Smiling with Eva Schloss on the first stop of her most recent U.S. speaking tour
It's taken me over a week to process my encounter with Eva Schloss, the childhood friend and posthumous stepsister of Anne Frank.
The words and bearing of this petite 84-year-old lovingly, yet boldly, carry a big message out of a perilous past. Her tale paints the story of a happy childhood, but soon takes listeners through a process of marginalization, intimidation and progressive stalking. She recalls her family's capture by Nazis on her 15th birthday and the trip to Auschwitz that followed.
Eva survived the Holocaust but lost a piece of her soul. Although marrying and raising three daughters, she kept her youthful horrors a secret. Eva spent 40 years in silence and emotional isolation, believing nobody cared.
But in the mid 1980s, Eva Schloss' life came full-circle. Given an unexpected opportunity to speak to a London crowd at an Anne Frank exhibition, her bottled words came gushing forth. So did her life.
Eva found her voice again, and a reason for joy. Smiling, she admits she has yet to stop talking in 25 years. Both author and public speaker, she shares her story and heralds a message of peace.
As I sat listening to Eva, interplays from my own life fell into hers...
I retreated to a sunny day in the fall of 1967 when my 4th grade teacher placed The Diary of Anne Frank on my desk. I balked at having to read a small print book devoid of colorful pictures and fanciful story lines. But I'd soon become engrossed. Anne Frank's diary brought the realities of human frailty to my sheltered psyche.
I remembered visiting Dachau, one of Germany's concentration camps, while studying abroad in college. Recalling Anne Frank's book, I could see beyond the remains of an abandoned physical structure: I felt the souls of those who lived and died there.
Gazing past the the camp that day, I was startled by suburbia. Dachau's neighborhood had houses similar to mine back home. These pleasant homes were present during WWII, in close proximity to people getting exterminated and ovens throwing off smoke.
Didn't these people know what was going on in their own neighborhood?
I reflected upon Germany's long-celebrated reputation for culture, technology and refinement. If this nation could allow for such horrors, what society was immune? Any group sufficiently labeled could potentially fall subject to a similar fate. Anywhere, and at any time.
Humanity's dark side leaves everyone ashamed: first the victims and, later, the abusers when exposed. We are collectively undone by our own inhumanity.
If our world hoped for a better future, we all needed to play a part. We'd have to be vigilant about leadership and messaging, wise about protecting our minds and hearts.
Humanity's slide to darkness is easy to recognize. I listened as Eva discovered she was "different." Despite attending an integrated school, she told of a Catholic friend's mother slamming a door in her face. As Nazi intimidation escalated, Eva was no longer welcome in her former best friend's home.
I heard Eva talk of encroaching hate when describing how the bullying of Jews became a virtue. She watched six classmates beat up her brother as a teacher looked on, approvingly.
Hardly one dimensional, Eva strikes listeners with things happy and familiar. After the Nazi takeover of Belgium, her family moved to Amsterdam where a more tolerant spirit prevailed. It is here, from age 11 to 13, where she befriended Anne Frank in the neighborhood square.
Only one month apart in age, Eva was the childish tomboy, skipping and playing with marbles. Anne was more mature, a "bit of a show-off." She enjoyed telling stories and boys.
As the war progressed and hiding became risky, Eva's family fate was sealed. A Dutch nurse and double-agent offered them a safe house, then alerted authorities to their whereabouts. On Eva's 15th birthday, the Nazis arrived.
As the family rode in the cattle truck, Eva's father cried, no longer able to protect his family. The journey continued by train. When doors opened to reveal the Auschwitz sign, many aboard collapsed in fright.
"The Europeans knew," she said of Auschwitz. Though banned by the Nazis, BBC broadcasts went out nightly in the Dutch language. Many learned of "systematic gassing of Jewish people" at numerous death camps. "Auschwitz was among the largest."
With her voice reclaimed, the power of Eva's story resonates to young and old alike.
I sensed a "good news" story when I heard she'd be touring our area. Nearly 47 years after being introduced to Anne Frank's transformational book, who knew I'd one day talk with her friend and stepsister?
Eva Schloss is alive from the grave, spunky, smiling and purposed at age 84.
I'm so happy I could help extend her mission.
NOTE: With special thanks to Chabad Jewish Center in St. Petersburg, Florida and Rabbi Alter Korf for sponsoring this event at the Paladium Theater and providing me with both an introduction and access to Eva Schloss.