A few Fridays ago, I was surprised to walk into my AP European History class to find that we would be watching a Holocaust documentary called "One Survivor Remembers," which was quite a jump from the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation topics that we had been covering the day before. The teacher explained that the woman featured in the film, Gerda Weissmann Klein, was going to speak at Mount Mercy the following week.
On the morning of Sept. 22, Beverly Slichta-Cusick, a Mount Mercy trustee and president of the Blue Rose, escorted Klein into the school. As students entered the auditorium, they were not their usual chatty selves, but almost eerily silent in respect for the small, dark-haired, 84-year-old woman seated in the front row. Klein herself commented how strange it was to see so many teenage girls barely making a sound. She also noticed the uniforms. "Us girls at Notre Dame, my old school," she recalled nostalgically, "had similar gray skirts and wore white and navy blue blouses, but on our jackets we had our school's number." While speaking of happier days as a young girl before World War II, the trace of sadness in her voice was a somber reminder that her schoolmates had perished in the Holocaust.
Slichta-Cusick set the tone by asking: "How many of you have ever been grounded? Have you had your privileges taken away? Did you think it was unfair? Well, what if you had been grounded in a concentration camp, with all of your human rights erased?" She continued by describing Klein's life as wife and mother and her career as a writer that began when she moved to the United States after the war. Klein's published work includes "All But My Life," currently in its 60th year of print, and 34 years writing children's stories in The Buffalo News. She has appeared on "Nightline" and "Oprah" and won an Oscar and an Emmy for documentary, "One Survivor Remembers." Other achievements include her address to the United Nations about the atrocities of Nazism; the Gerda and Kurt Klein Foundation, which works to eliminate discrimination; and The Blue Rose, which seeks to provide disabled children with equal opportunities.
Klein recalled her happy childhood growing up in a middle-class family in Bielsko, Poland, with her parents, older brother, two dogs and 10 cats. She enjoyed going to school, swimming, skiing on homemade skis and playing with friends. It was a sunny fall day Sept. 3, 1939, when something which she compared to a tsunami hit Europe with relentless force. On this day when she was 15 years old, Hitler's army invaded Poland. "...at 9:10 in the morning, the wave over Europe began to wash away my parents, my brother, my uncles, aunts, and cousins, my home, and all of my possessions."
She remembered that as they were separated, her father made her wear sturdy ski boots even though the weather was warm. She said these boots saved her life during grueling marches in winter. She was also able to hide a few family photos in them.
She spoke about her childhood friend, Ilsa and how, after their families were deported to death camps, "we became sisters." She said her friend once found a single dusty raspberry in a gutter outside a factory and was generous enough to present it to Gerda. "Can you conceive a world where a raspberry is your only possession, and you give it to a friend?" Klein asked,
Klein said, "The mention of concentration camps causes people to be frightened; the stories are filled with unspeakable nightmares that are all too true, but I would like to illuminate other dimensions that never were quite understood." The Jewish people not only encountered hunger and violence in the labor camps of the Holocaust; they also discovered love and caring as people encouraged each other to fight another day and survive. She said this is what 18-year-old Ilsa did as she lay, dying in Gerda's arms during a 500-mile death march with 2,000 female prisoners. Ilsa asked Gerda never to tell her family how she had died. Ilsa then made Gerda promise that she would go on, for her, for one more week, "...which was a very large promise, because, at that time, one week was a very, very long time to survive." Of the 2,000 women who started on the march in the dead of winter, less than 120 made it to Gruenberg, Germany.
Aware of the Allied advance, the Nazis stripped off their uniforms and locked the women in an abandoned bicycle factory with a time bomb strapped to the door. During the night, as the girls prayed that their lives be spared, rain began to fall, creating mud and ruining the bomb.
The next day, May 6, 1945, Gerda saw a truck with a white star carrying two men. She immediately identified herself. "I am a Jew, you know," she said in German to the men, and after a moment, one soldier said that he was, too. Klein said that it was the greatest moment of her life, meeting this American Jew, not only because he would become her husband and father to their three children, but also because he called her a lady and held the door open for her. This still seems remarkable to her because on the day before her 21st birthday, she weighed only 68 pounds, wore rags, had white hair, and had not bathed in three years. She cherishes the memory to this day, saying, "With that simple, eloquent gesture, he restored my humanity."
Within a year, Klein had moved to Buffalo, where "fear had turned into cautious security, tragedy into happiness, and death into life with the birth of three children."
Klein then shifted her focus to the future. She told the students to pursue peace and truth by ending the causes of violence and poverty all over the world. She said members of this generation are the spiritual heirs of the victims of the Holocaust who were unable to have families of their own, and that they must carry on their memories and the stories of atrocities fueled by blind hatred.
At the end, Klein pulled apart the bouquet presented her and gave a flower to each teacher in respect of their work, as they "embrace the noblest of professions."
Leah Clancy is a senior at Mount Mercy Academy.