A Life Profile
BY GAIL WEIN
Vera Schiff (née Katz) was born on May 17, 1926, in Prague. In addition to her parents Elsie and Siegfried, and her older sister Eva, 50 members of her extended family lived nearby, all of whom perished in the Holocaust. Vera survived three years at the Terezín Concentration Camp. She documented her experiences, and the experiences of those near to her, in five books including Theresienstadt: The Town the Nazis Gave to the Jews.
Her family – assimilated Czech Jews – observed religious holidays and traditions. Vera describes her childhood as “lovely as a song,” with a very loving family. It was a comfortable time for her and her sister, who was 18 months older; the two were very close. “We had a fabulous relationship and a great deal of fun,” she recalls. “We had a beautiful apartment in Letna, which was one of the best residential districts in Prague. Our street was between two parks.” Vera and her sister visited those parks almost every day with their governess.
Both girls also did very well in school. “We had afterschool lessons in languages and piano and art appreciation,” said Vera. “Our first governess was from France, so my second language was French.” Vera’s father was a lawyer in the employ of the Finance Ministry, and her parents had many Gentile friends and enjoyed an active social life.
Vera’s idyllic life came to an abrupt end on March 15, 1939. “When the Germans occupied the country, my father was kicked out of office. There were no pensions or severance pay, and whatever we owned in the bank was frozen.” Vera’s family knew that their belongings would be taken away from them under German rule. “My uncles hid a lot of the family’s assets. At one point we had hoped to emigrate to Curacao, so they sent a huge crate there with paintings, carpets and other valuables.”
According to Vera, when the Germans took over the country they issued their orders via the Jewish community, which was also responsible for carrying them out. Orders were given that every piece of jewelry and all electrical appliances and other valuables would be delivered to the police station. “There was a paper trail,” says Vera, “they provided a piece of paper saying, for instance, ‘Dr. Katz delivered three fur coats.’ The officials then threw away that paper, because there was no intention of the owner ever being able to claim it.”
“Whatever you did, you had to do it secretly,” said Vera. “Like if you had hidden some diamond rings and wanted to barter them, you were on your own. If they caught you, they would kill you. The Germans did not have kid gloves dealing with Jews. They were the most brutal overlords you can imagine.”
The Germans appropriated synagogues in Prague to store the confiscated property. Each synagogue held different kinds of goods – one was a warehouse of furniture, another for carpets, another for paintings, and another was where medications were stored. After a home was emptied, it would be rented or given to someone else.
Deportation to Terezín
On May 8, 1942, Vera and her family were sent to a deportation site in central Prague, a building which formerly was an exhibition hall. “I still remember; it was a beautiful sunny day. It was spring, and there was this intoxicating scent of flowers. I remember we were dragging these bundles and backpacks. I couldn’t understand it but I wondered, ‘Why the hell are we being treated like this?’”
At the deportation site there were about 5,000 people sitting on the floor in a huge hall. “We were there for three days. They took our identity cards and keys as they converted us from citizens into inmates.” The railway tracks were right behind the deportation site, with trains waiting to take them as inmates to Terezín.
Terezín, which the Germans called Theresienstadt, was a garrison town about 35 miles from Prague. Vera, her family and the other inmates were ordered off the train in Bohušovice, about 2 miles from their destination, because the train tracks didn’t go to all the way to Terezín. “From Bohušovice the orders came fast – everything under the Germans was to be fast – we were never fast enough. So fast, fast, off the train, pick up your bundles, and march to the gates of Terezín,” recalled Vera. Some of the bundles the prisoners carried, which contained their belongings, were confiscated at the gates. “The fact was that it was always a free-for-all. If they liked your luggage they could have confiscated it.” Vera, her family, and the other prisoners were ordered, at first, into a military barracks, which had been converted from a stable.
Saved by Mr. Bleha
Three days after arriving in Terezín, Vera and her family were scheduled to be transported to the east. However, before the family was deported to Terezín, a Gentile friend of her father’s in Prague – a man who owned a tobacco warehouse in the town of Terezín – agreed to help them out. This man, Mr. Bleha, arranged for them to meet with one of his friends, a Jew in Terezín who would help exempt them from deportation further east. Mr. Bleha told them, “Try to find Dr. Tarjan who is the chief physician and he will help you.”
