Much of the Western World preoccupies itself with winning and losing. Think of sports, getting the highest grade at school, job promotions, and making more money than your neighbor (though you’d never say so).
The woman featured in this essay wished to instruct us of an essential, uplifting difference between winning and losing as we tend to define these two easy words.
Gerda Weissmann Klein understood the importance of things on a scale we cannot imagine unless we endured her late teens and early 20s beside her. Born in 1924, the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 led to the loss of her family and a series of slave labor work camps, detestable treatment, and a starvation diet.
Forward-looking advice helped save her. Her father insisted she wear ski boots if the new authorities took her away from home.
The ever dutiful teen complied with her dad’s wishes despite the approaching summer. The youthful Ms. Weissmann otherwise might not have survived repeated below-freezing winters. Such circumstances predicted near-certain death for those without adequate footwear.
An imaginative, dissociative skill enabled her tenuous existence, too. Some days, she occupied her head with frivolous, trivial things like a party she’d host after the liberation.
Holocaust survivors speak of whether each prisoner fully faced the otherworldly horror show of their lives. It helped if one intuitively blocked a part of one’s psychological vision rather than reckoning with the frank catastrophe enveloping them without letup. These responses were a matter of natural tendencies, not a thoughtful choice.
Those who dissociated (as Gerda did when she planned her party) had some slight chance of survival if enormous luck was also on their side.
The depth of the abyss then lost some of its downward pull.
This woman’s father also required another promise of her: never to commit suicide, no matter what.
That, too, would be tested.
Sometimes we stay alive for others, for promises made to them, and for lives cut down.
It would have been easy for a person robbed of the early years of her life, family, and friends never to forgive those responsible for the crime, including the country from which they came.
Not so for this lady. Shortly after her experience of slave labor began, she arrived at a factory producing fabric for the German Army. There she faced a 40-year-old female guard wearing black: Frau Kugler.
I never (before) heard a human voice that barked.
She had a face like a bulldog. But her looks completely belied what was underneath it all.
She turned out to be the hope, the inspiration, perhaps the knowledge that all Germans weren’t cruel. She was a warm, caring human being who’d been given the job obviously because of her looks and because she had worked at the factory before the war.
She put a lie to the lips of all those who said they had no choice.
On one occasion in the same installation, Gerda and three other young women awoke in their barracks almost too ill to move. Kugler came to them and tied Weissman’s shoes.
“Girls, get yourself together. It is life or death today,” dragging them to their work positions and propping them up at the machines they needed to operate.
The sick, weakened girl noticed a man behind her later.
He dispatched those unable to perform to Auschwitz, a place of even greater jeopardy — an extermination camp. The lady guard was not kidding when she urged and helped them get back to work.
The group to which Ms. Weissmann belonged moved from place to place, subjected to the whims of their overseers. The killing could be arbitrary, disfiguring brutality just as random. When not laboring on textiles, they laid bricks and emptied coal cars.
Yet friendship was also part of her strange existence, and unexpected kindness could be a balm.
My friend Ilse Kleinzahler, who died a week before we were liberated, once found a raspberry in the gutter on the way to the factory. It was in Grunberg, one of the most miserable camps, and she saved it all day long.
Ilse carried it in her pocket. The temptation must have been incredible, (but) she gave it to me that night on a leaf. She had plucked a leaf through the barbed wire, washed it, and presented me with one slightly bruised raspberry.
Most people think of (the Holocaust) as unrelieved horror. I like to remember some of the things in camp, how people helped each other. I want to tell young people about that, that there was friendship and love and caring.
Still in those ski boots, a three-month, 350-mile forced winter death march represented this survivor’s final trial during the war. Those who tried to escape or were unable to keep up were shot.
That strange road of winter woe began for about 2000 young Jewish women, all of the camp’s occupants. Fewer than 150 survived.
As the conflict wound down, the enemy army recognized their own lives were in peril and fled the approaching Allied Armies. This was the day before Ms. Weissmann’s 21st birthday.
Gerda and the human remnants of the experience remained in an abandoned Czech bicycle factory after the soldiers took off.
Much luck is involved in all such stories as if some sadist throws dice to determine people’s destiny. A demolition device set by the Nazis to destroy the female population within the building failed to detonate.
Gerda was standing in the doorway of the factory when a U.S Army jeep could be seen in the distance.
The driver saw her and stopped. One of the men inside walked up to her.
I remember the aura of him, the awe of disbelief … to really see someone who fought for our freedom. He looked like a God to me.
The Lieutenant asked if she spoke German or English. Ms. Weissman nodded, then added, “We are Jewish, you know.“
The soldier stood silent for what seemed a very long time, his eyes hidden behind the sunglasses he wore.
“So am I,” he said.
Kurt Klein, the man she talked with, later became her husband.
He continued, using a formal manner of address unused by the Nazis because they believed the incarcerated “not worthy of life” (Untermenschen): Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and others, including their own mentally ill.
Instead of disrespect, Lt. Klein asked if she might take him to visit the other “ladies.” Then, as they entered the factory together, he opened the door for her. His words and actions opened something more.
“This was the moment of restoration of humanity, humanness,” she said in her post-war descriptions of returning to civilization.
The officer was overwhelmed by the sight inside. Women wasted away, near death, staring with vacant eyes.
With a sweeping motion of her hand toward the emaciated crowd, his white-haired, 68-pound, 21-year-old “guide” uttered a quotation she learned in school during the “before” times.
“Noble be man, merciful and good,” wrote Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German poet. They both shared in the grim irony of words they knew from a poem called “On the Divine.”
Gerda Weissman Klein became a public face in the United States for the survivors of the genocide and those less fortunate. Living in Buffalo, NY, and later in Phoenix, AZ, the couple had three children, eight grandchildren, and 18 great-grandchildren.
Mrs. Klein’s story is conveyed in her own spoken words and those of her husband in the 39-minute 1995 movie, “One Survivor Remembers.” The film won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject and was based on her book, “All but My Life.“
At the 1996 Academy Award ceremony, she was on stage beside the film’s director Kary Antholis as he spoke. Her turn came, but a musical cue to depart began just as it did, along with the gentle prodding of an usher.
Mrs. Klein remained silent at the microphone.
The applause and the orchestra stopped. She then offered words to an audience of people who had been thinking and talking all night about winning and losing:
I have been in a place for six incredible years where winning meant a crust of bread and to live another day.
Since the blessed day of my liberation, I have asked the question, ‘Why am I here?‘ I am no better.
In my mind’s eye, I see those years and days and those who never lived to see the magic of a boring evening at home.
On their behalf, I wish to thank you for honoring their memory, and you cannot do it in any better way than when you return to your homes tonight, to realize that each of you who know the joy of freedom are winners.
Gerda Weissmann Klein passed away on April 3, 2022, aged 97.
The top image is the early teen Gerda Weissmann during peacetime. It is followed by A Helping Hand, the work of Safiyyah Scoggins and Laura Hedien’s Alaska Road Sign, 2021.
Finally, the U.S. Lieutenant Kurt Klein, who became Gerda’s husband, and her speech at the Academy Awards Ceremony in 1996. A Helping Hand was sourced from Wikimedia.org/