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A Story of Courage and Determination
More than the land we walk upon or the buildings we inhabit, books form the essential companion to life in the university. Because they are necessary for learning, for preserving, and for sharing what we have learned, books often acquire a sacred status. “In Society and Solitude” (1870), Emerson asserts that reading a book is an intensely private matter, rather like prayer. Compiling a list of those texts he thought sacred, Emerson describes these books as “the majestic expressions of the universal conscience, and are more to our daily purpose than this year’s almanac or this day’s newspaper. But they are for the closet, and are to be read on the bended knee. Their communications are not to be given or taken with the lips and the end of the tongue, but out of the glow of the cheek, and with the throbbing heart.”
All serious readers would, I think, agree with Mr. Emerson. A great book enters the private recesses our souls, transforming who we are, challenging us to be or to do what we had not imagined. Many celebrated accounts tell of readers significantly altered by the power of what they have read. Alonso Quijano, poring alone over the romances of chivalry, came upon his dream and became Don Quijote. Paolo and Francesca, reading furtively together the story of Lancelot’s loves, exchanged the fatal kiss and lost their souls. The dreamlike command of an unseen voice—“Take! Read!”—led St. Augustine to the text that would define his life.
A Quiet Revolution
In preparation for this academic year, freshmen, faculty, and staff of Texas A&M International University read, not alone or in a closet but together, “All But My Life,” the story of one woman’s experience of the Holocaust. When on September 12, 2008 the author, Mrs. Klein, stepped into the recital hall of our Center for the Fine and Performing Arts, 900 freshmen, faculty and staff jumped to their feet to offer cheers of gratitude and recognition. As Mrs. Klein stepped forward, tears filled in her eyes as she received our greeting. I have never felt such surging pride in our students and our community. I wish those moments—cheeks glowing and hearts throbbing—could have been lengthened, captured, preserved. For in those moments in which we saluted Gerda Weismann Klein, we experienced a solidarity, an identity, and an understanding Emerson did not foresee, a conjoining of minds and hearts made possible by one great and common experience, the reading together of one book.
The circumstances of her visit made my introduction of Mrs. Klein to our community unlike any other I have ever attempted. With the arrival of any guest speaker, an introduction is intended to acquaint the audience with the person about to speak, to give some sense of what is about to be said and who is about to say it. This time, because she wrote her story and because we had all read it together, we know Gerda Weismann Klein better than we know each other. We know—each by name—her family and her friends, what her brother Arthur was like and why she continues to miss him so, what it was like to grow up in the home inherited from her mother’s parents, the number of fruit trees in her family orchard, the name of her nana, the color of her mother’s favorite housecoat. And we know that all this, all but her life, was lost in the Holocaust.
The greatest books, the sacred books, change us as they penetrate what Antonio Machado calls the “galleries of our souls.” From those precious moments spent with her on September 12 and from the ensuing discussions all over this campus, each of us has been made anew by our encounter with Gerda Weismann Klein and her book, for me, her account of unspeakable sadness and loss, resown in hope, will remain Mrs. Klein’s greatest gift: “One thinks that my experience might lie like a stone upon the soul. It does not. It is a small flame which burns brightest and most intensely when it encounters injustice or love.” Her husband, Kurt Klein, the same American soldier who rescued her at the war’s end, warns that “pain should not be wasted.” Mrs. Klein has lived her life honoring that admonition. Her pain continues, but accompanied by a courage to denounce injustice and a zeal to nurture love, reborn in her family and inspired in her readers.
To write effectively about past events is a difficult task. Lionel Trilling, in his famous collection of essays, “The Liberal Imagination” (recently re-issued, with an introduction by Louis Menand), declares only the novel as adequate to the challenge. Our present lives, Trilling observes, are simply too rich with “layers of intention and manners,” often irretrievable when we turn our thoughts to the past. “The buzz of implication that always surrounds us in the present,” that “sense of the variousness and possibility of human life” must be created, recreated, retrospectively, for past events in their retelling to take on the power of a present moment. Mrs. Klein brings her readers a story more various and jagged than most of us could imagine, as full and complex as the tales of our best writers. Cervantes, in “Don Quijote”, locates his tale between the twin extremes of savage, unpoetic reality and dreamy hope. Gerda Weismann Klein leads her reader to see and to feel the unimaginable cruelty of the Third Reich’s “final solution,” but she does not hold up an idealized humanity as an alternative possibility.
Courage and Determination
She herself, her family, those she meets in the course of the war, are all human beings who demonstrate equal measures of innocence and pride, of warmth and remove, of acts both selfless and self-seeking. To the “cellarage “of evil Mrs. Klein does not contrast simple goodness, but complexity and contradiction: Abek, foolishly pursuing a young Gerda who rejects him without fully understanding why (Mrs. Klein whispered to me that she still feels troubled by her rejection of Abek); Frau Kügler, a Nazi guard, cruel and efficient, who nonetheless twice breaks out of her role to save Gerda’s life; Niania, weeping as she helplessly prays her rosary when Gerda comes to tell her ancient nana good-bye; brother Arthur, valiantly leaving his family, unable to turn back to wave one last time; Kurt Klein, answering a frightened Gerda’s confession that she is a Jew: “So am I.”
Gerda Weismann Klein’s account of her life, of her years as a Jew living under the Third Reich, moves us precisely because she is able to give the past all the variousness and possibility we perceive in the present. Her book, embraced with such warm energy by this University community, leads us to a new understanding of what we humans can do and what we can endure. From the warm glow of her words, we too can light within that small flame she carries. We too can ensure that it burn brightest in the presence of injustice and love.
Ray M. Keck III