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Holocaust Survivor: Hatred, Tyranny Continue ‘Every Single Day’

May 2, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
After surviving the Holocaust, Gerda Weissmann Klein emigrated to the United States where she has championed the values of immigrants and citizenship. Klein speaks with Judy Woodruff about her horrifying years in Nazi captivity and how the experience has inspired her work.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, one woman’s story of survival during the Holocaust and her new life in America as a champion of immigrants and citizenship.

Judy Woodruff has our conversation.

And a warning: It includes some disturbing images.

GERDA WEISSMANN KLEIN, Holocaust survivor: I guess we all knew that this was going to be the first step to the end of the road, either to liberation or to — to doom.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Those first steps for 20-year-old Gerda Weissmann from Bielsko, Poland, that snowy, frigid January in 1945 did lead to liberation, but only after three-and-a-half months and 350 miles of unimaginable horror.

Of the more than 2,000 young Jewish women and girls who the German S.S. forced to walk that death march through the snows of Eastern Europe, fewer than 150 survived. Most already had endured six years of ghettos, concentration camps and slave labor after Hitler’s army had invaded Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1939.

I love this country. I love it with the love that only one who has been hungry and homeless for as long as I have been.Gerda Weissmann Klein

All had been separated from their families and loved ones.

GERDA WEISSMANN KLEIN: I was the only one from my family who survived, the only one of my dearest friends.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Among the American forces who found the starving and half-dead women was a young Jewish intelligence officer, Kurt Klein. While she was convalescing, Gerda and Kurt fell in love. They were married in 1946, and she emigrated to the U.S. They raised a family in Buffalo, N.Y., and devoted their lives to community service, working for tolerance, and honoring those who had died in the Holocaust.

Her 1957 memoir, “All But My Life,” led to an Oscar-winning documentary in 1996.

GERDA WEISSMANN KLEIN: I have been in a place for six incredible years where winning meant a crust of bread and to live another day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In 2011, President Obama awarded her the Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a civilian can receive.

For the past several years, Gerda Weissmann Klein has been championing the values of citizenship and the immigrant’s role in creating a diverse and vibrant America.

And, Mrs. Klein, it’s an honor to have you with us.

GERDA WEISSMANN KLEIN: The honor is mine. I’m deeply grateful.

JUDY WOODRUFF: First of all, tell — tell me, why is it so important for people to keep talking about the Holocaust and what happened?

GERDA WEISSMANN KLEIN: I think, of course, the importance of the Holocaust should only be too illuminate the fact that it — that hatred and tyranny and all that is not over.

It is going on every single day. And I think that we should have more people come from countries where it is happening to see the type of pictures. You know, when I see pictures of little children holding battered little things for food, when villages are being burned, this is still going on.

I just think the Holocaust should be used as a beacon to show of what hatred and intolerance and all those things which have led to so much pain all over the world is capable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: People read your story or they hear your story, and they want to know what gave you the strength to survive, when so many others didn’t, that terrible experience.

GERDA WEISSMANN KLEIN: I do believe that it is 95 percent of luck, to be at the right moment at the right time, you know when selection came, you, you, you know.

Furthermore, I obviously had a very good and healthy constitution. And the will to live is extremely strong. You know, even I – I’ve just gone through quite a bit of illness. I’m going to be 88 years old, and I was in the hospital with people who were over 90, and the will to live is still strong.

I think that’s the very magic of life, and particularly if you were as young — we were all in our early 20s when it happened — or not quite 20 — the will to live pushes you on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re now — what, it’s 62 years later. You are a very young 87. What’s kept you going?

GERDA WEISSMANN KLEIN: What kept me going is what kept everyone else going, the hope that, when it’s all over, we will go home to our families, to the life we left behind.

And I think that was probably the worst is, when it was over, there was nothing there. In my case, I met my beloved husband at the very moment of liberation, and my life took a different turn. And I could credit him with everything.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about in the six decades since? What’s kept you going all this time? You’ve dedicated yourself to work on. . .

JUDY WOODRUFF: . . . intolerance.

GERDA WEISSMANN KLEIN: I’ve been so fortunate.

I mean, you know, I need to ask myself every day, why am I here? I’m no better. Why was I was holding my children and grandchildren in my arms, sitting down to dinner with friends, walking in the rain? And I said I’ve been given the privilege of a meal. So, you know, you have to look back and say, if you have what you have, you know, survival is an incredible privilege. It’s also a very nagging and deep obligation. You know, it’s all the time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And one of the ways you have given back is, you have been involved in so many causes.

GERDA WEISSMANN KLEIN: Well, hopefully to try to help a little.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … the Holocaust Museum. And you founded a few years ago this organization. . .

GERDA WEISSMANN KLEIN: Citizenship Counts.

JUDY WOODRUFF: . . . Citizenship Counts.

What is it that you want to convey to the younger generation through this?

GERDA WEISSMANN KLEIN: Well, let me put it this way.

I was so fortunate in meeting my husband, who brought me here, and I love this country. I love it with the love that only one who has been hungry and homeless for as long as I have been.

And my dream was, which probably is everybody else’s, complete assumption, my dream was to be married, of course to him, to live in a home and become a part of a community, to have children, to be involved. And all this became mine.

I came here not being able to speak English, and I always wanted to write. I came here not knowing one soul but my beloved husband. And look what happened. I didn’t — I wasn’t Mother Teresa. I didn’t work in the slums of Calcutta. I didn’t give my life to it. I have lived a good middle-class life. I didn’t discover a cure to cancer. You know, I didn’t become rich to endow great things.

I was just an average person. And why did it happen to me? And it only can happen in America, only in America. And I want to give back to this country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, do you think the United States is handling immigrants, immigration the way it should be today?

GERDA WEISSMANN KLEIN: I don’t know that — having had yearned so much for freedom, you can imagine that that’s a very difficult question for me.

And I hope and pray that, in the ultimate decision of justice, the heart will win over the brain.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gerda Weissmann Klein, again, it’s our honor to talk with you. Thank you very much for being with us in the studio. Thank you.

GERDA WEISSMANN KLEIN: Thank you.