It was May 7, 1945, the day before the young Jewish woman’s 21st birthday and only hours after Germany had officially surrendered to the Allied forces. Her hair was matted and had turned white, and she weighed 68 pounds. She wore a ragged dress and ski boots, and she was leaning against the wall of an abandoned factory just inside the Czech border.
That is how two American soldiers found her when they drove up in their jeep, having heard about a group of Holocaust survivors in a former factory. One of the men asked her in German and English if she spoke either language. She was from Poland, but she knew German and responded to him.
“We are Jewish, you know,” she told him. After six years under Nazi terrorism, she wanted to warn him of their maligned status. The soldier was silent for a long time, she remembered later. He wore dark sunglasses, so she couldn’t tell what he was thinking. But when he finally spoke, his voice caught, betraying his emotions.
“So am I,” he said. He asked her to show him where the other survivors were. Then he held the door for her. “And that was the moment of restoration of humanity, of humaneness, of dignity, of freedom,” she said later.
This is the liberation story of Gerda Weissmann, who died this month at age 97 at her home in Phoenix. Many Holocaust survivors have shared their accounts of first contact with Allied soldiers at the end of World War II, but that of Weissmann is unique, because it was also the unlikely beginning of a love story between her and that American soldier, Kurt Klein, who held the door for her.
She led him to a room where 150 young women lay on the floor, too emaciated and sick to stand. When the Nazis had forced them to walk a death march three months earlier, there had been 2,000 of them. She made a “sweeping gesture of this scene of devastation,” Klein recalled decades later, “and she said the following words: ‘Noble be man, merciful and good.’ And I could hardly believe that she was able to summon a poem by the German poet Goethe” at “such a moment.”
Soon, she and the other young women were moved to a field hospital, where Weissmann relished her first bath in three years. Her feet were so frostbitten, doctors thought they might have to amputate. Weissmann was critically ill and in and out of consciousness for days as the medical team slowly nursed her back to health. Thirty of the women died after being rescued.
After a week, Klein appeared at her bedside with some magazines. They talked and talked, and he began visiting every moment he could get away from his post. She was witty, he remembered later, and interested in writing and literature. Sometimes he would tell jokes and cheer her up.
Sometimes he would just listen as she mourned her friends who had died in the Nazi camps. He brought her books and a bouquet of lilies. He told her how he had been born in Germany but immigrated to the United States in 1937 with an older sister. He didn’t know it yet, but his parents had been murdered at Auschwitz.
In late June, Klein was transferred to another post, so they began writing letters. Despite their deepening attachment, Weissmann feared that his kindness was motivated by pity more than romantic feeling, and that she would be a burden to him. Klein mistook her reticence to accept gifts and help from him as romantic rejection.
Still, when the U.S. Army was about to turn over control of the area to the Russians, Klein arranged for Weissmann and a friend to be moved to an area in Germany still under American control, where he could visit once a week. He helped her get a job, since she craved independence while she figured out what to do in the long run.
She didn’t want to return to Poland without her parents or brother, and she didn’t know yet they had all been murdered in the Holocaust. She had an uncle in Turkey, but she worried he might be domineering. And like a lot of Jews after the war, she wondered if she should go to Palestine.
By September, Japan had surrendered, and Klein broke the news to Weissmann that he was about to be sent home. Still not understanding his feelings for her, she wished him well. He was stunned, and then, she remembered later, he laid it all out: “Don’t you understand? I love you. I want to marry you.”
Their relief at professing their love for one another was joyous and brief. Klein could have stayed in Germany and married her immediately if he signed up for another two years with the Army, but then she would have had to stay there that whole time, too, not an appealing option for a Jew who had just survived the Holocaust. Or he could return to the United States and work every diplomatic channel as consulates reopened to allow her to join him. No one knew how long that would take. Klein left the decision up to Weissmann, and she chose the latter option.
Their letters to one another resumed, but at least now they were very obviously love letters. Decades later the pair would compile them into a book, “The Hours After: Letters of Love and Longing in War’s Aftermath.”
“Let me bridge time and space to be with you,” he wrote. “I let my thoughts of the joy that lies ahead envelop me,” she responded. “What lies ahead in our lives to come? What mystery, what secrets does fate have in store for us?”
By April 1946, Weissmann was able to leave Germany for Paris, where they could meet again and marry, once the interminable gears of bureaucracy got all their documents in order. Their daily letters were full of youthful pining and mundane logistics: No, his passport hadn’t arrived yet. Yes, she finally received a copy of her birth certificate. They were reunited in June, and on their way to city hall to get married, they stopped at a synagogue, still full of rubble from the war, and lit a candle for their parents.
The Kleins settled in Buffalo before retiring in Arizona. They were married for more than 50 years until his death in 2002. They had three children and, by the time of her death on April 3, eight grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.
Through Weissmann Klein’s volunteer work for Jewish relief groups, she began to speak about her experience, revealing her remarkable memory for every detail of her life before and during the Holocaust. In 1957, she published an acclaimed book, “All But My Life: A Memoir.”
In 1996, a documentary about Weissmann Klein won an Oscar. Taking the stage with the director, she addressed a global audience. “In my mind’s eye, I see those years and days, and those who never lived to see the magic of a boring evening at home,” she said.
In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the nation. She spoke of the pride she felt in having become an American and, though her husband had been gone for over nine years, of the moment they met.
“When I was liberated from the death march and concentration camps, my beloved husband was the first American I encountered, who liberated me,” she said. “That night, I prayed for him, though I didn’t know his name and his country.”