Anne Frank's stepsister remembers the Holocaust at Kellogg Center
"At 13, that was the first time that I realized it's actually a matter of life and death.”
At the Kellogg Center Wednesday night, 88-year-old Holocaust survivor Eva Schloss told her stories of survival ― and those of her stepsister, Anne Frank ― to a room full of MSU students and East Lansing community members, all held in rapt attention.
Dr. Tami Weiss, program director for art education at University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie, Wisconsin, introduced Schloss. Weiss emphasized the historical importance of this event, especially as the number of living Holocaust survivors dwindles with age.
“This is a really incredible night,” said Weiss. “This is really history that you’re seeing and touching really. The age of Holocaust survivors is certainly seeing its end, and so what a monumental night you have before you.”
Schloss was born Eva Geiringer in Vienna, Austria, on May 11, 1929. She and her mother survived the horrors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, while her father and brother were killed. Her mother later remarried to Anne Frank’s father, Otto.
A sudden shift
Growing up in Austria, Schloss felt that her non-religious Jewish family was accepted by their non-Jewish neighbors.
“There was no looking funny at us, we were just part of the community,” she said during the event. “But this changed immediately, as soon as Hitler marched in.”
Schloss described the change in Austrians’ attitudes towards Jews as an overnight switch once Nazi Germany annexed Austria in March of 1938.
“They stood in the streets with their 'hail Hitler' salutes, suddenly they all had big Swastika flags that they were waving,” Schloss said. “The Jewish people looked very (scared) out of their windows, because we knew what had happened already in Germany.
“My best friend was a Catholic girl. ... After this day, when I got there I saw the mother looking at me already very peculiar, with hate in her eyes. And she said, ‘we never want to see you here again’ and she slammed the door in my face. I went home crying. My mother said, ‘well, for Jewish people life is going to be very very difficult and completely changed from now on.’”
As attitudes towards Jews became increasingly hostile in Austria, the Geiringer family escaped to Belgium, then to Amsterdam, Netherlands. This was where Schloss met Anne Frank. The Franks fled Germany in 1934, and the two families bonded with the girls becoming fast friends.
“At that time she was just one of my playmates,” Schloss said. “Nobody expected she would become a victim and very famous for writing her diary."
"I admired her because she was very forward. At 11, she was already interested in boys. When I told her I had an older brother, she said ‘When can I come to your apartment and meet him?’"
The girls’ burgeoning friendship was cut short by the war, which came to the Netherlands in May 1940.
“In the night, we heard aeroplanes and sirens," Schloss said. "We put on the radio and the newscaster said, ‘Dreadful news: the Germans are trying to invade our country, but don’t worry, we are going to fight them.’ But the Dutch army was, of course, no match for the very powerful Germans.”
By the 14th of May, the Dutch forces had surrendered.
Life in hiding
Eventually, the two families decided to go into hiding. However, Schloss’ family had to separate. She would go with her mother, while her brother Heinz would go with her father.
“I started to cry. ... My father explained to me if we were in two different places, the chance that two of us would survive was greater," Schloss said. "At 13, that was the first time that I realized it's actually a matter of life and death.”
For over a year, Schloss and her mother moved from attic to attic, basement to basement, dodging Nazi raids and patrols constantly. Schloss says that they stayed in seven different places over the course of a year.
“Everywhere we went, we had a hiding place within a hiding place because they were looking for us," Schloss said.
Schloss and her mother stayed in intermittent contact with her father and brother, but this ended when someone the men were staying with turned out to be a double-agent and reported the whole family to the Nazis. On Schloss’ 15th birthday ― May 11, 1944 ― the family was apprehended by the Gestapo, interrogated, and shipped to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland.
At the gates, the Nazi guards ordered the men and women to separate sides.
“You can imagine what a scene that was,” Schloss said. “Wives and husbands saying goodbye to each other, mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, assuming they would never ever see each other again.”
As Schloss was separated again from her father and brother, her father, though he was not a religious man, said what he thought would be a final goodbye.
“He took me by the hands and said ‘God will protect you,’” Schloss said.
The Jewish prisoners had heard the tales of the deadly gas chambers disguised as showers that the Nazis at Auschwitz used for mass slaughter, and Schloss lived in constant fear of the Zyklon-B “showers.”
Schloss lamented the inhumanity of the guards at Auschwitz who led prisoners to the gas chambers.
“The cruelty was just unbelievable," Schloss said. "Very often I get asked, ‘did you ever have anybody who was showing you compassion or helped you with anything?’ And the simple answer was no.
“You hear this as well from soldiers who are fighting. The first person they shoot, it’s terrible; the second, it’s bad; the third, well, it’s routine. The fourth, they just do it.”
For months, Schloss survived inhumane conditions, sickness, starvation and the showers.
As winter approached, so too did the Soviet armies from the east.
“The Germans knew, we didn’t know,” Schloss said. "They started to evacuate the camp. Every day they emptied barracks and people disappeared, we didn't know what had happened to them. After the war, those were called the ‘death marches.’”
Eventually, her brother and father were taken on a death march. Schloss was briefly reunited with her father before they departed.
Over the next weeks, Nazis trickled out of the camp, and order broke down.
“One morning we woke up and it was very quiet,” Schloss said. “We went outside, and the Germans had fled because the Russians were coming. ... And indeed they came, with a field kitchen, horses, tanks, everything pursuing the Nazis. But they spent the night with us and fed us and gave us cabbage soup. ...We just ate, ate, and ate. I’ve never spent such a painful night on a bucket, because the food went straight through me.”
After the Russians arrived, Schloss was reunited with Otto Frank, who later learned his wife and both of his daughters were lost to the death camps.
The Russians relocated the former prisoners ― now clothed and fed ― to Odessa, Ukraine, until the end of the war. Eventually, Schloss, her mother, and Otto Frank returned to Amsterdam.This was where they received word from the Red Cross that Schloss’ father and brother had been killed in the Mauthausen concentration camp. It was also where Otto found his daughter’s famous diary.
“This gave him hope,” Schloss said. “He always used to say ‘I feel as if my little girl is still with me.’”
The significance of Schloss’ experiences is not lost on her. Schloss says that while at first she was reluctant to speak about her experiences during the Holocaust, she is motivated when she sees injustice in today's society.
“(I feel motivated) when I see what’s happening again, when I see we have discrimination and hatred and intolerance and wars and refugees, and again the same situation and people don’t care,” Scloss said.
Schloss spoke to the importance of not being a bystander. She emphasized this for the young people in the audience.
“We must have the courage to speak up and take part in what is happening around us,” Schloss said.
"Take part, see what is going on around the world, and share what you’ve got. Get interested in what is happening around the world, not just in your own street. And speak up.”
MSU law student Victoria Espinoza, a daughter of Mexican immigrants, and asked Schloss how to combat the discrimination and intolerance she has experienced in recent months.
“I want to know how to respond to them and how to react to them because it’s hard for me to respect their opinions," Espinoza said.
When she noticed the event with Eva Schloss on a calendar of events at MSU, she knew she had to make time to come.
“You should speak to those people who attack you and think you are less worthy than them,” Schloss said. “Explain to them just because I am born in a different country or speak a different language, we are not less than you are.”
Audience questions shifted to the right to free speech in America and where the line can be drawn between freedom of speech and hate speech ― as well as to the recent news that white nationalist Richard Spencer will be pursuing legal action against MSU for denying his organization's request to speak on campus.
Schloss told the student body that, should Spencer speak on campus, students should stand up.
“Demonstrate,” Schloss said. “Say that shouldn’t be allowed.”