Gerda Weissmann Klein, whose traumatic story of survival through a series of concentration camps and a 350-mile death journey during the Holocaust became the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary, and advocacy for tolerance and civic education, won her the Presidential Medal of Freedom , died in Phoenix on Sunday. She was 97 years old.
His daughter Vivian Ullman confirmed his death.
The 39-minute film “One Survivor Remembers” (1995), directed by Cary Antholis, premiered on HBO to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust. In it, in eloquent, uncompromising words, Klein describes how she managed to survive nearly six years of horrors, 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.
Antholis said in a phone interview, “Gerda’s ability to present her experience with a certain level of poetry and the ordinary and exceptionally personal feelings and emotions that were relatable to any listener was simply obvious.”
Born on May 8, 1924, Gerda Weisman was one of about 8,000 Jews in the Polish town of Bielsko (now Bielsko-Biaa) near the Czech border. Her father, Julius Weisman, owned a factory that made fur goods, and her mother, Helen (Mukenbrunn) Weisman, was a housewife.
Their quiet middle-class life exploded on September 3, 1939, when a group of German trucks and soldiers in green uniforms were entering Bielsko after the roar of aircraft and artillery. Klein recalled how his Gentile neighbors took to the streets to greet him, waving Nazi flags.
His elder brother, Artur, his only brother, 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 of Nazis brought east to “colonize” parts of Poland.
“Spring was hard, because I’ve always loved my garden,” Klein said in “One Survivor Remembers.” “And the sign appeared that dogs and Jews are not allowed 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 leaving, he told her that if the Germans came to pick her up, she should put on her ski boots. She protested that summer was coming, but she insisted.
Two months later, after the Germans destroyed the Bielsko ghetto, its residents were driven in a line of trucks through the city center. Older adults and children were placed on one side, young adults were placed on the other. Klein lied about her age, saying she was 18, but when she realized she was separating from her mother, she ran after him. He was stopped by the head of the Judenrat, a Nazi-imposed Jewish council.
“You’re too young to die,” he said, and put it back on his truck. He later learns that his mother had been murdered in a Nazi death camp.
Over the next three years, Klein and three friends, along with hundreds of other young women, were sent to a series of work camps, kept alive on barely rations. At one point he contemplated suicide, even trading a piece of his jewelry for a small amount of poison.
“If unfortunately you were a person who faced reality, I guess you didn’t have much chance,” she said in the film.
They moved to Czechoslovakia at the time and eventually arrived at an abandoned bicycle factory in Voleri, near the German border. On May 7, the day before his 21st birthday, Klein awoke to find his hostages.
Then he heard a noise. Weighing just 68 pounds, her hair turned white from malnutrition, she slowly made her way to the door. Across a hill he saw a vehicle approaching. As it approached, he saw two men sitting in front and a giant white star of the US Army on his hood.
The jeep pulled over, and one of the men ran towards it. She asked if she spoke German. He nodded, then said, “We’re Jews, you know.”
The man, healthy and hearty and wearing sunglasses, was silent. Finally, he said, “I am too.”
He asked her if he could see the other “women,” using a formal address in German that Klein hadn’t heard from for nearly six years. Then he held the door for her.
“That was the moment of the restoration of humanity,” she said.
The soldier’s name was Kurt Klein. He was born in Waldorf, Germany, but his parents deported him to the United States in 1937. He promised to comply, but only reached France before being captured by the Nazis. They were both killed in the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex.
As Gerda recovered, she and Kurt fell in love. They married in Paris in 1946 and settled in Buffalo, New York, where they had lived before the war and where they later owned a printing company.
Gerda Klein wrote a memoir, “All But My Life” in 1957, and later wrote nine more books, many of which dealt with her experience during the Holocaust.
After Kurt Klein retired, he moved to the Phoenix area. There he founded the Gerda and Kurt Klein Foundation, which promoted tolerance and Holocaust remembrance through education, and also through a nearly nonstop speaking schedule by Klein.
Kurt Klein died in 2002. Along with her daughter Vivian, Gerda Klein has another daughter, Leslie Simon; a son, James Klein; eight grandchildren; and 18 great-grandchildren.
She continued her busy speech schedule after the death of her husband. In 2008, he and his granddaughter Alyssa Cooper founded another non-profit organization, Citizenship Counts, to promote civic education.
Along with Representative John Lewis, artist Jasper Johns and others, Klein received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor given by President Barack Obama, at a White House ceremony in 2011.
At the Oscars in 1996, “One Survivor Remembers” director Antholis and Klein both took to the stage, but the music of the exit started before they could even speak. She approached the podium anyway and the music stopped.
In what is regarded as one of the most moving acceptance speeches in Oscar history, Klein said:
“I’ve lived for six incredible years in a place where victory meant a piece of bread and another day to live. Since the blessed day of my salvation, I’ve asked the question ‘Why am I here?’
“I’m no better. In my mind’s eye I see the years and days I never lived to see the magic of a boring evening at home.
“On her behalf, I want to thank you for honoring her memory, and you can’t do it any better when you return to your homes tonight to realize that each of you who Knows the joy of freedom, he is the winner.”