Triumph and Terror: Teaching Gerda Weissmann Klein’s Story
By Robin Lane
Gerda Weissmann Klein is an author, advocate, and motivational speaker. She has written biographies, children's books, and television scripts. She fights relentlessly for disability rights, education, and community service - and against racism, hunger, and intolerance. She is a recipient of the Presidential Medal of freedom - and her life story was even made in to an Oscar-winning documentary.
Gerda Weissman Klein is a Holocaust survivor. In June 1942, while living with her family in the Bielsko ghetto, her parents were deported to Auschwitz. Weissmann Klein was sent to the Gross-Rosen system of concentration camps. After working in the camp's textile factories for nearly three years, Weissmann Klein was one of 200 women prisoners Nazis forced on a 350-mile death march, in a last effort to avoid the Allied forces. Less than 120 of these women survived.
Already I am finding it difficult to integrate these two divergent lives into one woman's story, which illustrates just one of the sundry examples of the challenges educators face when teaching about the Holocaust. Throwing in the romantic twist of meeting her future husband on her day of liberation from the concentration camp - in fact, her husband was also her liberator - the story becomes even more complex. Explaining the love story between Weissmann Klein and her husband requires caution and gravity, in order to avoid the romanticization of their suffering.
Although it is tempting with such a difficult subject to place only one side of the story in front of students at a time, it is dangerous. We can't only talk about what Weissmann Klein endured during the Holocaust - and we can't only share her story as one of triumph, as a story illustrating the transformative power of love. We can't only talk about survivors with "strength" who have "overcome" - and we can't only talk about the horrors of genocide. We have to have the courage to address the great complexity of human life, on the one hand to recognize that we can create meaning from suffering, and on the other, communicate that the great suffering of the Holocaust and other genocides need not have happened for there to be meaning in our lives.
Ultimately, for anyone who hopes to use Weissman Klein's story in a study of the Holocaust, there needs to be a balance between sacrifice and success, grief and growth, horror and hope.
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