Anne Frank’s Stepsister Eva Schloss on Holocaust Horrors and How Trump Reminds Her of Hitler
This Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Holocaust survivor and educator opens up about her experience in Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and white supremacy.
“It’s very cold here,” mutters Eva Schloss in her thick Austrian accent.
The 91-year-old author and activist is holed up in her London home, where she’s spent the past year-plus riding out the coronavirus pandemic. Despite receiving both doses of the vaccine, Schloss is effectively trapped—since the city is still under strict lockdown—and growing “very impatient.” She has, after all, already had several years of her life stolen from her.
As a child, Schloss’ family fled Vienna when the Nazis took over. After a stop in Belgium, they landed in Amsterdam and lived on the same block as Anne Frank, who was one month younger than Eva. The two struck up a friendship—that is, until the Nazis forced both their families into hiding. In 1944, Eva, her parents, and her brother Heinz were revealed to the Nazis by a Dutch double agent, and transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the notorious concentration camps. By the time Russian troops arrived to liberate the camps in January of 1945, only Eva and her mother remained among the living.
They returned to Amsterdam, where Eva’s mother eventually married Otto Frank, the father of Anne, making them stepsisters (Anne died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945). In the years since, Eva married and raised a family, co-founded The Anne Frank Trust UK to preserve her diarist-stepsister’s memory, and educates students on the horrors of the Holocaust at colleges across the world.
“I heard in America that Asian people are being attacked now suddenly,” she tells me. “We need to teach people that we’re all human beings. It doesn’t matter what color or what religion we are. We are all human beings, and we have to be treated equal.”
In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Eva Schloss is participating in #ItStartedWithWords, a campaign by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany featuring video testimonials of survivors recalling how the Holocaust took hold.
I spoke with Eva Schloss about her incredible story of survival, Trump’s neo-Nazi dog-whistles, and more.
You’ve seen and been through so much. How has the past year been for you?
At first, I didn’t mind so much, you know? But now, I’m getting very impatient, because I used to go four months a year to the States, and in each trip, I would talk to thousands of people. It was very rewarding, because people were very interested, and I felt like I was doing something very positive to try to change people’s attitudes.
I recently saw that a number of Republicans were comparing vaccine passports to the stars Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust, which seems particularly crazy.
[Laughs] That is silly.
I wanted to discuss your history a bit.
I was born in Vienna—in Austria—and that’s where my family lived for generations. When the Nazis came, my father realized we can’t stay there, so eventually we got out, first to Belgium and then we settled in Amsterdam. And then of course, Hitler followed us. After we had been there just three months, Holland was invaded as well. We tried to escape to England, but it was too late. Germany had to find a scapegoat for why they lost the First World War, and it became the Jewish people. It’s always the fault of the Jewish people if things go wrong.
Why do you think that is—that Jews are constantly scapegoated?
Well, it is amazing. I always tell kids: we are only 16 million Jews, spread out all over the world. That’s nothing. And nevertheless, we are all over the place. We invent things—have ideas in medicine, science, and everything. Through the religion, starting with the Talmud, the people are very sharp and very educated, because Jewish people value education very much, so even if they start very poor in Poland or Russia, they can achieve wonderful things. Throughout history, we have always been persecuted—even from the beginning, we were persecuted for believing in one God. People ask, how can you live in London with this anti-Semitism? I say, yes, there’s anti-Semitism. It’s in the language, and even Shakespeare used it, but I’ve seen worse.
You’re one of a small group of people who spent time with Anne Frank. What was she like as a person, and why do you feel it’s so important to preserve her memory?
