As we approach what would have been Anne Frank’s 90th birthday, her childhood friend Eva Schloss MBE talks about surviving Auschwitz, rebuilding her life and keeping Anne’s legacy alive
Before the Gestapo came for Anne Frank and her family in their secret annex in Amsterdam; before the officers frogmarched them onto the cattle trains; before the family were transported to the Kafkaesque nightmare of Auschwitz; before Anne slipped into the eternal midnight of the six million murdered; her father gave her a diary for her thirteenth birthday.
For over two years, Anne poured her heart into the diary and, through this, into the world.
Whereas when you start reading the diary, you expect it to be a chronicle of the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust – the systematic rounding up of the Jewish people, the insatiable cruelty of the Nazis, the death sentence of the Final Solution. It isn’t that at all. The diary instead is a collection of intimate, quirky, before-their-time musings of an “honest-to-goodness teenager”. A familiar voice from a never-to-be-forgotten age. The childhood ponderings of a girl who was living through the Holocaust but refused to be defined by it. A collection of love letters to a future she would never see.
The diary isn’t so much Never Forget, more Never Forget Me. It’s personal, not political.
“It’s really a family story,” said Eva Schloss MBE, Anne Frank’s childhood friend, who mercifully survived the death camps, “it allows people to learn a little bit without the horror.”
Today, Eva Schloss née Geiringer is a peace activist, international speaker and writer, who lives in a beautiful flat in London surrounded by photos of her late husband, children and grandchildren. Just as she has done for so many thousands around the world, she tells me her story and how it intertwines with the memory of Anne Frank.
Like Anne, Eva had experienced a happy childhood, but once Hitler marched his troops into her native Austria, she sensed the rising tide of anti-Semitism. “One day when I was nine, I went to my Catholic friend’s house but her mother said, “we never want to see you here again” and slammed the door in my face. My brother was attacked by his own schoolmates and his teachers just watched it happen.” Her father knew they had to evacuate Vienna.
Anne’s father Otto had a similar sense of dread when he saw the Nazis marching through Germany in ’33, singing a heinous Reich song with the lines “when Jewish blood begins to drip from our knives, things will be good again.” He too knew that his whole family would be murdered if they didn’t leave.
Both families were lucky enough to have the connections to get visas and they settled in apartment blocks opposite each other in Amsterdam.
For a time, all the kids in the neighbourhood would play together out in the street and “Anne was always a chatterbox. She would sit at the top of the steps leading up to the flats, assemble the kids and tell stories.”
However, when the Nazis ratcheted up their arrests of the Jews in Amsterdam, they knew they would have to disappear. Anne’s family famously hid in the annex, but as Eva’s family couldn’t find a hiding place for all four of them, they had to hide in pairs. “My father told me that this way, the chance that two of us would survive was greater,” she said, “I started to cry. It was the first time I realised it was life or death. I was thirteen.”
After two years living silently in the shadows, the Geiringers were arrested in May 1944 on Eva’s fifteenth birthday. The Franks received their knock on the door two months later in August. Both families were transported on the claustrophobic cattle trains to Auschwitz in Poland, where they were imprisoned in different barracks. A Dutch nurse, who during the war gave up two hundred Jews to the Nazis, had betrayed Eva’s family. We still don’t know who informed on the Franks.
On arrival at Auschwitz, families were wrenched apart. Husbands were torn from wives, children from parents. For most, that was the last time they ever saw their loved ones. “Anne adored her father,” Eva said, being cut off from him “would have been unbearable.”
The Nazis then inspected each prisoner to determine who would live or die. Children, pregnant women, anyone pale or sick from the gut-wrenching journey, would be sentenced to the gas chambers. Only those capable of hard manual labour were allowed to live. If a mother was carrying her baby, the screaming baby would be wrestled from her arms and given to an older woman who was on the death list. The officers were deaf to the mother’s cries.
“My miracle,” Eva said, “is that a woman on the train gave my mother a hat with a big rim. Because I was wearing it when we arrived at Auschwitz, Josef Mengele couldn’t tell how young I was. If he had, I too would have been murdered.”
