The Wiener Library

For the Study of the Holocaust & Genocide

Hilda Schiff

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Hilda Schiff
born 15 March 1931
Vienna
died 21 June 2010
Oxford

 

During the war

Hilda was sent to the UK as a seven year old in February 1939 on a Kindertransport, along with her older sister Gitti (Gisella). Although they were together at first in a host family in Islington, Hilda was then moved to the host family relatives near Shepherd’s Bush. From there she was evacuated three times, ending up in Penzance. She learned English quickly and did well at school, but her education was quite fragmented and she was away from her sister.

Her father had escaped to Switzerland.  At the end of the war the girls were reunited with him in London and Hilda went for short period to a grammar school and then to Pitmans College to learn shorthand and typing.  They did not know what had happened to their mother, Toni Schiff. There were searches in the 1940s but at that point there were few records, so after a period, as with many others, there had to be a formal assumption she had perished and there was an affidavit that she had died.

Career

Gisella married and moved to Switzerland and in 1948 Hilda moved with her father and his second wife to the USA. In New York she set about filling in the gaps in her education by attending courses at Columbia University, funding herself through secretarial work, and at the same time working hard to develop her skills as a poet and short story writer.  She returned to the UK in 1952, took her A levels and enrolled at Kings College London to read English. There she was a member of an active and innovative group of writers which included Maureen Duffy, John Ackerman Jones and B.S. Johnson and she began to have her work published.

After graduating she completed an MA on Oscar Wilde and trained as a teacher, and sebsequently taught in a number of training colleges. Between 1970-1973 she was at Wolfson College Oxford working on a BLitt, but she ran out of funds before she could complete it and returned to teaching. All the time she was writing and publishing, both poetry and prose. A Condition of Being, a collection of poems, was published in 1964 by Outposts, an avant garde publisher.

From the end of the war onwards she had wanted to find out what had happened to her mother. But the real period of research began in the 1980s when she began a systematic programme of interviewing family members, working in archives and embarking on a disciplined period of reading. A good deal of this reading took place in the Wiener Library and she became an active supporter and volunteer. 

In compiling the book on her mother Hilda was able to combine her rigorous academic training with her talents as a writer of both prose and poetry. This meant she was able not only to give an informed and accurate account of what had actually happened to her mother but to but describe how it felt to walk in her footsteps. Her researches took her to France, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Poland, Israel, Belgium and back to the USA to Washington and the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Copious and detailed notes from these visits were supplemented by extensive reading on the topic. Drafts of some chapters were written and she published her responses to some of her visits: to Antwerp, Auschwitz and Rivesaltes, a holding camp in the south of France.

However she died before the work could be completed and Sheila Rosenberg, her friend and collaborator, is compiling a book which will now also tell Hilda’s own story and her search to complete her mother’s story and her own moving accounts of her responses and feelings. 

Holocaust Poetry

At the same time as Hilda was researching what had happened to her mother, she was working on Holocaust Poetry, a highly regarded anthology of works by a very wide range of poets which appeared in 1995, with a second edition in 2001.  

In her influential introduction to this collection she confronts the question, posed by Theodor Adorno, of whether it is possible to write poetry about the Holocaust. As the collection testifies, she answers that it is. In the face of unimaginable horror it is the only way to reach out imaginatively towards the experience of others (p. xii) and she draws on Aristotle in her contention that ‘literature has more to tell us about truth than history has’ (p. xiii).  In 2000 she again looked at poetry and the Holocaust in her paper, ‘The truths of poetry: a dialogue,’ given at the conference Remembering for the future, The Holocaust in an age of genocide held in London and Oxford, July 2000 and published, along with all the proceedings of the conference, in 2001.

Later Years

In common with many survivors, including the Kindertransportees, for many years Hilda could not speak about her experiences of separation, evacuation, and loss, and even for those who were close to her those years remained a nearly closed book. But they informed a great deal of her writing.  In later years she did begin to speak about earlier times, and, as a member of the Association of Jewish Refugees and of the Kindertransport Association, to align her experiences with those of others.  She was very pleased to be among the Kindertransport group that met HRH the Prince of Wales in Clarence House in July 2005, and to represent them again at the opening of the Kindertransport Memorial Exhibition in Vienna in November 2006. 

Perhaps the task of collecting and editing the wide selection of poems for Holocaust Poetry, and the work necessary to write the life of her mother, helped her to be more open about her own early and formative years.  Or maybe the growing openness itself preceded, and was essential for, the work to be undertaken at all.

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