I met Gerda Weissmann Klein at the White House Conference on Teenagers in May
2000. We sat next to each other in an afternoon breakout session on the Youth as
Resources program. We spoke briefly about how we happened to be at this conference
where we spoke of the human spirit and of our shared mission — to recognize the
resilient spirit in youth, to claim it and nurture it, and to encourage communities to use
and celebrate it.
All But My Life
At the end of the session, she gave me an autographed copy of her book, All But My
Life. I didn’t know she was a Holocaust survivor and that her book is required reading
in many schools nationwide, and that a documentary based on her story had won an
Academy Award. What I did know, after reading her book was that the heart of this
short, 76-year old, passionate woman could have embraced a city full of children.
Two months later, Gerda who was busy with speaking engagements around the world,
called my assistant to ask if I ever get out to Phoenix. I had traveled to Phoenix twice in
10 years, but as fate would have it; I was leaving in two days to speak at a conference in
GI Rescues Gerda
Gerda invited me to her beautiful home. We sat at her table. “Gerda,” I said, “It’s
delicious, but you haven’t stopped feeding me since I arrived!” “Jack,” she reminded
me, “I really didn’t eat for three years.” Across the table sat her husband Kurt. As a
young GI, almost 60 years before, he had found and rescued a 67 pound Gerda
Weissmann, then near death. She had lost everything and everybody in her life except
for the cherished pictures of her family which she had hidden in the lining of her shoe.
She describes it in her book: *I stepped out of the tub. The nurse dried my body and
hair. As I stood nude, before a clean, blue and white checkered man’s shirt was put
on me, I realized abruptly that I possessed nothing, not even a stitch of clothing that I
could call my own. I carried only the pictures of Mama, Papa, Arthur, Abek, that I had
Inspirational Letters Written to Gerda
Soon Gerda was pulling letters at random from the many tote bags stacked to the brim 2
with correspondence from kids across the country. A girl from Minnesota wrote of her
anorexia and her deep wish to commit suicide after her father had walked out on her
family. But Gerda’s story kept her from action. “…The Nazis took everything you had.
You have NO family left. I realized that at least I could see my father once a month. You
are an inspiration! You have given me back my life.”
And a young woman from Columbine had written, “I was fat, despairing and felt
incompetent. Your book and your presence have given me the strength to speak out
about what the Columbine tragedy has meant, and how we all have an obligation
never to allow this sort of tragedy to happen again… ..I was almost too shy to speak up
in class. Now I’m giving speeches all over…”
Survival is a Privilege and Burden
Looking up from the letter she had just read me, Gerda said, “You see pain must not
be wasted.” As she says in her book, “Survival is both an exalted privilege and painful
burden.” This is for me, the most awesome part of Gerda’s message—not simply hope,
but how she turned suffering into healing for others.
How people endure, what anchors them, especially in times of terrible suffering, has
increasingly claimed my interest, for it’s not simply what we do in working with children
and youth, but it’s why we are doing it.
Too soon, our visit ended, and I boarded a plane for Mississippi to deliver a keynote
address at a child welfare conference in Hattiesburg. Little did I realize that I carried
Gerda’s message with me, and its power would manifest itself in a way neither of us
could have foreseen.
Cookies and a Ball = Mentors
Those in attendance at the conference were healers — social workers, professionals in
mental health and early childhood education, a sprinkling of police, and those who
worked in or operated group homes. During the conference, a police officer named
Ron Addington, who ran the Juvenile Division of the Picayune, Mississippi, Police
Department, talked about how he had gone into some tough public housing areas
“with cookies and a ball” and lured kids into a game of four square. His efforts
eventually grew into a full-fledged sports program, fishing trips, and mentors for kids
After my remarks, I was asked to speak to about 40 kids in foster care. So I enlisted the
help of Ron, to address the kids. Given his passionate commitment to kids, I knew he
would be of great support. I opened up the discussion by asking the kids, “What do you
need to succeed?” Hands shot up!
“You need to be tough”
“A skill that somebody will pay for”
“An adult that will stick with you”
Use the Pain to Help Others
I compared their list to the resiliency or “protective factors” identified by academics.
I told the kids that their list was as good as the researchers’. Then I spoke about their
experience in foster care, how they had something nobody else had, and how they
could use their experiences to help others.
Each of the kids had been through rough stuff–school failure, rejection, neglect,
physical and sexual abuse, witness to violence. But the gospel of Gerda reached them.
I told them, “I know you feel that you are not like other kids, that you are different.
That you are wounded, that your experiences have made you weird. But the very fact
that you are sitting here, not in jail and not dead, shows how strong you are. You must
use that pain to help others.”
The Hole In My Heart
Then Ron spoke. Something moved him to share that had grown up in foster care. It
was breathtaking. He told the kids about his drunk parents, his ponytail, his motorcycle,
about being arrested and of the constant, painful question, “Why me? Why am I getting
all this bad stuff?” Halfway through, he told them he was a police officer. Their jaws
dropped. He spoke of “the hole in my heart,” a “hole that healed when I became a
police officer …because I did not want other kids to go through what I went through
as a youngster…” “I now know why I had all that pain,” he said.
He told the kids that he had been called every bad name in the book — everything they
had been called; that he’d been furious with his parents; that no adults had stood by
him. But he also told the kids of his total commitment to them: “Even if I have to arrest
you and put you in handcuffs, I’ll call you ‘sir’ because you’re just someone who’s made
a mistake. You’re not a bad person.”
A Responsibility to Protect Kids
At the end, in a choked voice, he told them firmly, “You have a responsibility to the
next generation…that they don’t go through what you went through. You don’t know
how strong you are. And whether you grow up to be police, teachers or parents, you
must protect kids and nurture them in ways that you never were. You have the gift of
knowing what kids need. You have knowledge and tools nobody else has.”
The room was deathly still. Suddenly, a young, tough-looking girl said, “It’s happening
to my niece, just what happened to me and she’s only three years old. I’m going to
stand by her. I’m never going to leave her.” She looked over and saw tears streaming
down the cheeks of Michael, the head youth worker. And in a wonderfully ingenuous
and surprised voice she said, “Look! Michael’s crying.” She got up and put her arms
It was an incredibly powerful and deeply moving experience. I had tried to help identify
what they would need to make it, but it was Ron who brought it home. They heard
from somebody who embodied them, who had every pain they had had, and who had
not only made it, but was showing them love and respect for their uniqueness, their
potential, and their obligation to others.
But somehow, Gerda Weissmann knew all this…
*The welfare of children has always been of utmost importance to me. The abused, the handicapped, the underprivileged, the ill, I can identify with because I know what it is like not to be able to communicate one’s pain and hope. I had learned, above all, that even after cataclysmic events, I was able to laugh again. Of course I had the resilience of youth on my side. My experiences taught me that all of us have a reservoir of untapped strength that comes to the fore in moments of crisis. Throughout my years in the camps and against nearly almost insuperable odds, I knew of no one who committed suicide. I wanted to reach out to young people to make them aware of the preciousness of life and show them that it was not to be thrown away thoughtlessly, even under conditions of extreme hardships. I always wanted to impress upon them, how wrong it is to seek a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
(*Excerpts from Gerda’s book, All But My Life).