By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published January 6, 2005
Holocaust survivor Vera Schiff cherishes life and freedom, and she admonished seniors at St. Pius X High School in the History of the Holocaust class to never take these values for granted and to defend them.
This petite woman in her 80s with a Czech accent sat in a suit at a long conference table at the high school Dec. 7 and spoke softly to attentive seniors about the six-year nightmare she lived through during the Holocaust. She grew up in a comfortable middle-class home as the daughter of a government lawyer in Prague, Czechoslovakia, before the Nazis seized control of the city on March 13, 1939. For three years they banned her and other Jewish families from public facilities and confiscated their property. Life was “unimaginably difficult, fraught with peril, deprivations and fear.” While still in Prague, most Gentiles shunned them, for fear of incurring the wrath of the Nazis who mercilessly punished anyone that attempted to ease their plight. The only shining exception was Josef Bleha, a Gentile friend of her father, who saved her life.
Her family and other Jews were then, in May1942, herded off to the Theresienstadt concentration camp 90 miles north of Prague, where she lived from ages 16 to19 consuming only coffee and watery soup, sometimes with potatoes and peas, and waited in line for bread every three days. She worked in a “pre-mortuary” hospital with barely any medicine and supplies. Bleha had some contacts to the camp’s Council of the Elders, and he pulled strings to get the family out of the deportation order to a death camp in Byelorus. He helped other inmates there as well, and was eventually caught and executed by the Nazis. Today he is one among those the State of Israel honors by the highest distinction of “Righteous among Nations.”
“In spite of the grave danger to help his Jewish friends, he never abandoned us,” Schiff recalled.
Schiff’s parents, grandmother and only sister eventually died in Theresienstadt. Of her entire extended family of 50, she was the only survivor of the Holocaust. She surrendered to despair and despondency as she contemplated how people could commit such atrocities against innocent law-abiding citizens. “I was at the end of my tether,” she said. “I couldn’t grasp how this could happen to us.”
But her despair was transformed to anger and a desire to survive and testify to the unimaginably evil crimes. Schiff went on decades later in 1996 to publish her memoir entitled “Theresienstadt, the Town the Nazis Gave to the Jews” and in 1998, “Hitler’s Inferno.”
Schiff testified to students in this semester-long class at St. Pius, which has studied the genocides of the 20th century. Schiff’s granddaughter’s husband, John Favier, an English teacher at St. Pius, attended, as did her son, Dr. Michael Schiff from Rochester, N.Y., and grandson Ethan Schiff, a freshman at Emory University. The class, started four years ago, is taught by theology teacher Dennis Ruggiero and history teacher LeyAnna Messick, who both—among other Holocaust studies—attended a summer institute at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum. They also took a trip early in the semester to Washington, D.C., where they visited the Holocaust Museum and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, a St. Pius alumnus, and a diplomat to Africa who spoke on the Sudan, where 50,000 have died from genocide. They studied Jewish culture and visited The Temple in Atlanta. The class also created a Holocaust Museum on display Dec. 7-10, “Repetition of Tragedy: Genocides of the 20th Century,” which chronicled each of the world genocides with photos, writings and other material, including photos on loan from the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust, ending with the current crisis in Sudan. One Sudanese photo caption stated that in refugee camps 6,000 to 10,000 people die each month from disease and violence. Somber music from the soundtrack from “Schindler’s List” played as students browsed the exhibits. The section on the Jewish Holocaust had everything from video footage of Nazi trials to purge Germany of Nazi opposition, to a picture of a Nazi soldier and the prose: “I am obliged to these terrible deeds because of me, for I am an Aryan Nazi.” One exhibit stated that in addition to the over 6 million murdered Jews, from 1939 to 1945 approximately 250,000 mentally and physically handicapped people were killed.
The course analyzes the psychology and other reasons that lead people to genocide and challenges students to journey inward and consider why they need to speak out for what is right as people of faith, said Ruggiero, an Alfred Lerner Fellow at the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous.
“As a theology teacher, we have to deal honestly with this issue. As a Christian, how do I deal with injustice and hatred and teach my students to deal with those things in a Gospel context? Jesus doesn’t give us a whole bunch of options. We either act or don’t. We either protect or don’t.”
They also briefly examined the role of the Catholic Church in Rwanda and tried to have students analyze the situation for themselves. They studied the genocide by Indonesia against East Timor that carried on from the 1970s to the 1990s.
Ruggiero believes the course is very unique. In the World War II Holocaust, Ruggiero noted the varied and complex response of Christians across Europe, including those who risked their lives to hide Jews, others who remained silent, as well as others who formed a Nazi Protestant church. They studied extensively the response of the Catholic Church through Pope Pius XII, one of the most controversial figures of 20th-century Catholicism who was the wartime pope and is under investigation for beatification.
“I don’t think Jews are happy with what he didn’t say. Jews wanted Pius XII to get up and sit on his chair and, from the chair of Peter, denounce Hitler. He did it in a much more subtle way,” Ruggiero said.
“It’s important to make people aware because awareness brings change,” Messick said.
Ruggiero said that upon the teachers’ request they extended the Holocaust Museum through finals. “The response was overwhelming … We had three different Holocaust survivors come and visit the museum, and 11 Alive did an excellent piece on it which ran twice in their broadcasts.”
