Growing up Jewish in war-torn Poland, Edith Tennenbaum Shapiro survived roundups and bombing campaigns by hiding in cellars, bunkers, and a factory attic. During Nazi and Communist occupations, she learned of friends disappearing and watched soldiers seize her family’s apartment and prized possessions, including a dining-room buffet she had particularly loved.
Yet even amid war, Shapiro—who was born in 1935 in the town of Zloclow (now part of Ukraine)—formulated an ambitious dream: to pursue a career in medicine. She adored stories about Louis Pasteur, Marie Curie, and Catholic priest Father Damien, who cared for lepers (“cool,” she thought). Once, when her father was ill, she watched a doctor administer an injection and pound his patient’s chest. “I was smitten,” Shapiro says. “I was going to be a doctor.”
In July 1946, the penniless family arrived in New York. Shapiro was 11. “After years of hiding and then wandering, that first summer in the United States was fun,” and she felt welcome in her new country, she says. Though she didn’t know English, she recalls “being free, playing on the streets of Coney Island, managing somehow.” Her parents had been lawyers in Poland; in New York, her mother opened a delicatessen, and “that’s when the Barnard story began,” Shapiro says.
One of her mother’s customers, Virginia Harrington, was a history professor at the College. Hearing the family’s story, she declared that Shapiro had to attend Barnard. Harrington arranged an interview, and Shapiro was admitted. (Her sister, Selma Tennenbaum Rossen ’58, would follow.)
Shapiro took not just pre-med classes but also Shakespeare, logic, and ethics. Those courses, she says, “influenced me to look at the mind alongside the brain” and helped steer her to a career in psychiatry. Today, Shapiro practices in Englewood, N.J., and teaches medical students.
Shapiro set out on a medical career at a time when few women were doctors, but she was undaunted: “If there was a social message that women were not to have careers and be educated, I never heard it. A woman had to be independent and self-supporting.” She had learned that work was necessary for survival—and that survival was paramount.