Eva Schloss remembers the day in 1938 when everything changed. She was 8 years old, living in Vienna with her family just after the Nazi annexation of Austria. Her friend, a Catholic, invited Eva over to her house, but when she arrived, the friend’s mother turned her away, telling her to never come back.
Eva went home to find her brother beaten and bloodied; he said his friends had done it.
“People lived in harmony before,” Schloss said Wednesday night at George Mason University. “And suddenly there was intense hatred for Jewish people.”
Some 1,200 people came to hear Schloss’ story as she told it to Eli Rosenbaum, an agent with the Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations. The appearance by Schloss, whose mother married Anne Frank’s father after the Holocaust, was sponsored in part by Chabad Lubavitch of Northern Virginia.
It was clear that her family, the Geiringers, had to leave Vienna, though where to go was less obvious. Many European countries were closing their borders to Jewish refugees, a point Schloss didn’t hesitate to turn into commentary on today’s refugee crisis.
“Hitler really wanted to get rid of the Jews, but nobody wanted them. Nobody wanted us,” she said. “Like today. Six-and-a-half-million refugees and once again the world closes its doors.”
By 1940, though, the family made it to Amsterdam. Initially, it was a reprieve from the anti-Semitism in Vienna. The people were friendly, and she even adopted the most famous of Dutch customs. “I got a bike,” she said.
One day, she met a precocious young girl with the name of Miss Quack Quack in the town square. It was 11-year-old Anne Frank, eager to introduce herself to the shy new girl. The two became fast friends, and Schloss still remembers the confidence and sophistication Frank had at a young age — she would flip through magazines reading about movie stars and picking out hair styles she liked.
“When I told her I had an older brother, her eyes got very big and she asked, ‘When can I visit?’” Schloss said.
But things changed again. It took just three days in May 1940 for the German army to conquer the Netherlands, and Schloss remembers the creeping oppression that followed. At first, Jews couldn’t be out at certain hours. Then, they couldn’t use public transit. Then one day, the city’s young Jews were called to gather their things and meet at a staging area. From there, the authorities said, they’d be sent to Germany and put to work in factories.
“My father said, ‘You’re not going. We’re going into hiding,’” Schloss said. “That was the first time I became scared.”
Knowing it’d be harder to find a home for four than two, the family split up, with the 13-yer-old Eva going with her mother and her brother, Heinz, with her father. She and her mother lived in hiding for two years, moving about seven times until the family was betrayed by a Dutch nurse offering to take them in. Schloss would later discover that the nurse had turned in almost 200 Jews.
On her 15th birthday the Gestapo came.
“They just stormed in and took us,” Schloss said.
Less than two weeks later, the family was on a train to Auschwitz, reports of which they’d heard over the BBC. Eva’s father, Erich, broke down.
“He apologized with tears in his eyes. He said, ‘From now on, I can’t protect you anymore,’” Schloss recounted. “… We thought, well, this is probably the end of our lives.”
When they arrived, they were split up for the last time. Eva and her mother, Fritzi, were sent to Birkenau. Erich and Heinz went to Auschwitz. All four were deemed capable of work.
“From now on, we were cattle. We were not treated as human anymore,” Eva said, describing the way they were stripped, shaved and tattooed.
A few months later, the Franks would arrive on one of the last trains to the camp, though Eva didn’t know it. Nine months after Eva reached Birkenau, the Red Army approached the camp and the Nazi guards fled. Erich and Heinz were sent on what would come to be known as a death marches, but Eva and Fritzi were left behind. For 10 days, the camp’s survivors were left on their own, until the Russians arrived and liberated them. In the chaos, Otto Frank found them and asked after his family. Soon, they all came to know of their relatives’ fates.
After the war, Otto read Anne’s diary to Eva, hardly able to get through it. Meanwhile, Eva unearthed poems and paintings done by Heinz while in hiding. He’d told her where he’d hid them while on the train to Poland. Last year, the paintings were displayed in London.
Eva herself went on to study art history at Amsterdam University before moving in 1951 to London, where she’s lived ever since. In 1954, Otto Frank married Eva’s mother, Fritzi, forever linking the childhood friends. Today, Eva has three daughters and five grandchildren.
A conversation she had with Otto Frank after the war still stays with her. He told her he had no hatred for the German people. Many, he said, didn’t support the Nazis. But they didn’t stop them, either.
Schloss implored the young people in the audience to remember that.
“We have to have the courage to speak up and tell our government what we want,” she said. “That’s what the Germans failed to do.”