01/23/2006

Gerda Klein to Speak at United Nations

Gerda Weissmann Klein has found herself behind some high-profile lecterns, including the night she accepted the 1995 Academy Award for the film of her life, One Survivor Remembers.

On Friday, she'll find herself behind another. Klein has been invited to speak at the United Nations in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, an international event that coincides with the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Klein was 15, living in Bielsko, Poland, when the Germans invaded. It was the start of a six-year ordeal, including three years in Nazi slave-labor camps. Klein lost every member of her family, except for one uncle who was living in Turkey. She survived a 350-mile death march, and was liberated in Volary, Czechoslovakia, by a U.S. Army lieutenant whom she later married. At the time, she weighed 68 pounds, her hair had turned white and she hadn't had a bath in three years.

Klein's story and the film are the centerpiece of Teaching Tolerance's latest educational kit. The kit, already sent free to more than 40,000 educators nationwide, includes a teacher's guide with standards-based lesson plans, a resource booklet with Holocaust timelines and research project ideas, and a packet of primary documents -- letters, maps, postcards and photos drawn from Klein's personal archives.

While Klein will have the world's stage on Friday at the U.N., the stage on which she is most comfortable is that of a school auditorium. She speaks tirelessly to students across the country, sharing her hope as a reminder that out of unimaginable horror, goodness and hope can survive.

At 81, she still has the power to hold the attention of a roomful of teenagers, telling stories that illuminate the dangers of hate and extremism, and other stories that illuminate the power of humanity.

At every stop, from school to school, Klein urges young people to take action, to improve the world.

As she told Teaching Tolerance magazine, "I find teenagers today so very caring. They are sensitive and understanding. If students hunger for anything, they hunger for something to do."

Klein added, "The number one question I get is, 'What can I do?' In that question already lies the answer. Follow your instincts to do something you believe in or care about. When you get to the end of your day or your life, you must answer to yourself, to be able to say, 'If I saw something wrong, I spoke up.'"