Miriam Schreiber is 88 years old, lives in Hartford, Connecticut, and, as a Holocaust survivor, has had an exceptionally challenging life. With all the experiences she lived through, one of her main regrets was not having received a formal education or a high school diploma. On August 16, during an emotional and socially distanced ceremony of The New England Jewish Academy, Schreiber, dressed in a cap and gown, walked to the podium in the school’s gym to the background music of “Pomp and Circumstance,” as her family and members of the Jewish community proudly watched her accept her honorary diploma.
Miriam Brander, the state coordinator for the Holocaust Survivor Support Program for Connecticut, based out of Jewish Family Services (JFS) of Greater Hartford, works with Holocaust survivors and is always looking for opportunities to connect survivors to younger generations. Along with Erica Kapiloff, a social worker at JFS of Greater Hartford, they discussed the important role of education in Schreiber’s life.
“From the first time I met Miriam, she told me how disappointed she was to have never had a formal education,” explained Kapiloff. “Not having a degree has always been a thorn in her side.”
The two reached out to Richard Nabel, the principal of the New England Jewish Academy, a Jewish high school in Hartford, asking if the school would consider presenting Schreiber with an honorary degree. Nabel decided the decision would need to be made by the graduating class. “It was for the graduating class to decide, as they would be sharing their graduation with her,” he told Brander and Kapiloff.
Nabel and several seniors visited Schreiber’s house in October 2019 to hear her story. Schreiber was born in 1932 in a small village in Warsaw. She and her family lived comfortably, until the Nazis invaded their town. From the age of 7, she and her family ran from village to village and forest to forest. “We were on the run all the time and we didn’t know where to turn,” said Schreiber. “We were always cold and always hungry. It was horrible. It was chaos.” She had been looking forward to starting school, but it never happened.
The family spent six years in a slave labor camp in Siberia. Schreiber recalled, “My grandfather was lying next to me dead for three days. We eventually buried him under the snow.” Schreiber’s family was liberated in March 1946, sent to a displaced persons camp in Germany, encountering continued discrimination. It was there, at the camp, that Schreiber, then 15 years old, met and married Saul Schreiber, also a displaced survivor.
After their first child was born in Germany, the couple moved to Israel in 1948, where they remained for three years, then relocated to Sweden and Germany, before moving to Brooklyn, New York, ultimately settling in West Hartford. Saul worked in a chicken market and Miriam worked in a bakery. Getting an education was not an option for the couple, as they worked to earn money to send their sons to school, to give them the opportunities they had missed. The family grew, with two sons, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Although Schreiber never went to school, she taught herself English, German, Hebrew and Swedish. “I educated myself,” she said, adding, “I read books day and night. I still do.”
Both her sons, Bernie and Bob, were successful, Bernie as a teacher and Bob as a businessman. Bernie shared, “I credit my parents, but especially my mother, for her dogged determination. I’m truly in awe of her.”
The seniors who visited Schreiber’s home, were, likewise, awed by her story. Shoshana Olkin, one of those students, said, “We had a class meeting when we got back to school and discussed how to honor her. The rest of the class instantly agreed to present her with an honorary diploma.”
Due to COVID-19, the original high school graduation ceremony became virtual and the honorary diploma plan was put on hold. Brander talked to Schreiber’s family and they all wanted to devise a plan that would work for everyone. On August 16, during a socially distanced ceremony in the school gym, the plan was put into motion and Schreiber received her honorary diploma. Olkin, who presented Schreiber with the diploma, was one of several speakers at the ceremony. “When I was able to give her the diploma at the ceremony, it felt so amazing. She is a real inspiration to me.”
Schreiber also spoke: “Somehow the right people came together at the right time. As a result, now I am offered an honorary degree to recognize that my life, learning and experiences are worthy of that honor.”
Brander explained that Schreiber’s story was “incredibly compelling” to the high school students. “From an educational standpoint, they were able to hear about their schooling as the opportunity that it is, an opportunity that not everyone is afforded. From an emotional standpoint, there is something so moving about giving Miriam the honor she has been deserving of for so long, and receiving this honor from a Jewish day school was the truest sign of her victory.”
Brander delivered a passionate talk at the graduation, “It is the greatest privilege to be able to work with and support our Holocaust survivors. After the horrors they withstood, it is the highest honor to be able to help them age comfortably in their homes. This moment is especially meaningful for me—to help Miriam receive this honorary degree and fulfill this dream that was stolen from her—as my own daughter will embark on her formal Jewish education at the New England Jewish Academy (NEJA). Together, these milestones truly amplify the immortality of the Jewish people and the continuation of Miriam’s and all the other survivors’ legacies to the next generation.”
Rabbi Tuvia Brander, Rabbi of Young Israel of West Hartford, an executive board member of NEJA and a Wexner fellow, who has a passion for youth work, was highly supportive of the honorary degree being awarded to Schreiber. He shared with The Link, “At NEJA we look for every opportunity to put our young adults into conversation with the seniors of our community. As we look to teach, model and inspire the next generation of the Jewish people, it is critical that they understand that they are carrying forward a legacy from past generations. At the same time, when our students saw the opportunity to give back and help Miriam Schreiber fulfill this lifelong dream, they were so excited and thrilled to make it happen and be able to give back.”
“Beyond supporting Miriam Schreiber’s personal dream and honoring her lifelong love of learning, and beyond the beautiful moment when our students were able to truly engage within the intergenerationality of our people…it was a testament to the eternality and immortality of the Jewish people,” Rabbi Brander said. “To witness Miriam receive her diploma—to continue a tradition that those who robbed her of her education and childhood were determined to destroy was unbelievable. It was an Ami Ysrael Chai moment—and inspiration to all of us struggling in these moments of hardship and challenge.”