We were both 11 years old when I met her—she was just one month younger than I—and she went to a different school, to a Montessori school, and her sister didn’t. I later asked Otto why she went, and he said, “She was actually a difficult child. She was very stubborn—she knew what she wanted. She always wanted to draw the attention of people, she liked telling stories, and in school she was called ‘Mrs. Quack-Quack,’ and she always had to stay behind because she didn’t stop talking in class. She was very self-filled, and knew which direction she wanted to go, even at age 11. And of course, later, when we were in hiding, she had a bad relationship with her mother—I don’t know why—but she adored her father. In hiding, Otto read with her, from Dickens to all the Greek mythology, and, knowing Otto very well—he was married to my mother for 27 years and was the grandfather to my children—I can see Otto in Anna’s writing. Women’s rights, equality, and all that was Otto, and Anna definitely inherited that. She was hiding and it was frightening, but she enjoyed spending time with her beloved father.
What was the atmosphere like in the lead-up to the Holocaust, where the anti-Semitic temperature was rising rapidly?
People disappeared. People were arrested. And then after two years, in 1942, about 10,000 young people got a call-up notice to be deported to Germany. By that time, the concentration camps and death camps existed already, and the world knew about it. They pretended not to know. I think the world was quite pleased with what Hitler was doing—to get rid of the Jews. In Germany, the posters said that Jews had all the good jobs, and featured Jews with big bags of money, so the people believed that. Neighbors knew when the Jewish people were being taken away, and they were very quick to go into those apartments and take things out. Suddenly, those people had valuable possessions and if their apartments were empty, they could move in there. They didn’t care.
What was the experience at Auschwitz-Birkenau like? I can’t even imagine.
We were not treated like humans. We were not given proper water to drink, any hygiene, and you could go once in the morning or once in the evening in a toilet in a separate block. If you had to go [to the bathroom] at night, you would have to walk ten minutes in the dark in the freezing cold. We were treated like animals. They even tattooed us and said, “You are now marked like a sheep or a cow with a stamp. Forget you have a name.” And they really, really intended to kill everybody. Birkenau was the women’s camp, which was built much later.
What was it like to be separated from your family?
We were separated at arrival, because the women were in Birkenau and the men were in Auschwitz, which were a few miles apart. At the first selection, when the men were going, we didn’t even know if my father and brother survived, or if they were immediately taken to the gas chambers. We had no washing ever. Once a week we had a shower and we were deloused, because we were full of lice. And our clothes—one garment, no underwear—was taken and deloused as well. We would come out naked in front of [Dr. Josef] Mengele, and he would conduct an inspection. We got there in May, and then in October my mother was selected. Those were the hardest times for me, because I thought I’d lost my mother and had no idea if my father or brother were still alive. It became winter, and there was snow, and sometimes I’d lose my shoes in the snow, because you had no laces. I had open toes, and at night, rats would try to suck the blood from my toes. I thought, “I can’t carry on.” I was nearly at the point of giving up.
And then a miracle happened. I was working, and one of the supervisors said, “Someone wants you outside.” And I went outside, and there stood my father beside an SS man. We fell into each other’s arms, and I asked, “Where is Heinz? Is he OK?” and then he asked me, “And where is Mutti?”—my Mom. And I burst into tears. I told him, “She has been selected. She has been gassed.” I’ve never seen my father in such a state, but he told me I must hold on and that we’ll be together again. That gave me a bit of hope. We didn’t know the Russians were approaching. All we knew is that whole barracks were empty, and people would disappear. We would learn later that those were called the death marches. One day, some people from a Dutch transport came to look for friends. I saw them, they saw me, and they said, “Eva! I’m glad you’re still alive. I’ve seen your mother.” I said, “I know… she has been gassed.” They said, “No! Get to this barracks.” I went there, and indeed she was there.
Your mother was still alive.
There’s another story. I got an attack of typhus, and my mother said I had to be taken to the hospital. And the hospital at Birkenau is where Mengele operated on women. He would take out organs without antiseptic and all kinds of terrible things. It was called a “hospital” but there were no cures there, you were just used as an experiment. But we didn’t know that. We go there, and a woman comes out, and my mother stops, and they just fall into each other’s arms. It was my mother’s cousin, and her husband was a skin specialist who worked as a doctor treating the Nazis. He told them his wife was his nurse, so she got a job there, and she was able to give me some medication. Later, when my mother was selected, I took a big risk and slipped past a guard with a searchlight and told my cousin that my mother Mutti had been selected by Mengele, please see if you can save her. In the morning, she went to Mengele and said that her cousin had been selected by him, but she’s actually very strong, so see if you can look at her again. And he did. He went to this barracks where about 40 naked women were waiting to be gassed, he called her number, because we were only known by our numbers, and he said, “OK, you can go back and carry on with work.” [Starts weeping] It’s very emotional for me, you know, to tell that.
