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Mrs. Eva Schloss talked about her experiences during World War II and the Holocaust and what it was like being the stepsister to Anne Frank Monday evening at the Hilton Woodcliff Lake. She began with her own background as a child while monumental events were taking place all around her. She touched a bit on the conditions that existed in Germany just prior to Hitler’s rise to power. It was struggling economically, under crushing debt, and feeling humiliated by those nations that had defeated Germany in the Great War, and which had placed the entire burden of blame for that war on Germany, forcing it to pay heavy debts. As a result, economic conditions in Germany were horrendous, with 1 million Deutsche Marks being worth only $1 US.
When Hitler came to power, he promised a major turnaround and, at first, many Germans felt that they really had nothing to lose by giving Hitler a chance to make good on his promises. Somehow, things did improve for the country initially. Many people did not fully understand the implications of Hitler’s rise to power, and Eva mentioned that even some Jews tried to get on good terms with Hitler and lent him their support when he first came into power. Indeed, many Germans felt that Hitler seemed to fulfill his promises, at least at first. The Autobahn was built, creating a new highway system traversing across the nation. There was the Volkswagen (literally translated as “people’s car”), which made affordable cars readily accessible for many Germans. Finally, people were working again, and economic conditions in Germany began to improve.
In the meantime, Eva was living with her family in Vienna. Her mother, Elfriede Markovits, had married Erich Geiringer, and together, they would have two children. The son, Heinz, was the oldest, and Eva, born in 1929, came three years later. Eva described her mother as totally submissive to Erich, her father. She described her father as very handsome, with striking blue eyes. She remembered well enjoyable weekend treks to the Austrian mountains on weekends.
While Germany was changing, and growing increasingly more anti-Semitic over time, things hardly changed at first in Austria. But that would change in a hurry with the Anschluss in March of 1938, when Nazi Germany annexed Austria. Hitler had been testing the waters and growing increasingly bold, and he would soon take over Czechoslovakia later that year without a shot being fired, before Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 ultimately led to the start of the new war in Europe.
Eva said that when the Nazis took over in Austria things changed immediately and drastically. She described Austrians as suddenly being even more enthusiastic in their anti-Semitism than the Germans were. Jews were pulled out of their homes, and their shops were looted. Education became segregated, as Jews were separated from their former classmates. Eva remembered how she had been friends with a Catholic girl at the time and used to go over that girl’s house. But on the very first day after the Anschluss, Eva went over to that girl’s house as usual, only to have the mother angrily tell her that she was never wanted to see Eva there again, and slammed the door in her face. Only 9-years old at the time, Eva was nonetheless beginning to understand how these events would have an impact on her personal life.
The family managed to escape to Belgium in 1938, with her father, who had a successful shoe business that helped him to move there. He shortly brought the rest of the family with him, although this was not easy to do. By that time, most countries had closed their door to Jewish immigration, so the family really very lucky. Eva was the only member of the family who did not speak French, although she would have to learn in a hurry, since her schooling was conducted in French.
Eventually, the family would move to Holland, to Amsterdam, where Eva and Anne Frank first met. Eva laughed as she recalled how Anne was known as “Mrs. Quack Quack”, and mentioned that while they were not best friends or anything like that, she distinctly remembered her impressions of Anne Frank. Anne seemed more sophisticated and adult than Eva, even though Anne was the younger of the two. She had an advanced sense of style that was the envy of all the neighborhood girls, and she was very interested in boys, while Eva, who had a brother, did not share that sense of mystery and intrigue with boys.
Despite the upheaval of moving around so much, life remained relatively normal, even as world events continued all around them. Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, and in turn, Britain and France answered by declaring war on Germany. But the war remained quiet on the western front initially, although all of that would change quickly in the spring of 1940. Germany would invade Belgium and Holland, among other countries. Holland capitulated after five days, and once again, Eva’s family found themselves under Nazi rule. This time, fleeing to a safer country was not possible. Still, things would change slowly, as the Nazis did not want to force things early on. Slowly, however, there were more and more regulations introduced against Jews, including no access to public transportation and, as the family had seen in Austria, the segregation of schools.
Soon, there were round ups of Jews, as many began to be transported back to Germany. Eva recalled how Nazi trucks would come to the schools, into the classrooms, and round-up many of the children, who never returned home. At one point, Nazis rounded up 10,000 Jewish men and boys, who were never heard from again. In July of 1942, Eva’s father was scheduled to be sent to work in German factories. It was well-known that Jews who were sent to work in the factories never returned. So, the family went into hiding.
Eva talked about the challenges of going into hiding, much like both she and Anne Frank did. They had to rely on strangers, and you could never be sure who to trust. There were house searches about once a week, and Eva recalled how scary it was being in her hiding place while hearing the heavy boots of the shouting Gestapo agents just a few feet away from her. Her family split up, assuming that there was a better chance at survival that way. She went with her mom, while her brother went with her father. They would get to visit each other only occasionally, although they very much looked forward to these rare family reunions.
