Gerda Weissmann-Klein: Turning Tragedy into Opportunity
Red, white and blue. Stars and stripes. Gerda Weissmann-Klein. They all paint a picture of patriotism and decorate the 10th anniversary of Citizenship Counts. Gerda, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor, has dedicated the latter part of her life to instilling patriotism and the importance of civic duty in America’s youth through this non-partisan, non-profit organization.
By her 21st birthday, Gerda had endured more hardships and suffering than most people will in a lifetime. Having lived the past six years under Nazi rule, Gerda was finally liberated by the American Army. Perhaps even more incredible is who liberated her. Meeting Lieutenant Kurt Klein not only marked the beginning of the rest of Gerda’s life, but would also be active in shaping it, as he became her future husband. Gerda’s inspiring story of survival is documented in her autobiography, All But My Life and can be found in the Oscar and Emmy Award-winning HBO documentary, One Survivor Remembers. Gerda and Kurt settled in Buffalo, New York and had three children and eight grandchildren. They served their community and the world as advocates of Holocaust education and human rights, dedicating most of their lives to promoting tolerance and the importance of giving back to the community.
Gerda’s life experiences shaped her view of the world, and more importantly that of the United States of America. Her unwavering love and appreciation for this country is unparalleled. The dedication she demonstrates and the energy she has put into instilling American values in today’s youth caught the eye of former President Barack Obama. On February 15th, 2011 she was presented with the highest and most prestigious civilian award in the U.S. – The Presidential Medal of Freedom. It goes without saying that a woman given the same honor as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa would demand change and make moves to facilitate it.
In 2008, along with her granddaughter Alysa Ullman Cooper, she established Citizenship Counts, a national 501(c)(3) organization whose mission is to inspire pride in America. The organization provides a comprehensive civics education program that has been utilized in schools in 38 states across the nation. The organization’s vision is geared toward educating American youth on the tenets of citizenship and encouraging them to become active and engaged citizens in their community. Its goal is to instill pride in all Americans and to encourage them to not only appreciate their citizenship, but to celebrate it by engaging in a naturalization ceremony which can be facilitated through the organization’s partnerships with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the U.S federal courts. In fact, it was a naturalization ceremony in Cincinnati, Ohio where Gerda delivered the keynote speech that inspired her to establish Citizenship Counts. The pride and joy that she felt, as well as the new citizens and the students and faculty at the school, inspired her to create Citizenship Counts so that students across the nation would have the opportunity to witness and participate in this poignant experience. Gerda’s vision for why she founded Citizenship Counts is best summarized by her statement that:
“America is a unique, diverse and wondrous country, comprised both of those who know its magnificence as their birthright, and others, like me, who are privileged to call our adopted country ‘our own.’ What we all share is a desire for our families to enjoy America’s boundless opportunities while extending to all our fellow citizens justice and the blessings and freedoms upon which the nation was founded.
To perpetuate the miracle that is America we must teach our children about its rich history as a nation of immigrants who chose this country and have given meaning to its ideals. Citizenship Counts will engage today’s students in civics education, combined with active participation in a naturalization ceremony, to help ensure that the citizens of tomorrow will continue to foster tolerance, understanding, service to one another and a greater appreciation for the privilege and responsibility of citizenship.”
To date, 17 states across the nation have passed a law requiring students to take the citizenship test that is administered by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Citizenship Counts empowers educators as they seek to instill civic duty in their students. Since its inception 10 years ago, their educational curriculum is free to all educators as the motivation is solely to deepen the students’ understanding of the role that immigration has played in creating our diverse and dynamic country.
Gerda still to this day has a deeper love and appreciation for this country than many native-born civilians might ever have. She has lived through the worst possible conditions and so can easily appreciate “another boring night at home.” Living life one day at a time, knowing all too well that tomorrow is never promised, gave Gerda a new lease on life. She is thankful. She is grateful. Above all, she is American. It’s people like Gerda who make this country such a unique and special place. Here at Cypress, we are thankful, grateful and proud to be able to say we have shared a slice of this life with Gerda Weissmann-Klein.