Holocaust Survivor Speaks at YSU
On Tuesday evening, in front of over 300 people, Gerda Weissmann Klein, a Holocaust survivor and renowned writer and speaker, gave an account of her harrowing survivor’s story in the Kilcawley Center’s Chestnut Room at Youngstown State University.
Klein was born on May 8, 1924 to a middle class Jewish family in Bielsko, Poland. She led a normal life there until 1939 when the Nazis invaded her city and she was forced into the basement of her home and eventually a Jewish ghetto. Klein saw loved ones and friends disappearing before her eyes.
“So everything I loved, everything I knew was immediately taken away,” Klein said. “My beloved brother was taken away almost immediately — he was 19 years old.”
Klein’s brother was coerced into registering for the German army, and his family never saw him again. Later, Klein’s parents were taken away to Auschwitz — where they likely met their untimely death before the war’s end — and she was taken as slave labor and moved between five different labor camps before her eventual liberation.
Klein believes her being moved to labor camps and not death camps — a determination that likely saved her life — was due to a combination of factors.
“Then I was separate from my parents; they were sent to Auschwitz, and I moved to slave labor and concentration camp,” Klein said. “One of the reasons [I survived], besides having a good constitution and a good amount of luck, was that I spoke German.”
At the end of the war, Klein and around 4,000 other women were forced to march 350 miles through frigid conditions. She was one of only 120 that survived the death march.
During her time at YSU, Klein gave anecdotes and a grim telling of her experiences that highlighted the atrocities of the Nazi regime, the kindness of her fellow prisoners and even some of her captors and the jubilation she felt when she saw the American jeep that contained her future husband drive up to the gates of Volary, Czechoslovakia after the death march.
One of Klein’s most prominent memories was that of her closest friend, Ilse Kleinzahler, who she knew her from their time in Poland. They followed each other even throughout World War II. Kleinzahler died in Klein’s arms during the death march.
“When we were together we always had a lovely time. And you know when we were separated from our families, we were close to each other. We became sisters to each other,” Klein said. “She gave me the greatest gift of all, the gift of my life. She said that she was angry at no one and she hoped that no one was angry at her. Then she said, ‘if my parents and Kitty (Kitty was her little sister) survived, don’t tell them how I died.’ They didn’t survive.”
Before Klein took the stage to speak and answer questions, the Academy Award winning documentary about her life, “One Survivor Remembers,” was screened. The film highlighted the time from her youth until her liberation. It was juxtaposed with short strips of film that displayed the conditions she lived through and repugnant images that showed the horrors of the Holocaust.
Initially, Klein was hesitant to participate in the film. She worried that they would get details wrong or display the wrong facets of her story, but her youngest daughter convinced her otherwise.
“She said, ‘Mom, you have been trying to tell that story wherever you can tell it. Now, you have the opportunity to tell that stories to millions, and now you don’t want to do it.’”
Scott Williams, a first-year YSU student, attended the event and appreciated Klein’s story.
“I heard about the event because I checked my e-mail from YSU, and it was on the upcoming events e-mail that they always send out. So, I figured I would come out if I wasn’t doing anything tonight,” Williams said. “I have always been kind of interested in history, and I have always liked hearing different stories from this time period. I have always thought the Holocaust was rather interesting.”
Helene Sinnreich, director of the Center for Judaic and Holocaust Studies, said that Klein was brought to YSU, through the efforts of the Center, as the finale for the Center’s month long Jewish film festival.
“The Center for Judaic and Holocaust Studies had been discussing the fact that, very shortly, there would no longer be survivors around to tell their story, and we decided to make it a priority of the center that we try and invite survivors to come speak until that is no longer a possibility,” Sinnreich said. “I was able to get in touch with her and her granddaughter and arrange with her to come speak and come visit. We are just really thrilled to have someone of that stature, a presidential medal of freedom winner, you know, the subject of an Oscar winning documentary, to come to YSU.”
Sandy Kessler, director of the Jewsish Community Center, said that the JCC assisted in arrangement for the film festival and advertising for Klein’s event.
“Helene Sinnreich and the YSU Judaic and Holocaust Committee was responsible for arranging to bring Gerdi Klein here and the movie, JCC’s involvement was solely marketing and finance,” Kessler said. “With the five prior films, the JCC was responsible for arranging for committee review, for finding the venues and marketing it. It has been very, very successful, by the way.”