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Survivor With Local Ties to Receive Freedom Medal

November 18, 2010
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Gerda Weissman Klein, a Holocaust survivor with a Narberth-based educational foundation bearing her name, will be honored by President Barack Obama with a Medal of Freedom.

Klein, who survived the notorious death march at the end of World War II and married her American liberator, has "spoken to audiences of all ages and faiths around the world about the value of freedom and has dedicated her life to promoting tolerance and understanding among all people," the White House said in a statement Nov. 17.

Much of that work has come through the Gerda and Kurt Klein Foundation, an organization launched locally more than 30 years ago.

The focus of the foundation is to promote tolerance and community service among students, said Beth Reisboard, a longtime communal leader who started the organization after being inspired by Klein and her message.

Gerda, 86, and Kurt Klein, who died a few years ago, "rose above the horrific history of their families to embrace everyone they met to talk about the innate goodness of human beings," said Reisboard, who serves as the organization's executive director.

Over the years, the foundation grew, partnering with Time, Inc.'s student program and the Southern Poverty Law Center. It has distributed some 150,000 teaching kits over the years, reaching an estimated 12 million to 14 million students, Reisboard said.

The White House called the Medal of Freedom the highest U.S. civilian honor "presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."

The White House also noted that Klein had recently founded Citizenship Counts, "an organization that teaches students to cherish the value of their American citizenship."

Among the other recipients, who will receive the medals in a ceremony early next year, are President George H. W. Bush, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, poet Maya Angelou, artist Jasper Johns, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, baseball giant Stan Musial and optometrist Tom Little, who was murdered by the Taliban while he was on a humanitarian mission in Afghanistan.

Reisboard said that Gerda Klein, who lives in Arizona, had just concluded an educational national video teleconference for 30 schools on Tuesday afternoon when she got the call from the White House informing her of the honor

She thought someone was joking, Reisboard recounted Klein telling her, so much so that the White House administrator who made the call finally had to give Klein the switchboard number for her to call back and confirm the news herself. 

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