MRS. GERDA KLEIN
GERDA AND KURT KLEIN FOUNDATION
HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR, AUTHOR HISTORIAN AND SPEAKER
AT THE FIRST UNIVERSAL COMMEMORATION IN MEMORY OF THE VICTIMS OF THE HOLOCAUST
27 JANUARY 2006
GENERAL ASSEMBLY HALL
UNITED NATIONS HEADQUARTERS
Thank you Roman Kent. I realize how inadequate the words ‘thank you’ are at moments such as this one.
Under-Secretary Tharoor, your caring words are like balm on old scars.
Excellencies, honored guests and all survivors.
I am mindful that no words can ever do full justice to the moment for all who stand in this space, which at one time would have seemed to us like a mirage on a distant planet.
I thought how strange – and I know you understand – how difficult it is to speak on behalf of all the voices which were stilled so many years ago.
I am thinking of snowflakes. Millions of snowflakes falling down to the earth from darkened skies. They all seem so much alike and yet we know that each one is unique and each one deserves to be understood and appreciated. Come with me, then, to be just one unknown snowflake. Allow me to tell just a tiny bit of my own story.
I am mindful of today’s date, January 27th, when Auschwitz was liberated. Auschwitz. Where the unmarked graves of my parents and most of my family are.
Where was I?
On the 27th of January 1945 I was in a bitter camp called Gruenberg in Silesia. Just two days later, on January 29th we started a death march. We were two incredibly long columns of women, 2000 each. And I am humbled by the fact that two others of that group are in this room today – Herta and Helena.
You recall, I am sure, the bitter cold. The driving snow. The seemingly endless gray line and the whips of the SS men and women lifting and shouting “forward march!” Fewer than 120 of our column survived. Three of us are in this room.
It was the end of almost six years which started on a beautiful, sunny autumn day, September 3rd, 1939, when a wave - similar to a tsunami -- rose from an angry sea and wiped away peoples’ lives. Ours was a wave of hatred that swept away my beloved parents, my brother, my entire closest family, my home, my childhood, and my freedom. I was 15 years old. In the interim, we experienced the things which have been eloquently and chillingly described here today.
I remember during the death march standing in seemingly endless lines holding a battered, rusty bowl in my hand and praying that when I got to the front of the line, there should be enough food left in the kettle. And if by some miracle the ladle went deep and brought forth a potato, I beheld a treasure! I don’t want my grandchildren or any children anywhere in the world to ever feel that a mere crust of bread or a scrap of potato is a treasure. But nor do I want any of us to become so distracted by our treasures, that we forget that there are still millions of children in this world who do not even have a scrap of a potato.
But there in the darkness was also a world illuminated with beauty, friendship, love and supporting arms.
Since so many of those who perished left no children behind, you here today are their spiritual heirs. And you need to know that they left a legacy of love which fuels the human heart. I want to recall one of my closest friends, Ilse, who one day on the way to the factory in which we worked in Gruenberg, found a raspberry in the gutter. She carried it in her pocket all day long, to present it to me that night on a leaf which she plucked through the barbed wire. One single dust-covered raspberry. Her entire worldly possession. And she gave this treasure to a friend.
Tragically, Ilse never tasted another raspberry again. She died in my arms on this death march, on the 29th of April. She was barely 18 years old. In the last bitter hour of her young life, when she was kicked by a savage boot, she looked to the heavens and asked “why?” And then she told me that she was angry at no one, and she hoped that no one was angry at her. She asked me to promise her that I would go on for one more week. A week in those days was a very long time.
A week later, to the very day, perhaps to the very hour of her death, we were liberated by American forces.
I wish, in this General Assembly Hall, to speak for one moment of my liberation.
Our captors locked us in an abandoned bicycle factory in Volary, Czechoslovakia, where the march that had begun on January 29th came to a halt on the night of May 6th. There were fewer than 120 of us left now. Our captors decided to destroy the last witnesses of their deeds by attaching a time bomb to the factory door. Suddenly it started to rain. The torrential rains, so common in the spring, prevented the bomb and fuse from connecting and the bomb never ignited.
In the morning the doors to the factory were flung open by the good Czech people. They called “if anyone is there, get out. The war is over!” I stood in the doorway of the factory, trying to absorb the wonder of freedom. The freedom for which I had prayed in every waking hour of those past six years.
Suddenly, I saw a strange-looking vehicle coming down a gentle hill. On its hood no longer the despised Swastika, but the white star of the American army. Two men in unfamiliar uniforms sat in the vehicle. One jumped out and ran toward me. I looked at that man who had granted me freedom.
In awe, in disbelief, I said what I knew I must. I said, “we are Jewish, you know.”
For a long time, he didn’t answer me. And finally his own voice betrayed his emotion as he said, “so am I.”
And then he asked an incredible question. He asked if he could see the other ‘ladies’. It was a form of address that was obviously unknown to us for six years.
I weighed 68 pounds. My hair was white. I was in rags. I had not had a bath in three years. I was going to be 21 years old the following day. And here was this handsome young American officer asking to see “the other ladies”. And then he did an extraordinary thing. He held the door open for me and allowed me to precede him. And in this beautiful, symbolic gesture, he restored me to humanity.
This first young American Officer became my beloved husband of 56 years. The privilege and happiness of standing here today with my children and grand-children is only tempered by the knowledge that he did not live to see this incredible moment.
The war was over, the prayers which I had uttered every night -- for freedom, a family, a home, and never to be hungry again -- were answered. It was a fulfillment I could never have even dreamt of in my keenest dreams.
I came to this blessed country which I proudly claim as my own. But what about my friends who could not go back, for we had no home? With incredible wisdom and foresight the United Nations established the modern state of Israel. Israel, the ancient homeland of the Jewish people.
It is also forever etched in my mind and in my heart, the picture taken a few years thereafter of the late Mrs. Roosevelt holding a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, crafted here. I fervently believed then that what we had experienced would never happen again to any people, anywhere. But the wisdom that comes with age and subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, the Balkans, Darfur and many other corners of the world, has taught me that my youthful naiveté was just that.
May this place, this edifice that was built with wisdom and love to prevent such catastrophes, become a sanctuary of the fulfillment of the dreams of all people. All races. All religions. All colors.
You are the messengers of a time I shall not see. The message which I pray for every day is clear: that all children born from today on and held in the loving arms of their parents will lift their eyes to the beauty of this great planet. And when night falls, and they look up to the mystery of the stars, and the celestial homes, they shall dream the dreams of freedom, and know them to be reality.
Thank you. Thank you with all my heart.