The Hours After

Letters of Love and Longing in War's Aftermath

Gerda Weissmann Klein and Kurt Klein

St. Martin's Press

Field Hospital, Volary [Czechoslovakia], May 16, 1945
Dear Kurt,
You are probably surprised to hear from me now—but, to be honest, your abrupt departure today, almost in the nature of flight, gave me reason for concern.
You might say, “You could mention that the next time we see each other,” but the desolate atmosphere here seems to have reached a nadir. Perhaps that has triggered my feelings that you heard something that upset you. I do not wish to pry into your privacy and your memories. Yet if you feel the need to share your anxiety, you will find full understanding on my part. Somehow it is easier for me to convey these thoughts in writing rather than in the course of our conversations, which are so often interrupted.
You assured me of your honest interest in my life and thoughts, and if that is the case then I can claim that you should share your concerns and pain with me as well. Your army friends who were visiting the other girls seemed in a more rambunctious mood as their laughter filled this ward. But I don’t believe those interruptions caused the wounded expression on your face. So, my dear, brave liberator, I hope that you nevertheless had a pleasant evening, which certainly is not possible here right now. The fact is, I am happy to escape the noise around me and in that way find refuge by writing to you.
You said that you had not read much German “literature,” aside from military dispatches, since you came to Europe. So it is irresponsible of me to confront you with this lengthy missive. Enough of that, and certainly enough about me. Just one statement: It was your understanding, your caring, that so enormously helped over the first, most difficult days. I shall be eternally grateful to you.
Always,
Gerda
Eleonorenhain, Sudetenland [about five miles from the Volary hospital],
May 20, 1945
Dear Gerda,
You can perhaps understand why this answer might turn out to be a rather clumsy one. I’m out of practice and feel as though I’m skating on thin ice.
My emotions must have been on full display in order to have aroused your concern to that extent. That’s why I’m ashamed to admit that those pensive moments you believed you noted can only be traced back to cumulative reasons. They might best be described as a reaction to the feelings you know so well.
It is only now that the finality of my parents’ fate is fully dawning on me, after all the years during which I grasped at the slightest straw of hope. And I’m saying that because I recognize the unselfish way in which you are attempting to spare me the incontrovertible facts. Does that sound too pessimistic? After all, you said yourself that we have to be honest with each other.
It is gratifying to hear that my lame attempts to divert you from your bitter experiences were at least partially rewarded by success. Now, however, you have switched roles, and it is I who am in your great debt for your exchange of ideas that betrayed a rare insight into my life. Is it your custom at all times to give without thinking of yourself? I can well imagine the protest on your part that I have triggered. Guess I ought to set your head straight, whether you like it or not.
I could best become reconciled with German literature by letting you take me back into it again. May I say that, thanks to your lines, along with a fantastic broadcast of Liszt’s Les Préludes, this evening proved to be nearly as stimulating as if I had spent it with you in a certain ward of a field hospital with restrictive visiting hours. That feeling of having a conversation with you is constantly being reinforced, because not a minute goes by that I’m not being disturbed by a thousand trivial disruptions.
Oh, well, I promise that from now on I’ll wear only cheerful expressions on my face. And you can help achieve that by writing soon again.
Your Kurt
For a few days following the armistice, I had been prevented from returning to the field hospital in Volary by the details of processing thousands of surrendering German troops. We had been compelled to improvise prisoner-of-war enclosures of a scope that defied all our previous experience, a task that demanded all our concentration and efforts.
Although the mood among the prisoners varied, we had had some prior inkling of the crumbling morale among the German troops. Generally they seemed relieved that they had fallen into American hands rather than having had to surrender to the Russians. I remember one German officer offering me a cup of wine, because the entire crew of the vehicle he was riding in was “celebrating” the end of the war. When I declined, having spoken German to him, he insisted that he knew me and that in earlier years we had played tennis in Vienna, a city I had never set foot in. He went on to suggest that we should team up with the German army to fight the Russians henceforth. In other words the whole war had been a game, and now it was time to be friends, switch sides, and have a go against another opponent.
Later the irony of that situation, which was so repugnant, further hit home. I hardly needed to wonder how he would have reacted had the case been reversed and I had been one of his hapless Jewish victims. In the course of our sweep through France, Luxembourg, and Germany, those feelings had always intensified whenever I would come across SS troops, knowing a measure of their crimes even then, although the full extent was yet to be revealed. At such times it was inevitable that thoughts of retribution would cross my mind, but I soon realized that I could not stoop to their level, quite aside from what I perceived to be my military responsibilities. It was with bitterness that I realized how futile my personal feelings of vengeance would be if I were allowed to cross the bounds of humanitarian behavior—and that none of that would ever bring back my parents, or anyone else.
