Gerda Weissmann Klein has been haunted by a question ever since she survived the Nazi Holocaust as a young woman.
"Why am I here, out of the multitudes who wanted to live?" she asked.
Klein said the answer to that question is an obligation to tell her story. In a special presentation to Southern Poverty Law Center employees yesterday, she thanked them for their role in helping her story reach millions of youth across the country.
Klein, a teenager during World War II, survived six years of Nazi rule, including a slave labor camp and a 350-mile death march. Her friends and all of her family but one uncle, who lived in Turkey, died in that Holocaust. An American soldier rescued Klein at the end of the war. She later married him.
Klein's story is the subject of Teaching Tolerance's newest teaching kit, One Survivor Remembers. Available at no cost to educators, it chronicles Klein's experiences and the horror of the Holocaust with a DVD or VHS copy of the Academy Award-winning documentary of the same name. The kit also includes a curriculum guide for teachers, a 40-page resource booklet and reproductions of original World War II-era photos, letters and documents from Klein's personal collection.
"The privilege of survival translates into a deep, deep obligation to tell of the pain, hurt, discrimination and intolerance lodged into someone's heart when one is discriminated against," said Klein, who is 81 and now lives in Arizona.
The Center has processed 40,123 orders for the kit since its release in September, easily outpacing the demand for other educational kits earlier produced by Teaching Tolerance.
Brian Willoughby, Teaching Tolerance's managing editor, said he is still moved by Klein's story, even after watching the documentary 36 times.
"I am humbled by her courage, in awe of her grace," he told the audience as he introduced Klein. "She has endured horrors I cannot imagine."
Klein said the kit honors the memories of the millions killed in the Holocaust. "It is an incredible manifest that you have created," she said, and one that will reach millions of children "who will be the messengers to a time I will not see."
The 1995 film was co-produced by Home Box Office and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It won the Academy Award for short subject documentary.
The film features Klein recounting the Nazi invasion of her hometown of Bielsko, Poland, and the next six years under their rule.
"The reality I had always taken for granted became the most remote fantasies," she says in the film.
Archival footage and family photos are interspersed with interview footage of Klein. There are several moments where her eyes fill with tears and her voice falters.
Klein was forced into slave labor until the Nazis attempted to hide the atrocities committed at concentration and labor camps. The camps were evacuated. Klein and thousands of others were forced to march in snow for hundreds of miles.
"I guess we all knew that this is going to be the first step to the end of the road: Is it to liberation or is it to doom?" she asks in the film.
Klein and the girls surviving the death march were eventually locked into a bicycle factory and abandoned by the Nazis. A bomb was placed on the factory, but rain prevented it from detonating.
An American soldier eventually discovered the girls. Klein married the soldier, Kurt Klein.
"He opened not only the door for me, but the door to my life and my future," she says in the film.
Jamie Kizzire is a freelance writer who formerly worked for the Birmingham Post-Herald.