Gerda Weissmann Klein on American Citizenship

The Holocaust survivor, author and Medal of Freedom winner discusses liberation day and cherished freedoms

Gerda Weissmann Klein, founder of Citizenship Counts, speaks to new citizens and students at a naturalization ceremony at the Maryland School in Phoenix, Arizona. (Kathryn Deschamps)

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To give you a picture of that moment, I weighed 68 pounds. My hair was white. I was in rags. I was going to be 21 the following day. He did something which I, at first, didn’t understand. He simply held the door open for me and let me precede him. In this incredible gesture, he restored me to humanity.

Never could I have imagined that I would marry him [U.S. Army Intelligence Officer Kurt Klein] a year later in Paris, and he would bring me home to this country. I love this country with a love that only one who has been lonely and hungry can understand.

You and your husband moved to Buffalo, New York, in 1946, where you became an American citizen. What was your own naturalization ceremony like?

I was very fortunate. Normally, it takes five years. If you marry an American, it takes three years. But my husband was in the service, so I got it after two years. To me, it was a homecoming, a sense of belonging. When you had no rights as a citizen as I had, and they deprive you of everything, and suddenly all this is given to you, it’s unbelievable.

What is it like now to watch other immigrants become citizens?

I know that a lot of people have hoped and prayed for that moment. A lot of people have come from places where they, of course, did not have freedom. I can empathize with it. I know what they must feel.

I retreat to my own moment, when I was given that. The oath of allegiance is very emotional to me— also the flag. I saw the flag going up where the swastika had been flying for years.

How did you react when you found out you were the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor?

I didn’t believe it. The person called, and when she said, “I’m calling from the White House on behalf of the president,” I said, “Please give the president my best wishes.” She said, “You don’t believe me?” And I said, “Look, I’m an old lady with a weak heart. I do enjoy jokes, but that’s not a good joke.”

I’m not Mother Theresa. I didn’t give my life in the slums of Calcutta. I didn’t invent a cure for cancer. I’m not a wealthy woman. I’m an average person. I have had a blessed life, a wonderful husband and children and grandchildren. All I did is just do what I feel has been my obligation.


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