“When we arrived at Terezín, I sneaked out because I was the shortest, skinniest, least visible of the four of us. I found Dr. Tarjan and I gave him our identity numbers – because that’s what we were by now – we didn’t have names, we had numbers – and he said to me, ‘Run back and lie low.’”
Three days later the entire barracks was ordered onto the cattle cars. “Shortly before they left the names were read – my father, mother, sister and I – to step out into the yard. We were told that we will not be a part of the transport; we were to stay in Terezín.” As far as Vera knew, she and her family were the only ones spared from that particular transport, which went to Maly Trostenets, a death camp near Minsk in Belarus.
Work and Life at Terezín
The sleeping accommodations at Terezín were three-tiered wooden bunks. “My mom and I shared the middle and Eva took the bunk up,” recalled Vera. “There were supposed to be six to a bunk, but you always shared with many more people. The barracks were full of lice and bedbugs and fleas. You woke up in the morning with bites from all these insects, but there was nothing you could do about it because it was overfilled.”
“I was sent to work in the hospital, because in Prague I was working in a Jewish hospital. My parents were assigned to clean the barracks, but that was another farce because you cannot clean a place where a centimeter wasn’t empty because of the overcrowding.” Vera’s sister worked in a garden where the Nazis grew vegetables for themselves, and was able to stash extra vegetables in her blouse, which augmented the family’s meager rations.
Taking Care of Sick Family
The first family member to die was Vera’s grandmother. She was unconscious when she arrived at Terezín and died shortly thereafter. Then it was Eva, Vera’s sister. “You can imagine the heartbreak of my parents, losing their first-born child.” It started with a sore throat, but Eva never complained, until one day she could no longer climb up to her bunk because her knees and ankles were so swollen. A physician, one of Vera’s friends, he came to look at Eva and he said they needed to get heart medication for Eva, digoxin.
“There was no pharmacy; no way to order it or buy it. If you had access to some gendarme, you could offer him some contraband or something valuable, for instance, ‘I have this great diamond ring. If you get me some digoxin for my sister you can have it.’ So he would take it and he may bring a tablet or two but this is not enough. And you were at his mercy.”
In trying to provide extra food for their older daughter, Vera’s parents deprived themselves of some of their rations, which weakened their own condition. “After Eva passed away my father got ill, and so again my mom and I did the same rigmarole, nothing did we eat because everything would go to him; we hoped we can help him to recover.”
And then, when Vera’s mother was sick, she knew that Vera was forgoing her own meals to bring her mother some food. But Vera’s mother was too far gone to benefit from the additional rations. It was a vicious cycle. One by one, the members of Vera’s family died.
Vera explained how difficult it was to form romantic relationships with fellow inmates at Terezín. “There were three things we knew about people: either somebody you loved died, or he left you, or he was deported, so each time it was tearing your heart. It was a perpetual state of flux.”
Even so, Vera met her future husband, Arthur Schiff, at Terezín. One day, Vera was bringing soup to her ailing mother, and she noticed a young man sitting nearby. “He looked like guys used to way back when in Prague – he was very neat, clean, and he smiled. Not too many people smiled in Terezín. I might have smiled back and somehow he started a conversation. I was tearing around in a bad hurry because I had to go and bring the soup to my mom.” Arthur said he would go with her and, on the way, they got to know each other.
“Then of course we parted and I thought I’d never see him again, because that was mostly the fate in Terezín.” But, said Vera, “he was an inventive and determined man.” A few days later, he found her while she was at work at the hospital, and the two were soon spending time together on a regular basis.
“He seemed special from the very moment I saw him,” recalled Vera. “Imagine yourself in some kind of jungle and then suddenly you see someone from Fifth Avenue. He wasn’t tall but I thought he was handsome; and he also had a lot of joie de vivre. He was a man of enormous courage and he was brave to a fault.”
