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The Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women

Features thousands of biographic and thematic essays on Jewish women around the world. Learn more

Gerda Weissmann Klein

May 8, 1924–April 3, 2022

by Sandra K. Bornstein

Gerda Klein.
In Brief

Gerda Weissmann Klein was the sole Holocaust survivor in her family. She married her liberator, an American intelligence officer who had fled Germany before the war, and later moved to the United States. In 1957, Klein published her first of many books, All But My Life, an autobiography recounting her experiences during the Holocaust. Her children’s book The Blue Rose (1974), about an autistic child, was translated into Hebrew, and the term became associated with disabled children in Israel. Klein has been frequently awarded for her work with Jewish organizations and is an internationally recognized motivational speaker. Her experiences were the subject of an Oscar winning HBO special in 1996. In 1997, she was appointed to the United States Holocaust Commission by President Clinton, and in 2011 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama.

Early Life and Experience During the Holocaust

“I pray you never stand at any crossroads in your own lives, but if you do, if the darkness seems so total, if you think there is no way out, remember, never ever give up. The darker the night, the brighter the dawn, and when it gets really, really dark, this is when one sees the true brilliance of the stars.” These words illustrate the courage and inner strength that made it possible for Gerda Weissmann Klein to endure the horrifying conditions of the Holocaust.

Gerda Weissmann, the second child of Julius Weissmann (fur manufacturing executive) and Helene Mueckenbrunn Weissmann (housewife), was born on May 8, 1924, in Bielsko, Poland. She attended Notre Dame Gymnasium in Bielsko until the Germans invaded Poland in 1939. Both of her parents, as well as her older brother Arthur (b. 1919), died during the Holocaust. Miraculously, Gerda survived the ghetto, deportation, slave-labor camps, and the infamous three-month death march from the Polish-German border to southern Czechoslovakia. As the sole survivor of her family, she has provided the world a glimpse of her ordeal through her written and oral testimonies.

In 1946, Gerda Weissmann married her liberator, Kurt Klein (1920–2002), an American intelligence officer, in Paris. After their marriage, they traveled to the United States, where Kurt Klein owned a printing business and was an editor. Kurt Klein, a German Jew, had been sent to the United States in 1937 as a safety measure, and later he served in the armed forces. His parents remained in Germany and died in Auschwitz. The Kleins have three children: Vivian E. (b. 1948), Leslie A. (b. 1952), and James Arthur (b. 1957).

Writing Career and Jewish Community Work

In 1957, Klein published her first book, All But My Life (now in its thirty-ninth edition). This remarkable autobiography recounts her experiences during the Holocaust and has been used as a primary source for Holocaust studies in this country as well as Great Britain. Her Holocaust experiences were also the subject of an HBO special, One Survivor Remembers, which received an Oscar for Best Documentary–Short in 1996, a TV Emmy Award, and two Cable Ace Awards. Gerda Weissmann Klein’s story also is presented in the “Testimony” film, which is part of the permanent exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Klein’s other books include A Passion for Sharing, which received the Valley Forge Freedom Award. It is a biography that narrates the fascinating life of Edith Rosenwald Stern (1895–1980), one of Julius Rosenwald’s children and a prominent New Orleans Jewish philanthropist who throughout her life was deeply involved in her community, education, race relations, politics, and the arts. She has written two children’s books. The Blue Rose (1974) is a poignant story that depicts the life of an autistic child through pictures, poetic verse, and the symbolism of a blue rose. During the International Year for Disabled Persons (1981), The Blue Rose was translated into Hebrew by the Begin family, and the term became a synonym for a disabled child in Israel. Promise of a New Spring: The Holocaust and Renewal (1981) is a sensitive and compassionate book designed to teach young children about the Holocaust using the allegory of a forest fire. Peregrinations, Adventures with the Green Parrot, published by the Josephine Goodyear Committee, benefits the Children’s Hospital of Buffalo.

