"There is no such thing as a bad day when you are in a room in which there is a door handle in sight," Gerda Weissmann Klein told the crowd. "You are in freedom," said the 87-year-old Holocaust survivor. The next thing I remember is the woman seated next to us capturing our attention and saying "I'm glad I'm not the only person who cries at these things."
We've spent the last few days at The Guiding Lights Weekend here in Seattle. It's been all about celebrating what it really means to be a citizen (hint: it has nothing to do with paperwork) and reclaiming our democracy and humanity as active people who care. You know, because in any situation whenever we don't step up, we help the other side. And that sucks.
The day before her 21st birthday, Klein received her own healthy dose of humanity.
At the time, having been in hiding and in captivity for 6 years, she weighed only 68 pounds and hadn't had a bath in three years. One of only 120 women (of thousands) who survived a 350 mile death march, Klein had lost everything.
Every family member.
Every friend. Her closest friend, in fact, died in her arms.
And then, on that day just before her 21st birthday and in a nearly unfathomable turn of events, everything changed. She was found in an abandoned bicycle factory that was meant to be the site of her death. Shortly after being rescued by American troops, Klein met the man who would later become her husband. United States Army Lieutenant Kurt Klein is, according to Gerda, responsible for making her feel human for the first time since childhood. The act was simple:
He held a door open for her and let her precede him.
When she declared to him that she was a Jew, he told her that he was as well. He was born in Germany and had immigrated to the United States to escape Nazism. Both of his parents, too, had been killed.
This weekend, which coincidently coincided with National Passport Day, Klein closed by telling us that her most treasured possession is her passport. It reminds her of of the day she knew that she wanted to be an American, the day she was liberated. She spoke of the freedom and the protection that a passport represents.
Oh, to live in a country – a democracy – where we can come and go as we please, enjoy freedom and build community. It's an unrivaled luxury that we must not take for granted. And it's a right that we must fight for on behalf of those people who deserve the same opportunity. Whether it's the freedom to move freely or the right to enjoy basic human rights, people out there in the world need us to lend our voices.
As was said a lot this weekend, let's all work to shift the story from "me" to "we" because we're all better off when we're all better off.