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Concentration camp survivor Vera Schiff spoke April 23 at Faith Connections’ Theology on Tap event. Photo by Jed de los Reyes

Spiritual resistance in a concentration camp

By  Jed de los Reyes, Youth Speak News
  • April 25, 2012

Most 16-year-olds worry about getting good grades and maintaining friendships. Vera Schiff’s main concern was to stay alive.

Schiff shared her story to an audience of young adults at an April 23 Faith Connections’ Theology on Tap event where she discussed her spiritual resistance in a concentration camp. Between 1942 and 1945, she was held at the Theresienstadt camp in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, where she endured many hardships but found ways to maintain her humanity.

In March 1939, Schiff’s comfortable and pleasant lifestyle was broken by news of the German invasion. Suddenly, the Jewish population was barred from proper education, interaction with other citizens and even use of transit during specific times.

They were forced to wear dehumanizing yellow stars that branded them as undesirables, while rumours spread of imminent Jewish deportation and of countries refusing to provide them safe haven.

Despite this, there were still bright spots. In defiance of laws that forbade the general population from aiding Jews, a man named Josef Bleha stood by Schiff’s family, sneaking food to them via underground passages and helping to delay their deportation. But Bleha was eventually caught and executed. 

“When I returned to say thank you after the war, I wasn’t able to,” said Schiff.

Schiff described her three years in the camp as a daily routine of hard labour and starvation. The conditions were ideal for spreading disease that eventually claimed the lives of her father, mother and sister. Since the Theresienstadt camp was primarily designed for transport — as a stopover between two areas — the most frightening part of daily life was the constant threat of deportation to the East.

“You left the barracks to go to work, and you wouldn’t know if you would see your mother or sister,” said Schiff. “Maybe they would be deported or maybe it would be you.”

Schiff recounted her 18th birthday, at which her mother — at death’s door  — gave her a sugar cube as a present.

Though it does not seem like a lot, Schiff never discovered just how many slices of bread her mother needed to trade for this small delicacy. The sugar cube was not her only gift; up until her death, she hung onto her belief that the family would one day be liberated.

Since about 40,000 Jews died within the camp’s walls, Schiff finds her survival a miracle. She attributes part of it to her eventual husband, who she met in March 1944 within Theresienstadt. He was a pharmacist and a charming man who somehow managed to maintain his faith. ”

He was not only deeply religious, but very optimistic,” said Schiff. “At the time, it seemed so foolish, but it was so refreshing to hear someone saying ‘We’re going to get out.’ ” 

This hope was rewarded in 1945 when Soviet forces arrived at the camp to liberate the prisoners. Schiff then had to decide what to do next. She dedicated her life to helping people understand her suffering, in the hope that future generations would never have to relive it.

“After the war, many had their doubts,” said Schiff. “Why did so many people perish? Where was God?

“It’s not for me to understand what is beyond the pale. It is better to leave this world in a better shape than how we found it. You must try to be at peace with yourself and not cultivate anger, but be productive in a positive way.”

Schiff noted that hope helped prisoners survive. Mental and spiritual strength provided physical support. “Those of us who tried to hang onto ourselves lasted a little longer,” she said. “Some a few days, some a few months or even more.”

At the end, Schiff invited the audience to do their own research and strive to further understand her messages — the hope she drew from others, the struggle to maintain her humanity and the realization that her battles were ultimately worthwhile.

Schiff is the author of three books about her experience: Theresienstadt: The Town the Nazis Gave to the Jews, Hitler’s Inferno and Letters to Veruska.

(Jed de los Reyes, 18, is a French Studies student at York University.)

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