A Tale of Two Holocaust Survivor Grandmothers

On Yom Hashoah, here’s to the memory of Helga Shepard and Hilda Weinreb.

In 2012, I was envious of my friend Katie. She has a lot of qualities to admire; she’s driven, funny and has amazing hair. But I envied her chiefly because her grandmother was coming to speak at our Hillel’s Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) ceremony, and I was jealous that she had a survivor grandmother who spoke about her experiences during the Holocaust. As chair of the Yom Hashoah committee, I was the one who invited her grandmother Helga to speak, and I was thankful that she’d made the trip to upstate New York to share her experiences. But my gratitude was tinged with a little bit of jealousy.

Katie had a grandmother who would travel four hours to share her story of being sent away on the Kindertransport as a child to England, and even refused the honorarium to do so. I think Katie even volunteered her grandmother to come speak before asking her because she was so confident that Helga would do it. Meanwhile, my grandmother had been silent about her experiences during the Holocaust for as long as anybody in my family could remember, and we were reticent to push her to talk about it.

If you grew up with Holocaust survivors in your community, you knew someone like my grandmother: someone who harbored trauma buried so deeply in layers and layers of concrete that you were afraid to even ask about it due to the foreboding excavation process.

When Helga arrived for the ceremony, Katie and I took her around campus and to dinner. She was every bit as lovely as Katie had described her to be, warm but quick-witted, and it was clear how proud she was both of her granddaughter in general and to be able to speak at her granddaughter’s school. During dinner, she asked me if my grandparents were survivors, and I told her about my grandmother — how much I loved her and how badly I wanted her to be comfortable enough to open up to me. Helga listened with a keen ear and suggested that I had been approaching it all wrong. She told me that asking my grandmother to open up to me about what being a Holocaust survivor was like was simply too big and too emotional an ask. She suggested I start out with smaller questions, like “What were your parents like?” All in all, she commended me for my dedication and made me believe I could do it. After all, who would know better how to get a Holocaust survivor to share their story than a Holocaust survivor about to share her story?

Helga spoke that evening to a full audience ready to hear her. It is tradition on Yom Hashoah to hear a survivor tell their story — not simply out of respect, but also to ensure that we never forget the Holocaust. Helga’s story has something of a “happy” ending — she was reunited with her parents after the war — but I’ll never forget how she described what her parents were like after they reunited: “At times, I think of commissioning an artist to illustrate our reunion: Three marble columns standing near each other, but not connected, each with its unique wounds. But the real tragedy lies in their isolation — for none of them could communicate with each other.”

After the ceremony, I called my grandmother to test the waters. I often called her from school, but this time, I shared that I’d planned this year’s Yom Hashoah ceremony — and that it was really important to me because of all that her and my grandfather went through. I was naïve and hoping for a resounding, “Wow, I didn’t know you cared so much about this. Let’s talk about it more!” But instead, she said, “Wow you must have been very busy,” and signed off with her signature accent-tinted “love you! Thanks for calling!” Her response deflated me, but I was still inspired by Helga and promised myself to follow her advice at some point.

It took a year for me to actually harness Helga’s words of wisdom and grow the chutzpah to talk to my grandmother. And Helga was right: All it took was a little question for her to open up like a waterfall. It was the first time I saw my iron-bound grandmother weep, but she was prepared: She had a binder full of paperwork for me and kept going even when she was feeling her heartbreak and trauma all over again. I emailed Helga to tell her about how meaningful this was, not sure if she’d even remember me. She not only remembered this dilemma of mine, but was proud of me and thankful that I had updated her.

In the summer of 2018, I was jealous of Katie again after my grandmother passed away at 91. Helga was still walking the streets of New York City independently with her pet bird, Amelio, and I had just seen my grandmother days earlier in a rehab center where she was healing from a broken hip, bonding with a therapy dog in a way that I swear only she could do. When Katie asked if there was anything she could do, I said, “Hug your grandmother for me.” Like the good friend she is, she said, “I will — but what else?”

Helga passed away in her sleep in September 2021. It wasn’t a surprise to Katie’s family or to me, as Katie had told me a few days prior that her grandmother wasn’t doing well. I wrote this story the morning after Helga died, but I’m only sharing it now, a year and a half later.

Through my own grief, I have learned that because death is so final, it’s comforting and special to see or hear new things about the deceased, because death means there will be no more new things to learn about them. While Katie knows how specifically fond I was of Helga, I hope this story can serve as something new for the rest of her family to learn about Helga.

Katie got married in June, and I was a bridesmaid in her wedding. Our friendship is bound together by many things: mutual support, unannounced sleepovers when we’re going through something tough, an immense passion for Harry Potter and a very specific love and respect to our grandmothers, who were unforgettable both as women and as ties to a time in history we both promise to never forget.

Here’s to the memory of Helga Shepard and Hilda Weinreb, whom Katie and I swore would be fast friends if we could ever get them to meet.

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