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A Selfless Survivor
What is a memory? What distinguishes the worst of all things one could ever recall from the rest of one’s thoughts? Is it possible to make good from that one dreadful, everlasting sore spot? Many people who distinctly remember a hardship of the past have forced it far back into the tiniest crevices of their minds, simply going on with their lives similar to the way they did before. My grandmother, however, has done just the opposite.
Regina Scharf (born Regina Maiman, but I call her Amie) was born in the small state of Chernowitz, Romania in 1924. She lived on her family’s farm, with her mother, father, and three sisters. The approach of World War II was not a concern to Jean or her family; they were wealthy, well respected in their largely Jewish community, and never expected the Nazis occupying the surrounding European countries to soon take over their lives. While being home-tutored in both Romanian school subjects and Hebrew traditions, she often glanced around smiling, surrounded by green grass, farm animals, and her sisters learning alongside her happily. “We were not afraid at all,” she recalled, remembering how secure her family felt. At the time, her innocence overtook the reality of the anti-Semitism eating away Europe.
Until June 21st, 1941, a date that will be forever engraved in Amie’s memories as the day Hitler’s hatred reached its way out to my grandmother’s heart, not gently touching it, but nonchalantly punching through it for the very first time—the day the train station in which she stood was bombed.
The bombing was a brutal awakening to everyone. After waking up from fainting on the terminal, she remembers being scared for her life for the very first time. Still, she and her sisters managed to sing, “Kiev [Russian city] was bombed and we were informed the war started for us, 1941” in a most beautiful tune, walking from the train station, despite the complete and utter tragedy this song denoted and instilled upon her and her family.
Just after that first glimpse of hatred, it barged into the Maiman household one day, soon becoming an unwelcome part of Jean’s every day life.
This time, hatred looked like a Nazi.
Amie, her mother, father, and three sisters obeyed the Nazis and left their home. As they neared the concentration camp, all of their possessions, earnings, and lives, grew further behind them. “And that was when we left everything behind…when everything was taken from us,” she told. They were chased from Romania to Ukraine, a cross-section between Russian and German occupation, for seven days. They were left to sleep outside, for the rain to fall on, and were introduced to hunger, something they quickly came to know well.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Their final destination revealed itself only when they approached: Transnistria, Ukraine, a brutal concentration camp where my grandmother would find herself spending a majority of her teenage years, described best by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website: “They were placed in crude barracks without running water or electricity. Those who could not walk were simply left to die.” Regina also tells that they were fed only what they could find on their own. A piece of bread from the street, an extra bowl of soup from a sister.
Sitting down to do the interview, I anticipated that it would be tough. I already knew that she had suffered. The next details I will reveal are what turned the conversation from tough to painful.
“They shot him, I watched…it was the most tragic, most memorable sight I’ve ever seen” Amie confides about her father. She restrains herself from unfolding her graphic memory to me, avoiding upsetting me in any way. The worst thing anybody could possibly witness, she witnessed. This horrible event will forever be the most prominent, vivid, and devastating memory in her mind.
Some combination of that very sight, malnutrition, and typhoid fever resulted with her inability to speak and walk for an entire year, with no medical care. The miracle that she pulled through and survived speaks for itself. When I asked her to elaborate and describe other aspects of her four years in the camp, she remained silent. She refused to extend her bad memories to me, as if she were trying to shield me from even the slightest displeasure, or maybe it was simply that words can’t describe such adversity.
However, my grandma didn’t just survive the bombing, the tragic sights, the typhoid, the replaying horrors, and everything in between.
Despite her struggle, she triumphed, becoming my role model.
Once the camps were liberated in 1945, Amie, her mother, and two sisters were all that were left. Even their house was destroyed. They were forced to start new, and soon, they came to America.
She married when she was back in Europe and later had three children, while successfully embarking in opening a supermarket. She became incredibly altruistic; she gives to her children constantly, and she treats everyone she meets as if they are they are her best friend.
“You shouldn’t know from what I saw.” She wants not only to remember her experience, but to learn from it, to show the future that it is possible to see only the best in everyone. She lives for us, to teach us, to set an example, to prevent us from seeing what should be unseen. And she’s been successful. She has taught me that nobody should know hatred so personally, so well, the way she did. Nobody should be forced to harbor memories so horrid yet close to their heart. But finally, if you do carry such a burden, learn from it. Be sure to allow somebody to benefit from another’s tragedies, or even another’s mistakes; turn bad memories into good.
My grandmother is the woman who tips the ambulance driver after being rushed to the hospital, the one to invite the sales clerk to dinner, the one who has devoted her whole life to being my best friend, along with everyone else in the world. Would anybody ever be able guess what she went through?
She has taught me to take a misfortune and turn it to fortune, and then to give it to those you love. To be the shining light in anybody’s day that they someday dream to replicate, as I do. Love selflessly, and live for that love.