Eva Schloss, step-daughter to Otto Frank, was born in 1929 in Vienna, Austria, to a Jewish familyThe Cambridge Union

Eva Schloss is an extraordinary woman. That epithet gets thrown around a lot today, but the 89-year old Holocaust survivor and step-sister of Anne Frank has lived a life truly beyond the limits of ordinary human experience. She has traversed half of Europe in the century the continent tore itself apart only to unite stronger than ever, and was subject to torture, starvation, and the death of her brother and father at the hands of the Nazis.

And yet Schloss has emerged as one of the most important advocates for Holocaust education today, with an undiminished passion for justice and indeed a fierce sense of humour.

Eva Geiringer was born in Vienna in 1929. She remembers her early years as idyllic – this was the Vienna of Freud and Zweig, a cosmopolitan city which despite political and economic dysfunction had become a haven for native Jews and German-Jewish refugees alike. This changed in 1938 with the German annexation of Austria.

A growing climate of militant antisemitism forced Schloss’s – then Geiringer’s – family to flee across Europe: first to Belgium, before finally settling in Amsterdam, in the same apartment block as the Frank family. The respite was to be brief as just three months after her arrival, the Netherlands was overrun by Germany, forcing the two families into hiding. They spent nearly four years hidden away before they were betrayed. The family was taken to Auschwitz, where her father and brother perished, while Schloss was put to excruciating work in the camps, subsisting on rations that were inconceivably small.

After eight months, the camp was liberated by the Soviets; Schloss was reunited with her mother and they returned to Amsterdam. She spent what was originally intended as a brief stint in London, where she met her husband, a German-Jewish refugee. The two married in 1952, and one year later her mother married Otto Frank, after the pair had bonded over their shared experience. For decades, Schloss, like many survivors, refused to tell her story: it was simply too painful. Yet in 1986 at a Holocaust memorial event, she was prompted by the now-unlikely figure of Ken Livingstone to say a few words, and since then she “hasn’t ever stopped talking”. She co-founded the Anne Frank Trust UK and has written several books about her experiences, including one she promised to her late brother Heinz.

 “For decades, Schloss, like many survivors, refused to tell her story: it was simply too painful”

I’m sitting with her in a lobby at the Cambridge Union, a few minutes before she is set to give a talk. Encouragingly, the chamber is packed: there is not a single seat left, and students crowd the upper deck. Giving a speech to an audience of nearly 200 would be a daunting task for anyone, yet she sits confidently. I ask her what life was like before, in the brief interval between her arrival in the Netherlands and the Nazi invasion. As someone with Dutch Jewish origins, I’m keen to gain an understanding of what life was like before the war. She fondly recalls playing on the swings with Anne Frank, and the weekly markets at the Jordaan, a once working-class neighbourhood now known for its art galleries and hip eateries. She recalls the Dutch as being initially friendly, but as the war went on it became increasingly difficult to tell. Her family was ultimately betrayed by a nurse, posing as a resistance member: “she betrayed not just us, but many, many people”. After the war, she was put on trial: she received only four years' imprisonment.

This figure was shocking to me; later, researching the postwar Netherlands, it made more sense. In the wake of the war, the Dutch, keen to preserve national unity in the face of economic devastation and decolonisation, preferred to stick to the myth of a country free of collaborators united in resistance to the Nazis. This is a story that has unfortunately made itself known repeatedly across Europe, and increasingly so in the last few years: from Marine Le Pen’s denial of the French role in the Holocaust, to Poland’s criminalisation of the mentioning of Polish collaborators, to the German AfD’s attack on Berlin’s Holocaust memorial as a ‘monument of shame’. More than any of those interred in the camps, it seems many in Europe believe the primary victims of the Holocaust to be their national pride.

I ask Schloss her view on the collaborators she faced in the camps: do they have a moral question to answer for? “Yes, definitely”. In Auschwitz, she recalls having more contact with the Kapos (non-Jewish camp prisoners, mostly political prisoners and criminals from all over Europe) who maintained the day-to-day activities of the camp, than with the Nazis themselves. “They would mistreat you…instead of keeping them in prisons they [the Nazis] put them there to do a job, and they were obviously enjoying what they were doing”. She recounts how the Kapos would have a stove they used to cook potatoes: “the smell already made us wild from hunger”. Occasionally, the Jewish inmates would be given the water used to cook potatoes; to the inmates on starvation rations, even this was “wonderful”. Often, however, “they called you and you came; and then in front of your noses they threw it down and didn’t give it to you. You know, extra cruelty” she says.

