In what I have written below, I will try to identify the motifs in the lives of Vera Szekeres-Varsa and Lisa Pinhas that could be the starting point for an interesting discussion with our students and help them to better understand the history of Soa. Both biographies contain many fascinating questions that can be asked in Literature, History, Ethics or Social studies lessons. I also think it is important to try to sensitise the pupils by looking for common points between their lives and the biographies we are discussing, as this will make the lesson a much more personal experience for them.

The motive of survival

Vera survived the war in Hungary, as most of the Jews in Budapest were not deported to death camps. Her survival was aided by the help of her Christian relatives, who were able to move more freely than Vera's parents and thus, for example, managed to get Vera and her parents an apartment to hide in.

In this context, it may be interesting to point out to our students that not all European Jews ended up in Auschwitz during the Second World War, the situation of a Jew in Budapest and a Jew in Greece, for example, was very different during this period. A good example of this is the life of Lisa Pinhas, who was deported to Auschwitz in April 1943 and was sent to the so-called "Canada Command". Her survival was helped by the fact that she was part of a work team that handled the personal belongings of deportees to the camp, so that she could exchange them for food and gain access to various valuable items. It is important to make our students aware of how mentally demanding this task must have been, as Lisa had to sort through the personal belongings of the deportees, knowing that in many cases the owners of the items were no longer alive. 

Another key motive for Lisa's survival was her responsibility to her loved ones, and the goal of protecting her sister and fellow inmates was a major factor in her survival until liberation. At this point in Lisa's story, it is also worth reflecting and asking the students who helps them in a difficult situation.

A new beginning after the war

"We can never start a new life, we can only continue the old one."

The post-war period also raises a very difficult theme in Vera's life: the question of revenge and forgiveness. In her biography interview, Vera tells a story in which she highlights how, at the end of the war, she signals to the Russians that she has seen an Arrow Cross officer, and they execute the officer: "They shot him dead in front of my eyes." Although this is a very sensitive subject, it is an event that can be discussed with older, more mature-minded students. The other story concerns an anti-Semitic lawyer whose granddaughter becomes Vera's student after the war, and the grandfather visits Vera and asks her not to mistreat his granddaughter because of his actions during the war. Vera then always gives the girl, who is a mediocre student, slightly better grades, so that she will not be thought to be punished for her grandfather's actions. All this also highlights the complex relationships that had to be rebuilt and continued after the war.

Additionally, it is interesting that Vera (along with several of her peers) does not want to learn German after the war because of the role of the Germans in the war. In this context, a parallel can be drawn with the principle of collective guilt, under which part of the German minority in Central Europe was expelled. To this we can add the fact that the Germans have managed to face up to their actions during the Second World War and their good international relations with Israel.

It is an interesting parallel in Vera's and Lisa's lives that after the war they both return to their homeland to start a new life, unlike many of their peers, they do not want to emigrate to America or Palestine. Lisa even received an immigration permit to the "Promised Land", but did not use it. It's worth talking to our students about this: what could be the reason for both of their choices? Why were there so many people who, in the meantime, continued their lives in a new place after the war? It might be interesting to ask them what home means to them. If this is too abstract for them, they can create a word cloud using the concepts that come to mind when they think of the word 'home' (e.g. home, family, a sense of familiarity, etc.). Younger children can even write an imaginary postcard to Lisa or Vera from Palestine asking them why they are not going with them to the Jews' new homeland.

Vera tells in her life story interview that she did not want to go to a Jewish school because everyone there was Zionist, and (to her mother's delight) she did not want to emigrate to Palestine, but later she says that "I have an absolutely prejudiced attitude towards Israel".

In addition to homeland, the notion of identity can also be brought into both their stories. Lisa, who was an adult during the war, has a multidimensional cultural identity: she considers Ladino her mother tongue, but in the camp she declared herself Greek, but writes her memoirs in French. Her knowledge of French is a lifesaver in the camp.

Vera experienced the horrors of war as a child, and her identity is formed after the events. In the years following the war, she is characterised by her rejection of German and her admiration for the English language and culture, and then by her turn to communist ideology, which emphasises, for example, the defence of peace and, let us not forget, that for Vera and her parents, it was the Soviet soldiers who brought liberation at the end of the war. Later, the crushing of the 1956 revolution disillusioned her with communist ideology.

Another interesting point of discussion is that Vera changed schools independently after the war, because she feels that she has grown up as a result of her experiences during the war and no longer accepts the traditional role of a child. Here we can ask our students when they have to take their place as adults? When and what makes someone an adult?

The black silk shirt embroidered by Lisa Pinhas, shortly after her return to Greece in 1945, with phrases from Jean-Paul Sartre and Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. The phrases, all written in French, are a sample to her dynamic stance towards ©JMG Collection

A touching moment in Lisa's life is the embroidered blouse which, soon after her return home, she decorated with quotes from Jean-Paul Sartre and Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette in French, and which, she says, gave her the strength to move on after the war. In doing so, she was ahead of her time and created an early example of the statement clothes that are so popular today. An exciting exercise for students could be to ask them to work in groups to collect quotes that give them strength in difficult situations. Using textile pens, they can make their own 'embroidered blouse' by writing the quotes on a cotton T-shirt.


May be an image of 6 people, people studying, table, phone and text

Students created a T-shirt decorated with quotes important to them at a Centropa workshop. Source: Centropa facebook page

In relation to identity, we can mention the relationship with religion and the question of assimilation. Vera, for example, stated that she had never been religious, and despite not having been raised as such, her daughter identifies as Jewish. Vera said: "It is important that young people hear about the persecution".

This idea was also crucial for Lisa, who started writing her memoirs immediately after the war, and one of the first female Holocaust memoirs is hers. In this context, we can ask students why Lisa felt it was important to start writing her memoirs as soon as she returned home. How is a female memoir different from the male autobiographies that have long dominated Holocaust literature?

As can be clearly seen, the biographies of both Lisa Pinhas and Vera Szekeres-Varsa Vera are rich in motifs that could be the starting point for a meaningful discussion with our students. I believe that knowing the age, prior knowledge and maturity of the students, we can select the biographical elements that best suit the purpose of our lesson, either by comparing them, or by examining them as individual fates.


Dóra Kovács

I am Dóra Kovács, a primary and secondary school teacher for 11 years. I have been teaching Hungarian language and literature and History in an international school in Budapest. In my work, I try to present the history of the Soa through personal stories, because I believe that these stories help students to better understand and empathise with the character of this period.