a passion for human rights
At ninety-five, Gerda Haas has told her personal story many times. She has recounted her experiences during the Holocaust to thousands of students and educators. At ninety-five, she no longer wants to revisit this past. "It is too painful to talk about it anymore. I don't want to relive it again, we suffered so much."
Gerda has spent a lifetime sharing her stories. Gerda Haas was a founder of the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine, which sprang from a 1984 seminar she conducted at Bowdoin College. At the public opening of the center in 2008 Gerda stated, "From a distance of sixty years, Holocaust stories are much alike: the fear and anguish, the loss of property and dignity, families torn asunder, Jews brutally killed because they were Jews. My story is no different. Except I survived."
Gerda's family lived in the small Bavarian town of Ansbach for generations. She had a privileged and very happy childhood, but as Hitler's power rose in Germany, "little by little the happiness of youth faded away." In 1939 as Jewish men were rounded up by the Nazis, her father fled to England. Unfortunately, the borders closed before he could arrange for the rest of his family to join him. Gerda survived the war, but her mother and her only sister died in concentration camps.
After the war Gerda married another German Jewish refugee, Rudolph Haas. They raised four children in Lewiston, Maine. As Gerda worked to complete her education, she also began a relentless mission to educate others about the Holocaust. Gerda spoke to countless groups about her war experiences. In 1982 she received a grant to organize a conference and state-wide outreach program focused on the Holocaust. Her work was the foundation of the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. At the dedication of the center, Gerda spoke of her journey:
"The only thing we possess that our forefathers did not is the wisdom of the past. This we must use as our guide for shaping the present and creating a better future. This is why it is so important to share the wisdom of the past, to teach it in the schools and to pass it on…. We've come a long way. Today there is not a teacher or student in Maine who doesn't know how close Hitler came to winning the war in Europe and exterminating all of us. Hitler did not win. Hitler lost. My own daughters and granddaughters and the sons and daughters of all survivors are testimony. The future is ours."