“It was a love story in the shadow of death,” said Vera. “Ours was a lifelong love story, although we were very different in many ways. I never stopped loving him and I never stopped admiring him. Unfortunately I lost him in 2001.”
A Typical Day
Vera described a typical day at Terezín: “You got up in the morning, you climbed down from wherever you slept, and you tried to get rid of the bites from the lice and the bedbugs.” Often, inmates didn’t have access to water for washing up because of the overcrowded conditions. “Then you run to work,” Vera continued. “There you spent 12 hours slaving away, and then you come back and do everything in reverse: line up for the soup, and try to get some kind of water to clean yourself.”
“It never really sunk in, the emotional trauma at camp, because you were forever running somewhere. You never had a peaceful time to sit down and think, “What am I going to do? My sister died.” This came only after the war, that’s why I think it hit us so hard.”
There were some breaks to the daily routine. The Germans permitted Freizeitgestaltung – leisure time activities – believing that providing prisoners with access to some kind of recreation activity would prevent them from planning a rebellion.
There were many scholars, scientists and accomplished artists who wound up in Terezín, among them the conductor Rafael Schächter and the composers Viktor Ullmann and Gideon Klein. “Initially, Terezín was a transit camp,” Vera explained, “but it was also a depository of famous Jews. The Germans were concerned if they killed these people outright, somebody somewhere might say, ‘Where is this Schächter? Where is this Klein? Where are they?’ So they brought them to Terezín with the idea that if somebody asked, they could produce them.”
Rafael Schächter assembled a chorus of the prisoners, initially to sing Czech national songs, and ultimately to perform the opera The Bartered Bride by Bedrich Smetana and the Requiem by Giuseppe Verdi. They performed in a small cellar. “It was very difficult to get a ticket,” recalled Vera, “they could cram maybe 50 people in. You needed a lot of push and pull to get these tickets.” According to Vera, Arthur was the person with the ‘pull,’ he knew almost everybody. Through him, she was able to go to many concerts and a number of performances of the Requiem.
In the fall of 1943, officials at the camp asked for young women who had experience looking after children to volunteer to accompany a group of children from Bialystok (Poland) who were going to be exchanged for German POWs. Vera’s mother wanted her to volunteer, thinking it would get Vera out of there and save her life, but Vera insisted on staying at Terezín with her mother.
“The children from Bialystok were given nice clothes and nice luggage and were sent on the way to Switzerland. The train was diverted and they were all, along with those 50 volunteers – doctors and nurses who accompanied them – sent to gas in Auschwitz. So I would have died, but of course I didn’t know that at the time.”
There were to be other prisoner exchanges in 1944 and 1945. Since it appeared that married couples would have a better chance of being on this exchange, Arthur decided he and Vera should get married. They wed in a traditional ceremony on March 6, 1945. “He arranged everything. The rabbi officiating was the Chief Rabbi of Denmark, and it was done in the Magdeburg Barracks. The chuppah was four sticks and some kind of torn blanket. Instead of wine we had black coffee. And the Danish violinist, Hambro, was there, all arranged by Arthur.” The POW exchange never materialized and though Vera and Arthur were married, they continued to live apart at the camp.
Eluding the TB Transport
Vera’s mother died in August of 1944. She had TB, and in preparation for the International Red Cross visit, all tubercular patients were to be sent to Auschwitz to be gassed. Vera volunteered to go with her, hoping to make her mother’s journey a bit easier.
On the evening of the transport, Vera heard that the SS Commandant of the camp, Obersturmbannfüher Rahm, might allow some people with special cases to talk to him. “Some people began to line up and so I joined in. I felt like it was the last chance. I didn’t want anything for myself any more, all I wanted was for my mother not to go to be gassed.”
Vera rehearsed what she was going to say to the Commandant in German. When it was her turn, she gave her little speech. “It seemed to be an eternity before he responded, and I remember looking at his hand because it was on the holster of his revolver. I was wondering, would he pull it out and shoot me? He was known to be trigger happy.”
