On Good and Evil

“Noble be Man, merciful and good” wrote the German poet Goethe. It was a sentence to be repeated well-over a century later by Gerda Weissmann Klein, one of the most inspiring and outspoken Shoah survivors who sadly passed away at the beginning of April 2022. 

Gerda’s telling of her horrific story throughout the years began with a detailed recorded testimony for the Spielberg Foundation. It was just one of the over 55,000 survivor testimonies Spielberg documented for posterity. She soon wrote her gripping autobiography “All But My Life,” which in turn became an Oscar-winning film “One Survivor Remembers.” 

Anyone who heard her testimony would indeed remember Gerda.

Like every survivor, Gerda’s story is also unique, but it is especially-special in that Kurt Klein, the American Jewish Soldier who liberated her at the end of the war, went on to become her husband. 

By the time she was 21, Gerda had spent three years in concentration camps. Her parents, brother and her extended family had by then all been murdered. Towards the end of the war, after a 500 kilometre death march through temperatures well below zero, where even her best friend died in her arms, she was near to death and weighed a meagre 30 kilos. 

Coming from a Polish educated family, Gerda spoke German as did Kurt – her husband to be. It was as an American soldier,when he entered Czechoslovakia with the USA forces, that he came across the skeletal Gerda and asked her to show him the other “ladies.” Leading him to a room of 150 sick and dying women, Gerda then pointed at them, quoting the German poet Geothe: ’Noble be man, merciful and good.” Kurt, who at that time did not know his parents had been murdered at Auschwitz, could hardly believe that in her dying state she was able to recite a poem – and one of such nobility. In that very moment of her  invoking the chilling call of Geothe  to humanity, their future would be sealed. 

It took a whole year before Gerda recovered and was able to finally leave Germany for France. By then Kurt had fulfilled his army service and was also in Paris. The two kept in touch. But despite their affection for one another, Gerda feared that Kurt’s interest in her was motivated by pity. She did not want to be a victim and she certainly did not want to be a burden. Things were complicated even more because he thought her reluctance to accept his help was romantic rejection. But despite it all, Kurt was love-stricken. After a lengthy exchange of conversations they were finally married: but not before stopping at a bombed Parissynagogue. It was there among the rubble that they lit a candle for their murdered families just before their wedding ceremony. 

After finally settling in America, the couple immersed themselves in volunteer work for Jewish relief. They were married for more than 50 years and brought three children into the world, as well as eight grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. 

Ten years before she passed away, Gerda was awarded the American Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United State’s highest civilian honor. In her speech that day, she spoke of meeting Kurt, and how, not knowing how to react to his kindness, she decided to pray for him instead. 

In her kindness and strength, Gerda was the epitome of what a human being can become, despite horrors endured. When Geothe penned, “Noble be Man, merciful and good,” he could very well have been writing with foresight about Gerda Weissmann Klein.