Speech to students at Bala Cynwyd Middle School
January 16, 2003
Gerda Weissmann Klein:
I can’t begin to explain what it means to me to be introduced by the daughter of close friends of mine who have done so much to fulfill my own dreams and to speak to your friends and classmates. Mrs. Wolf, you’re the best, I consider it an honor and privilege to be here and of course my friend Beth Reisboard and Nancy Fox who have been working not only diligently but with compassion and passion for the cause which is so very dear to my heart; the cause of freedom and to eliminate hunger. I’ll tell you a little more about it.
Since you have seen the video, as I have just heard, a little bit of the story of my life, you will understand how much freedom means to me and how much it means to me to see you a third generation; now I have grandchildren your age and some of my grandchildren are even older who were born in this country who have had the greatness of all gifts bestowed upon them as you have, to be born in freedom; to take freedom as your birth right. I think, and I’m quite sure that even when you were younger, I assume you must have experienced something that you thought; oh my goodness, why didn’t I think about it before; how lucky
I was on such a day; and, unfortunately, I know that you all remember September 11 and you must have asked, yesterday I didn’t realize all that could happen; there is a face of hate that would like to destroy the things you take for granted.
I have explained that when I was 15 years old, and as you have heard, I spent three years in the ghettoes, three years in concentration camps, and I had the incredible good fortune to have been liberated by the American Army. As you have seen, my husband was the first who had entered my Camp. Since then it was almost like a Cinderella story. I fell in love with him and he with me. I came to this country. I started to understand what freedom means; what it means to be standing right here without fear that the Gestapo will knock at the door and come and take us away; and to say what we think; to share our dreams; to share our hopes. Blessedly you have taken this for granted. And it is my most ardent desire that your children and your grandchildren some day will be able to feel the same.
But, you know, sometimes one needs to be shaken out of something, it is almost like when you have had a nightmare and you wake up and you say it was a nightmare; it isn’t true – I’m home in my bed, I go down and have breakfast, and I’ll see my parents and my brother and my sister. You take it totally for granted. For me, since I have been 15 years old this was the most unattainable dream. And if you are fortunate as I have been to live to know freedom and to even be able to do the things, which I dreamt as a little girl; I always wanted to be a writer. Of course, you know, English is my third language. The part where I was born used to be Austria before the First World War. Consequently, my first language at home was German.
Believe it or not, I am one of the youngest survivors; if you can imagine it – and I’m 78 years. So, in all likelihood in a number of years, maybe in ten or more, there will be no one who has been witnessed to this happening; and, therefore, you know you might have some questions and I will urge you not to feel that you that are intruding on my privacy by asking them but you can only know if you ask a question. I’ll be as honest as I can and whatever I remember to be able to share it with you.
So, as you have seen part of the story of my life and know that I came to this country, and as I told you, I had to learn English. As I mentioned, German was my first language but my part where I was born was annexed to Poland. Consequently, when I was six years old I started Polish schools. So the only formal education, which I had, was in Polish. Of course we had to take lots of languages; in Europe we had to take Latin and French and all that. Of course, all my education stopped at age 15. Then I came to this country. My greatest wish and my biggest desire were to be a writer. Of course I thought it’s going to be insurmountable, English is not only my native language but I never studied English. This is why I want to urge you never to lose your dream. I have been so fortunate; I have to speak of course with an accent as you hear but I don’t write with an accent. Hopefully they don’t know when they read it that I have an accent.
This is what I’d like to share with you, something which has always meant a great deal to me. We lived in Buffalo, New York. I wanted to write a story of my life which is called Now All about My Life. I started writing it. I started writing it mostly for myself, hopefully, one day for my children, and I was dreaming of a publication. I thought perhaps I should try to take some fundamental English. I went to the University of Buffalo and found that I could take English even though I don’t have a high school diploma or anything. At that point, the book was written. The person that interviewed me said to me, “You just go ahead and submit it for publication.”
I did, and blessedly it was accepted. His name is Sloan Wilson. Your parents and grandparents will remember that name; he was very well known in the fifties. He wrote a book called A Man In The Grey Flannel Suit. I remember he gave me some of his wisdom which I’d like to share with you. When I said to him how can I hope for publication; how can I hope for future writing; he said to me, “Ask any painter if he’s ever found the colors to paint a sunset. Ask any musician if they have ever found a note which would depict joy or sorrow. Ask any writer if they have truly found the words to express what is in the heart. It is this frustration, that you have to really come as close with what you’re trying to do; to paint or do music with your feeling – that is a creative power.”
