This piece accompanies the feature story "Voices of Columbine."
Holocaust survivor Gerda Klein, known for her work to reduce bigotry and hunger through tolerance-based education, drew from her own painful history to help the Columbine school community turn grief into good.
“To imagine children walking innocently into school and then to face what they did, I identified their experience with my own life—just before my world fell apart,” Klein recalled. “I thought I could help.”
During a January 2000 visit to the school, which was underwritten by McDougall-Littell Publishing, Klein inspired the students and faculty with her story.
At first, she was fearful of re-traumatizing students when speaking of the harsh treatment she received at the hands of others. But Ellin and Gordon Hayes, husband-and-wife social studies teachers at Columbine, helped her along the way.
“We knew she was apprehensive about her role and what it would mean,” Ellin Hayes said. “Yet, we did encourage her to speak from the heart and tell her story.”
Klein spoke of her six years in concentration camps, “where winning meant a slice of bread and living another day.”
Gordon Hayes described the night Klein spoke at Columbine as amazing.
"She helped the healing process so incredibly. She spoke as a survivor,” he said.
Ellin Hayes recalled one moment when Klein was asked how Columbine's tragedy could be compared to the tragedy she endured during the Holocaust. Klein replied simply: “Pain is pain.”
Klein's moving stories of hunger and perseverance inspired Columbine students and teachers to show the world that "good can and must come from tragedy.”
Following Klein's visit, the school founded "The Heart of Columbine" as a service organization dedicated to hunger prevention.
“It was Gerda who kept suggesting to us to start this group and who encouraged us to do this,” said Gordon Hayes, “We had received so much from the nation that we felt an organization could be formed that would allow our students to give back.”
After a tragedy, Klein said, “It is possible to have a normal life, to laugh again, use your talents. You will never forget it in a way. But, it makes you stronger.”
Frank DeAngelis, principal of Columbine High School, said the Columbine school community is "eternally grateful" to Klein and her husband Kurt (now deceased) for their inspiration.
"Many of us have physical and mental scars that will remain with us for a lifetime," DeAngelis said. "But the words of inspiration, wisdom and love provided by the Klein's have given us the hope to carry on into the future."