Author’s Note: Throughout the month of July, I ran a contest called, “Is There a Legacy in Your Midst?” Individuals nominated a friend or family member to receive a complimentary 30-minute interview and document package from Lasting Legacies. Ms. Valya Shapiro was randomly drawn as the winner. She owns and operates Turnkey Living, Inc., an interior design company outside of Boston, Massachusetts. During our interview, I was impressed by her thoughtful responses and her poignant storytelling ability. I think that you will find the following excerpt of her quest to find freedom through education compelling and inspiring.
Dalene Bickel: Valya, I was hoping that you could share about your childhood in Turkey.
Valya Shapiro: I was born in Istanbul to a Jewish family whose ancestors left Spain in 1492 after the Inquisition, so I have an approximate 500-year history in Turkey. It’s a history which, unfortunately when I grew up, was tumultuous for me.
I was a young child during World War II. Even though Turkey ultimately decided not to enter the War, my father was taken to a concentration camp anyway. It began as a tax that was imposed on all Turkish citizens, but the minority groups (there were three small segments of us in Turkey – Greeks, Armenians, and Jews) were taxed beyond what they could afford. If they could not pay the full amount, they were taken away.
There’s always been a question as to whether my father and others were taken away and held in case Turkey entered the war on the side of Germany (in which case they would be eliminated) or whether it was just the rejection of people they called “infidels” – anyone who is not a believer in Islam. That word is very prominent today because of the whole situation with ISIS. In any case, my father was incarcerated for a year and then, upon his return, he had everything that he owned taken away – his business, his belongings.
My father was a very resilient person with a stoic attitude; he really influenced me a great deal. Born in Turkey, he was one of ten children – six boys and four girls. The four girls remained in Turkey and the six boys were sent to Europe to continue their education. He was sent to Leipzig, Germany and got his degrees at the University of Leipzig – first he was a mechanical engineer and then an electrical engineer. He had no intention of coming back to Turkey but by 1933, he saw the writing on the wall. The Hitler movement had started exerting its presence so my father returned [to his homeland].
So that’s really the atmosphere of the beginnings of my life there. Which does not mean that it was an unhappy life. It was not. I had a lot of friends and [my parents] had friends and a social life, etc. I had a wonderful life and really adoring parents. But my whole perception of it was one of tremendous anger for what was done to my dad and the lack of freedom that I felt in terms of expressing myself.
Therefore, I lived my whole early life with the intent of leaving and saving my parents. I needed to be able to take them out of the environment where the freedom to speak to express yourself was perceived as offensive. For example, in the United States you are able to say, “Oh! I hate that president!” If you ever said something like that in Turkey – which we wouldn’t dare, but if you ever did – it would be very easy for them to incarcerate you or whatever.
So there was always a sense of fear in my growing up years and a very strong drive to achieve in school and eventually hope to receive a scholarship, which would be my way out of the country. And that actually happened.
I was sent to multiple private schools. The first one was Turkish because I was a Turkish citizen, the second one was a French high school, and eventually I earned a BA at the American College in Turkey. I studied very hard and was fortunate to receive several scholarship offers to the States; I decided to take the one that Brandeis University offered me.
When I left Istanbul at age nineteen and a half, sailing on a boat towards the U.S., I did not know when I would see my parents again. Imagine, their only child who is the apple of their eye being let go and then not knowing when you would see that child again. But they were very supportive in my efforts to leave the country. Very. I couldn’t have done it otherwise.
But I always knew that at some point I would, in my own interpretation, rescue them.
DB: Were your experiences in college and your first years here in the States what you expected?
VS: When I came here, I was going to continue towards a Master’s in linguistics because I speak seven languages. That is not an unusual thing in people who live in Europe and in Turkey; we speak multiple languages because the distances are so close and you have an aunt who speaks Italian and another relative who speaks Spanish, etc. As a child of four or five, it’s very easy to pick up these foreign languages. German is the language I speak with the most difficulty because it was the language I studied when I was in college. I can speak it, but not as fluently as I do the others.
Even though I had gone to the American College in Turkey, there was [culture] shock. The first day that I entered campus, there were a group of young women talking and they asked me to come over and join them. I literally sat there not being able to understand what they were saying. The language they were using was very colloquial and I had been studying English in the British way. So all these American expressions were totally foreign to me and I thought to myself, “I’ll never make it.”
The first three months were difficult in terms of being able to continue the level of grades that I needed to get. I had a one-year scholarship and then I had to qualify for a second year, which I did. I had much more difficulty adapting during lectures and I suppose there was a sense of “aloneness,” which made it even more difficult, but I tend to be a very determined person.