Volary, May 24, 1945
Dear Kurt,
I’m writing this letter although I foresee no possibility of sending it at this point. Yet I’m hoping that somehow an opportunity will present itself later. Inasmuch as the insignia of the division that replaced yours bears the color blue—the color of hope, I believe—perhaps I will manage to get this to you. In optima fidelis [trust in hope].
Can I assume that you have gotten used to your new place? Are the surroundings beautiful? Has your feeling of homesickness for America subsided after viewing “beautiful” Germany?
I can’t report much of great interest, because everything seems to revolve around the same pole for me. Tomorrow is a red-letter day for some twenty girls here: They will be moving into a lovely villa, where, I hear, they will have access to a freer and less restrictive life than in the hospital.
I have not lifted a finger yet to give direction to my own life—instead, I will play for a little more time and let fate take over. After all, it smiled so kindly at me two weeks ago at the liberation.
Somehow my thoughts are directed toward writing my life story. Honestly, that idea seems to occupy my mind more and more, and I’m unable to dismiss it. I want to go back, way back, perhaps to the time when I was racing across meadows with a huge bow in my disheveled hair and joyfully climbing trees in my garden. I see it as going back to my sunny childhood only, up to—well, I would like to eliminate six years from the book of my life. No doubt they will be adequately covered in many other volumes.
But you know, Kurt, more and more often I believe that I might try to make the daring leap from my enchanted childhood to the sunny reality of freedom. You also gave me the privilege to share with you good as well as bad memories and thoughts. There is only one promise I must exact from you: It’s one you have to keep. If I tell you something sad, it must evoke in you only understanding, never pity! Of course I can’t forbid that—but I would be able to move and act more freely in your company knowing that you think of me as an equal. Please, Kurt, understand and promise.
The last few days have been pretty sad. It is the first time I can look back in freedom to the years of horror. Memories wash over me like waves, mounting to heights of total recall and then receding. Unfortunately I have time now, lying on my bunk, not doing anything. Entirely too much time! Still too ill to be allowed to get up. I wish I could already walk. Instead, I think, remember, observe, and try to visualize the future.
I’m not too happy with what I see around me; I feel bewildered and isolated. After the first flush of euphoria at freedom, some of the other girls don’t seem to be reflective at all, or particularly grateful, but rather assertive and demanding in an unbecoming way. Somehow I feel wounded, alone, and sad to have to stay in this environment. But I have not lost the desire for the planned leap toward my future.
If you have arrived at this point of my ramblings, I admire your patience. I hope we will meet again.
Until then and always—my best wishes,
Gerda
Kurt, by now the most faithful visitor to the hospital, was commonly referred to as “Gerda’s lieutenant.” The other girls couldn’t understand why he didn’t provide the clothing and food I needed, which he as an American could obtain. No one really understood our relationship, nor could I explain it. He instinctively understood my needs. By not bringing me clothing, he made me feel that he did not see my pitiful need of them, that I appeared to him as a normal girl, briefly confined to a hospital. His gifts of flowers and reading material were appropriate. Thus he helped me to regain self-confidence. Mine was a top bunk, and he often stood beside it for lengthy periods of time, just talking to me. I remember once glancing at the gun on his belt. Fear or anguish must have been reflected in my eyes, because from then on he would slip it under the bunk as unobtrusively as possible. Before he left, he would retrieve it, and, if I was watching, would usually make such offhand remarks as, “That darn thing is so heavy and useless anyway.”
Kurt’s visits were the highlights of my existence. One day, checking the thermometer the nurse had given me, I confirmed my suspicions that I had a high temperature. Fearful that I might not be permitted to have visitors, I shook it down before the nurse returned. In due time Kurt came but seemed ill at ease. After a while he told me that he was being transferred to a town in Bavaria, Pfarrkirchen, approximately 160 miles from Volary. He showed me photos of himself that had just been taken, and I desperately wanted one but was too shy to ask for it. After I repeatedly looked at one in particular, he realized what I wanted. An idea struck me, and I asked him to go out into the hall and write something on it. The thought of his leaving threw me into a panic. I was sure that I would never see him again. He was going off to some distant place, and after that they might send him farther yet, perhaps to Japan, now that the war in Europe was over. From there he would no doubt return to the United States and I would never see him again. All he would remember of me would be his encounter with a girl who had been desperately ill.
I have to get up, I resolved, I just have to. I pleaded with the nurse to help me get out of bed and put on the blue-and-white cotton dress I had been given. He must think of me in a normal way, no matter what the cost.
