In September 1939, Miriam Schreiber should have been starting first grade. But she spent that year — and the five years that followed — trying to survive.
“My entire life was disrupted within minutes,” recalled Schreiber, who was living in Poland when World War II broke out. “I was eagerly looking forward to starting school.”
She never made it.
“It has been a profound regret of mine, all my life,” said Schreiber.
Decades later, though, the 88-year-old Holocaust survivor finally got something she had always longed for: a high school diploma.
“From the first time I met Miriam, she told me how disappointed she was to have never had a formal education,” said Erica Kapiloff, a social worker at Jewish Family Services in Hartford, Conn., where Schreiber now lives.
“Not having a degree has always been a thorn in her side,” Kapiloff continued.
She and Miriam Brander, director of operations and community programs at Jewish Family Services, reached out to the New England Jewish Academy, a Jewish high school in Hartford, asking if they would consider presenting Schreiber with an honorary diploma.
Richard Nabel, the principal of the school, left the decision up to the students.
“It was for the graduating class to decide, as they would be sharing their graduation with her,” he said.
So, he brought a few seniors to Schreiber’s home in October to hear her story. She told them everything — starting at the very beginning.
Schreiber was born in a small village just outside Warsaw in 1932. Life was good.
“I had parents and a home, and I was comfortable,” Schreiber said in a recent interview with The Washington Post. But then the war started and “our lives were turned upside down.”
They were transported to a slave labor camp in Siberia, where they spent nearly six years living in squalor — and barely living at all.
“It’s hard to describe the suffering,” said Schreiber, who watched as family members froze and starved to death. “My grandfather was lying next to me dead for three days. We eventually buried him under the snow.”
Schreiber was not liberated until March 1946 — half a year after the war ended, when she was 14 years old. She and her remaining family members went to a displaced persons camp in Germany, where they faced continued discrimination and anti-Semitism.
There was one bright spot, though. Schreiber met her husband, Saul Schreiber, who was also a displaced survivor. The couple married in Germany when Schreiber was 15, and had their first child a year later.
“We needed to rebuild our lives in whatever way we could,” said Schreiber, adding that having a child gave them hope for a brighter future.
The couple left Germany in 1948, lived in Israel for three years, then in Sweden and Germany before immigrating to America in 1960, eventually settling in West Hartford, Conn.
“Saul worked in a chicken market and I went to work in a bakery, making 99 cents an hour,” said Schreiber.
She and her husband focused on making enough money to send their two sons to school — to give them the opportunities they never had. Both their children went on to have fulfilling careers.
“We became successful because of my parents,” said Bernie Schreiber, 72, a teacher who who retired in 2010. “My brother Bob was able to buy and build his own business successfully. I credit my parents, especially my mother, for her dogged determination.”
The family grew, and Schreiber became the matriarch of four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Although she never went to school, “I educated myself,” said Schreiber, now widowed, who also learned six languages. “I read books day and night. I still do.”
“I’m truly in awe of her,” said her son.
So were the senior students who heard Schreiber’s story and agreed she deserved a diploma.
On Aug. 16, during a socially distanced ceremony in the school gym, Miriam Schreiber was presented with a high school diploma from the New England Jewish Academy.
Garbed in a cap and gown, Schreiber walked to the podium with “Pomp and Circumstance” playing in the background as her family and members of the Jewish community watched with pride.
“Somehow the right people came together at the right time,” said Schreiber, according to a recording of the ceremony. “As a result, now I am offered an honorary degree to recognize that my life, learning, and experiences are worthy of that honor.”
Schreiber’s family was especially moved.
“I’m not sure she even realizes the importance of that moment to me,” said Bernie Schreiber. “I am so proud of her.”
“It’s something she has always wanted,” echoed Brander of Jewish Family Services. “There’s no greater sign of how she won after a lifetime of struggle.”
That was certainly true for Schreiber.
“When I finally got the diploma, I kissed it,” she said. “I just couldn’t believe it was mine.”