came back to Europe to marry her in France. In the States, they lived in Buffalo, where Kurt opened his printing firm and moved to Arizona after he retired in 1985. They have two daughters, a son and eight grandchildren.
Weissmann Klein has published several memoirs and children's stories, including All But My Life, which has been a mainstay on high school reading lists since it was first published in 1957. She was awarded an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters by the Daemen College in New York in 1975 and was one of five women to receive the international Lion of Judah award in Jerusalem in 1996. In 1997, she was appointed in the Governing Council to the United States Holocaust Memorial in Washington, DC, by President Bill Clinton and the museum bestowed her with its highest honour in 2007, at The Arizona Biltmore, a Phoenix icon. In 2008, Weissmann Klein founded a non profiting organisation, Citizenship Counts, to educate students on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and encourage them to participate in community service, with her granddaughter, Alysa Cooper. She was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama on 15 February 2011, in the East Room of the White House in Washington.
One Survivor Remembers (1995), a documentary based on Gerda Klein's autobiography, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1995.