The Pius Players school drama group, directed by drama teacher Bonnie Spark, who is Jewish, also presented “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” a play by Celeste Raspanti based on the thousands of children who passed through Theresienstadt, a former military garrison that was set up as a stopping-off place for Jews on the way to the extermination camps. The space was meant for 5,000, but the Nazis forced more than 10 times that many—including prominent artists, musicians and other intellectuals—to live there where disease and starvation killed many. Between November 1941 and April 1945, 140,000 Jews were deported to Theresienstadt, and of these, over 35,000 died there while over 87,000 were deported to extermination camps. The play is based on collected poems and drawings by the children, most of whom died. After the camp was liberated, thousands of the children’s poems and drawings were discovered. They had been created using materials adult artists had stolen for them.
The play is an imaginative creation of the life of Raja Englanderova, a child survivor of the Holocaust whose story was created through documentary materials on her life. Attendees included Christian and Jewish community members, including one man with a granddaughter at St. Pius whose father had fled the Armenian genocide.
Pius Player Neal Partajiharja played the romantic interest of Raja in the play on Theresienstadt.
“I didn’t mess up, thank God. I didn’t expect it to be this crowded,” he said.
To prepare for his part he researched and contemplated the depth of suffering in Nazi camps. It was his first big role, and he appreciated the support given to him by fellow actors and both the guidance and freedom to explore the character given by Ms. Spark. “I read a little on the Holocaust and how all the Jews were treated and just looking at the pictures, seeing how much suffering it was in everybody’s eyes and how they were torn away from their families. They went through so much pain and suffering, and I just put this family in my head and made it feel like I was going to a concentration camp and studied them,” said the junior of Filipino heritage. “Learning about it was very moving, and how much we need to cherish life and we need to love one another.”
Schiff was deeply moved by the St. Pius play. “I’m very grateful I had the privilege to watch the play. It was a moving experience … I’m so glad they haven’t forgotten.”
Later Schiff spoke of the courage of the many that found the strength to rise above the misery to help the Jewish children. The main source of their inspiration were the teachers who dedicated all their energies to the forbidden task of educating the children, she recalled. They were supported by the Council of the Elders, men responsible for administering the camp. All felt compelled to help the children destined for death, she said, as they were the most heart-rending group of innocent victims of Nazi hatred.
In her private pit of despair Schiff found love with another inmate, the late Arthur Schiff, who she went on to marry. Their love managed to grow “in the darkest place on earth.”
“It so happened that the last month of deportation it stopped because the Russian army overran Poland and there was nowhere to take us to. We stayed together 55 years,” she said.
In her book she describes other grim details, such as how the hospital mattresses wreaked with the smell of urine and patients endured surgeries with little or no anesthesia and screamed in pain, and how it was commonplace to see couples having sex with no privacy and women offering sex to those in power to attempt to survive.
After the camp’s 1945 liberation she read and studied to understand how such hatred could prevail. She and most survivors didn’t even want to speak about it the decade after liberation. Her husband was a very moral, religious person and “somehow being with him infused me with the will to live, and I began to see the beauty of living in little things, in the feel of sunshine,” she said.
It took years for her to begin healing from the devastation. “The hard part was trying to rebuild your intellectual, spiritual, emotional and religious belief because all was destroyed, crushed to ashes and smithereens,” she said. “You never heal completely. The scar tissue came over the wounds. Somehow I found peace and restoration of life, religious, emotional and intellectual life.”
She recalled how, after the war, Jews were allowed to reclaim their former homes in Czechoslovakia, and she went back to her Prague home. “I saw faces of the people I loved and lost and turned around and said I don’t want it.”
Schiff and her husband gradually shared with their two sons the reality of the past. Her son Michael Schiff, sitting beside her, said he feels his upbringing was pretty normal. “They valued life because of what they didn’t have. They seemed to cherish life.”
St. Pius senior Nathaniel Dash, who took the genocide course, said that he has been reflecting more on the war in Iraq and the greater good that it is hoped will come through the establishment of a democracy there. While studying genocide can be depressing, he’s been inspired by stories of people with the courage to do good in the face of overwhelming evil.
“There are people that will help out and do something in a time of crisis when people are being persecuted and tortured and you yourself can also help if you have the opportunity,” he reflected. “I’ve seen the inhumanity of how monstrous people can be and how really tragic all genocides have been but that’s why I like to hear from survivors and their stories and hear something positive.”
Schiff stressed the importance of knowing the past to understand the future. She believes that the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center are modern signs of how hatred can cause devastation and spread like a cancer.
“I believe that we should be very much on guard for watching for people who do not want to live in peace with others, that have so much hate that they go to the extreme of killing themselves to inflict harm on others. We had a warning in 9/11. It continues to happen with genocides and atrocities in the Sudan. We’re not out of the woods,” she said.
And she challenged the St. Pius youth to live their faith by speaking out for what is right in their daily lives. “Cherish the wonderful freedom you enjoy but do not take it for granted. Be on guard for those who wish to disseminate hatred, intolerance and biases of any and all kinds,” she said. “If you encounter injustice do not remain an indifferent bystander, for all that evil needs to succeed is for good people to stay inactive. And remember that every one of you makes a difference. If you will do the right thing, you will create a better world.”