01/27/2006

Holocaust Survivor Klein Addresses United Nations

For years, Gerda Weissmann Klein has been speaking to students in schools across the nation about the horrors she survived during the Holocaust.

Today, she spoke to the world.

Klein was among a select few to speak in the United Nations General Assembly Hall as part of the first International Day of Commemoration in memory of victims of the Holocaust. The date, Jan. 27, was chosen because it is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The event was linked live by video to the United Nations Office at Geneva, Switzerland.

Klein's story is the focus of Teaching Tolerance's newest educational kit, One Survivor Remembers. Just 15 when the German army invaded Poland, Klein spent six years under Nazi rule, three of them in slave labor camps.

"You are the messengers to a time I shall not see," Klein told the packed United Nations gallery. Many wept openly during Klein's remarks. One called her "the Anne Frank who lived."

Klein anointed all who heard her remarks as "the spiritual heirs" to the millions of Holocaust victims and their "legacy of love." Only then, she said, will "all people, all races, all religions, all colors" be able to "dream the dreams of freedom."

Klein received a standing ovation following her remarks. Her family -- three children and eight grandchildren -- traveled here to witness the historic speech. The only one missing, one she noted in her remarks, was her beloved husband, Kurt Klein, the American soldier who liberated her.

The crowd filled the General Assembly Hall floor, the main-floor gallery and the balcony. Many had waited in line since 8 a.m. to attend the 10:30 a.m. event. Several other Holocaust survivors were in the audience, including two women who survived the same death march as Klein.

Planned at 90 minutes, the U.N. program ran two hours. It featured a videotaped message from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and a keynote address from Yehuda Bauer, academic adviser to Yad Vashem and the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research.

The Holocaust, Bauer said, "shows the depths of human depravity, but in its margins are the peaks of human self-sacrifice." He spoke of 21,000 known individuals or groups who rescued Jews at risk of their own lives -- "and the real number may be 10 times higher."

Bauer closed with words he often says, a call for three commandments to be added to the 10 so many embrace: "Thou shalt not be a perpetrator. Thou shalt not be a victim. And thou shalt never, but never be a bystander."

'Duty to the Dead' 

Shashi Tharoor, United Nations under-secretary for communications and public affairs, served as master of ceremonies. He asked of the Holocaust, "What of the symphonies not written, the diseases not cured, the children not born?"

"Our duty to the dead," he added, "is to foster respect for all living beings."

The program featured images of victims, projected on two giant screens, including Eta Halberstam, just a few months old when she was murdered at Auschwitz in October 1942, and Samuel David Grosman, 60, murdered the same year.

The Zamir Chorale of Boston performed musical works written by Jews enslaved in Nazi camps and ghettos.

Throughout the morning, the message was clear: Remember the victims, remember the horrors, and be vigilant to prevent such atrocities from happening again.

Darfur, Rwanda and other genocides make such words ring somewhat hollow. But Auschwitz survivor Roman Kent, who introduced Klein, said the mandate to remember remains paramount.

"If we were to forget," he said, "the conscience of mankind would be buried alongside the victims."

He added, "We must teach our children tolerance, at home and at school. Tolerance cannot be assumed; it must be taught. We must teach our children that hate is never right, and love is never wrong."

Turning Words into Action 

In conjunction with Klein's appearance, Teaching Tolerance sent postcards to more than 30,000 educators, asking them to honor the day by using the new education kit, particularly its service-learning project.

Early feedback shows success.

"'One Survivor Remembers' is absolutely remarkable. Thank you, Teaching Tolerance, for being such a part of my classroom," one Pennsylvania teacher e-mailed earlier this week. "Tomorrow, for Holocaust Remembrance Day, I am showing the video to all of my classes. We are also doing a food drive as a result for our local soup kitchens."

That sits well with Klein, whose prayers and dreams during the Holocaust were for "freedom, family, a home and to never be hungry again."