In 1944, a nurse led them to what was supposed to be a “safe house” in Amsterdam, but she turned out to be a double agent, and betrayed them. On Eva’s 15th birthday, the Gestapo finally got the family and arrested them. They were ultimately sent by the infamous cattle cars to Auschwitz. Eva remembered that these cars were made of metal, and had a thin slit for air. They were not intended for human beings. Each car had one bucket for water, and one bucket for waste. The trains would stop once a day, and bread was thrown into the car by German soldiers, who acted like they were feeding wild animals. One of her saddest memories was of her father telling them shortly before they arrived that he could no longer protect them. She remembered this striking her as to the gravity and tragedy of the situation.
She recalled arriving at Auschwitz, and the doors of the cattle car being thrown open. Guards were shouting, dogs were barking, and the scene was just one of general chaos. This was the last time that her family would ever be all together, just before men and women were separated, and how odd a last reunion such a situation provided. She recalls seeing Josef Mengele, the German Schutzstaffel (SS) officer and the physician of ill-repute at Auschwitz, who had earned his nickname as the “Angel of Death.” Mengele selected which side each individual would go to. There were those who he saw as fit enough to live, and those who would be sent directly to the infamous showers. Eva mentioned that everyone understood the reputation of the showers, and what it meant to be sent there. Eva’s mother had given her the very large hat that she had been wearing and, despite it being a hot day in May, she insisted that her daughter wear it. This disguised just how young Eva was, and she says that it very well may have saved her life.
Eva remembered sleeping in what she called “cages” of tightly packed wooden planks that served as beds, where up to ten people would share each bed in very tightly packed sleeping quarters. These beds were filled with lice and bed bugs. Within days of arriving, many people got sick, and had lice. This was basically unavoidable due to the primitive conditions, she said.
She worked in what was called “Canada” during that summer of 1944. This was a sort of sorting station, where the possessions of new arrivals would be taken. Eva’s job was to go through all of the pockets and carefully search the seams for each article of clothing, looking for hiding places for jewelry and other valuables. Everything had to be turned over to the Germans, and she mentioned that many of these valuables have since remained in Germany.
During Eva Schloss’s talk about the Holocaust and her time in Auschwitz, she also mentioned that Anne Frank, her stepsister, arrived in Auschwitz in 1944, on the last transport from Holland carrying Jews to the death camps. Anne Frank died at Auschwitz, one of what is estimated to be over one million victims.
Eva was with her mother throughout their time at Auschwitz, and she remembered towards the very end, when she woke up one morning to find the camp empty of Germans. She was in the women’s camp, and estimated that there were maybe 300 women left alive. They went looking for her father and brother in the men’s camp, but nobody was there. However, the did meet with Otto Frank, Anne Frank’s father, whom they had known during their time in Amsterdam. Otto Frank had, against all odds, managed to obtain the diary of his daughter. It took him three months to read it, and he realized then that, on some level, he had never really known his own daughter. At first, he felt that it was Anne’s private diaries, and should remain private. Some years later, however, he changed his mind when he was told that he owed it to the world to release the diary, which has since gone on to become very famous, and one of the most iconic works from that chapter in history. Otto Frank married Eva’s mother not long after the war.
She remembered seeing what looked at first like a bear at the entrance of the camp, but it was a Russian soldier, wearing the trademark furry hats and big, brown coats. The Russians liberated the camp, and took the survivors east, to Odessa, in present day Ukraine. The Germans had destroyed everything in the city, and she saw deprivation and suffering everywhere. Eventually, they made it back to Holland and, not long after that, they moved to Britain. She would meet her future husband, Zvi Schloss, while there. They were married for 62 years.
Eva revealed that she very much struggled following her experiences at Auschwitz. She hated everything and everyone, and suffered from terrible depression. Many years later, she found a note that she had herself written shortly after these events, and in that note, she was shocked to find herself mentioning wanting to commit suicide. However, she said that her natural inclination is not to be gloomy and depressed, but happy. It took some doing, but she has found happiness in her life since.
There were lasting effects from her time at Auschwitz. The scarce diet of a little bread and water for such an extended period of time gave her problems with her digestive system for years afterwards. Also, she was not able to bear children, at least initially. Both of those things she managed to overcome, and she eventually had three daughters, and now has five grandchildren.
She tried to live as normal a life as possible, and her new family did well overall. But in the 1980’s, she was discussing her experiences with some friends, and remembered details and things that she had not thought about for so many years. It was then that she decided to start writing her account of those days and experiences, and dedicate her life to Holocaust awareness and a greater understanding of these issues. To that end, she has written three books – Eva’s Story, The Promise, and After Auschwitz. Also, a play by James Still, And Then They Came for Me – Remembering the World of Anne Frank, was written largely about the experiences of Eva and her famous stepsister.
After Eva Schloss was done with her talk about the Holocaust and being Anne Frank’s stepsister, there was a candle light memorial service, which concluded the evening. Outside in the lobby, there was an exhibition of art by Mrs. Eva Schloss’s brother, Heinz Geiringer. He had saved the art underneath the floorboards of the place that they were staying at before being sent to Auschwitz, with a note claiming that these were his property, and he would be back to pick them up after the war. Instead, he died within the last days of the Holocaust, during the death march out of Auschwitz. He was with Erich Geiringer, father to both Heinz and Eva, when they both died just days before American troops arrived.
By Charles Bordeau
Photo by Jared Polin- Flickr