Remembering Our Roots

Board President, Erin Scharff, In Her Words

Published on
August 20, 2021
As told by
Erin Sharff
"My commitment to social justice and to immigrant rights is deeply rooted in my own family's stories."
Erin Scharff's portrait

My mother's father came to the United States just before country quotas shut the door to the large wave of eastern and southern Europeans fleeing poverty and persecution.  He came with his mother and three siblings, joining his father and oldest brother in western Louisiana.  The pair of them had immigrated earlier, and it took them years of savings to raise enough money to send for the rest of the family.  They fled the violence of the Russian Revolution and anti-Semitism.  As a child, my mom often reminded me that when my grandfather arrived in Louisiana, he spoke no English and though he was much older, the public school made him start at the beginning, with the younger children.  If learning was important enough that he could suffer that humiliation, I could do my homework.

His wife, my maternal grandmother, was born in the United States shortly after her parents settled in western Louisiana with their two older children.  She was the only one of my grandparents who spoke with a southern drawl.  Even her Yiddish had a southern accent.

My father's parents were Holocaust survivors who met in a Displaced Persons camp after the war.  They were both Polish Jews who were the sole survivors of their large families.  My grandmother was a teenager when the Nazis put her in a cattle car for deportation.  It wasn't locked, and she jumped alone.  Fearing that she might be the only surviving Jew in Europe, she kept a cutout Star of David hidden on her to confirm her identity while in hiding.  In her memory, I wear my own Star of David to this day.

Star of David

The United States offered my grandparents a refuge and through effort, luck, and a fearlessness born of loss, my grandparents built businesses and grew families. But too often our country has turned people like them away.  Immigrants and refugees who might bring their talents here are instead blocked from building their own stories of immigrant success. I have often wondered how my grandparents would react to the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment.  I don't think they would be surprised.  Their own experiences taught them how easy it is for people to dehumanize those who are different.  However, I am confident they would be proud of my involvement in PLAN and my own commitment to improving the lives of immigrants.

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