Holocaust survivor shares inspirational story at Viterbo

The Holocaust is remembered as one of the darkest and most horrific times in history. Nearly six-million Jews lost their lives to the Nazi Regime.

For many of today’s students the only connection to these events is through classes, textbooks and movies but today, history came alive for nearly 1200 students in La Crosse.

In 1939, Gerda Weissman Klein was 15-years old when the Germans invaded her hometown of Beilsko, Poland turning her world upside down. She spent the next six years of her life in concentration camps and at one point was forced to make a 350-mile death march. She has spent nearly the past six decades telling her story to audiences all over the world and today middle and high schools students here in La Crosse got a front-row seat at Viterbo University.

For Gerda Weissman Klein, life is all about giving back.

It helps me too,” said Weissmann Klein. “That I’m doing something worthwhile with my life. If I can do something to help others you help yourself.”


She captivates an audience of more than 1100 students sharing her experience during the Holocaust, a story of inspiration, love and humanity.

“A lot of people need hope because the question of hope has been asked time and time again,” said Weismann Klein. “You need to have hope that you can conquer many things.”

At 87-years-old, she’s one of the youngest remaining holocaust survivors. So for educators like Darryle Clott at Viterbo, it’s important to preserve her story.

Soon we’re going to be left with just the videos, the memoirs, the documentaries, the books and it’s been my mission now since 1998 to bring survivors to the area because when you see a survivor you’re touching history,” said Clott, Holocaust educator, Viterbo University.

Weissmann Klein also has another mission, inspiring people everywhere to appreciate their American citizenship. It’s something she feels is too often taken for granted.

“I hope they get an appreciation of our country and of their own life, the blessings, the freedom with which they were born, which millions over the world don’t have,” said Weissmann Klein.

She and her granddaughter started the non-profit organization, Citizenship Counts, more than three years ago to educate students about the value and responsibility of being an American citizen.

“She wants to leave behind something as her legacy a small measure of a token of appreciation for all of the freedoms, opportunities, awards and gifts and blessings she’s received, creating this program that will hopefully touch and inspire students and people across the country,” said Ullman, Weissmann Klein’s granddaughter and director of Citizenship Counts.

As Weissmann Klein makes her mark in history, she’s just returning a favor to a country that has done so much for her.

“I’m not mother Theresa, I’m not wealthy, I didn’t find a cure for cancer and yet only in this country can you do just the little things by trying to tell future generations, they are the messengers to a time I shall not see,” said Weissmann Klein.

Since becoming an American citizen, Weissmann Klein has written nine books, won an Academy Award for a documentary created about her experience and she was one of the 2010 recipients of the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.