Holocaust survivor, author and lecturer Gerda Klein spoke to thousands of students in the Lower Merion School District last week and challenged them – by using her life story as a model – to feed the hungry so that "no child should know hunger like I did."
"She has spent her life striving for human rights throughout the world," proclaimed Jamie Savedoff, Ph.D., the district's superintendent when he introduced the program to those gathered in the auditorium of Lower Merion High School. (Other students were watching via a broadcast of the event at two of the district's middle schools.) "Hers is a story of humanity lost and humanity found. Today, your textbooks are secondary to this opportunity to experience history firsthand."
Klein will address the U.N. General Assembly on its Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust on Friday, Jan. 27.
Reflecting on Better Times
"Awed by the honor," Klein spoke of how much she enjoys talking to teens.
"I was blessed with a loving family," she began. "On a warm, late autumn morning in 1939, my world was destroyed when the Germans entered my town [of] Bielitz, Poland."
Klein told the students that in 1942, her family was taken away, and her parents and brother killed in Auschwitz.
"I did not know if I would see another day," she recalled.
The speaker did not dwell on her subsequent experiences as a slave laborer for the Nazis, but rather, told the students that she did not want to "burden [them] with horror stories that would give them nightmares."
Among the stories she did share was of "a boring evening" at home before the war – her father smoking his pipe, her mother embroidering, and she and her brother doing homework.
"I dreamt of that evening over and over. Keeping that image made me survive," she said.
Klein also discussed the 350-mile death march from the slave labor camp that included 2,000 women. The final 120 survivors were locked into an abandoned factory, surrounded by bombs. Only the spring rains stopped them from exploding.
The next morning, she was liberated by U.S. Army Lt. Kurt Klein, "a handsome young American in battle gear." Born in Germany, he had been sent to America to live with family members there. His parents also died in Auschwitz.
"It was the greatest moment of my life," she said of meeting the man that was to be her husband. "I weighed 68 pounds, my hair was white, and I had not had a bath in three years. He held the door open for me, and in that incredible moment, he restored me to humanity. I never thought he would marry me."
The couple wed in Paris in 1948. They moved to Buffalo, N.Y., and later to Phoenix, Ariz. They have four children and eight grandchildren. Kurt Klein died in 2002.
Hope and Powers
Throughout their years together, the Kleins made it a point to help educate others, especially young people, about the dangers of intolerance, and urged activism to end hunger.
Gerda Klein told the students sitting before her: "Remember at dinner tonight that 35 million Americans go to bed hungry."
"You are their hope, and you have enormous powers," she continued. "The world will listen to your voices and hearts. Go to TV stations, write to Congress, and tell them you want to wipe out hunger."
Scott Geftman, 15, a Harriton sophomore, thought Klein's talk was "better than textbook Holocaust history and statistics.
"When it comes to community service," he said, "she makes the impossible seem possible."
Lower Merion junior Emily Fox, 16, said that Klein can relate her story to teenagers "because her struggle happened when she was our age. We come from affluent communities, but her message puts our lives into perspective – and inspires us to give back."
The Gerda and Kurt Klein Foundation, a nonprofit organization, was established in 1998 in Narberth, to "turn the horrible lessons of the Holocaust into hope and social action."
Beth Reisboard serves as director, and Nancy Astor-Fox as associate director, of the foundation, which receives financial support through private foundations, corporations and individual donors.
Its goal is to create and distribute a wealth of Holocaust teaching tools – such as videos, teachers' newsletters and lesson plans – in addition to a resource guide, a copy of Klein's book, All but My Life, and the 39-minute video "One Survivor Remembers," which is based on Klein's book of the same name. The video won the 1995 Academy Award for Short Documentary.
Before she left the podium, Klein had a special message for teachers: "When I had no guides in my life, I went back to what my parents and teachers taught me. Their words were lodestones in the darkness.
"I never thanked my teachers," she added, turning from the educators back to the students. "Please thank yours."