In the shadow of Anne Frank, Eva Schloss shines on her own
"We are amazing," Eva Schloss said of the Jewish people. "We will be here forever and have to stick together," she proclaimed affirmatively.
On Feb. 9, more than 500 people sat spellbound at the Hilton Altamonte Springs as Holocaust survivor Eva Schloss spoke about her childhood in Vienna, Austria, before the war; her life in hiding and in Auschwitz; and her friendship with Anne Frank. The hour-long presentation, hosted by Chabad of Orlando, was held in an interview format conducted by Greg Dawson, a feature writer for Orlando Magazine and former Orlando Sentinel columnist.
Dawson's own mother was a Holocaust survivor from Russia, so he was aware of the sensitivity of the topic as he asked the octogenarian about her experiences in Europe during the war.
Schloss didn't speak about her years in hiding and the camps for 40 years. "It wasn't because I didn't want to at first," she said. "No one wanted to know about it. People knew, but didn't care. There was a general feeling of guilt and an attitude of 'Let's move on.'"
She never really told her own daughters about her early life either, until she attended a traveling exhibition of Anne Frank's hiding place. She was asked to speak and at first, the words would not come. She wanted to crawl under the table. However, the words did come and poured out of her. This was also when her daughters first heard her story. From that time onward she has been on a vigorous crusade to spread this message. Since then, Schloss has written three best-sellers about her life.
Her own childhood was ideal. She considered herself a "wild child" who loved all sports-hiking in the mountains and skiing on the lakes. But as things changed gradually, so did her personality. Schloss' first experience with anti-Semitism came from her best friend's mother, who told her one day, "You aren't welcomed here anymore." For a child, that is traumatic. Why? She asked.
"Parents protect their children. I didn't grasp the danger we were in," she said as they left their home when she was 9 years old to go to Holland by way of Belgium.
"Belgium was not welcoming," she remembered. A once outgoing, gregarious young girl, she now was shy and felt inferior. As the family finally made it to Holland, they felt like life was going to be good again. "The Dutch were friendly," she said.
Then, in May 1940, the Germans rolled into Holland. By now, she and Anne were friends. The two families "disappeared" on the same day. As Anne's family went into hiding in the office building, Schloss' family was separated into two different hiding places. Her father and brother stayed in one place and she and her mother in another. During the next two years, they moved seven times. Their rescuers would either become afraid, or the stress would become too much and the danger was too great. Her father's "rescuer" blackmailed them to stay in hiding.
"The Germans went to great efforts to catch every Jew," she said. "There were hiding places within hiding places."
The Dutch nurse who hid her father and brother (the blackmailer) finally betrayed the family. Schloss and her family were taken to headquarters by two barking gestapo on her fifteenth birthday.
She and her mother were liberated from Auschwitz on June 27, 1944. It was months later that they found out her father and brother died just days before liberation.
Schloss and her mother made their way back to Amsterdam and reunited with Otto Frank, Anne's father. He showed them Anne's diary. "I didn't really know my own child," he told them. It took him three weeks to read her book.
Many publishers rejected the book when Frank tried to get it published. Finally, Doubleday "took a chance." And this little girl's intimate diary of her life in hiding went on to become a best seller.
How had all this affected Schloss spiritually? "As a child, our family was interested in Judaism. We were proud to be Jews. We believed in God. But in the camp, life became the same every day. I'd pray for G-d to stop this. But it didn't stop."
Distraught, she came out at the end of the war an atheist. "There can't be a G-d," she said. "I didn't believe in anything. I was full of hate against the whole world." She was also full of guilt – she lived and so many others perished.
"We had no counselors. I lived with horrible nightmares," she said.
It was after she married her Israeli husband and had her first child that faith returned. And, after 40 years, when she began to talk about her experiences, healing came. Schloss shared a story her father told when her brother Heinz asked will he live on after he died? "We are all links in a big chain-no one ever gets lost." The acts we do in this life will live on in those who follow us.
During the Q&A, Schloss was asked about the tree that stood for 300 years just outside the Frank's hiding place window. Anne wrote about that tree. People protected that tree. They built a fence around it to keep it safe. They protested when attempts were made to cut it down because it had become too large. Finally, a storm blew it down and it was gone. Many mourned the loss of that tree.
"People mourned a tree and did not protect the Jews. We have to get our priorities straight," she said firmly.
When asked about the Muslims growing in population in Israel, she had this to say: "Israel has to explain itself more. We have to have our own country. Israel is our safety net. However, we do have to learn to share our country."
Schloss' message to children is to marry a Jew to avoid assimilation. "We are only 18 million in all. Our greatest victory is that we are here, and we will be here forever."
For those who missed this speaking engagement, Eva Schloss will share her experiences again on Monday, March 10, 7:30 p.m., at the Rosen Plaza Hotel, 9700 International Drive, Orlando. Chabad of South Orlando is hosting the evening. For more information, visit http://www.jewishorlando.com/historicevening.