Gerda Weissmann Klein Receives U.S. Medal of Freedom

Ellen G. Witman

When she was 20 years old, Gerda Weissman’s goal was to make it through one more day. After three years in Nazi concentration camps, she had lost almost everything – her parents, her brother and her best friend who died in her arms during a 350 mile death march – except her will to live. She would not give up.

In May 1945, one day before her 21st birthday, American troops found Gerda in an abandoned bicycle factory. She weighed 68 pounds. One soldier, Kurt Klein, spoke to her and with great emotion told her that he, too, was Jewish. A year later, they married in Paris and Gerda Weissmann Klein came to America with her new husband.

Receiving the Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor, was not Gerda Klein’s goal. It never entered her mind. Yet, on Tuesday, February 15, the 86 year old Holocaust survivor, author, historian, and humanitarian stood in the East Room of the White House blinking back tears as President Barak Obama hooked the Medal of Freedom around her neck.

President Obama remarked that Klein “…has taught the world that it is often in our most hopeless moments that we discover the extent of our strength and the depth of our love.” Quoting from Klein’s writings, Obama continued: “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.”

Klein received the Medal of Freedom for a lifetime of work focused on promoting respect and tolerance, preserving history, encouraging civic engagement, and teaching resilience and perseverance. Through her writings, – including a memoir entitled, “All But My Life” – lectures, documentaries, and visits with heads of state and school children around the world, Klein shares her own story and insights inspiring others to seek the common humanity of all people and to strive to replace hatred and bigotry with understanding and respect. In 2008, the Kleins established Citizenship Counts, a nonprofit organization
dedicated to teaching young Americans about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and encouraging civic participation and community service.

Present at the White House award ceremony were 13 of the 15 recipients of the 2010 Medal of Freedom. Their achievements came in different sectors of American life – arts, sports, finance, public service, literature, humanitarian aid – but represent the same values of determination, hard work, and humanitarian efforts. President Obama said, “This year’s Medal of Freedom recipients reveal the best of who we are and who we aspire to be.”

Details on this year’s other Medal of Freedom recipients follows the jump.

In addition to Gerda Klein, the Medal of Freedom recipients are:

  • John H. Adams, honored for his groundbreaking work as an environmental lawyer and co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has won court cases and legislative battles to ensure that our children inherit cleaner air, purer water and a safer and healthier planet.

  • Dr. Maya Angelou, honored for her literary achievements in poetry and prose and for the example she set by overcoming a traumatic and abusive childhood to become a champion for civil rights and an inspiration to all people who must overcome obstacles to pursue their dreams and fulfill their potential.

  • Warren Buffett, honored not only for his financial and business sector leadership, but for his philanthropic work around the world including urging other wealthy Americans to contribute half of their assets to philanthropic endeavors.

  • Former President George Herbert Walker Bush, honored for 70 years of service to his country as a Navy pilot in World War II, Ambassador to the United Nations, Director of the CIA, Ambassador to China, Vice President of the United States and the 41st President.

  • Jasper Johns, honored for artistic endeavors using nontraditional methods and materials to explore familiar themes and images in new ways, techniques that have influenced the art movements of the latter half of the 20th century and will inspire generations of artists to come.

  • Congressman John L. Lewis, honored for seven decades of fighting for civil rights and social justice, from marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Alabama to his 25 year service in the U.S. House of Representatives where he remains an advocate for equality, fairness and justice for all.

  • Dr. Thomas E. Little (posthumously), honored for dedicating his life to using his skills as an optometrist to provide vision care to the people of Afghanistan. Dr. Little and nine of his team members were murdered in Afghanistan in 2010 as they pursued their humanitarian mission. (The award was accepted by Dr. Little’s widow, Elizabeth Little.)

  • Yo-Yo Ma, honored not only for his extraordinary musical talent as the premier cellist in the world, but also for his commitment to mentoring students and training orchestras around the world and for serving on President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities and as a Messenger of Peace for the United Nations.

  • Sylvia Melendez, honored for her advocacy for and devotion to excellence in education for all children, beginning with her parents’ landmark legal case that ended California’s segregation of Mexican children, including Ms. Melendez, and paved the way for Brown v. Board of Education.

  • Chancellor Angela Merkel (not in attendance), honored for her dedication to freedom and to serving the people of Germany as the first East German and the first woman to lead her nation.

  • Stanley Musial, honored for his 22-year career with the St. Louis Cardinals during which he was renowned for his skill, retiring with 17 records, and for his integrity and humility, traits which make him a legend and a sports icon to this day.

  • William (Bill) Russell, honored as a basketball player of unparalleled ability and, more importantly, for his role in changing the culture of Major League Basketball as the first
    African-American coach and a man who stood up for civil rights and the dignity of all people.

  • The Honorable Jean Kennedy Smith, honored for her public service throughout her life, improving the world by founding Very Special Arts to promote the artistic talents of young people with disabilities and contributing to achieving peace in Northern Ireland while serving as U.S. Ambassador to Ireland.

  • John J. Sweeney, honored for his life’s work fighting for better wages and working conditions for the American worker and for his service as president of the Service Employees International Union and president of the AFL-CIO.

Watching President Obama present the Medal of Freedom to each of these remarkable individuals, I was struck by the appropriateness of a selection from a Maya Angelou poem that the President read when talking about her accomplishments. It seems apt for all of them and, perhaps, for all of us:

History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage,
Need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.