So whatever you want to do; do it. If you want to become bakers; bake the best bread. If you want to be doctors; try to heal not only the body but heal the soul. I hope that many of you will choose the finest profession of them all and that is to be teachers. Teachers have the ability to open the horizons and the world and the thoughts and your imagination and can influence you in the most incredible ways. When I look back now on my life and I remember the years of bitterness, of slavery in the camps, I have no role models. I was thinking of my parents of what they had taught my brother and me. I thought of my teachers and some of the words and things that they said, I confess I didn’t listen to – I didn’t think they were very important – I sort of let them wash over me. Then the darkness and despair. They became the guidelines to what was right and what was wrong and how to hope and how to inspire. So some day, maybe hundred years from now, if you had been a teacher say in 20 years from now; a hundred years from now somebody whom you have taught might be the one that would save the world. What an incredible future one can have if you use your imagination and the goodness in your heart.
I have been most fortunate after coming to this country that I was given the privilege to become a writer and have written a number of books. I had a column for young people in the Buffalo paper for many years. I’ve had incredible support, that of my beloved husband whom I lost not long ago. I thought that my world has collapsed and it has. But he used to say that pain should not be wasted; pain should help heal and through the goodness and friendship of my two special friends right here, I’m trying to do just that.
In that vein, I should like to share with you something that I know you feel that you know about and that is important. The kids in Columbine have studied some of my writings in their high school books. So they were aware of me, and they had enormous problems. I’m quite sure that you have read a great deal about Columbine; you have seen a great deal about Columbine. But one of the great problems at Columbine was that the young people there, the students felt that no one except if they were their age and had experienced what they had experienced, can understand their trauma and their pain.
My husband and I were invited to go to Columbine. An incredible thing happened there, we became very close. Of course, I could tell them that I was 15 years old when I saw my friends and my family murdered; and I’m a grandmother now. I could assure them that as a mother or as a grandmother, you can understand the trauma and the pain of young people even if you have not directly experienced that but indirectly. It’s the only way in which there is healing; if we embrace each other; if we understand each other and this is how we can help each other through this very difficult and traumatic time.
But, there’s something else as well. You need to reach out and share your knowledge which you have gotten from the tragedy. To share your pain and also to share your gratitude. Hundreds of thousands of letters came to Columbine from all over the world and in every language. Teddy bears and flowers and mementoes of each description came. The way in which they could repay it is to inspire others to call upon the high schools throughout the country and say on that day, on the Memorial Day, do something good. Feed a hungry child, visit someone old who has been sick whom you have not seen in a long time. Bake a cake and take it to an abandon’s children’s home. Reach out to a friend whom you have not been very nice for a long time. Do a good gesture in the memories of all those who will never grow up; who will never be able to fall in love; who will never have children; who are never going to walk in the sunshine with their grandchildren.
A great part of that has been done here in Philadelphia where I had the privilege of speaking to many schools thanks to Mrs. Reisboard and Mrs. Fox. They have started a Foundation to teach tolerance and understanding and feed hungry children. I think I’m quite sure you will derive a great deal of joy if you would be able to help someone else because in the last analysis, by doing that, you will be helping yourselves. I have found that out a very, very long time ago.
I’ve also felt a very important part is to understand others. I’ve learned it many years ago when I still lived in Buffalo, New York. We had a neighbor who moved across the street. They had one little girl who was the age of my son, and then they had a baby. When the baby came home from the hospital, the baby was not like other babies. She cried more, she was clinging to her mother. When she got a little older, she used to go into a little dance; and the kids said, “Look at crazy Jenny – she’s dancing and there’s no music around.” Her birthday was on the Fourth of July. When she was born, the kids said, “Oh, lucky Jenny, her birthday’s always going to be a national holiday; they’ll be fireworks, they’ll be excitement, they’ll be all those things for Jenny’s birthday.” As it was, as a matter of fact, I think on either Jenny’s sixth or 7th birthday which I had forgot, I didn’t buy her present. I sat in my living room and was looking out in my back yard where my children, James’ older sister, and Jenny, and a lot of the neighbor kids were having a great time. They were squirting each other with a hose, they were jumping, they were laughing; and there stood Jenny, and she sort of stood away. I thought to myself, Jenny is just like the roses. You know in Buffalo in July the roses are blooming all over the fences. We had lots of red roses and pink roses. I thought the roses are just as rambunctious and colorful as the children, but there was one rose that was different; she was a blue rose to me. I said what would it be like if suddenly a blue rose came forth on the bush. This is when I sat down and wrote a little book. You might have seen it. Years and years ago it was in the Reader’s Digest. It’s called the The Blue Rose. It’s a story about Jenny.