Seeing me in such a desperate state, the nurse relented. I had not been able to walk at all since liberation, and each step caused me excruciating pain. With her help I made it to the door, where I met Kurt, just about to reenter. His amazement at seeing me out of bed compensated for the great effort every step required. Supported by his strong arm, I walked with him into the yard amid trees in full bloom. Suddenly one of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales came to me: “The Little Mermaid,” which I had known as “Rusalka” in Polish. It was about a mermaid who was in love with a prince. Her most ardent desire was to walk with him just once. A witch sold her a brew that changed her fins into legs. The price she paid for leaving her element was steep indeed: Each step was like walking on knives. Now that fairy tale had become my reality. Kurt was my prince, the knight who had slain the monstrous dragon. But he was about to leave for his own world. And I—how had it ended for Rusalka? Had she gone back to that other world, and would that be my fate as well? But this was real, and he was here. He was the only real part of the fairy tale, the only dream that would not fade in the light of reality. Now he was leaving, and in all likelihood I would never see him again. The pain of walking was nothing compared to the pain of parting. But he must never know my true feelings; that much I must do for him. He must never know my pain.
We said our good-byes at the door, Kurt assuring me that he would try to return as soon as he could. I could just barely manage to thank him, then crawl back to my bunk, where I took out the photo he had given me, to read his dedication: “To Gerda, at the start of a new life.” What new life? There was nothing left now. There was nothing to look forward to tomorrow, and he would not come again. What then—was I to go back home? What home? That place no longer existed. I had been trying so hard over the years to hang on, to dream, to make believe. Ilse, Suse, Liesl, and I had sustained each other, bolstered each other’s hopes. Now I was the only one left. Why? It would be so easy to let go, much easier than to hang on. Those were the thoughts I can remember before everything turned black.
I had no concept of time and place, no pain, only some dim awareness that I was very ill. When I opened my eyes I was looking at Kurt and also became aware that a nurse was putting ice on my lips. Kurt was real, not a figment of my fevered imagination. Taking my hand, he “scolded” me about getting sick the minute he turned his back. In a teasing way he called me a foolish little girl, using the familiar du form of address for the first time. He stayed for most of that night, telling me that I must get well, and I fell asleep with my small bony hand in his strong one. The crisis was over. Later I learned that I had been unconscious for most of a week, suffering from pneumonia and typhoid fever. Kurt had appeared at a critical moment and had disregarded the danger of my contagion.
Where Papa had once been my figure of strength and authority, I now loved to watch how politely yet forcefully Kurt dealt with the nurses in the hospital, how casually he returned the salutes of GIs, how much he teased me, as Artur had. Every time he appeared, it was as if a window opened onto a view suffused with sunshine—and when he touched my hand, an indefinable ecstasy enveloped me, depriving me of all reason. He was the only reality, a bridge of remembered happiness over a river of pain and loss, taking me toward some hitherto unknown shore. But he was bound to leave sooner or later.
I was convinced that Kurt would visit me on his birthday, July 2. After all, he had promised that we would celebrate it together, and in turn I had assured him I would be sufficiently fit to go for a walk with him by that time. I was diligently practicing my steps, slowly regaining my balance, despite some pain along the way. No question, I was making progress, and could hardly wait for that special day. Thinking about what birthday gift I could give him, I decided to write several essays touching on some childhood and more recent memories.
All that day I was waiting in great anticipation, groping for a logical reason that would explain his absence, but I could find none. I agonized over that, turning over all possibilities in my mind. A terrifying thought occurred to me that he might have caught my typhoid fever. Was there a way to contact someone to get information about him? Finally I realized that I would have to wait for word from or about him. What it made me fully realize, though, was that he had become everything to me and that I was deeply in love with this handsome young man—only he must never, never know.
Kurt’s twenty-fifth birthday was almost over. It was evening, and he had not come. Again my eyes went to his photo, as they had throughout the day. Reading his inscription about the start of my new life made me infinitely sad. I was certain now that it was meant to be a message of farewell. Feeling alone and abandoned, I wrote a bitter letter to my uncle in Turkey.
Volary, July 2, 1945
My dear ones—my beloved uncle,
It is in a welter of overwhelming emotions that I write these words to you. The first lines to my nearest relative! Uncle Leo, can you possibly perceive what this means to me? To be able to say, “I have survived the war!” I can’t believe it. It does not ring true that all the suffering is over. Can it be so? Now my thoughts focus on you, my closest family, though you are far away in Turkey. Are you, dear aunt, and the sweet children all right?
I cannot and will not attempt to convey even a fraction of my experiences—that would take years and reams of paper. Three years of concentration camps and a march on foot of 550 kilometers, starting with 2,000 girls, of whom fewer than 120 survived, I among them. Not even in depictions of medieval torture and horror can one find crimes such as the Nazis committed.
