Couple will lay out their post-Holocaust love story

Kurt Klein, a father of three and grandfather of eight, never envisioned himself becoming an author.

But Klein's extraordinary World War II experiences became grist for the mill.

An American G.I. born and raised in Germany, he encountered a group of "Schindler Jews" who were transporting their benefactor to safety. He interrogated Hitler's personal chauffeur, who witnessed the fuhrer's death. And he met his future wife when he liberated her from a slave-labor camp.

His recollections, combining the atrocities of war with the promise of new beginnings, comprise part of a new book, "The Hours After — Letters of Love and Longing in War's Aftermath."

The other part of the book is filled with the equally compelling accounts by his wife, Gerda Weissman Klein.

The couple will be in Oakland Thursday evening to tell their story, as part of the "Choices 2000" event sponsored by the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay Women's Division.

"The Hours After" is a series of love letters between the two, covering the period from May 16, 1945 to May 27, 1946. When they first met, Gerda Weissman was fighting for her life after enduring a 350-mile death march from Germany to the Czech border.

He visits her in the hospital and helps nurse her back to health. That's when the seeds of a burgeoning romance are planted. They quickly blossom.

Due to Kurt Klein's military obligations, the couple was forced to separate a mere month after the liberation. Letters in "The Hours After" cover the period from their estrangement to their wedding in Paris the following year.

Their correspondence reflects the mutual tragedies experienced during the Holocaust — both lost their parents — as well as the growing sense of kinship and affection between the two.

It was only several years ago that the couple rediscovered the letters in the attic of their Scottsdale, Ariz., home.

"I guess my first reaction was that I was amazed they had managed to survive for more than 50 years," Kurt Klein said in a telephone interview last week. "But on a deeper level, they really brought back the small, intimate moments that existed among all this horror. As I read through the letters, all of the reasons that I first fell in love with my wife came flooding back to me.

"Here was this young woman who had gone through so much, who still had this miraculous life-force to her."

In response to her fiancé leaving, she writes: "For the third time in my life, I am experiencing the excruciating pain that all that is dearest to me, and to which I clung the most has been taken from me. First my brother, then my parents, and now you. Forgive me for not being as brave as I should have been when I said goodbye to you. But I promise I shall be from now on.

"You see, from the moment that I was permitted to think of you differently, to think of you as mine, the thought processes about my parents changed. My pain is losing its burning rage, the sharp edge of bitterness is softened by your love."

Gerda Klein recounted some of her wartime experiences in the HBO documentary "One Survivor Remembers," which won an Emmy and 1996 Academy Award.

She travels throughout the world to speak about tolerance, human rights and other humanitarian causes. She recently returned from an appearance at Columbine High School in Colorado, the scene of a deadly shooting rampage last year. After addressing students there, Klein said she hopes her book's universal theme will reach a new generation of readers.

"History is best when it's illuminated with personal stories," she said. "I want to replace the dusty pages of history with hope. I want to show that people who have suffered through enormous tragedy can rebuild their dreams through love."