Gerda Weissman Klein is to be congratulated for receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom this past week. The honor conferred by the American President is the highest civilian award given to American citizens. She received the award in recognition of her decades of work as a human rights activist. Mrs. Klein was a young woman in her native Poland when the Nazis took over. She survived the concentration camps and a 350 mile death march in which her best friend died in her arms.
Mrs. Klein's husband Kurt was also her liberator, an American Army intelligence officer. When he rescued her on May 7, 1945 she was only 20 years old but completely grey-haired and weighing just 68 pounds, evidence of the inconceivable attrocities being committed by the Germans. Kurt was also a survivor of sorts. He was a Jewish refugee from Germany who fled to America to escape the Nazis. His parents stayed and were both killed by the Nazis.
Gerda wrote her autobiography in the 1950s and it has now become a classic text for those studying the Holocaust. The book was also the basis for a documentary that went on to win an Academy Award.
Where many could have retreated in to bitterness, Mrs. Klein has chosen to be a crusader for tolerance. She's also the founder of an impressive organization called Citizenship Counts which describes itself as follows:
Our mission is to educate students on the tenets of citizenship, inspire their pride in America and encourage them to participate in community service.
Citizenship Counts is a non-partisan 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to inspiring today’s youth by engaging them in a civics education curriculum that teaches them to appreciate the value and responsibilities of citizenship. Our core curriculum, The Path to Citizenship, promotes pride in American citizenship and encourages students to be involved in their communities. We empower young people to be responsible, participatory and socially-just citizens who appreciate the benefits of living in a diverse, inclusive, democratic country.
Our multi-disciplinary curriculum provides a unique opportunity for students to plan and host a community-based naturalization ceremony in their schools. This curriculum also helps students learn about the process of legal immigration and the rights of being a citizen in the United States of America.
Through our program, all citizens will have greater access to naturalization ceremonies in their communities. Attending these ceremonies will provide more Americans with a deeper understanding and acceptance of the role that legal immigration has played in creating our diverse and dynamic country. After the naturalization ceremony, the new citizens will be able to engage actively with students and members of their communities at a reception planned by the students.
Our vision is to create a well-informed, responsible citizenry of individuals who are motivated to participate in both local and national community service.
President Obama quoted Mrs. Klein when he honored her at the Medal of Freedom ceremony. The words are certainly ones to remember:
I pray you never stand at any crossroads in your own lives, but if you do, if the darkness seems so total, if you think there is no way out, remember, never ever give up.