The day after International Holocaust Remembrance Day (Jan. 27), I attended a presentation by Rampart Library District director Michelle Harris on Jewish-American World War II soldiers.
She related to the audience of about 50 members of the Woodland Park community the tales of several German-born men of Jewish descent who immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1930s and early 1940s only to be drafted or volunteer to serve in the U.S. armed forces during WWII.
At that time, it wasn’t easy for Europeans to gain entry to the U.S., which, in the midst of anti-immigrant sentiment, put a quota on the number of visas it would issue each country in those years before the war. For instance, there were 26,000 visas issued for Germans in 1937, according to Harris, and more than 300,000 applicants from that country. The immigrants who were able to secure visas had to have a sponsor in the U.S. vouch for them and promise to support them financially.
Lt. Kurt Klein was one of those German-born Jews who, at age 17, came to the U.S. after securing a coveted visa with the help of his older sister who had recently arrived in America. He settled with her in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1937.
“Mr. Klein arrived in Buffalo with $10 in his pocket and worked as a typesetter, dishwasher, and cigar store clerk to help pay for his parents’ passage from Germany. They made it as far as France, but efforts to get U.S. visas were snarled by red tape and a lack of interest by U.S. Embassy officials, and the war caught up with them. They were sent to Auschwitz, where they died.” states myhero.com/klein.
Harris said 550,000 Jews served in the U.S. Armed forces during WWII, of 1.5 million total Jews in the fight against the Nazis.
“They helped liberate concentration camps that were exterminating their people,” Harris said.
Klien was drafted into the Army in 1942 and served as an intelligence officer. In May 1945 he helped to liberate a group of 120 female concentration camp survivors in Czechoslovakia. These women included Gerda Weissmann, the first prisoner he saw and the group's Polish-born spokeswoman, who would become his wife. They had faced torture, starvation and worse and many were on death's door. The approach of soldiers wasn't a welcome sight.
In her words, "All of a sudden, I saw a strange car coming down the hill, no longer green, not bearing a swastika, but a white star." When Lt. Klein approached, he asked if anyone spoke German or English. She answered him in German: "We are Jewish, you know." He hesitated. "Then his own voice sort of betrayed his own emotion and he said, ‘So am I.' It was the greatest hour of my life. ... Then he held the door for me and let me precede him and in that gesture restored me to humanity," she recalled.
Gerda had survived three years in a concentration camp and five months on a 350-mile death march through eastern Europe. Her body had dwindled to just 60 pounds at the time of her rescue. Her family including her parents and brother died in the camps.
Last Monday marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of another Nazi death camp, Auschwitz in Birkenau, Poland. About 200 survivors attended a service there, where 1.1 million people were murdered during World War II. Most of those who survived are in their 90s now, and their numbers are dwindling.
"Although the Holocaust remains a critical area of research for many historians and is a staple of school curriculums in many countries, there is fear that the memory of what happened at the camps is fading among younger generations," wrote The New York Times last week.
Once the survivors are gone, they fear, their lessons will fade and history will be masked or buried or rewritten to suit the needs of politicians amidst a rebirth of global anti-Semitism. What boggles my mind is that even today there some who believe the Holocaust never happened.
Quoted in the New York Times report was 95-year-old Batsheva Dagan, an Auschwitz survivor. “I feel uplifted when I see so many of you here who will carry the memory of innocent people from all nations of the world who met their death here,” she said. “You will make sure that those horrors are never repeated.”
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," said author George Santayana in 1905. He was famously paraphrased by Winston Churchill after the end of WWII: "Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it."
It's a grim reminder, that in this day and age seems apropos.
But let's not forget, that from the darkness of WWII bloomed the Kleins' love story, a beacon of hope and love. They married, moved to Buffalo and had three children. Together they established the Gerda and Kurt Klein Foundation in 1998. “To teach students about the importance of tolerance, respect and responsibility through character education and community service,” states holocaust-ed-phila.org/members/KleinFoundation.html.
Their foundation helped survivors of the 1999 Columbine School shooting here in Colorado. Kurt Klein died in 2002. Gerda, now 95, has authored several books including the autobiographical "All But My Life," which details the six years she spent as a prisoner of the Nazis.
Their work is proof that there is still good in the world, even in the face of great evil.
I hope this world never forgets the pain we are capable of inflicting upon one another and the love we can inspire.
Michelle Karas has called the Pikes Peak region home for more than four years. She has been editor of Pikes Peak Newspapers since June. Contact Michelle with column or story ideas, feedback and letters to the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.