Dec. 9, 2020
By SUSAN MINUK
A tattered diary no bigger than a credit card inspired Holocaust survivor Vera Schiff to spend a lifetime spreading her message of tolerance and gratitude across Canada.
Her efforts to educate students have not gone unnoticed. On Nov. 27, Schiff was named to the Order of Canada – among 114 new appointments.
Schiff (née Katz), 94, was honoured for her “illustrious career as an author, historian and public speaker who is nationally recognized for sharing her moving experiences of the Holocaust,” said a statement from Governor General Julie Payette.
“It came as a surprise,” Schiff told the CJR. “I am very honoured and humbled. To be recognized gives me a great deal of satisfaction and gratitude to the government of Canada and those who recommended me.”
Schiff was born in 1926 in Prague, Czechoslovakia, to Elsie and Siegfried Schiff. Raised with her sister Eva, her childhood was a happy one. On March 15, 1939, the German army invaded and occupied the country and her life was forever changed. Schiff and her family were deported in 1942 to Terezin (Theresienstadt), where only Schiff survived from among about 50 members of her extended family.
She found the strength to move forward after discovering her mother’s small journal.
“I think she found comfort in entering these little day-by-day pains from Terezin,” said Schiff. “It’s my greatest treasure, the only thing I have from her.”
In the book, Elsie offered her daughter valuable life advice.
“She knew I would need medical attention and said after my recovery [that] I should go back to school to acquire skills and knowledge to make my way through life, and to become a contributing member to society,” Schiff recalled. “Every time I am at a crossroad, I turn to the diary. And although it’s always the same, I somehow know what she would have hoped me to do. The last page was a letter to me… a blueprint on how to live my life.”
Schiff met her future husband, Arthur Schiff, in the Theresienstadt ghetto (see B&W photo with story). After the war, they settled in Prague, and then moved to Israel in 1949. In 1961, they came to Toronto, where Schiff worked as a medical technologist at Toronto General Hospital and Arthur was a pharmacist. She and her husband have two sons, six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Arthur died in 2001.
In recognition of her contributions to literature, Schiff was awarded an Honourary Doctorate of Letters from the University of New Brunswick in 2012, and this summer, received an Honourary Doctor of Letters degree during a virtual convocation ceremony at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia.
Schiff has published seven books. Theresienstadt: The Town the Nazis Gave to the Jews won the Elie Wiesel History of the Holocaust Award.
She was also a Czech language court interpreter during the trial of Toronto’s neo-Nazi Holocaust denier, Ernst Zundel in the 1980s. “He said the Holocaust did not exist – it was a Jewish invention,” Schiff recalled. “I couldn’t believe in my lifetime people would deny what I lived through.”
Schiff’s message never wavers. “Each and every one of us must do his share to make this world a better place. I tell students to remember: Freedom is not a gift, it is a privilege. We are very fortunate in Canada to live in a wonderful country with freedom and dignity. We must preserve it and pass it on. It is our duty.”
Schiff remains steadfast in her quest to educate Canadians. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, she has adapted to new technology and continues to educate students by Zoom.