From Refugee to Lawyer, Kurt Shaffert Fled WWII and Found His American Dream

By Rachel Nusbaum,

Kurt Shaffert was only 10 years old when he arrived in America. Born in Vienna in 1929 to a Jewish family, they fled days before World War II started, barely making it out before the borders closed. Kurt’s mother was able to get his father released from the Buchenwald concentration camp just before they fled.

“When they arrived in New York, they really had nothing,” said Robin Shaffert, Kurt’s daughter.

They came with only two suitcases. At first, they lived in housing provided by HIAS. Later, they were able to move into a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx. Kurt slept on a pull-out couch in the living room.

It was a difficult transition, especially for his parents. But Kurt worked hard to become American, and he was determined to speak perfect, unaccented English. After studying at Bronx High School of Science and City College, he became a chemical engineer. When called, he served his country as a private in the army.

He later went to law school, where he discovered his true passion. With his engineering background, patent law was a natural choice. He worked at several law firms before eventually starting his own. Later, he went to work for the Justice Department in the antitrust division. He worked there for more than twenty years, until age seventy.

“He loved that,” said Robin. “He really felt that, as an immigrant, it was a great honor to represent the United States.”

Kurt passed away in 2015, at the age of 85. During the last decade of his life, Kurt lived with Parkinson’s Disease. Until he died, he was able to live independently with the support of full-time, in-home caregivers. Most of those caregivers were refugees and immigrants themselves. Their experiences resonated deeply with Kurt.

“He really related to them, because of his own story. He understood what it meant to come to a new country and have to start over,” Robin said. “He never forgot what that was like–and he never forgot the help that his family got from HIAS.”

“HIAS was there when his family needed it the most. And my father never forgot that.”

Given all of this history, she finds the current political climate more than a bit disappointing. “Everybody in my family came here as an immigrant, my father and all four of my grandparents. And so the promise of America as a land of immigrants is one that I expect to be held true.” Robin said. “I find the current rhetoric appalling. It's inconsistent with our country’s values, and plays to our worst instincts.”

“It's critical that Jews speak up against all this anti-Muslim bias,” said Robin. It’s also vital, she said, that organizations like HIAS continue to exist, to help others the way her father and grandparents were helped.

“It's important that there is an organization that can help you get your feet planted on the ground.”

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