During the long, soul-crushing days, Eva and her fellow female prisoners were forced to work. If anyone slipped or fell out of line, the Nazis would release vicious alsatians to tear them limb from limb until they bled to death. If they didn’t have any alsatians, the guards would riddle them with bullets.
Any woman who attempted escape was brought back to be hung in front of the whole camp. The other prisoners were forced to watch but “they couldn’t force us to keep our eyes open,” Eva said. “The cruelty of the SS guards is something I will never comprehend.”
There was no way of committing suicide so the women who wanted the psychodrama over would jump on the electric barbed wire fence. Flames would then come up and burn them alive. These women had often been in Auschwitz for years and couldn’t go on. “Sometimes we saw that, it was the most horrible thing.” Eva said.
Did she ever consider taking her life? “No, who wants to die at fifteen? I wanted to have a boyfriend, I wanted to get married, I wanted to have a family. That was how I survived. Never giving up hope that I will make it.” Memories of her happy childhood gave her faith that there could be a wonderful life for her after the death camps if she stayed alive.
In late 1944, the Germans started evacuating the camps as they knew the Russians were coming, sending thousands of prisoners on Death Marches to Germany through the thick snow. It was an intolerable journey, which most would never survive. Eva and her mother wanted to go but by some miracle, fell asleep through exhaustion when their camp was being evacuated. “If my mother and I had gone, we definitely would have died.”
And then in the harsh winter of 1945, the darkest hour came to an end. “One morning, we woke up and there were no dogs barking and no shouting and the gates were open and it was deserted,” she said. It was over. There were only five hundred women left. Anne wasn’t one of them.
Otto Frank was the only one from the annex to survive. Both of his daughters died of typhus after being moved to Bergen-Belsen months before the camps were liberated. He ended the war as one of many childless widowers. A woman who Eva met said that she saw Anne before her death sitting in a blanket as her clothes were covered in lice. When Anne died, she was fifteen.
“Anne wrote in her diary that “in spite everything … people are truly good at heart.”” Eva said. “If she had survived the Holocaust, I don’t think she would have believed that anymore. It was just too evil.”
Otto went onto marry Eva’s mother Elfriede, making Anne Eva’s posthumous stepsister.
“After the war, I was full of hatred.” Eva said, “I didn’t believe in humanity or a God or anything. I hated everybody, not just the Germans, everybody, because I realized it could have been avoided.” But Otto taught her that the bitterness would only eat her up inside. His heart was drowning in sadness but never hatred. “He truly was a wonderful man.”
After Otto returned from Auschwitz, one of the people who had helped his family hide, Miep Gies, gave him Anne’s diary, the pages of which she had found strewn over the annex floor after the family’s arrest. On receiving this precious gift, Otto resolved that the world would hear his daughter’s story, that her voice would live on long after the last Nazi has died and that her musings on humanity, feminism and civil action would echo down the ages. At first, he was appealing to a world that wasn’t ready to listen but then in the fifties, the diary became a bestseller in America, which led to its worldwide fame.
Since Otto’s death in August 1980, Eva has continued to spread the message that no matter how bleak things get, where there is life, there is hope. In 1991, she became a co-founder of The Anne Frank Trust, which through the diary, empowers young people to challenge all forms of prejudice and discrimination. And in 2017, the USC Shoah Foundation in LA made a hologram of her so that future generations of schoolchildren will be able to pose questions to her digital image.
She even once spoke to students at a high school in California who were photographed giving Nazi salutes over beer cups arranged as a swastika. Needless to say, she got them to apologise.
And does she worry about anti-Semitism today? “No, although the difference between rich and poor is getting completely out of hand and that can lead to anti-Semitism,” she says. “But I think we have a chance for a better world, because it’s necessary.”
In that noble pursuit, Eva has played her part. She has reached tens of thousands of people in schools, prisons and lecture halls over five continents, forming a speaking tour to rival ex-Presidents. Her story has changed the lives of others. “I have seen terrible cruelty but I know it’s a beautiful world,” Eva said, “we should appreciate what we’ve got.” From the ashes of Auschwitz, she has given a new generation hope.
Anne once wrote in her diary, “I’ll make my voice heard, I’ll go out into the world and work for mankind.” Through Otto and Eva, she has.
An edited version of this article was published in The Telegraph