There are two forms of death: when a Holocaust survivor takes their last breath and when there is no one left to share their stories.
I grew up in suburban Philadelphia, attending Hebrew school and preparing for my bat mitzvah at Tiferet Bet Israel. Being Jewish in Philadelphia in the 2000s was a non-issue. Growing up Jewish in my grandmother’s generation in Europe was literally a death sentence.
I vividly remember looking with fascination at the glass cases of Holocaust memorabilia lining the synagogue walls. Holocaust survivors regularly visited our Hebrew school class to share their experiences and expose their concentration camp tattoos.
Then, the last generation of Holocaust survivors died. Some, like my grandmother, recorded their living histories with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. But one interview cannot capture someone’s life in totality.
This month, I observed the first yahrzeit of my grandmother, Pepi Schafler’s, death. She died on Sept. 6, 2022, the week of my then-nascent nonprofit’s first law school event. I sobbed the entire train ride from Washington, D.C., to New York, angry at the finality of death and frustrated at everything left unsaid.
My grandmother and I were very close. In college and law school, I spent summers and winter intersessions visiting her in Bethesda, Maryland; her condo stuffed with trinkets from a full life. She insisted on living there long after it was feasible to live by herself because I lived in D.C. At times, her home was a welcome refuge from challenges with my family.
During visits, she shared stories from her childhood during “the war,” as she referred to the Holocaust. She was born in Czernowitz in eastern Europe and enjoyed a few childhood years before the war.
Like many Holocaust survivors, my grandmother’s experience involved luck and the kindness of strangers. Her mother once charmed a guard when families were sent on a death march. A guard told them to run and hide, so they did. They were among just a handful of survivors that day.
Later, my grandmother’s family was sent to a work camp. She became sick. A German guard nursed her back to health. She fondly described him pulling her pigtails so she would not cry.
Then, my grandmother and her brother were separated from their parents. They lived with a Christian family for several years before they were reunited after the war. Pepi left for the United States soon after. She married at age 17 and started a family.
My grandmother raised her children, my mother Karen and her brother Robert, in Buffalo, New York, at a time when most women did not work. Yet Pepi proudly pursued a college degree, then a Ph.D. and law degree, while her children were in school.
My grandmother always wanted me to become an attorney. She believed I pursued law school because of her encouragement. I am glad she attended my Washington University School of Law graduation in 2019.
I moved to D.C. permanently after law school to pursue a judicial clerkship and a career as a prosecutor. My grandmother moved to a smaller, more manageable apartment. I visited every weekend. I regaled her with courtroom intrigue. I did not tell her that I was experiencing severe workplace mistreatment. She and I never saw eye to eye on the issue of sexual harassment, likely a generational divide.
Right before the pandemic, she began to decline. She was confused, forgetful and weaker. But she was too proud to seek help. Notwithstanding, she still lit up when I entered the room. The last time I saw her lucid was in March 2020. I rushed to her apartment to say goodbye. The D.C. Courthouse had closed. I gave my grandmother a quick hug and left for Philadelphia to stay with my parents.
During the pandemic, we corresponded via email, which was challenging. I wanted to stay with her in D.C., but she refused to get vaccinated. I fought with my family about it. I resented my grandmother’s obstinance.
I moved back to Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2021. Then, I was retaliated against by my former employer and became enmeshed in a deeply painful, and now public, workplace dispute. This ultimately inspired me to pursue legislative advocacy to extend workplace protections to judiciary employees and to launch a nonprofit to correct these injustices for future clerks.
The last time I saw my grandmother was on Jan. 1, 2022, a few days before her birthday. She did not know that the birthday card on her desk was from me.
When we said goodbye, I hugged her tight. I told her I would be back soon. It was devastating to see her struggle. I wished I had done more.
I never saw my grandmother again. She moved to an assisted living facility soon after. I called her on Mother’s Day 2022. She was confused, at times not certain who I was. I was upset. I told her I loved her.
I was busy with the launch of my new nonprofit. My mother updated me about my grandmother’s poor health. I remember crying during several work Zoom meetings, wondering if she would die before I had a chance to fix what felt like a broken relationship.
She did. On Sept. 6, 2022, Pepi Schafler took her last breath. She was in the hospital, likely scared and confused. She was not surrounded by family.
My actions during this time are my biggest regret. Since then, I have tried to repair my relationship with my family. I don’t want to make the same mistakes.
In my daily work, I share my experience with workplace mistreatment often, to humanize abstract issues. I understand the power of storytelling to create change. It is a travesty that future Hebrew school students will not benefit from hearing firsthand accounts of Holocaust survivors’ experiences like my grandmother’s. We are never more than a few generations away from atrocity. If we do not learn from the past, we are doomed to repeat it.
I often wonder what my grandmother would think of the work I’m doing now: my outspoken advocacy on behalf of survivors of workplace harassment. I like to think she would be proud that I’m using my law degree to make a difference.
The best way to honor my grandmother’s memory, despite my remorse, is to share her experience. I will keep her memory alive through storytelling, and I encourage other descendants of survivors to do the same.
Aliza Shatzman is the president and founder of The Legal Accountability Project, a nonprofit aimed at ensuring that law clerks have positive clerkship experiences, while extending support and resources to those who do not.