DB: Were you able to have frequent contact with your parents during this time?
VS: Only by mail. Yes. I wrote to them oh, three times a week at least and I received letters at least three, four times a week. But telephone conversations were very expensive; I may have been able to speak to them maybe twice in a year.
During the summer I couldn’t go back to Turkey because I didn’t have the finances to do it and it was very difficult to get in and out of the country at the time. I’m talking about 1959, but we’re seeing some of the old patterns resurfacing in Turkey these days.
DB: So you were able to graduate with your master’s. What happened then?
VS: I didn’t get a master’s. I changed courses. [laughing] What happened was I took a course in theater arts and I totally became enamored. I went to the advisor of the Wien scholars (a Wien scholar is a foreign student scholarship) and told him that I wanted to change from linguistics to theater arts. His response to me was, “You don’t have the basic courses that are required to go for a master’s. You have to get a BA before you can go on. You have to make a decision.”
So I did. I said, “I’ll go for the second BA.”
I switched and it was one of the best things that I did. I loved it. I absolutely loved it. I was not as interested in acting as I was in directing and playwriting. As part of my thesis I wrote a full play and by the end of the year, I obtained my BA in theater arts.
DB: And then did you continue on into the master’s program?
VS: I did not. I changed courses a few times in my life. [laughing] Before the end of the [academic] year, I met the man who was going to be my future husband. We fell in love and he asked me not to move to New York; I had accepted a job in New York. We got married practically a week after graduation.
I immediately started working, teaching French for two years in a high school in a suburb of Boston. Then I taught in a junior college in downtown Boston for another two years. Then I had a child and then another child. I became fascinated with taking pictures of them so I signed up for courses in photography, [which led to me] doing some interior photography for a very close friend who was the editor of Architectural Digest in New York.
I had my own dark room in my house so I used to do my own developing; that was for several years while the children were young. It was the road that took me back to school, getting a degree at Mass College of Arts. I then launched myself into interior design, which I’ve been doing for forty-three years.
DB: So the question that comes to my mind is: Were you able to provide the freedom you desired for your parents?
VS: Well, that is a very touching story. I married a man who was, oh what kind of an adjective can I use to describe him? A gentle, generous, thoughtful, sensitive human being who, when I was pregnant with my first child, said to me: “It must be so difficult for your parents to continue living in Turkey. Of course, you will go and see them as many times as you want, but wouldn’t it be a good idea to have them come and live in this country?”
By that time, I had gotten my green card and so we invited them to come. Of course, there was no hesitation. My mother was fifty; my father was almost sixty. They were here for a year before my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at which point my husband said, “They have to move in with us.” And they did. They lived with us for twenty-six years. We lived as an extended family in one house.
My mother volunteered and she taught French in the senior center. She worked in a nursing home; it was not a “career” but it was very satisfying to her. She needed to have that because my father’s condition was not something that was easy for her to deal with.
DB: You and your family have definitely been through quite a lot in your lives. I know there are lots of people out there who also go through struggles and trials. Do you have any words of advice or encouragement that you might be willing to share with them?
VS: [sigh] I’m not much of a preacher. I’m much more of a listener; because of my own experiences, I have been able to listen and empathize with other people’s sorrows, joys, pains. I think that is the one quality that everyone needs to have, particularly as they get older. What we think of as being gratifying in terms of material things is not really fulfilling in the way of being able to help, encourage and support others – whether it’s family, children, friends or even strangers. That would be the only thing I would have to share.
DB: I think that’s a valid point. In today’s society, we do tend to get caught up in material things but it’s really people that matter – helping others. Very well said. Is there anything else that you would like to share?
VS: I’m in the process of writing a memoir. Being at this stage of life, one always is aware that the end may be here or maybe if you’re lucky enough and you’re in good health, ten years down the road. But I think I can say the last two years have been the most fulfilling of my life, particularly because I treasure every day.
Writing this memoir gives me a chance to leave something behind – not necessarily a piece of jewelry, not necessarily a house full of mementos I’ve collected over the years with my husband – but a legacy in terms of ancestry.
I am very much touched by the fact I can share with others who may want to know something about life of a woman who has lived in another country, come here and is grateful for every day that I live in the United States. I think it is a blessing to have the freedom of speech and action that this country [provides] and enables us to express.
What are your thoughts? Did you enjoy this interview?
Let me know in the comments!
Want to learn how to obtain a Voice Your Story package for yourself or a loved one? Click here.