Best Second Act (2009)

Gerda Weissmann Klein

The story of Scottsdale resident Gerda Weissmann Klein proves that America is, indeed, the land of second acts — F. Scott Fitzgerald be damned. Born in Poland in 1924, Klein survived labor camps, concentration camps, and death marches to marry one of the American G.I.'s who liberated her — Kurt Klein, a German-born Jew whose own parents had been murdered at Auschwitz.

The tragedy of her first act is matched by the triumph of her second: Her multiple awards include an Oscar, for the documentary One Survivor Remembers (based on her memoir All But My Life) and a lifetime achievement award from the American Immigration Law Foundation. In 1998, the Kleins established The Gerda and Kurt Klein Foundation, to provide educational tools that promote tolerance and community service, in partnership with organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

In 1999, Gerda traveled to Colorado to help the students at Columbine High School heal after the murder of their classmates. And this March, Klein celebrated the completion of the pilot program of Citizenship Counts, a non-profit she founded to educate middle school students about citizenship and civic responsibility. The program involved 100 seventh- and eighth-graders from Phoenix and Scottsdale who helped plan a naturalization ceremony for 50 new U.S. citizens from around the world; Klein spoke at the ceremony, as did retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Not bad for someone who had everything, short of her life, taken away and had to start over from scratch in a new language and a new land. What a country. What a woman!

Best of Phoenix 2009 In Photos