Video: On Holocaust Memorial Day, Auschwitz survivor Eva Schloss explains why we must never forget
Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, when services will be held across Norfolk to remember victims of genocide the world over, on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Last week Eva Schloss, Anne Frank’s step-sister and an Auschwitz survivor, visited Norwich to speak of her experiences – and explain why we must never forget. MARK SHIELDS reports.
For more than 40 years after her release from Auschwitz-Birkenau, Eva Schloss did not speak about what she had lived through.
She didn’t say a word – not to her husband, not to her three children - during the decades in which her step-sister, Anne Frank, became the defining voice of Jewish persecution at the hands of the Nazis.
It was in 1986 that she first dared to tell of the atrocities she had survived – and the decision changed her life forever.
“Ask me anything: I’m happy to talk”, she told the audience in the Curve auditorium in the Forum at the end of a 45-minute talk on Monday that brought a standing ovation.
“We must not forget the Holocaust, and that’s why it’s so important to talk about it.”
Much of her life since then has been dedicated to that end, with books and speeches honouring the memory of the brother and father she lost to the concentration camps.
Speaking at the launch of an exhibition of touching photographs of step-sister Anne, taken by Otto Frank, Mrs Schloss explained her own journey, from her childhood in Austria, to hiding in Amsterdam, the horror of the concentration camps and her eventual release.
“Unfortunately, our experiences were very similar. We emigrated to Amsterdam as well [as the Franks], we went into hiding for two years, and we were betrayed, all exactly like the Franks,” she said.
“Both families were sent to Auschwitz. The difference, of course, is that my mother and me did survive, and Anne, her sister and her mother did not.”
Her talk described in painful detail the everyday reality of life hiding from the Nazis, and the betrayal by a double-agent nurse which led to Eva and her mother being separated from her father and brother at the gates of Auschwitz.
Even the single moment at which the audience allowed themselves a smile of relief – as Mrs Schloss described the “wonderful, greasy cabbage soup” served up by Russian soldiers liberating Auschwitz – was interwoven with tragedy.
“You have no idea how we gobbled it up – I can still smell it,” she said.
“But our bodies couldn’t cope with it. In the morning many people had died. They didn’t have the calories in their bodies to digest the food.”
The young Eva Schloss first came across 11-year-old Anne Frank after fleeing Nazi-occupied Austria to Amsterdam with her family in February 1940.
The two girls would play together and had become friends before the Germans invaded Holland in May of 1940 - within five days the Dutch had surrendered, and life began to change for Jewish citizens.
First they were banned from public transport, then subjected to curfews. Their radios were confiscated and they were forbidden from owning bikes, before they were all forced to wear the yellow star to identify them.
When men and boys began being rounded up and sent to the camps, Eva’s father decided that it was not safe for the family to live openly any more, and they sought refuge with Dutch citizens willing to hide them.
They were separated and had to move several times over the next two years before, on a visit to see her brother and father in 1944, they were betrayed by a nurse who reported them to the Nazis. It was Eva’s 15th birthday.
On the train to Auschwitz-Birkenau, she had her final conversation with her father.
“My father apologised to us,” she said. “As the head of the family, he said he was sorry: ‘I can’t do anything more for you now. You are on your own.’”
Men and women were separated at the gates, and each new arrival inspected by the notorious Dr Josef Mengele, who split them into two groups: the weak were bound for the gas chambers, the stronger for the camp.
Eva and her mother were spared, and taken to be stripped, shaved and tattooed with a number.
“They told us ‘You are not like a human being. You are like cattle: you are just a number now. If ever we want you, you will be called by your number: forget about your name.’”
The two women spent nine months in the camp, gradually losing track of the days, weeks and months, only judging the time of year by the snow that rose to waist height.
“That anybody survived Auschwitz is a miracle. The food was technically non-existent, hard work, no clean water, many people had typhus and dysentery, lice, bed bugs, hard labour,” she said.
“But somehow my mother and me made it.”
One morning, they awoke to find the camp deserted of guards. The Germans, anticipating the arrival of the Russians, had abandoned the camp.
Even then, the thousands of prisoners did not leave – they were too weak, too ill, and had nowhere to go.
It was January 1945 when the Russian soldiers arrived, and the long journey back to Amsterdam began for the two women.
They met Otto Frank, and he told them Eva’s father and brother had died in the death camp, where he himself had lost his wife and daughters.
“My mother told me ‘At least we have each other – this poor man has nobody. What has he got to live for?’,” said Mrs Schloss.
It was the discovery of Anne’s diary, written between the ages of 13 and 15, that gave Otto Frank a flicker of hope.
“He came round to our house one day with a brown parcel, and opened it very carefully. It was the diary,” said Mrs Schloss.
“He would read a few sentences, then burst into tears. It took him three weeks to read it to us, and it gave him a purpose in life. He carried it with him everywhere.
“He was very proud of it, and he was amazed by what he read. He would say: ‘I really didn’t know my child’. He was amazed at her thoughts and how grown up she was.”
In the years after the war, Otto Frank and Eva’s mother grew closer, bonded by their experiences of the camps.
When Eva returned from a year in London in 1951, where she was training to begin a career as a photographer - inspired by the gift of Otto Frank’s camera - she found the two had fallen in love.
“They married in 1953, and were married for 27 years. I have never seen a happier marriage,” said Mrs Schloss.
In the years since its publication, Anne Frank’s diary has been read by millions, made into a film and a play, and is known around the world.
There is clear admiration when Mrs Schloss reflects on what Anne and Otto Frank achieved, together but separately, in ensuring that the horrors of the Holocaust continue to be discussed.
She said: “One and a half million Jewish children were murdered, but if you tell that to a class, they can’t understand what it means.
“But if you tell one story, people can relate to that. Anna was and is the most well-known victim of the Holocaust – that’s what she became.”