The sun was beating down hard on this warm spring morning as I stood wearing my cap and gown. Graduation day was really happening. I had walked through campus, looking at the modest Barnard library, and remembering how I tried to get comfortable studying there as a lowly freshman. I never did. I had gone to Barnard early admissions. Maybe I was too young when I started and that is why I could not feel at home. Maybe the unleashing of the cold, competitive academic world was too much for my innocent soul. I grew up sheltered from the world, but not sheltered from the realities of anti-Semitism.

I am a child of Holocaust survivorsOn graduation day, the white chairs were set up in the center of the Barnard campus. The library stood in front of us, the dorms to our left. It looked like a garden wedding was about to unfold. I bumped into my close friends who were juniors. They hugged me and smiled at my graduation “getup,” thrilled that I had made it. I had handed in my final thesis. I had completed my last economics exam. I managed to get through one last art history paper on modern art.

I am a child of Holocaust survivors. I am a living miracle and testament to the great hand of G‑d that protected my father and mother from the Nazis during World War II.

My father grew up in the town of Salistea, Romania, my mother in a neighboring town. My father’s childhood abruptly ended in 1944 when the Hungarian Nazis marched into his peaceful town after the holiday of Passover. All the Jews were ordered to show up for deportation and wait by the main synagogue. Cattle cars were sent, and the men, women and children were forced onto an inhumane transport. The final goodbye witnessed the brutal shooting of anyone who did not follow orders, alongside the Nazis burning down the most beautiful edifice in their city, the main synagogue. The beautiful library of Judaica located in the main synagogue was burnt to ashes.

And yet, with G‑d’s tremendous kindness, here I was, graduating in front of the Barnard library where I was nurtured to study humanities and to continue to quench my thirst for learning, with my father and mother sitting by my side.

The ceremony began. I wondered what my father thought about while our college president warned us not to get caught up in the need to be superwomen and do it all. Forty years earlier, when he was just about the same age as me, my father “graduated” from the Nazi death camp of Bergen Belsen. His major was “Inhumanity.” At the age of 17 my father had gone on “early admissions” to Auschwitz, and was then transferred to Dachau, Buchenwald and Bergen Belsen. It was there, with divine providence, that American soldiers came to liberate the starving and dying Jewish prisoners, ending the Nazi regime and World War II.

Forty years earlier, when he was just about the same age as me, my father “graduated” from Bergen BelsenMaybe he was thinking about his mother, and how proud she would have been to stand with all the other grandparents on her granddaughter’s graduation day. Maybe he could not help but remember his last hours with her. My father had traveled in a cattle car with her and his younger brother, Sruli. All three of them survived the suffocating train ride to the death camp of Auschwitz. Somehow they overcame the painful thirst and hunger. He was blessed to survive the selection process at Auschwitz. He and his kid brother were chosen to go to the right, while he horrifically watched the Nazi guard order his mother to go to the left. That was their final moment together.

His mother did not live to see him graduate. My grandmother, Sara, was brutally and savagely taken to the gas chamber, disguised as a shower, where she was forced to uncover her sacred hair and body. The Nazis gassed her and millions of holy Jewish men, women and children to death. Innocent people slaughtered because they were Jews. I know my grandmother was watching over me on that special day from nearby.

What was my mother thinking during my graduation ceremony? My mother had never been to Barnard during my four years of attendance. She had graciously met me in midtown to shop and to go out for lunch, but she had never ventured all the way up to Morningside Heights. Her war-torn years had made her fearful of the world. She preferred safer places with which she was familiar. She was always so happy when I came home to visit. As a New Yorker, I had the best of both worlds. I could live on campus and go home to Forest Hills whenever I wanted. I especially loved to spend Shabbat with my parents. I went home for Shabbat and the Jewish holidays. I was always greeted with love, peacefulness and delicious home-cooked meals.

At the age of 11, my mother had run away from a Nazi day labor camp and traveled on a youth refugee boat to CyprusAt the age of 11, my mother had run away from a Nazi day labor camp and traveled on a youth refugee boat to Cyprus. Her flight from the Nazis took her from Romania to Cyprus to Jerusalem. She later recovered, with the help of G‑d, and became a kindergarten teacher. Years later, my parents met and were married in Tel Aviv.

Later on my graduation day, my parents and I attended the Columbia University graduation. People from all walks of life, wearing every imaginable colored robe and hood, were part of the university procession. Suddenly, a group of student activists climbed on top of the Columbia Low Library, which the crowd was facing, and threw down a banner which read “Stop Columbia from Supporting Apartheid.” Concern for people’s freedom was supreme even at this moment of celebration. Did my parents find it comforting that the world was changing? I did not ask. I did not want to take them back to the horrors, the lack of activism and care by the American nation, which sat back inexcusably while the slaughter of millions continued. Instead, I just smiled at them. It was then that I realized that the most honorable members of the audience and the most educated were sitting next to me: my parents, who held the highest of honorary degrees from the most infamous “universities.”

It was then that I finally understood that my mother was the true superwoman I could never be. From fire to ice to Israel’s War of Independence, she came through, an activist, an incredibly supportive and loving mother, wife and daughter. My father, an activist father, husband and businessman, no longer wearing his striped concentration camp uniform, but shining as though he was hooded with beautiful robes and stripes and medals, out of the death march to the march of the Columbia University graduation, a new height of celebration of life.