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Hard-earned reminder for new citizens; Medal winner gives a redeeming lesson based on Holocaust

When President Obama draped the highly cherished Presidential Medal of Freedom around her neck two months ago, Gerda Weissmann Klein's thoughts returned to her days on the soup line at the Nazi slave labor camps.

She remembered how hungry, how lonely and how cold she had been, standing in those lines with her rusty soup bowl.

"I prayed that when I got to the beginning of the line, there would still be some food left," she recalled Friday.

"Now in the late autumn of my life, I hearken back and ask the question, 'Why has all this been given to me?' " she asked two dozen new Americans at their naturalization ceremony. "Because I came to America," she replied.

Twenty-four men and women -- from 18 nations including India, Iraq and Iran, Israel and Egypt, and Sierra Leone and Togo -- took the Oath of Allegiance to America on Friday morning in the WNED-TV studio.

It was a special taped ceremony, held in conjunction with the organization Citizenship Counts, with U.S. District Judge Michael J. Kaplan presiding.

Few people could have understood the different struggles waged by those two dozen new citizens better than Klein, a Holocaust survivor, author, inspirational speaker, founder of the group Citizenship Counts and now a Medal of Freedom winner.

Klein peered out at her new fellow citizens and told them she understood the gratitude in their hearts, to have fulfilled the dream they harbored for a long time.

And then she told them about the greatest day in her life.

One May 7, 1945, the day before her 21st birthday, she was liberated from a succession of slave labor and concentration camps. Klein weighed 68 pounds. Her hair was white, she dressed in rags and she hadn't taken a bath in three years.

But that day, Klein spotted hope. Instead of seeing cars with Nazi swastikas on them, she saw a vehicle with a white star. Out of that car stepped a young American soldier.

As she stood in the doorway of the factory housing her fellow prisoners, the soldier asked if he could see the other "ladies."

And then he provided her with a simple courtesy. He held the door open for her.

"In this simple gesture, he restored me to humanity again," Klein told the packed studio audience.

That soldier was Kurt Klein, her future husband who would bring her back to Buffalo, where they lived for many years in Kenmore before moving to Arizona. Kurt Klein died in 2002.

The 24 new Americans weren't the only ones to hear a message from Gerda Klein on Friday.

She also looked out at members of the Hamburg Middle School Select Chorus. In recent years, Klein has devoted her life's work to Citizenship Counts, designed to teach young Americans that citizenship is a gift they shouldn't take for granted.

She told them she wishes she could take them to Pearl Harbor and to the beaches of Normandy, to the graves of thousands of young Americans who gave their lives for our freedom.

"You must understand the greatness and the pride of being an American," she said. "It is the best country in the world."

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com