Thursday 22 January 2015

An amazing talk by an amazing woman

For those who were interested in the talk by Eva Schloss I heard last night, here is a brief summary of it.

Eva Schloss is now 85 years old, and her mother married Anne Frank’s father after the Second World War. However, her talk wasn’t about her famous posthumous step-sister, but about her own life.

Born in Vienna in 1929 to a fairly well-to-do family, she had to flee Austria with her parents and brother after the Anschluss in 1938. They were no longer welcome in Austria. The mother of her (non-Jewish) best friend screamed at her never to visit their house again, and her brother was beaten up at school.

They went first to Belgium and then to Amsterdam. Anne Frank was one of her school friends there. Not a best friend, she stressed, just one of the friends she played with in the local park. “If I’d known what would happen in the future, I might have taken more notice of her,” she said with a wry smile. The main things she could remember about Anne was that she was a lively, confident chatterbox and also, even at 11, she was already interested in clothes, hairstyles, and boys, whereas Eva was still a tomboy and quite shy.

Once Germany invaded Holland in 1940, life gradually became more difficult for the Jews, as different restrictions were placed on them. They weren’t allowed to use public transport. “No problem,” she said. “We all had bicycles anyway.” As a child, she was far more upset that Jews were not allowed to visit the cinema, especially when they couldn’t go to see ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ which all their non-Jewish friends were talking about.

Despite the restrictions, she said, life was tolerable until 1942, when orders were issued that all Jews aged between 16 and 25 had to report for labour service in Germany. That was when the Franks went into hiding, and so did Eva’s family.

Unlike the Franks, however, Eva and her mother were hiding in one apartment with Dutch friends, and her father and brother with another Dutch woman. When this woman started to blackmail them for more money, Eva’s father found another place for them all with a Dutch nurse. They’d only been with her for a short time when the Gestapo arrived and arrested them. It turned out that this woman was working for the Germans and had betrayed over 100 Jews to them. After the war, she was tried but only received a 4 year sentence. Eva’s anger, however, was directed more toward to the woman who had blackmailed her father, because if that hadn’t happened, they wouldn’t have ended up hiding with the woman who betrayed them.

The family were arrested in May, 1944, on Eva’s 15th birthday. They were taken first to Westerbork in Holland, which was a transit camp. Evidently a Jewish man was in charge of compiling lists of inmates for the ‘transports’ each Tuesday to the concentration camps further east. Of course, said Eva, he protected his own family and friends, and so she and her family were only at Westerbork two days before they were moved on. Over 100,000 Jews were moved to the concentration camps from Westerbork.

When they were in the cattle truck, heading east to they knew not where, her father broke down in tears and said, “I have tried to protect you, but I cannot protect you anymore. We will all have to protect ourselves now.”

During the 3 days in the cattle truck into which they were crammed, they had to take turns in sitting down, or standing by the narrow opening in the side of the truck to get some air. They had one bucket to use as a toilet, and people fainted in the truck. Some died, too.

Eva told us all this almost as if she was describing a normal train journey, while I (and the rest of the audience) listened open-mouthed.

Eventually they arrived at Auschwitz, and as they disembarked on the platform in the camp, the selections began. You were told to go to the left or to the right by the camp doctor (Mengele) in smart uniform, black boots, and white gloves. Those on the left were told they were being taken to the showers and the group on the right envied them after all the days they’d spent in the cattle truck. Of course, as we now know, the showerheads didn’t deliver water.

Eva went on to tell us about life in Auschwitz. After hours standing naked (which, she said, was excruciatingly embarrassing for a 15 year old), they gave details of their names, ages, and where they born to an official, and were tattooed with a number (which is still visible on her arm). Then they were allowed to pick up an item of clothing from one pile, and shoes from another (but it was impossible to find any matching shoes).

They were taken to already overcrowded barrack blocks – six wooden bunks for 20 or more women. After only a few days, they were all crawling with head and body lice, and trying to survive on a cup of thin soup in the morning, and some hard bread in the evening. Water was available, but you didn’t drink it, because it was contaminated, and you could end up with typhus or cholera.

By this time, you could have heard a pin drop in the hall where Eva was speaking. Even after 90 minutes, no one shuffled in their seats or even coughed. Like everyone else, I was riveted by her story.

She went on to tell how they somehow survived the bitter winter of 1944/45, how 60,000 were marched out of the camp in early January on a Death March, and how the German guards fled at the approach of the Russians. The gates (underneath the infamous watchtower through which the trains came in) were opened, but the remaining inmates stayed in the camp. They had no money, no possessions, and had no idea where they could go if they left the camp. Finally, on January 27th 1945 the camp was liberated by the Russians. Next week there will be various commemorations to mark this 70th anniversary (and Eva is going to Germany to speak to an audience of people there).

The Russians set up field kitchens, and made cabbage soup for the remaining inmates of the camp. Eva said, “I can still remember the heavenly smell of that soup.” Then she laughed. “And I spent the next night crouched over the bucket. After so many months of starvation, my body couldn’t cope with real food.” Evidently a lot of people died that night and the next day because they over-ate.

Even after the liberation, the nightmare was not over. Eva and her mother eventually reached Odessa, from where they were taken by ship to Marseilles, and finally arrived back in Amsterdam. They learned that her father and brother had both died in Auschwitz, and they met up with Otto Frank again, who also learned that his wife and daughters had died in Bergen-Belsen.

Otto, Eva said, was amazing. He visited many Jews who had lost their children, husbands, wives, or other family members, encouraging them to stay positive.

One day he came to their apartment with a bag, and said, “Look what I have found. I didn’t know my daughter at all.”

Of course, it was Anne’s diary, which Miep, one of their Dutch friends, had found and kept after the Gestapo arrested the Frank family.

What else can I say except that it was the most compelling talk I have ever heard? I’ve read plenty about Anne Frank, have been to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, and have also visited Auschwitz a couple of times, but hearing about it from someone who experienced all the fear and lived through all the cruelty and horror was, to put it mildly, mind-blowing.

I was also amazed that this woman, who had experienced and witnessed so many horrors, had somehow managed to come through it and, in the end, live a relatively ‘normal’ life in England. Not only did she have the physical strength to survive the starvation and disease at Auschwitz, she also had the mental strength to rise above the horrific experiences of her teenage years and their after-effects.

A truly amazing woman.

If you want to know more, check her out on Amazon, as she has written three books about her experiences.