Gerda WeissmannKlein was born on May 8, 1924,in Bielsko, Poland, to a Jewish middle-class family. Her father, Julius, was a businessman, and her mother, Helene, a homemaker. Gerdabegan her education at a Polish public school, but then enrolled in a Catholic girls’ school, where she learned more about Judaism from a rabbi who was allowed to come to the school to instruct the Jewish students.
Weissmann’seducation was disrupted by the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, when she was fifteen years old. Nazi Germany invaded Poland, and Jews were singled out for discrimination and persecution. The number of Jews living in Bielsko declined rapidly, and the Weissmann family endured many deprivations. By mid-1942, all Jews were removed from the city, and Gerda was separated from her parents and never saw them again. Along with her brother Arthur, they died in the Holocaust. Gerdawas sent by train to work as slave laborer in a textile mill in Germany. Over the next two years she was moved around from one slave-labor camp to another. In early 1945, she was forced to participate in a 350-mile “death march” along with thousands of other prisoners that took her into Germany and then Czechoslovakia. She was liberated by the American army in May 1945.
One of the American soldiers who liberated her was Kurt Klein, an intelligence officer. Shortly after the war they married, and Weissmannemigrated to the United States in 1946. (Klein was himself a German Jew who had been sent by his family to the United States in 1937 so that he would be safe.) The Kleins had three children, all born between 1948 and 1957.
In 1957, Weissmann Klein published All but My Life, a memoir of her experiences during the war years. The memoir was well received and has become a classic of Holocaust literature. The award-winning HBO special, One Survivor Remembers(1995), was based on Klein’s memoir. In 1995, an expanded edition of All but My Life was published. It included an Epilogue written in 1994 in which Klein reflects on the events in her life that took place fifty years prior.
Klein has published a number of other books. The Blue Rose (1974) and Promise of a New Spring: The Holocaust and Renewal (1981)are children’s books,the latter aimed at teaching young children about the Holocaust. A Passion for Sharing: The Life of Edith Rosenwald Stern is a biography of the philanthropist and civil rights activist. The Hours After: Letters of Love and Longing in War’s Aftermath (2000) is a collection ofletters between Gerda and Kurt, beginning in May 1945 when they met and continuing for a year in which, due to Kurt’s military duties, they were separated, The letters continue until May 1946, when they were married in Paris.
In addition to her work as a writer, Klein has had success as a motivational speaker. She has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show as well as other television programs. Her story of survival against great odds has inspired many thousands of people. She has also won a number of awards. She received the Hannah Solomon Award from the National Council of Jewish Women in 1974, the Myrtle Award from Hadassah in 1985, and the Women of Inspiration Award at the International Lion of Judah Conference in Jerusalem from the Women’s Division of the United Jewish Appeal in 1996. In 1997, she was appointed to the United States Holocaust Commission by President Clinton. In 2011, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.