I completely understand.
We were very weak and ill—and had to get out of the barracks and get ready for marching. Then there was an air raid, so they sent us back. My mother was very weak, and she said, “If they call us out again, I can’t go. I just have to stay here.” We fell asleep, because we were exhausted, and woke up in the morning, and the Nazis had gone. Then a few days later, the Russians came. We got wonderful greasy cabbage soup that went right through us. I’ve never spent so much time on a bucket as that time, because we couldn’t digest food. In the morning, a lot of people had died because their bodies didn’t have the strength to digest any food. Then the Russians were gone, and I decided to go to Auschwitz at night to see if I could find my father and brother. There were about 500 people left from the thousands of them. I came across a man that looked slightly familiar, I looked at him and I said, “I think I know you.” And he said, “I’m Otto Frank, Anne’s father. Have you seen my girls or my wife?” I said no. “Have you seen my father and Heinz?” He said, “They were here… but they left three weeks ago with the Nazis. They were taken on a death march to Mauthausen, and then Ebensee.
I cannot even fathom that level of evil. I know there is no comparison to the Holocaust camps, but I wanted to ask how you feel about the border detention camps in the U.S. imprisoning immigrant families. We should be far better than that.
Of course. But after the war, the motto was: “Never again, Auschwitz. We’ve learned our lesson.” And people wanted to create a better world. When we got back to Holland, they said, “There will be no more discrimination.” But we were not looked after. We had to manage on our own again. Eventually, we got notice from the Red Cross that my father and brother had died, and then I became extremely depressed—more depressed when I was in the camp, because in the camp, I didn’t want to die there, so I always said, “I’m going to make it, I’m going to make it.” When I realized we would never be a family again, because we had no relatives in Holland and my mother had never worked before, I realized it would never be normal. I really wanted to commit suicide. I found a little note where I said, “Life is out. My brother and father are gone. I’d like to kill myself.” I didn’t do it, obviously, but I was playing with this idea. I was miserable for many, many years. For forty years, I did not speak [about the Holocaust]—not to my children, not to nobody. It was too hard. I had nightmares for many years.
There was a noticeable uptick in anti-Semitic hate crimes during the Trump administration. And there was a president in Trump who described neo-Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us” as “very fine people.”
Trump wasn’t just against the Jews—he was against the Mexicans, and many others. He was a racist. Full-stop, he was a racist. His son-in-law is a Jew, and his daughter converted to Judaism. You know, he’s said so many silly things. I’ve compared him to Hitler. I even heard that he studied Hitler’s speeches and things like that, so he obviously admired Hitler and just copied him with his anti-Semitism. The Muslims are hated as well. This is what’s so wrong in our society—white supremacy. We should all treat each other as equal. We’re just one human race—different colors, different religions, different opinions, but all human beings who should have the same opportunities and should be measured equally.
Something I’ve found disturbing is there are two prominent members of Congress in the U.S. who’ve dabbled in anti-Semitism. There is Madison Cawthorn, who visited Hitler’s Nazi retreat on vacation and said complimentary things about it, and then there’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has spread a number of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. She even claimed that the Jews control the weather with a space laser.
Anti-Semitism is nothing new, and I’m afraid it will always be there. I don’t know why it is, but it is a fact—ever since Jewish people became a people, there has been prejudice. We have to be alert and try to give the message that it is wrong. But the Black people are suffering as well. We have to shake hands with anyone who is racist against anybody and try to change the attitudes of people. But the internet is dangerous—not just against Jews. A lot of terrible, wrong messages are given, and people don’t know what is true anymore and what is false.