The Eternal Wisdom of Vera Schiff

January 7, 2024

Education Newsletter

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The Eternal Wisdom of Vera Schiff

By Elena Kingsbury, FSWC Senior Educator

As FSWC educators, we are conscious that our job affords us incredible privileges. What an honour it is to work directly with Holocaust survivors, to watch them fearlessly relive their difficult past, recounting with honesty and eloquence their personal memories of the Shoah.

We reflect on that honour now, as we experience the pain of losing our friend and fellow educator, Vera Schiff, who passed on December 6 at the age of 97. We will miss her boundless intellectual curiosity, her fantastic sense of humour, hearing “Hi Darling” every time she picked up the phone and the wonderful conversations that would follow. Above all, we will miss watching her share her testimony with young Canadians, who need her wisdom today more than ever.

Now is also a time to recognize, celebrate, and share the incredible gifts that Vera has left behind. Over the past 15 years, Vera spoke to tens of thousands of students through countless programs, creating a community of witnesses to the Holocaust across Canada and beyond that will carry her truth forward for the next generation. Her wisdom, born out of great tragedy, is a resource we will continue to draw from as we face an uncertain future.

Vera passionately believed in the importance of Holocaust education, recently explaining, “The Holocaust is not only a lesson of evil, but also a lesson of man’s courage to stand tall and fight back. It’s a story of people who risked- and often lost - their lives to help their Jewish neighbours, those they have loved and cared about. It is a multilayered story in which the morality of man can find foundation, which we should offer to the younger generation. We should give them the best weapons so that they can forge the way in their own lives in safety and security.”

As we face times of heightened tension and disunity, both at home and globally, we reflect on Vera’s philosophy about the art of conversation and the importance of respectful dialogue, from which empathy and understanding can grow. Through our work and the work of other institutions of Holocaust research and education, Vera’s memories and the invaluable lessons they contain will live on. We encourage all Canadians to celebrate Vera’s life by exploring her published works and video testimony as educational resources this month, as we approach International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27.

Activity #1: Quote Analysis - The Art of Conversation

Vera often spoke about the importance of open dialogue as an antidote to hate speech and extremism in Canadian society. While speaking with a community group, she stated the following:

“We have to teach our young people the art of conversation. The ability to agree to disagree, to have respectful conversations even when we are different. Just because we don’t agree, doesn’t mean we can’t respect one another as human beings with dignity.”

1.     Why is it beneficial to listen to perspectives that we don’t agree with?

2.     What rules/principles should people follow when having a conversation with someone? (Think of at least 3).

Activity #2: Video Testimony Comprehension

Watch Vera’s Testimony at Never Forget Me-Learning from Survivors. Watch it a second time and try to answer the following questions:

1.        What event made Vera feel fear for the first time during the late 1930s?

2.        What can Vera’s testimony teach us about the development of Nazi concentration camps, especially Theresienstadt where Vera’s family was imprisoned? (different types of camps, organization, transportation to the camps, conditions, etc.)

3.        What happened to Vera’s immediate family in Theresienstadt?

4.        According to Vera, what stripped camp inmates of their individuality?

5.        “Even Hell must have been a more hospitable place than that.”- What made Vera say this?

6.        What made life difficult for Vera after liberation? How was she treated when she returned to Prague?

7.        What is one piece of wisdom that you will remember from Vera’s testimony?