Holocaust survivor Vera Schiff came to share her personal experiences of living in a concentration camp, as well as the stories of the valiant souls who fought for their lives. Schiff was born in 1926 in Prague, Czechoslovakia. In 1942, she was deported with her family to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in the garrison city of Terezín (today located in the Czech Republic) which served as a transit camp for Jews en route to extermination camps in the east.
“I was the sole survivor out of my 50 family members,” she said. “The fate of our family was not exceptional and returning to the homes in Prague was very difficult for me.”
Every prisoner would be compelled to perform labour assignments every day, usually lasting 12 hours. This included Jewish children who were denied access to education along with basic necessities.
“You were more fortunate to work for the German war industry as perhaps you would get an extra piece of bread,” she said. “The quest for knowledge was perceived as a crime for the Germans.”
Every day was a struggle for Schiff and her family. Despite having many skilled doctors in the camp, there was very little they could do without supplies.
“Life in the camp was a nightmare; there was the constant fear of being deported at any possible date,” she said. “For the Germans, it was a joke to see these defenceless people; for us, it was to see the misery and atrocities.”
Schiff’s mother managed to write a diary before her passing, which served to motivate her to keep fighting for her life and find justice for her family’s suffering. She has published the diary in one of her books.
“I believe her words speak volumes about the day-by-day pain and despair of an inmate in Theresienstadt,” she said.
The concentration camp was also where Vera Schiff met her future husband, Arthur Schiff. They both survived captivity and eventually moved to Israel for 12 years before settling in Toronto. Today Schiff has two sons, six grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.
“After the war, it was a not only a healing process but a process of finding a place in society,” she said.
Vera Schiff’s son David also spoke about the value of the survivor community in Israel during his formative years.
“I’ve had the pleasure of growing up in a part of Israel where at least half the country was composed of survivors,” he said. “These people who had lost everything created a pseudo-family environment which has been very healthy for the second generation.”
Copies of her three published books were available for purchase at the end for those interested in learning more about her autobiography, her mother’s diary and the memoirs of her family and friends.