When her family fled the Nazis and escaped to the Netherlands, Eva Schloss met a new friend in Amsterdam — a girl named Anne Frank.
The two Jewish girls, along with their families, were forced into hiding. They were betrayed by a Nazi collaborator, and they were shipped to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps.
Eva emerged as one of the few survivors, losing nearly her entire family. Anne perished in the camps, but her story lived on because of the diary she kept during her time in hiding. The girls became posthumous step-sisters.
Now age 90, Schloss has kept the story alive by sharing her experiences. She recently spoke at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, where an audience of 3,500 packed the Elmen Center to hear her story.
Schloss has devoted her life to telling her story and that of the Holocaust. She has vowed it must never be forgotten and must never happen again — yet she fears history could repeat itself given recent events.
In his introduction, Rabbi Mendel Alperowitz — the only resident rabbi in South Dakota — pointed to the rising number of attacks on Jews and on sites such as synagogues, cemeteries, schools and other buildings.
“Unfortunately, today, within living memory of the Holocaust and with survivors still walking the face of the Earth, we are seeing a rise in anti-Semitism and Holocaust deniers,” he said.
The answer lies in more than education, he said, because educated people shot and burned Jews during World War II. Society needs a return to the sacred and a higher moral code with a reverence of all life, he added.
THE CRACKDOWN BEGINS
Schloss shared her life story during a conversation with former Sioux Falls Argus Leader publisher Arnold Garson.
He noted the prominence of the Jewish community while she was growing up in Vienna, Austria. Vienna had 2 million residents at the time, including 50 synagogues, Garson said. The 175,000 Jews made up less than 10% of the population but 50% of the doctors, 75% of the bankers and 80% of the lawyers.
Schloss recalled Austria as a beautiful, scenic nation with wonderful lakes and mountains. On Sunday mornings, her family would take a lunch and spend the entire day in the mountains.
Her idyllic childhood ended when the Nazis invaded Austria.
“We had Christian friends who brought out the Nazi flags, and swastikas suddenly appeared. The attitude toward Jews turned completely,” she said.
“My best friend was a Catholic girl. After school, we played together. Then I went home with my friend. Her mother opened the door and you could see she was furious with me. She said, ‘We never want to see you here again.’”
The Jewish children had attended school with other students, and twice a week, the Jewish students received Hebrew school in one of the classrooms. That also changed quickly with the Nazi arrival.
“My brother was 12 years old, and his clothes were torn and he was beaten up. And the teachers watched it and let it happen,” Schloss said. “I was never prepared for anything like that to happen.”
As part of the crackdown, Jews were limited to ghettos, could shop only in Jewish stores and were forced to wear the Star of David when they went outside.
“When my father saw Hitler come to power and the SS marching through the streets with the Nazi salute, he knew things weren’t going to get better,” Schloss said. “He said, ‘This isn’t the way I want to raise my family.’ We left Austria because life had gotten too difficult. We were able to get out of the country because the borders hadn’t been closed yet.”
FLEEING TO HOLLAND
The family fled to Holland. That’s where they met the Frank family, who had escaped Germany. When the Germans rolled into the Netherlands, the two families — along with other Jews — went into hiding.
The Nazis began house-to-house searches for Jews, with Dutch families willing to provide a hiding place despite the consequences for themselves.
Those in hiding couldn’t make any noises or movement that would tip off the Nazis or their collaborators. A small container was used as a toilet because those in hiding couldn’t flush, which would draw notice.
Schloss told of one episode where Nazis stormed a house and felt the beds to see if they were still warm — a tip that hidden Jews were living there.
Anne Frank kept her now-famous diary, which served a dual purpose, Schloss said. The diary kept Anne going through the occupation, but it also provided as a powerful form of storytelling about their experiences.
One day, their families heard the dreaded knock on the door. They had been betrayed by a woman who acted as a double agent but was actually a Nazi collaborator. She had turned in dozens of persons, including her fiancée.
“The Nazis and Dutch police went up the stairs and ran straight to our hiding place,” Schloss said. “We were taken to Nazi headquarters, and I was so terrified I couldn’t speak. But at the same time, I knew I had to respond in some way for fear of what the Nazis would do to my family.”
The family members were separated and interrogated. They were sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, and Schloss never saw most of her family again.
“My father said, ‘I can no longer protect you anymore. You’re on your own,’” she said.
The Nazis separated men and women, and they also divided those 18 and older from the younger prisoners. Schloss appeared older, which kept her from being sent to the “wrong” side for extermination.
She was tattooed with a number. “We were no longer treated as a person with a name. They referred to us only with that number,” she said.
The prisoners suffered from cold, disease, starvation and unsanitary living conditions. Bedbugs sucked their blood. Boys in SS uniforms laughed at the suffering prisoners.
“A lot of people just disappeared. It was terrible,” Schloss said.
And yet, people living a short distance from Auschwitz said they didn’t know what was happening in the camps, Schloss said. But, she asked, how could they not know with the smoke and smell from the gas chambers and crematorium?
The BBC radio from England provided news on the war’s progress. The war was turning in favor of the Allies, and with it came hope for liberation and war’s end.
“We woke up the next morning, and the Nazis had fled,” she said, noting the Russians took the survivors to the east until the end of the war.
Schloss emerged as one of the few survivors from the 1.1 million people who had gone through the concentration camp, Garson said.
“For comparison, of the 3,500 people in this audience, only nine of you would have survived,” he said.
The war’s end brought a sense of joy but also loss for the Jews, Schloss said. Where would they go to rebuild what was left of their lives? Many said they would never return to the scene of the atrocities against them. Some went to England, others to the United States or Israel.
Schloss showed photos throughout her presentation, from joyful childhood moments to the horrors of the occupation to Associated Press photos of the concentration camps after the liberation.
She and her mother moved to England. She met a man and initially turned down his marriage proposal because she didn’t want to part from her mother after their wartime experiences. But she changed her mind, and they were married.
Schloss’ mother married Anne Frank’s father, making Eva and Anne posthumous step-sisters. Schloss has remained active in sharing their story.
Alperowitz said it warmed his heart to see 3,500 people from across South Dakota and neighboring states gather to hear a story that must be told.
“The message I hope we all walk away with is the Jewish approach to adversity: we don’t fight darkness with more darkness and paralysis. Instead, we add more light,” he told me.
For Schloss, she will never forget her Holocaust experiences. However, she has vowed to continue telling her story — no matter how painful — in hopes that such atrocities never happen again.
“Life goes on,” she said.
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