Becoming a Citizen

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.  As we think about becoming a citizen and living in a democracy, we should reflect on what Gerda Weissman Klein endured.  In the United states, citizenship is bestowed as a birthright.  But becoming a true citizen involves much more.

Becoming a citizen requires educating yourself on issues facing our nation.  It involves voting for candidates who you feel best represent your values.  It involves supporting those in need.  And it asks us to educate our children and others in what it means to become a citizen.

Like religion, citizenship is something that we cherish in words but not so much in practice.  Many of us could not pass the test that naturalized citizens must pass.  We have become disengaged from national issue discussions because we are turned off by political posturing.  We just want to live our lives without thinking about the responsibilities of citizenship.

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“There can be no daily democracy with daily citizenship.” – Ralph Nader (consumer advocator)

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