Jenny is like a kitten without a tail. She is like a bird with shorter wings. For a normal bird it’s easy to take off and go fly; nobody thinks about it. But with somebody with shorter wings, you have to work much harder. I got that idea when I saw Jenny trying to tie her sneaker. It was a tremendous, tremendous effort. You tie your sneakers so easily you don’t think about it. But if someone does not have the dexterity, then all the other things is an enormous effort. By the same token, when people say look at crazy Jenny who dances without music, perhaps she hears music which our ears are not tuned to hear. Maybe she sees shapes when she doesn’t listen to us and finds colors we are not able to conceive. Other people think because she is different, she’s crazy.
When I remember that little bit from my own life, I remember a couple of days after I came to this country I overheard a boy say to his mother, “This lady is so stupid; she doesn’t even speak English.” I didn’t speak English but I speak other languages. I understood what he said. I thought, how strange and how bad that we cannot communicate, and that I cannot tell him what I am thinking because we don’t speak the same language. So perhaps, in a silent way, Jenny understands things which are way beyond our understanding cause she hears things. This is why I think it is so tremendously important for us to sometimes reach into somebody else’s life who might look different; who might play differently; or might be of a different color; who cannot speak our language – to try to understand the beauty and the greatness of their thoughts.
I remember once coming to Jenny’s house, and she was sitting in a little rocking chair and her eyes were enormous. She was very sad. She said, “Mommy, what does retarded mean? The kids call me retarded and they laughed.”
How wonderful it is to live in a world, your world, where you can understand pretty much everything that is spoken in your language. With a click on a screen, you can see the greatest art treasures in the world, the most beautiful, the most wonderful mountains, hear the greatest orators, and call it your birthright. But this incredible gift which has been given to your generation as to no other generation before, I think needs understanding to reach out to others who have not been as fortunate as we have been. Through that outreach, I can assure you, you will get many, many more blessings; many more joys than you could ever think that possible. Because you know sometimes, we always think I just want more; I would like a newer car, I would like to have this, I would like to do that. Possessions in no way give you happiness. The happiness must come from within; from a certain amount of peace and with sharing our bounty with those who are not as fortunate as we are.
I would like to share with you a moment which I usually try to do when I’m with young people because you didn’t have the opportunity yet to ask me questions. At almost every place where I have spoken and the many, many letters which I have received, people ask, I don’t know if you know it or not, but we received an “Oscar” for a movie which was based on the story of my life. It was based on the story of my life which is a book but it is called, “One Survivor Remembers.” We got an “Emmy,” you were there Beth, and we got an “Oscar.” People ask me how did it feel when you, a Holocaust survivor, to be standing in Hollywood with all the stars, the blazing jewels, and the incredible gowns – all that and holding an “Oscar” in your hand. I tell you, when I stood there with all the hoopla and all the searchlights and all the things that so many people desire; I had one memory – I had a memory of the death march, you have seen in my documentary pictures of the death march. I remember those bitter cold days and nights; how cold I was; how hungry; how lonely; and I was holding a battered, rusty bowl in my hand and praying that when I got to the end of the line, there should be enough food left in the kettle. When I got to the end of the line and if by some miracle the ladle went deeper and deeper and brought forth a potato, I was a winner. The potato then meant much more than the golden “Oscar” I was holding in my hand. It was a wonderful moment. The “Oscar” is a beautiful figurine as is the “Emmy;” the “Emmy” is prettier – but, it’s cold. When I’m alone, it doesn’t speak to me; but the embraces of my grandchildren are tender and warm.
I don’t want you and my grandchildren to live in a world where a potato is more valuable than an “Oscar.” I don’t want you to be in a world where an “Oscar” is so important that you forget that there have been people who do not have a potato. As you’re sitting here and going home from school, remember that tonight thirty-five million Americans may be going to bed hungry; and you can do something about it. I’m convinced that your generation is going to heal that want; to heal the discrimination and hatred and all the things which have brought so much pain to this world.
When I have been asked why did you go on? There was a little picture within me which I used to take out and look at it as one looks at the jewel. It was a picture of an evening at home; the living room of my childhood. My father smoking his pipe and reading the evening paper. My mother working on her needlepoint. My brother and I doing our homework. My cats sprawled on the floor. I used to call it a boring evening at home. This is when I knew that the ultimate wish of the fulfillment of my life was not grandiose, and I never even knew about Hollywood in those days, would not be in Hollywood, would not be in millionaires’ mansions, but it would be in a simple evening at home with my family.
So, when you return to your own homes today, sort of stop a little and think of your own lives. Don’t look for something that might be missing, usually there’s something bound to be missing from every life; just see what is there – the opportunities which you are free to pursue, the things that you can learn, the things that you can understand, the things that would make you very valuable, who would contribute to the goodness of humanity. You are the messengers to a time I shall not see; but I am confident that in your hands, the future leaders of this beloved country, the future leaders of the free world, through your understanding, through your brains, and through your heart, you will see to it that stories like mine will never be written again or made movies of. And, for that, please accept my thanks and my love.
Thank you very much.