09:32 AM

One Survivor Remembers

She was only 15 years old when the Nazis invaded her hometown in Poland. She endured years confined in concentration camps, suffered through the infamous three-month-long death march, and was the only surviving member of her family. Over the course of six years, the Nazis took all but her life. On Wednesday, March 9, more than 65 years after her liberation, Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein will share her captivating story at California State University San Marcos.Sponsored by Arts & Lectures and the Leichtag Family Foundation, the evening engagement will begin at 6:00 p.m. in Arts 240 with the film screening of One Survivor Remembers, an Oscar and Emmy-winning documentary based on Klein’s life. Following the film, Klein, who is now 86 years old, will deliver a powerful message of hope, inspiration, love, and humanity.“The Holocaust was one of the most devastating events in human history,” said James Farley, president and CEO of the Leichtag Family Foundation. “As we mark the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II, we are challenged to ensure that the Holocaust is never forgotten and that its lessons endure.  To this end, the Leichtag Family Foundation is honored to support Gerda Weissmann Klein’s visit to Cal State San Marcos so that she may share her impactful story of survival with our community.”In September 1939 at the age of 15, Gerda Weissman Klein’s peaceful middle-class life changed forever as German troops stormed the quaint streets of her southern Polish hometown of Bielsko. Under German occupation, the Weismann family was mandated to live in the basement of their beloved home and later forced into a Jewish ghetto. Her older brother Arthur was summoned by law to register with the German army. In 1942, her parents, Julius and Helene, were sent to Auschwitz, a death camp, while she was sent to Dulag, a transit camp. Klein would spend the next three years at a series of slave-labor and concentration camps, nearly avoiding execution on several occasions. She would never see her brother or parents again. Sixty-seven of her relatives, including all of her immediate family died in the Holocaust. Only Klein and her uncle, who lived in Turkey, survived.In early 1945, the then 20-year-old Klein was among 2,000 women ordered by the Nazis to begin a treacherous 350-mile death march to evade the advances of Allied Forces. The women were exposed to harsh winter elements, starvation, humiliation, and many were arbitrarily executed. Klein was one of less than 120 women who survived the journey. Despite the atrocities she experienced, Klein says she never lost the will to live. Klein’s childhood best friend Ilse Kleinzahler died in her arms just days before they would be liberated by American forces on May 7, 1945.On the day of liberation, Klein was white-haired due to malnutrition, weighed a mere 68 pounds, and was one-day shy of her 21st birthday. Decades later, she can still recall that day vividly:“All of a sudden I saw a strange car coming down the hill, no longer green, not bearing the swastika, but a white star. It was sort of a mud-splattered vehicle, but I've never seen a star brighter in my life. And two men sort of jumped out, came running toward us and one came toward where I stood. He was wearing battle gear. I have to think...you know. His helmet was this mesh over that and he was wearing dark glasses and he spoke to me in German. And he said, "Does anybody here speak German or English?" and I said, "I speak German." And I felt that I had to tell him we are Jewish, and I didn't know if he would know what the star means or anything; but you know, and I uh looked at him, I was a little afraid to tell him that, but I said to him, "We are Jewish, you know." He didn't answer me for quite a while. And then his own voice sort of betrayed his own emotion and he said, "So am I." I would say it was the greatest hour of my life. And then he asked an incredible question. He said, "May I see the other ladies?" You know, what...what we have been addressed for six years and then to hear this man. He looked to me like a young god. I have to tell you I weighed 68 pounds. My hair was white. And you can imagine, I hadn't had a bath in years. And this creature asked for "the other ladies." And I told him that most of the girls were inside, you know. They were too ill to walk, and he said, "Won't you come with me?" And, and I said, "Sure." But I didn't know what he meant. He held the door open for me and let me precede him and in that gesture restored me to humanity.”One year after that memorable day, Klein married the young American intelligence officer who first greeted her at the abandoned bicycle factory where Nazis had left her and others in Czechoslovakia. A German-native, Army Lieutenant Kurt Klein immigrated to the United States with his siblings to escape Nazism in 1937. Five years later, he was drafted in the U.S. Army to serve in World War II. Despite his and his siblings’ attempts to obtain visas that would enable their parents to join them in America, both of Lieutenant Klein’s parents were killed by the Nazis at Auschwitz. In 1946, Kurt and Gerda Klein married in Paris, France and moved to New York, where Lieutenant Klein owned and operated a printing business. Gerda Weissmann Klein became a naturalized citizen in 1948. The pair would later dedicate their lives to promoting tolerance and understanding among all people.Klein’s account of her experiences is documented in her classic autobiography, All But My Life, which has been in print for more than 54 years, published in 63 editions, and used in high schools and colleges around the world. Her autobiography was the foundation for the Oscar and Emmy-winning HBO documentary, One Survivor Remembers. Her story has been featured on numerous television shows, including Oprah and 60 Minutes.Klein has authored nine books on a wide variety of topics. In 2004, Klein released her book, A Boring Evening at Home, which offers glimpses into her life, and into the thoughts that have always vindicated her belief that the most treasured place on earth is home, and that the most beautiful and desirable aim for people is to spend “a boring evening” there with family. The book is dedicated to her late husband to whom she was married for 56 years. Kurt Klein died in 2002; he was 81.Klein continues the work she and her husband began more than 50 years ago to preserve human rights and dignity for all. A Southern Poverty Law Center curriculum utilizes her experiences during the Holocaust as the basis for teaching students about the importance of respect, responsibility, and the acceptance of differences. Three years ago, she also founded Citizenship Counts, an organization that teaches students to cherish the value of their American citizenship.Recently, President Obama named Gerda Weissmann Klein as one of the recipients of the 2010 Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. In a special ceremony on February 15, 2011, at the White House, Klein was presented with the award, at which time President Obama said, “She has taught the world that it is often in our most hopeless moments that we discover the extent of our strength and the depth of our love.”“Given the passage of time and the passing of survivors of the European Holocaust during WWII, it  is of extreme importance that survivors know that the atrocities they experienced and that they continue to experience as post-traumatic memories are acknowledged and will not be forgotten,” explained Dr. Andrea Liss, professor of Art History and Cultural Theory at CSUSM. “This act of remembering is of utmost importance to the people who survived and those who did not; it is an act of remembering that acknowledges that these events happened, it is a shared act of empathy expressed now and after the event.”Prior to the evening lecture on Wednesday, March 9, Dr. Liss, who authored Trespassing through Shadows: Memory, Photography and the Holocaust, will lead a guided walkthrough tour at 1:00 p.m. of a powerful 38-image exhibit currently on display in the Kellogg gallery, titled, Multiply by Six Million: Portraits and Stories of Holocaust Survivors. The visually arresting exhibit shares the first-person history of one of the most defining events of the 20th century through photographic portraits and personal stories of Holocaust survivors. The exhibit, which opened February 18, will remain on display through April 18.----WATCH THE VIDEO: Gerda Weissmann Klein shares her message of hope to CSUSM on Wednesday, August 9, 2011.