Mrs. Klein is an almost 89-year-old Holocaust survivor, and so much more. She has written nine books, been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and spoken at the United Nations. Upon acceptance of an Academy Award in 1995, she said, “I have been in a place for six incredible years, where winning meant a crust of bread and to live another day.”
Today, this day, April 11, 2013, my 46th birthday, this mythic woman is speaking at my suburban Cincinnati Catholic parish. She’s speaking in the room where we hold doughnut Sunday, Scholastic book fairs, where my daughter practices her song and dance for the upcoming grade school production of Annie. Gerda has come to speak to the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders who have been studying the Holocaust and her life.
I am lucky enough to attend.
To the impressive introduction she answers, “I am above all a grandmother, a great-grandmother, and a mother.”
Gerda shares her story, drawing laughter as she rattles off the names of her ten childhood cats in rapid succession. Drawing tears as she recalls her best friend Ilse who died in her arms in a Polish meadow, during the 350 mile death march just before the liberation. Ilse, who had once found a dusty old raspberry in their labor camp textile factory and kept it all day until she could give it to Gerda. Ilse, who in her last moments made Gerda promise to live one more week; which turned out to be long enough to be rescued.
She answers questions from the young audience, tough questions, including whether she ever lost hope. “That was a luxury we couldn’t afford,” she answers without missing a beat. As a testament to perseverance she tells us that the slave camp was surrounded by an electrified barbed-wire fence. It would have been easy to commit suicide, but no one did.
“The darker the night, the brighter the dawn,” Gerda says. “And when it gets really, really dark, that’s when you see the true brightness of the stars.”
Everyone in the camp held onto the same thread of hope, that this nightmare would end and they could go back home. But the sad truth was that after the war ended in Europe, there were no homes to return to; no families left to reunite.
Of the thousands of girls who started the death march, she was one of fewer than a hundred who survived. Gerda made a new life for herself, marrying the American soldier she met at the moment of liberation. She became an American citizen and holds the promise of our country dear, reminding us that freedom is our birthright.
She asks herself, “I’ve been hungry, lonely, beaten, discriminated against, very cold and very alone but all these good things have been given to me. Why?” When asked about faith, she says grew up a good girl, learning to ask God’s help when things went wrong. But she asked and God didn’t rescue her. Still, she believes in an Almighty and has settled on an acceptance: sometimes the reasons behind tragedy are horror are beyond the grasp of our understanding. It’s important not to “reach behind” as Gerda calls it, to try to understand why.
Another student asked her why she speaks internationally about her story. Gerda decided to be that voice for those who speak no more, to let people know what really happened. Every horrible story you’ve heard about the Holocaust, she tells us, is true. She never wants it to happen again. It’s not easy to share her story, the details of what she calls her “greatest pain” – no friends; no family survived the Holocaust. And sadly, she reminds us, it is still happening today, both in Syria and in our own country where 35 million people go to bed hungry. American has a powerful voice to change that. We have powerful voices. Not to wait for someone else to do it, to change it ourselves.
She said something that resonated deeply:
“When you survive, it is a privilege. And with every privilege comes responsibility.”
And she gave this incredible advice (closely paraphrased) — Don’t waste time worrying about what might happen, because 95% of what you worry about won’t happen anyway. And even if it does, you have an incredible source of strength within you. Live life with joy. Remember your heritage. Always help those less privileged.
What more is there to say? This is a memorable birthday indeed. I am reminded of privilege and perspective. Of my birthright. Of my responsibility.