Klein was also the featured columnist of “Stories for Young Readers,” a weekly column in the Buffalo Sunday News, for more than seventeen years (1978–1996) and is a noted author of television scripts and biographical profiles. The Hours After: Letters of Love and Longing in War’s Aftermath was published in 2000. The book is a series of love letters between Gerda and Kurt, from May 16, 1945—when Kurt’s military obligations required them to separate—until May 27, 1946, when they were reunited and married in France.

Klein’s participation within the Jewish community is best exemplified by her volunteer work for Hadassah, the United Jewish Appeal, Israel Bonds, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. She received the Hannah Solomon Award from the National Council of Jewish Women (1974), the Myrtle Award from Hadassah (1985), the Women of Inspiration Award at the International Lion of Judah Conference in Jerusalem from the Women’s Division of the United Jewish Appeal (1996) (she was the only American Jewish woman to receive the latter award).

Awards and Legacy

Due to her charisma and her undeniable abilities as an author, historian, and columnist, Klein became an internationally recognized motivational speaker. She has been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show, CBS Sunday Morning Show, and 60 Minutes. In 1999, she and her husband appeared on a Nightline episode focusing on her visit to Columbine High School. Eleven months after the shootings there, Klein had visited the parents, teachers and students of the Littleton, Colorado school, who felt her story of survival to be an inspiration for their own.

In 1997, Klein received an appointment to the United States Holocaust Commission by President Clinton. In 1998, the Kleins founded the Gerda and Kurt Klein Foundation to promote education, teach tolerance, lessen prejudice and encourage community service. In 2011, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. Throughout her life, Klein has been an inspiration. Her response to the Holocaust, her devotion to her family, her work with all types of children, her commitment to the American Jewish community and Israel, her active support for the war against hunger, racism, and intolerance, and her prolific writing and lecturing are all examples of her dynamic role as an American Jewish woman in the twentieth century. Her life exemplifies the ability to overcome adversity by striving to link a fractured past with the future of American Judaism.

SELECTED WORKS BY GERDA WEISSMANN KLEIN

All But My Life (1957).

A Boring Evening at Home (2004).

The Blue Rose (1974).

The Hours After: Letters of Love and Longing in War’s Aftermath, with Kurt Klein (2000).

A Passion for Sharing (1984).

Promise of a New Spring: The Holocaust and Renewal (1981).

Bibliography

Booklist (October 1, 1996): 362.

Commire, Anne, ed. Something About the Author. Vol. 44 (1986).

“Gerda Does it Again—Latest Book Chronicles Life of New Orleans Woman.” Buffalo News, October 24, 1984, p. B6.

“Gerda Klein Leaves Her Mark on Israel.” Buffalo News, January 1, 1981, p. 27.

“Gerda Klein’s Riches—an Oscar, Fame and Family Admiration.” Buffalo News, April 10, 1996, p. D1.

“Journey to Jerusalem: The Search for Peace and Brotherhood.” Buffalo News Magazine, December 24, 1978, pp. 4–7.

JUF News (Chicago). October, 1996: 19+.

May, Hal, ed. Contemporary Authors. Vol. 116 (1986).

“New Books are Aimed at Children (Peregrinations).” Buffalo News, June 22, 1986, p. 9E.

One Survivor Remembers. Videotape.

“Oscar-Nominated Film Recalls War’s Grip on Kenmore Couple.” Buffalo News, April 8,1984, p. 3E.

“An Oscar Speech that was Close to Transcendent.” Buffalo News, April 7, 1996, TV Topics, p. 2.

“Talk Stirs Teachers of Disabled.” Buffalo News, January 28, 1984. p. 5A.

Television Review. NYTimes, May 17, 1995.

“Tragic Story Ends, A New Life Begins.” Buffalo News, February 16, 1970, p. 15.

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How to cite this page

Bornstein, Sandra K.. "Gerda Weissmann Klein." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 31 December 1999. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 29, 2022) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/klein-gerda-weissmann>.