‘Citizenship Counts’ celebrates America as a nation of immigrants

(L-R) Gerda Weissman Klein, Diane Eckstein and John Eckstein, with the Eckstein's dog, Kipp, at a ‘Citizenship Counts’ assembly at Mansfeld Middle School in Tucson on Feb. 14. (Sheila Wilensky)

U.S. citizenship matters, especially for Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein. On Feb. 14, the 87-year-old humanitarian told hundreds of eighth graders at Tucson’s Mansfeld Middle School why she founded Citizenship Counts, a national non-partisan, nonprofit organization based in Phoenix. Phoenix attorney Paul Eckstein offered tidbits of Arizona history to start the assembly, part of the school’s Arizona Centennial celebration. The event also served as the Tucson stop for his brother, Dr. John Eckstein, a semi-retired Phoenix physician and Citizenship Counts board member, who recently embarked on a 3,500-mile cross-country biking and walking trip with his wife, Diane, dog Kipp, and interns Tyler Reber and Kelly Winter.

“A Journey that Counts: Promoting Citizenship Education from Sea to Shining Sea” began in San Diego on Jan. 27 and will end in New York City. John and Diane Eckstein will give presentations to promote Citizenship Counts in cities along the way.

In Tucson, Klein’s talk captivated the students. Looking out at a multicultural sea of faces, Klein explained that she started Citizenship Counts to give back to her adopted country. At 15, she said, “my world collapsed when a huge wave of hatred spread across Europe called Nazism.” At 22, Klein came to the United States and married the Jewish U.S. soldier who was one of her liberators at Auschwitz. She later wrote her acclaimed memoir, “All But My Life,” which has been on high school and college reading lists worldwide. In 2010, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Despite the horror of the Holocaust, the love and sharing Klein experienced among her fellow inmates at Auschwitz and other concentration camps provided her with “hope for humanity to build a better world of freedom and caring,” she told the audience. “You are the messengers to a time I will not see.”

Klein, a Scottsdale resident, spoke about attending a naturalization ceremony held at a middle school outside of Cincinnati, which led her to establish Citizenship Counts in 2008. Her intention is that Citizenship Counts “will foster tolerance, understanding, service to one another, and a greater appreciation for the privilege and responsibility of citizenship.” At the Mansfeld event, students displayed their artwork and spoke about ways to assist in their communities.

Reflecting on his current cross-country trek, Eckstein noted his intention “to reverse the death march,” one of the many that the Nazis forced on Klein and thousands of others from Jan. 29, 1945, until Liberation Day on May 7. Thousands perished on those marches during the final stages of World War II.

Klein, who at liberation weighed 68 pounds and hadn’t had a bath in three years, was hiding in a shed when the U.S. troops arrived. “I saw a man who looked like a god with the white star of the American Army” on his uniform, Klein told the students. “‘We are Jewish, you know,’ I said. He said, ‘So am I.’ He let me precede him out the door. That restored my dignity. I married him a year later.”

Eckstein told the students, “when I was your age my heroes were baseball stars and rock stars. As I grow older it’s the common person doing uncommon things.”