A story of courage, tenacity, and hope that has a happy ending
New York — ON May 7, 1945 -- 40 years ago today -- in Volary, Czechoslovakia, a young woman walked out of a dilapidated factory barracks into the brilliant spring sunshine. She weighed 68 pounds and was dressed in filthy, worn-out clothing crawling with lice. Lying on the ground and on the floor of the barracks were 120 other girls in even worse condition. An American soldier stepped down from a jeep and came toward her.
``We are Jews,'' said Gerda Weissmann, conditioned to identify herself after six years of Nazi rule. It was the last day of World War II in Europe, and the American's reply -- in perfect German -- took her by surprise.
``So am I,'' was what he said.
Gerda Weissmann was one of 4,000 Jewish girls who had set out in late January from slave labor camps in various parts of the Third Reich. In what was to be known as the ``death march,'' they made their way aimlessly under SS guard over hundreds of miles through winter conditions, with nothing to eat for days at a time. When the SS guards finally left them in the barracks at Volary -- fleeing the approach of the Allies -- all but 120 of the girls had died of exposure and starvation.
Among the dead were Gerda's closest friends, with whom she had spent three years in the work camps. One girl, Ilse Kleinz"ahler, had been her friend since childhood in her hometown of Bielitz, in southern Poland.
Not only were her friends lost, but in October 1939, her 19-year-old brother, Arthur, had been sent to a concentration camp, never to return. In June 1942, when Gerda was 18, her parents were sent to death camps.
The second lieutenant of the 5th Infantry Division who found Gerda at Volary that day had suffered loss at the hands of the Nazis, too. Kurt Klein was born in 1920 near Heidelberg, Germany, and in 1937, in the wake of increasing persecutions of Jews, his parents sent him to live with his sister in Buffalo, N.Y. They expected that they would be able to join their children later. They were not. In 1942 they were sent to Auschwitz.
Mr. Klein remembers that spring day in 1945 when he found the survivors of the ``death march.''
``As I walked across the courtyard,'' he recalls, ``I saw what you possibly have seen in the newsreels -- these walking skeletons. But as I was getting closer, I saw one person standing there who seemed in slightly better condition than the rest of them. And also she had something about her that simply seems to have drawn me to her.''
Gerda Weissmann was taken to a US army hospital. Sitting next to Mr. Klein on an equally brilliant spring day in New York, she is asked to continue the story. ``I'm delighted,'' she says. ``It's a happy story now.
``I forgot to ask his name,'' she recalls. ``I was so worried because the war went on one more day. I wondered what happened to him, and I didn't know his name. But he knew my name, and he came looking for me.''
Lieutenant Klein visited Miss Weissmann many times in the weeks that followed. He later arranged for her to find work in Munich, near where he was stationed.
``One day,'' recalls the former Miss Weissmann, ``he told me that he had his orders to go home. All I could do was keep myself together and not show how I felt. I was desperately in love with him, but I thought it would be wrong if he knew it. He knew I had no one, and I felt that if he saw my emotions about him, he might out of pity want to do something.
``So I said, `I want to thank you for everything. I'll never forget it.' He said, `Is that all you have to say to me? I would like you to come to America.' I said, `What would I do in America?' And he said, `Well, for starters you could marry me.' ''
In a poignant reversal of the suffering that had gone before, Gerda Weissmann Klein concludes the story simply, ``We were married in Paris, as every girl dreams.''
The Kleins have lived outside Buffalo for nearly 40 years now. ``We have rather splendid children,'' says Mrs. Klein. ``Two daughters and a son; they're all married. And wonderful grandchildren -- five of them.''
Mrs. Klein is the author of several books, among them her autobiographical account of the Holocaust, ``All But My Life'' (Hill & Wang, $6.95), which is in its 21st printing and is required reading in many high schools. She has received numerous awards, is a frequent lecturer on human rights and history, and writes a weekly column for young readers in the Buffalo News.
Mrs. Klein feels it is important to remember the humanity and heroism the Holocaust called forth, in the midst of so much brutality and suffering.
``I would like to emphasize that my own crutch and my own support came from the people in the camps,'' she says. ``Most of the time people think of [the Holocaust] in terms of a snake pit -- that people stepped on each other for survival. It wasn't like that at all. There was a great deal of kindness, of support, of understanding.
``I often talk about a childhood friend of mine, Ilse. She once found a raspberry [in the camp]. She carried it in her pocket all day to present it to me that night on a leaf. You can imagine a world in which your entire possession is one raspberry, and you give it to a friend.
``Those were moments that I want to remember. I think we need to know that people did behave nobly under unspeakable circumstances.''
Does she remember any instances of humane treatment on the part of the Nazis?
``There was a woman by the name of Frau K"ugler. She was in charge of us. I remember when we came [to the work camp] she was bossing, she was very tough, and actually that belied a very soft interior. She really protected us. She was kind. She didn't love us, but she gave the lie to all those who said they had no choice.
``Before we left Germany after the war, everyone from our camp left a statement that if Frau K"ugler is found, we would like to vouch for her because she protected us.''
What particular inner resources did Gerda Weissmann have that helped her to survive?
``You lived,'' says Mrs. Klein, ``on two levels. I tried to shut out the reality. I lived either in the world before, or by imagining what the homecoming would be like. One time I would think my mother was coming to the door, and she would be wearing a particular housecoat I liked on her. . . . Usually when things were toughest, that's when you played with your homecoming. ``There were certain things which you never permitted yourself to doubt,'' says Mrs. Klein. ``Faith for me [meant] that I knew I had to hang on for as long as I possibly could because I always was sure that my parents, and certainly my brother, would survive -- and I mustn't disappoint them. That was a pledge.''
Did bitterness ever tempt her to lose her faith?
``It would come at moments,'' Mrs. Klein admits. ``But there are luxuries you cannot afford, and that was one of them. A negative feeling can devour you.''
In her book, Mrs. Klein describes the hope she and her fellow-prisoners clung to, which helped her survive.
``. . . the hope for a normal life, for children and grandchildren who could live in a world where our experiences would seem too fantastic to be believable -- that was our dearest wish.''