Gerda Weissmann was born in Poland. When the German army invaded Poland, Gerda and her family were separated. Both of Gerda’s parents were sent to death camps. Since Gerda was young, she was put to work on materials needed by the German army. When allied forces began to push the German army back, Gerda was one of 4,000 women who were forced to endure a 350-mile death march. She was one of the 120 women who survived the march.
When Gerda was liberated by U.S. forces, she weighed 68 pounds and had not washed in three years. She was 21. One of the U.S. soldiers who freed her was Kurt Klein. He, too, had lost both parents but left Germany as a teenager. Gerda and Kurt fell in love and married a year later.
Both Gerda and her husband began a life of service. They formed a foundation to teach tolerance, eliminate prejudice, and encourage community service. Gerda also authored several books with a focus on compassion. Their life has been the subject of a number of TV shows.
In 2008, Gerda and Kurt formed a non-profit corporation (Citizenship Counts) to continue their work. In part of their mission statement, the Kleins state: “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 responsibility appreciation for the privilege and responsibility of citizenship.” For her many contributions to American society, Gerda was presented with a Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama.
Many of us have taken citizenship for granted. Just imagine if all of us had the same devotion to citizenship as those who came to this country to be free? Just imagine how we might practice the ideals of citizenship in our daily lives? Just imagine how our society could become more tolerant if each of us thought of ourselves as citizens first before anything else?
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“There can be no daily democracy with daily citizenship.” – Ralph Nader (consumer advocate)