When I heard of the recent death of former Buffalo resident and Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein, just one month before her 98th birthday, I was deeply saddened that the world would be without this courageous, brilliant woman.
Her quiet yet firm voice advocating for those who have suffered trauma from sudden violence has been ever-present since the publication in 1957 of her first book, “All But My Life,” a beautifully written record of her years-long endurance in a Nazi slave labor camp during the Holocaust.
Although I never had the honor of meeting Mrs. Klein or her husband, Kurt Klein, after reading her books and seeing the touching Academy Award-winning film about her life, “One Survivor Remembers,” I determined that the life of such a person needed to be made known to as many others as possible. Consequently, I wrote and have delivered a talk on her life de ella throughout the local region at clubs and within the county’s University Express program.
Audience members have frequently approached me to say that they had taught the Klein children in area public schools or had been friends with Gerda Klein during her lengthy residence in Western New York. One such participant proudly showed me a scrapbook she had compiled of newspaper clippings, pictures and letters to her about and from the Kleins. It was a real treasure and certainly seemed worthy of inclusion in a museum displaying Holocaust memorabilia.
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My introduction to Gerda Klein’s life and work occurred decades ago when I pursued a personal interest in World War II. I picked up “All But My Life” in a bookstore, intrigued by the subject matter, but also by the fact that it was written by an author whose home was then in Buffalo. The book is astonishing, not only for its heart-wrenching, first-person chronicle of the Holocaust, but for the spare poetic writing itself, from a writer for whom English was not her first language.
In the book she brings the reader along on the horrific journey she took as a middle-class Jewish schoolgirl of 15 living in 1939 Bielitz, Poland, through forced incarceration in Nazi textile factories, and, toward the end of the war, surviving what has come to be known as the Volary (Czechoslavakia) Death March.
On the last day of the war, coincidentally Gerda Weissmann’s 21st birthday, she and the few survivors of that infamous march were rescued by American soldiers, one of whom was named Kurt Klein. He had fled persecution in Germany in the 1930s, immigrating to be with family in Buffalo. The day he and Gerda met him begins a fascinating tale; a post-war love story that became the subject of another book by both Kleins called “The Hours After.”
The Kleins lived for many years in Buffalo and environs and when they moved to Arizona after their retirement, they found an old box, its tattered condition belying its precious contents: love letters they had exchanged while they waited to obtain the necessary papers to marry in 1946. Gerda Klein recalled that as each of them sat reading these long-forgotten missives they instinctively reached out for each other’s hands. This book is full of the promise of love’s rebirth, even amid the hollowed out ruins of the worst war in history.
Although both Gerda and Kurt Klein have now passed on, their lives are a testament to something our fractured world desperately needs – hope. May their memories serve to inspire us to have faith in the extraordinary power of fortitude, resilience and love.