She grimaces, and I can see why: as much as the camps bore witness to far more stomach-churning horrors, there is something visceral about this act – perhaps a reminder of the basic capacity of humans for unnecessary cruelty.

The place of the Kapos in European historical memory has been similarly fraught. Primo Levi, perhaps the most famous Holocaust survivor to publish his experiences, wrote that one of the key facets of Nazi practice was turning some victims into accomplices. The binary thinking of victim and perpetrator was difficult to apply in the camps, which were simply so far removed from human decency. The Kapos inhabited the ‘Grey Zone’ between the two, and were difficult to judge as a result.

Many, such as Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski, suffered intense guilt after the war. Yet Borowski himself believed this guilt was rightfully suffered, and in This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen published a collection whose description of gratuitous camp violence is difficult to read, and was indeed poorly received by Poland’s postwar Communist government, who wanted a clear tale of good-and-evil. The question of those forced to collaborate with the Nazis remains a moral minefield, but as Schloss’ testimony shows, it is one we must engage with if we are to even come close to understanding the practices which allowed the Holocaust to take place.

“The question of those forced to collaborate with the Nazis remains a moral minefield”

Schloss continues to narrate the traumas she faced: “the illnesses, and the starvation, and the lice…” It is simply unimaginable, even for somebody who has grown up surrounded by stories of the camps. I ask her whether we can possibly seek to convey the horrors of the camps to generations that have not experienced them. “Well, you can just tell your story. When you tell it, it sounds bad but when you live it” – she pauses – “it is still something…quite different. That’s why people can never get…what it was really like.”

She says she herself, even after so many years, cannot understand how young, educated people could be complicit in the camp system. “The commander of the camp had his family there; on Sunday morning he went with his children to church, and in the afternoon he came back and looked over the children on the transports…and sent them to the gas chambers. How can a human being do that? This is really something we still can’t comprehend.”

What can students do to keep the memory ,and the understanding of the Holocaust alive? Schloss stresses that we can and should still invite survivors like her to talk, “as long as they’re still around – which won’t be very long”. Technology has also offered a solution - in 2017, a project for the Sternberg Centre in California asked Schloss and other survivors thousands of questions, and used hundreds of cameras to record their responses and build up a hologram display. Visitors to various partner exhibitions around the globe can ask questions into a microphone and have them answered by 3D renditions of each survivor. For all its technical brilliance however, Schloss stresses that the exhibit is “not the same as if a real person tells you the story”.

She is also keen to emphasise that it is not a substitute for actual history lessons: she now has to return to the US to record a 25-minute talk on her story and the Holocaust for those who do not even know what the latter is – “if you don’t even know, what can you ask?” As shocking as this is, wide-scale ignorance of the Holocaust is not uncommon; left untended, it often leaves people vulnerable to distortion of the facts and even denial. An Opinion Matters poll last month revealed that 1 in 20 Britons does not believe the Holocaust took place and  many more believe that the numbers have been inflated, or that Jews ‘exploit’ the Holocaust for political gain. Prejudice is always difficult to disentangle, but it is not unreasonable to suggest that this has a hand in rising levels of antisemitism, with violent antisemitic assaults having risen by 34% in the last year alone.

“An Opinion Matters poll last month revealed that 1 in 20 Britons does not believe the Holocaust took place”

In Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys the teacher Irwin, who believes in playing fast and loose with the truth in the pursuit of Oxbridge admissions success, sets his students to ponder whether the Holocaust can be written about like any other historical event. “Of course,” says one “it has causes, consequences…just like the Dissolution of the Monasteries”. But one pupil objects: in an outburst he declares “but the difference is that you didn’t have family who died in the Dissolution of the Monasteries”. Irwin later apologises – “the Holocaust isn’t just another topic of history” he says – “yet”.

As a history student and descendant of Holocaust survivors I think back to that scene a lot: as time passes, it seems impossible to stop events being regularised, flattened as the mere consequence of causes and cause of consequences. The people who lived and died, suffered and struggled, become obscured by distance.


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But the horrors that Schloss describes don’t bear forgetting: to admit defeat here would be to open the door to them being seen as banal – or worse, to ignorance and denial. In an age of mounting antisemitism and general prejudice, this is the last thing that is needed. And if we are to prevent the Holocaust becoming ‘just another historical topic’, it will be because of the actions of people like Eva Schloss, who more than anyone deserved as quiet life but who made the decision to speak out – not for their sake, but for ours.