Every Holocaust survivor is a different person, with a unique story. One of the most different of all those stories will be told at the Eisemann Center in Richardson on Wednesday evening, March 27, by Eva Schloss, who is widely known as “Anne Frank’s Step-Sister.”
At almost 90, she’s been making up for lost time. Like many survivors, Eva didn’t talk about her personal experiences for almost four decades — in her case, 40 years spent back in Europe before the breakthrough came.
She was born in 1929, and returned from Auschwitz in 1945. Did people feel sorry for this teenage girl? “I was just 16 when the war ended, and I wanted everyone to know what I had suffered, and to feel sorry for me. But no one wanted to hear,” is how she begins to answer that question.
“Everybody in Europe had lost family,” she recalls. “People said to just move on. How could they possibly understand? So, like all survivors, I buried my thoughts. I couldn’t sleep properly. I had nightmares. There was no counseling or therapy available.”
And there was nothing different for her until 1986 when, long after she was a grown woman, she had come to London to study photography. “Not everybody can go to Auschwitz,” she says, about the continuing difficulties in getting people to understand the Holocaust. But that year, a traveling exhibition came to town — an exhibition based on Anne Frank — and she was invited to attend. And at it, suddenly, someone announced, “And now, Eva will talk.”
“I was not a public speaker,” she thought then. But speak she did, for the very first time. And once the floodgates of memory were opened to 300 listeners, Eva found out she really was. Since then, there has been no stopping her. Her writing began soon after, and she has now published three books; the first one, “After Auschwitz,” contains all her memories. “Once I let go of them,” she says now, “I couldn’t recall them any more. I had to use my own book to look them up!”
The opportunity to hear Eva locally is being offered by Chabad of Plano/Collin County. She’s on a current tour of 19 Chabad centers, but audiences are in no way limited to those with Chabad connections. According to Rabbi Menachem Block of the local Chabad, “She is a piece of history, and this will be historic for the people who will hear her. She wants people to know about the Holocaust, that it really happened, that she was there. And her message to the world is tolerance, our common humanity and respecting diversity.”
Eva is grateful to her Chabad sponsors for helping to bring her messages to such wide audiences. When people ask about her beliefs, as they often do, she will respond, “I’m not a ‘practicing Jew.’ I’m certainly not Orthodox. But I’m proud of my Jewish heritage.” In the camps, she says, “You could only pray for everything to stop!” She has actually debated with some rabbis about losing faith in God, but maintains that this is not the truth: What happened was a loss of faith in humanity.
The desire to create a future that people can have faith in was the basis for her recent widely publicized meeting with students in a Southern California high school who, in a terribly mistaken attempt at humor during a weekend party, formed a swastika out of beer cups and made the Heil Hitler salute over them. Of course this debacle made its immediate way onto social media, and then to Rabbi Reuven Mintz, director of the Chabad Center for Jewish Life in Newport Beach, California, who arranged for the meeting. Now, as Eva has moved on to continue spreading her messages of tolerance and hope for the future, Rabbi Mintz is beginning his work with the high school’s leadership to further a program of Holocaust education.
But what everyone wants to know most is how the Eva-and-Anne connection came about. That story begins with the arrivals in Amsterdam of two families seeking what then seemed safe refuge from Hitler’s Nazis. The family of Anne Frank, who was just one month younger than Eva, had come first, from Germany; Eva’s family, the Geiringers, came later, from Austria. By luck, or fate or the hand of God, their apartments faced each other, and the two young girls became playmates first, and later, good friends.
Of course, the peace they had hoped for eluded both families in the Netherlands as it had in other parts of Europe. While the Franks were hidden in what has since become the world’s most famous attic, the Geiringers moved from safe-house to safe-house, until both families were finally betrayed and transported to the death camps. There, Anne was lost, along with her mother and sister Margot; gone also were Eva’s father and brother Heinz. After the war, the three survivors — Anne’s father Otto Frank, and Eva with her mother Elfriede Geiringer — returned separately to Amsterdam, hoping to rescue bits of their lost loved ones from old hiding places. Otto found his daughter’s now-world-famous diary; Elfriede found her son’s paintings and poems, which have also been shown and read publicly. And the two adults found — and subsequently married — each other, making Eva the after-the-fact stepsister of her dearly departed friend Anne.
Eva’s first stop on this current tour was at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, where she drew a crowd of 1,200 that was covered by The Washington Post. Always, her message echoes and enhances that of our Dallas Holocaust Museum: “It is the danger of the bystander. I tell people, this is the way Germany was: Not everyone was anti-Semitic or supported Hitler; some had good Jewish friends. But they took the easy way out and looked the other way,” she said. “We have to teach young people to speak out when they see injustice.”
Photography first took a back seat in Eva’s life when, in London in 1953, she met and married another German survivor, Zvi Schloss. Also like many survivors, “I was desperate to have a family,” she recalls. In their 27 years together before her husband’s death, the couple had three daughters, and now Eva also has five grandchildren. Her work today continues to be spreading a personal message of hopeful optimism despite the past. And she is already being helped to do so into the farthest future by the newest technology (which will be seen locally when Dallas’ new Holocaust Museum opens in September): she is one of the first survivors to have been “hologrammed,” making it possible for viewers to have interactive contact with them — to ask questions and receive answers — even long after they are gone. Eva’s “living image” is already telling her story to visitors of Holocaust museums in New York, California and Illinois.
“This is complex,” she says of the new technique. “But it is the best and most appropriate way to keep the moral lessons of genocide alive.”
This “Historic Evening with Anne Frank’s Step- Sister Eva Schloss” will start at 7 p.m. (checkin), with the program beginning at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, March 27, at the Eisemann Center, 2351 Performance Drive in Richardson. Tickets are priced at $25 and $50, $10 admission for students. They can be purchased at www.eisemanncenter.com.