Meet Our Founder, Gerda Weissmann Klein

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Citizenship Counts was founded by Gerda Weissmann Klein – humanitarian, author, human rights activist, Holocaust survivor, and proud naturalized citizen. Gerda’s passion for the mission of Citizenship Counts is best expressed in her own words:

“America is a unique, diverse and wondrous country, comprised both of those who know its magnificence as their birthright, and others, like me, who are privileged to call our adopted country ‘our own.’ What we all share is a desire for our families to enjoy America’s boundless opportunities while extending to all our fellow citizens justice and the blessings and freedoms upon which the nation was founded.

To perpetuate the miracle that is America we must teach our children about its rich history as a nation of immigrants who chose this country and have given meaning to its ideals.

 

Citizenship Counts will engage today’s students in civics education, combined with active participation in a naturalization ceremony, to help ensure that the citizens of tomorrow will continue to foster tolerance, understanding, service to one another and a greater appreciation for the privilege and responsibility of citizenship.”

For more than six decades, Gerda Klein has captivated audiences worldwide with her powerful message of hope, inspiration, love and humanity. In her speeches and books she draws from her wealth of life experiences – from surviving the Holocaust and meeting her future husband on the day of her liberation, to her journey to the United States where she raised her family and has fought to promote tolerance and combat hunger.

Gerda Weissmann was born May 8, 1924 in Bielsko, Poland. In 1939 her life changed forever when German troops invaded her hometown of Bielsko. From 1939 until the end of World War II, she lived in fear and deprivation. After being separated from her brother shortly after the invasion and from her parents in 1942, she worked in slave labor and concentration camps until she was forced to walk in a 350-mile death march. She never lost the will to live. When World War II ended in 1945, Gerda was left homeless and without family or friends. Despite all that was lost, she found a fairy-tale ending when she married her liberator, U.S. Army Intelligence officer, Kurt Klein. Two years after she immigrated to the United States as Kurt’s wife, Gerda became an American citizen.

Gerda Weissmann Klein cherishes her American citizenship and all of the opportunities this country has given her. As someone who was sold as a slave laborer in Nazi Germany, she brings a unique perspective to the meaning of immigration and citizenship. She recognizes that, together, both foreign- and U.S.-born citizens have built our country, created its rich tapestry and have made innumerable contributions to our American culture.

One of the most remarkable chapters in Gerda’s life began when U.S. Army Lieutenant Kurt Klein – a refugee of German Jewish descent – liberated her on May 7, 1945, the day before her 21st birthday. Gerda remembers young Lieutenant Klein returning her humanity to her when he treated her with concern and respect. The story of Gerda and Kurt’s meeting and their life together is documented in her autobiography, All But My Life, which has been in print for 55 years, in 66 editions and has been read by countless students around the world.

All But My Life is the foundation for the documentary film, “One Survivor Remembers,” which was produced by Home Box Office (HBO) and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). The film won the 1995 Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject and the 1994-95 Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Information Special. In 1998, a public foundation, the Gerda and Kurt Klein Foundation, was established to honor the Kleins’ mission to promote tolerance and community service through the creation of two nationally recognized educational programs. Through the lessons of history, these kits provide students the opportunity to learn from the past and take responsibility for making a difference in their future. The Klein Foundation partnered with Southern Poverty Law Center/Teaching Tolerance to create a teaching kit distributed to more than 116,000 schools, reaching over 11 million students across the globe. In 2003, the Gerda and Kurt Klein Foundation partnered with TIME Classroom to create Stand Up, Speak Out, Lend A Hand which has been sent to over 22,000 middle and high school teachers. This curriculum shares Gerda’s experiences as the basis for teaching students about the importance of respect, responsibility and the acceptance of differences. The curriculum also provides unique service learning activities and resources.

Following the tragic murders at Columbine High School in April, 1999, Gerda and Kurt Klein were asked to visit the school and meet with the students who had been so deeply affected by the violence. Many of the students felt unable to communicate their fears to the adults in their lives. Because both Gerda and Kurt had been persecuted by their peers who had supported Hitler, the Columbine students were able to talk openly with these two adults who could understand their feelings.

In recognition of her international reputation and her inspiring message, Gerda Klein was invited to be the keynote speaker on January 27, 2006, at the first annual United Nations International Day of Commemoration in Memory of Victims of the Holocaust. She addressed the General Assembly and many distinguished guests from around the world. Her constant striving for the preservation of human rights and dignity has earned her seven Doctorates of Humane Letters, along with countless other awards and honors. In 1997, President Clinton appointed her to the Governing Council of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where the story of her life and Kurt’s is portrayed in the film “Testimony.” She is featured on the cover of the McDougal-Littell high school textbook, The Americans, along with other notable figures in American history, such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ronald Reagan and General Norman Schwartzkopf. Gerda has authored nine books on a wide variety of topics.

On November 17, 2010, President Obama named Gerda Klein, as well as 14 other incredible individuals, as recipients of the 2010 Medal of Freedom — the nation’s highest civilian honor. She received the award on February 15, 2011.

Please “like” the Citizenship Counts Facebook Page to learn more about her organization and community involvement. If you are interested in contacting Gerda Klein for public events or media relations, please visit our Speaking and Media Requests.