I don’t know how and why I survived. On May 6 we were liberated by American forces. I was at the end of my strength, physically as well as emotionally, and collapsed. Since then I have been in a makeshift hospital. I was critically ill until two weeks ago. I am feeling better now.
During that time I have asked several kind people to write to you. I hope that you have gotten news about my survival from several sources—especially from Lt. Kurt Klein, who has become a good friend. I owe him a debt of gratitude, for he helped me regain my mental balance during my most difficult days. Unfortunately he was transferred to a different post after that, but I hope to hear from him again.
Today’s letter is sent through the kindness of an army chaplain. My beloved uncle, I have tried to put off the question that is burning on my mind since the first line of this writing, but can no longer do so. Although I fear the words, I am compelled to ask them: Oh, God, do you have any news from my beloved parents? I cannot think, cannot conceive that fate would be so cruel to me. Oh, please, God, please. Since the day of our parting, I have heard nothing but rumors of a tragic fate. But I hoped and prayed and believed in miracles. I still do.
I have not heard from Artur in two years. The last news was that he was in a camp in or near Lemberg [Lvov]. Then all mail ceased, and we were cut off from the rest of the world. We heard of the horrors that took place in those parts. I worry so and tremble at thoughts of the worst, and pray. I am trying to establish contact with Bielsko, hoping to find him there.
You remember me only as a child, but the past few years have accelerated my transition to adulthood. It was not easy, and I always tried to act in the manner that my beloved parents would have expected of me. Now that I can write freely, I must also tell you the truth. Both Papa and Mama were very ill, at home and in the ghetto. Papa had a heart attack and we had terrible, worrisome days and weeks. Everything we owned was taken from us, everything. My heart breaks at the thought that they might not have survived to experience the beauty of freedom. Why? Why?
Now I am turning to you, Mama’s beloved only brother. I need your advice for my future. I stand here, alone in a strange world. I want to go home—the dream of going home sustained me—I want to go home to people who are close to me. I yearn for a bit of warmth and calm after three years of hell in the camps. What is going to happen now? That question occupies me day and night.
I have met some people by the name of Knäbel; they own the factory in which we were locked up the night before liberation. Herr Knäbel claims he knew some associates of Papa. He and his family have been very nice to me. His daughters, who are considerably older than I, have also been very kind.
Some of my friends are planning to go home when they get well. I want to wait to hear where my family is, for I won’t go back if they are not there. I won’t go back to the ruins of my happy childhood, to the place where we were so brutally separated. My thoughts and emotions are in total turmoil; one moment I want to go back, the next I say: Never! What should I do?
I am not afraid of hardship or work. I have learned to work hard. Twelve hours a day and many nights we worked on spinning machines and looms. Nothing will be too difficult for me, once I regain my health. I only want peace, quiet, and some kindness. My education is nil. I am twenty-one years old. I want to learn, I want to learn languages, particularly English. I want to understand art, because I always had an interest in it.
Please forgive this chaotic tone. In this flood of thoughts and words I am trying to convey what has worried me for years and caused so much anguish. I confess my heart is heavy; I can’t lie about that. I am still weak after that long, debilitating illness. I have just learned to walk again. Although everyone is very nice and helpful to me, I am alone; none of my closest friends survived. I am without means and won’t take anything from strangers. There is no one close to me. I am so homesick, so lonely. I want Mama, Papa, Artur—I want to go home.
[The rest of this letter is missing. I found it among my uncle’s possessions after his death.]
Although I was in the process of recuperating, my newly won freedom left me feeling isolated from what was going on around me. I could only marvel at some of the other girls’ resourcefulness in taking charge of their lives, hatching plans to return to their former homes, or moving into local quarters, acting totally adult. By comparison I felt inadequate on all fronts. I seemed to have survived by marshaling my imagination and at times through denial. After my separation from my parents, I managed to wipe the three years of anguish and deprivation from my mind. When I thought of home, and that was all the time, I thought of it as it existed before the war, realizing on another level that it could not be so. Nevertheless I lulled myself into a feeling that through the miracle of liberation everything would be restored. It was a crutch that had worked for me, had seen me through those harrowing times. Now the war was over, and what would become of the dreams that had nourished me? What of the reality of the situation? Somehow I had to face at least that of which I was certain. I knew that my parents had been sent to Auschwitz, yet had pretended to myself that they were young and strong and could survive. Now I realized that I had superimposed on their images the ones I remembered from happier times. I did not want to picture my father as he looked after his heart attack: gaunt, gray, and weak, or my mother as the emaciated, frail, worn-down, aging woman she had become by the time of our separation. In my heart and mind they still lived in the familiar childhood environment, notwithstanding the fact that I had been witness to its destruction.