“But he didn’t and he looked at me, and he said in German, ‘Take this mother of yours and get out of my sight before I change my mind.’ I guarantee you I was never faster…I grabbed her –she weighed next to nothing – and I ran with her to a corner far away.”
By spring of 1945, Terezín was a repository for people from the death marches. They came from the east, from Majdanek and Auschwitz. They had been walking for days with virtually no food and water on frozen highways to Terezín. “Most of them died,” said Vera, “and, those who staggered in arrived gravely ill and covered in lice.”
The Russian Army liberated the camp on May 8, 1945. “When the Russians arrived, they saw mountains of corpses,” said Vera. “The stench was overwhelming.” There was a raging epidemic of typhus and cholera, and the camp was quarantined; nobody was allowed to leave.
First, the Russians burned all the lice-infested rags that people were wearing and then they cremated the corpses. They brought in an army medical unit and a medical unit from Prague who gave out medication. “Even so, thousands, died after that,” said Vera. “Many were the Russians and Czech doctors and nurses who came to help us, because the bacteria doesn’t know the difference.”
Vera left the camp at the end of the summer of 1945. “When I was asked, ‘where do you want to go?’ I said, ‘Home, of course. Prague.’ I didn’t think twice that I have nothing in Prague; our apartment was long occupied by some Germans, and all my relatives were deported and I knew nothing of their whereabouts.”
Vera was taken on a military jeep to the suburbs of Prague. “I stood there dressed like a scarecrow, and the people passed by and stared at me. I became self-conscious, so what to do now?” That’s when she realized that she had nowhere to go. Vera remembered that her father’s one-time co-worker lived nearby, so she very slowly made her way to his apartment. “When I got there they wouldn’t let me in because I didn’t look like who I said I was.”
But eventually they believed her and for the next few weeks, “I was a very difficult guest because I still was quite sick. I was running a high fever, I was having nightmares, I was screaming during the night. And they were patient enough to tolerate all that.” Vera stayed with these people for several weeks and then was in and out of hospitals. Malnutrition during occupation, plus her three years at Terezín had damaged her system, and she suffered from “oozing sores, night blindness and pellagra.”
The Trauma of Returning Home
“What was even much worse than the physical devastation was, when we finally had enough to eat and found clothes to wear which didn’t startle passersby, there was the emotional impact. On the streets of Prague where my relatives lived, all of a sudden nobody was there. The trauma, the coming to full recognition that everybody was dead, did not hit you in camp. But once in Prague, finally you realized, ‘where is everybody?’”
“In my case, I had a large family of 50 and I began to look for them. With the help of the Red Cross and the Jewish community I found out where they went and when they died, and by the end of 1946, I realized that no one would come back, that everybody was dead.”
The Czech law was that when you return from a camp, you could claim your former home. Vera initially claimed her family’s apartment, but then realized that she couldn’t live there. In every room she saw those who had lived there and were now gone. Vera told the officials that she didn’t want it. “They thought I was crazy because Prague was chronically short of nice apartments and it was a very elegant place.”
She found a little room to live in and tried to go to university. “It was all a very great ordeal. Every three weeks I would get a bout with fever that would put me three or four days flat on my back. And I was very angry, angry that the world allowed contributing members of society to be treated like this. Why did my relatives deserve to die like dogs, amidst hunger and lice and gas chambers?”
Her Mother’s Diary
One thing that kept Vera going through her time at Terezín and beyond was her mother’s diary. When her mother died in Terezín, Vera found a little booklet, a diary, in the straw where her mother had lain. “She wrote in it every day. She tried to survive for me. I think she found comfort in entering these little day-by-day pains from Terezín.” In that diary, Vera’s mother wrote advice for what Vera should do with her life. “There she spelled out that she expected me to study, to become a contributing member to society, to work hard, and to not allow my heartbreak to destroy my life. She spelled out where I will find what had been set-aside for me, and the life insurance information. Every time I hit rock bottom, I opened her diary. It has had an enormous power over me, this little booklet.”
