“After Auschwitz you’d think the world had learned its lesson”.
Prior to her lecture at the University of Buckingham, Eva Schloss, formerly Eva Geirenger, a holocaust survivor and friend to Anne Frank sat with me and told me the worlds capacity for evil hasn’t changed since the days she was torn from hiding, transported like livestock to Auschwitz, stripped, shaved, and frozen to the brink of death.
Mrs Schloss highlighted harrowing parallels between 2016 and the 1930’s when Hitler and the Nazi’s violently campaigned to take over the world. Frighteningly, the re-publication of Adolf Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ and the lessons we can learn from it caused Schloss to exclaim: “Donald Trump, for example. Prejudice, building walls, we have to take notice”.
Her face, otherwise hardened and sturdy unless captured by brief jubilant laughter, tipped into her hands in sincere bewilderment when talking of the current refugee crisis and the ignorance of leaders towards a solution.
As a refugee escaping occupied Austria aged 15, firstly to Belgium, and then Holland, Schloss sympathises heavily with the migrants, stating that “you don’t leave your own country, your own family, your own home if you’re not really in danger for your life”.
72 years after being betrayed by a Dutch family who promised to keep her and the rest of the Geirenger’s hidden from Nazi home invasions, aged 86, she is defined by her history of extreme loss. However, Mrs Schloss accepts her position and influence, even when it means she must revisit the death camp that stole her childhood, her family and her future: “I want the world to know it, so if I go there and explain things, it helps”.
It wasn’t always this simple, for 40 years Schloss had remained silent on her experience at Auschwitz in an attempt to bury her fear and absorb herself into a normal life, starting by studying Art History at the University of Amsterdam upon her liberation and move to Holland. However, these repressed thoughts caused her to develop severe depression and suicidal feelings, but it was hard, she tells me “I’d never spoken, I was still very shy”.
Schloss traces her coyness back to her youth in Belgium, back then, she said “I didn’t want to draw attention to myself”, insisting she wouldn’t wear an orange coat, only blue, as “when you had already experienced discrimination you become shy and you want to just disappear”.
40 years on, requested by Ken Livingstone to speak at an Anne Frank exhibition in Amsterdam in 1986, her silence ended: “I had to get up in front of all these people and I really wanted to hide under the table, but then eventually, everything I had buried in there came flooding out and they couldn’t stop me, and that was for me a watershed, a very, very important moment”. “As you can see I am very different now, I talk freely, I am not embarrassed”, the proof of which I saw as I witnessed her sat compactly at a desk in front of a capacity crowd, projecting her fragile life story with arms crossed in candid detail.
Now, having produced three books detailing her experiences and given thousands of lectures, she tells me she has become “hardened” to the details. She is stone-faced as she explains the one thing that still keeps her up at night, the “images” of her father Erich Geiringer and older brother Heinz, who both died at Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp just days before it was liberated by American troops. “Most things I have been able to accept, but the loss of your family members in such a horrible way without being sure what happened or how it happened, how they died, that I haven’t accepted, that I can’t forgive. That is something that will be hurting me all my life.”
Heinz was very afraid of dying, “that’s what makes it even worse” she continued, “a lot of his paintings were about death”. Schloss has acted to immortalise her brother’s legacy since she found his art hidden in the house in Holland where she and Heinz were captured.
Schloss also makes it her duty to maintain her posthumous step-sister Anne Frank’s legacy, despite how much it often takes precedence over her own, even with regard to her parents, whose obsession with Anne often made Eva jealous.
As the co-founder of the Anne Frank trust and one of the last living people who can spread first-hand anecdotes of Anne’s childhood, Schloss cannot escape Frank’s ghost.
I too could feel her presence, waiting for the elephant in the room to be unveiled, which Schloss cannot help but oblige. Describing Otto Frank’s return to Amsterdam, Schloss details how he held something in his hand, which she assumed the audience “could all guess what it was… Anne’s diary”, a punchline that made the faces of the very young, and the very old in the audience light up.
But she also had to focus on herself, on her first thought upon liberation: to build her own family. This dream, she believes is indebted to the orthodox Jewish Habat community that believes we must “get as many [children] to replace what we have lost”. Schloss’ own journey to motherhood was fraught with concern, another scar left over from Auschwitz, the dirty water she had to drink to stay alive was contaminated with Bromide, a substance that stopped the menstrual cycle and deeply harmed the chance of conception in the future. But the scars did heal, and medicine allowed her to have three children, building a family unit with husband Zvi that would go some way to repaying the family debt thrust upon her in early life.
But Eva’s work isn’t done, “My husband had a bad fall last night” she tells me as she gets up to leave for the lecture hall, “he is in hospital, I was thinking perhaps I couldn’t come”. That night Mrs Schloss would return to London, to the hospital bedside of her husband, who at 91 suffers from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, relying upon Eva as his part time carer.
Written by Charlie Parry