PHOENIX — Gerda Weissmann Klein's biographical labels are easy to list: Holocaust survivor, prolific author, motivational speaker and, now, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
It has been a life marked by intense sorrow but also profound joy, emotional catalysts that propel her to make a difference in the lives of others.
At 87, she may walk a little slower and lean closer to hear you speak, but the passion in her eyes remains just as fervent as it was the day in 1945 when she was liberated in Germany after years of oppression in a forced-labor camp.
She went on to become an American citizen, developing a deep love for the United States, a love she wishes more people had.
"Frankly, I think most people don't appreciate our country," the Scottsdale resident said. "If you have been deprived of freedom as I have been, it is a miraculous thing. Right now, that I can sit here in my home and tell you exactly how I feel without fear that somebody will come and lock me up..." She paused, caught by the emotion of her words.
Being a prisoner is something she knows too well. In 1939, her idyllic childhood in southern Poland was shattered when German soldiers invaded. Soon, her brother Artur was taken away by the soldiers. In 1942, at age 18, she was separated from her parents and sent to the labor camp.
She would never see her family members again. Her days were exhausting, weaving cloth for the Germans to make clothing and parachutes, the fibers cutting her hands. It was mindless work. The guards were cruel, but she held fast to hope. At night, she could slip off her shoes to see the photographs of her family she had hidden inside.
Then came the day in 1945 when she and 2,000 other female prisoners were led on a 350-mile death march that ended in a bicycle factory in the Czech town of Volary, where they were abandoned by their Nazi captors. The next day, Germany surrendered. One of only 120 of the marchers to survive, she was liberated. And out of what had been great sadness came joy.
Kurt Klein, a young German-born American soldier, rode up in a Jeep, rescued her and became her lifelong hero.
Their bond was immediate but also linked to tragedy. Klein's Jewish parents had been killed by the Germans at Auschwitz. It was a fate she also believed came to her family.
While she was recovering in Volary, Kurt asked her to marry him. In 1946, they wed in Paris and moved to Buffalo, N.Y.
Their union began decades of community service. The couple began the Gerda and Kurt Klein Foundation, working for tolerance, ending hunger and honoring those who died during the Holocaust. She became an author. Her 1957 memoir, "All But My Life," led to the documentary "One Survivor Remembers," which won an Emmy and an Oscar in the mid-1990s.
She has shared her story so that people will not forget.
On Feb. 15, President Barack Obama praised her humanitarianism. During the ceremony to award her the Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. honor a civilian can receive, he said: "As an author, a historian and a crusader for tolerance, she has taught the world that it is often in our most hopeless moments that we discover the extent of our strength and the depth of our love."
Of all the accolades she has received, Weissmann Klein said, the presidential medal was "the crowning of it all."
Sitting in her light-filled living room, she reflected on the day. She was in awe of the other 14 who also received medals. She laughed about rubbing shoulders with former President George H.W. Bush, poet Maya Angelou and investor Warren Buffett.
"Who am I to be among them?" she wondered at the time.
As they waited to take their places for the White House ceremony, Weissmann Klein said, the group was merry. "It was the most wonderful thing. You didn't know if anybody was Democrat or Republican. We were all Americans."
As Obama placed the medal around her neck, she was overcome with emotion.
"My thoughts were very far away," she said. "I was on the death march, remembering how cold and hungry, how lonely I had been."
She remembered the first time she saw the man who would become her husband. "I was in rags, weighing 68 pounds. I hadn't had a bath in two years. He was this very handsome man holding the door. I prayed for him that night. I didn't know his name. I prayed for his country, and I fell in love with America."
Her voice, still thick with a Polish accent, catches. "I love this country with a love that only one who has been homeless and hungry for as long as I had been can have."
Weissmann Klein lost her beloved husband nine years ago. Today, she devotes her time to stir the hearts of Americans to love their country a little more, to appreciate being a citizen. She and her granddaughter, Scottsdale resident Alysa Ullman, travel to schools in Arizona and beyond to engage students in Citizenship Counts, an organization Weissmann Klein founded to promote interest in civics education and the responsibility of becoming a naturalized citizen.
"I want children to know it's a privilege to be a citizen," she said.
"All my work up to now — it's always had roots in pain. This is the first time that I can do something that doesn't. It is joyful to help the children of America have pride."Comment on this story
She believes every act of her life has prepared her for the next.
"Being an American is an incredible gift," she said. "It's such a sense of belonging. The first time I saw an American flag going up, you cannot imagine my joy. I no longer lived in the shadows."
On May 11, Weissmann Klein was at Maryland Elementary School in Phoenix, seeing the culmination of her Citizenship Counts program, as students helped with a naturalization ceremony.
"In the late autumn of my life, I am on a mission to pay back this country for all that was given to me," she said. "I want all colors, all races, all religions and for every child to be free. I want to assure you that every dream can become a reality."