Arthur and Vera separated after liberation. They saw each other periodically; they were not at loggerheads. “I tried to enroll in a medical studies program, which was my initial plan way back when I was a young girl. But I missed high school, so it was quite impossible.” Vera hoped that once she received her father’s back wages she would be able to hire a tutor to make up for the schooling that she missed. But years went by, she and Arthur reunited and had a child, and returning to school full-time was no longer practical.
In 1948, there was a Communist coup d’état in Czechoslovakia. “Arthur said that one dictatorship in a lifetime for the Jews was enough, and luckily we managed to get out.” Initially it wasn’t easy to find a place to go, but, that same year, Israel was declared an independent state and Vera, Arthur and their two-year old son David emigrated in 1949.
“We landed in Shaar-Aliyah, the triage camp for newcomers. When we came, we were mixed with other survivors from Europe.” The rest of the people in Shaar-Aliyah were Jews from North African countries – Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia. “Wherever you looked were rows and rows of black tents and sand and mosquitos. It was crowded, there was no water, and we were packed into these tents. Every day, boats arrived with more people.”
The family was in Shaar-Aliyah about four weeks, and then went on to another camp, Achuza in Haifa, where they stayed for eight months. The conditions were better, but still far from ideal. “We were drowning in mud because of the winter rains, and Arthur became ill with jaundice.”
Vera got a job at the Rambam Hospital, assigned to the newborn unit because she didn’t speak Hebrew (and neither did the newborns!). Vera and Arthur’s son was very ill by that time. He became sick on the ship to Israel, and the poor sanitary conditions and lack of water at Shaar-Aliyah exacerbated his condition. “I fought tooth and nail and I got him into a private home. I had to pay for it and I didn’t have a penny to my name.” Vera had very little money left from her monthly paycheck after paying the fee for the private children’s home in Haifa. Still, she was lucky to have a job. “Arthur was looking for a job as a pharmacist, but jobs in the medical field were scarce – there was a mile of doctors and pharmacists in Israel.” After a year of being on a waiting list, he got a job.
The family then moved to Mishmar HaYam, a coastal kibbutz with warehouses that were converted into dwellings for newcomers with washrooms and showers outside. “It was incredibly hot, but it was an improvement in privacy over the camps.” They were there for three years, and their younger son Michael was born there in 1951. In 1953 they moved to Nahariya, where Vera worked part-time at an outpatient clinic. “I have very good memories of Nahariya; I was continuously taking courses to upgrade my education.”
In 1961, the family moved to Toronto, where Arthur’s sister and her family lived. “In Israel life was very demanding, and if you were not financially affluent, it was not an easy life. Arthur’s health was getting worse, and his mother and sister said it would do him good to leave the country.” Vera and their two sons, who were 10 and 14 at the time, didn’t want to leave Israel, but for the sake of Arthur’s health, they did.
Vera had completed her medical technology degree in Israel and would have to take the exams over again in Canada, in English. “I didn’t speak a word of English, I had to learn the language, and the same with Arthur.” Arthur had to return to university and complete the requirements for the pharmacy degree in order to pass the licensing exam.
By the end of the 60s, both Vera and Arthur had completed their licensing requirements. “Soon afterwards, Arthur became ill and his not-so-sturdy health began to become apparent. He had open heart surgery in 1970, and it wasn’t really good ever since.”
Vera worked until 1991. After retiring, she wrote five books and traveled across Canada. “I spoke to thousands and thousands of schools about the horrors of European Nazi and Communist eras.” Vera has also spoken at the Holocaust Center in Toronto and the Simon Wiesenthal International Organization of Tolerance in France. Both of her sons are physicians and live in Toronto with their families.
“I want the world to know there were heroes like Rafael Schächter who tried in the shadow and bedbug-infested Terezín to bring together people to sing The Bartered Bride and the Requiem to give them hope. I do not want the world to forget, because with my passing – who will remember these people?”
“The healing process is a long one. I still have a disbelief that the world allowed it to happen, knowing full well that it could have been prevented. There should have been much more response to the tragedy. The world has lost enormous potential of people who were mostly skilled and wanted nothing better than to apply their energies to the improvement of mankind.”