Vivian Silver, activist killed in Hamas attack, remembered as peacemaker at Winnipeg memorial

Vivian Silver, a Jewish humanitarian from Winnipeg, was killed when Hamas attacked the kibbutz in Israel where she lived on Oct. 7. (Submitted by Yonatan Zeigen - image credit)
Vivian Silver, a Jewish humanitarian from Winnipeg, was killed when Hamas attacked the kibbutz in Israel where she lived on Oct. 7. (Submitted by Yonatan Zeigen - image credit)
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Hundreds of people gathered in Winnipeg Thursday night to pay their respects and honour the life of Israeli-Canadian peace activist Vivian Silver, who was killed when Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 7.

Silver, 74, was remembered as a tireless advocate for peace, a bridge-builder, and a women's rights advocate. She was born in Winnipeg and moved to Israel in 1974, where she devoted her life to peace work.

"She was fierce for what she believed in, in any setting and in front of anybody," her son Yonatan Zeigen told CBC ahead of Thursday's memorial.

"She had this duality to her, that she was small and also seemed fragile and sensitive and soft, but she was also very assertive, and she had a really strong centre and even stubbornness."

He and his brother, Chen Zeigen, arrived in Winnipeg from Israel earlier this week for the memorial.

"I was always very proud of the way she never gave up," said Yonatan. "She was relentless."

Hundreds gathered at a Winnipeg memorial for Vivian Silver in Winnipeg on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2023, including her sister Rochelle Gamliel, left, and her two sons, Yonatan and Chen Zeigen, right.
Hundreds gathered at a Winnipeg memorial for Vivian Silver in Winnipeg on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2023, including her sister Rochelle Gamliel, left, and her two sons, Yonatan and Chen Zeigen, right.

Hundreds gathered at a Winnipeg memorial for Vivian Silver in Winnipeg on Thursday, including her sister Rochelle Gamliel, left, and her two sons, Yonatan and Chen Zeigen, right. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

For more than a month, family and friends believed Silver was among the 240 hostages taken by Hamas after the militant group's Oct. 7 assault.

Her remains had been found shortly after the attack at Kibbutz Be'eri, in the south of Israel, where she lived, but weren't identified until weeks later.

While a previous memorial was held in Israel, her sons said the Winnipeg memorial — organized by the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg and held at the gymnasium at the Asper Jewish Community — was important.

"This was sort of her home — our home away from home. We would spend summers here," Yonatan said.

"It was very important for us to have the chance to come be with our family here, where she grew up, where she spent her formative years."

A memorial organized by the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg was held at the gymnasium at the Asper Jewish Community on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2023, to remember Vivian Silver, a Winnipeg-born peace activist who was killed after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7.
A memorial organized by the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg was held at the gymnasium at the Asper Jewish Community on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2023, to remember Vivian Silver, a Winnipeg-born peace activist who was killed after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7.

It was important to have a memorial in Winnipeg, Vivian Silver's family said. 'It was very important for us to have the chance to come be with our family here, where she grew up, where she spent her formative years,' said Yonatan Zeigen. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

Chen said no matter what his mother was doing to help others, family was always important to her.

"We'll keep remembering her for the person she was, in all of her political activities and achievements.… They were part of it. But to me they were kind of secondary," Chen said.

"She would march for her causes at noon and tuck us into bed at night," he said. "She would orchestrate international peace rallies during the week and bake elaborate cakes for her grandchildren's birthdays."

Silver's older sister, Rochelle Gamliel, still lives in Winnipeg.

The last few weeks have been "hell. Devastating. Very, very difficult," for the family, she said.

Gamliel broke down in tears as she saw a smiling photograph of her sister after walking into the building Thursday evening.

For weeks, the family held out hope she would be found alive.

"Once we found out there was no hope … it was very, very difficult to grasp," Gamliel said.

"It's too surreal for us. We can't comprehend this."

Vivian Silver's older sister, Rochelle Gamliel, said the past few weeks since her death have been devastating and hard to comprehend.
Vivian Silver's older sister, Rochelle Gamliel, said the past few weeks since her death have been devastating and hard to comprehend.

Vivian Silver's older sister, Rochelle Gamliel, said the weeks since Silver's death have been devastating. (CBC)

Gamliel said the family has received letters and emails from people all over the world since her sister's death. She didn't realize how much of an impact Silver had on so many people.

"Children who had no idea who she was are writing and saying that they want to be like her," Gamliel said. "It's really impactful."

Would be 'heartbroken' over war: son

Silver, whose home in Israel was walking distance from Gaza, was working to foster a shared society and coexistence for Jews and Arabs in southern Israel, her family said.

"I think she would have been heartbroken … seeing so much pain and destruction," said Yonatan. "The continuation of this pain since [Oct. 7] and no end in sight."

Chen said she would want both sides to find a peaceful solution.

"Our mom believed that violence only brings more violence, and we're really seeing the worst of it now," he said.

"She would want this to be a turning point towards an understanding on both sides. All our energy needs to be invested in finding a way to seek common grounds."

Silver was one of the founders of Women Wage Peace, a coalition of Jewish and Arab women seeking a negotiated peace in Israel.

Canadian Israeli peace activist Vivian Silver holds a sign that reads 'Amud Anan' — the Hebrew name for the Israel Defense Force's 2012 Gaza offensive known as 'Operation Pillar of Defense' — at a Women Wage Peace demonstration in Tel Aviv in August 2022.
Canadian Israeli peace activist Vivian Silver holds a sign that reads 'Amud Anan' — the Hebrew name for the Israel Defense Force's 2012 Gaza offensive known as 'Operation Pillar of Defense' — at a Women Wage Peace demonstration in Tel Aviv in August 2022.

Vivian Silver holds a sign that reads 'Amud Anon' — the Hebrew name for the Israel Defence Force's 2012 Gaza offensive known as 'Operation Pillar of Defence' — at a Women Wage Peace demonstration in Tel Aviv in August 2022. (Women Wage Peace)

She would also often drive Palestinian children to hospitals in Israel to get life-saving care.

She leaves a legacy of promoting a shared society between Israelis and Palestinians, her family said.

"I think what she can represent is that the future of Zionism and the ability for the Jewish people to live in Israel with security and peace lies within the understanding there needs to be coexistence side by side with the Palestinian people," said Chen.