MENASHA, Wis. — If Eva Schloss could speak with the Nazis who held her and her family in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp during the Holocaust, she knows exactly what she would say.
“I would question them about how could they do such things to us. ‘Imagine it would happen to you. We’re all human beings. How could you be so cruel?'” she said.
The 85-year-old Holocaust survivor and stepsister of Anne Frank captivated a sold-out crowd at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley’s Perry Hall Wednesday as she talked about the horrors of her journey 70 years after the liberation of Auschwitz. She remained silent on her experiences for 40 years but has since written three books.
Schloss was born in Vienna, Austria. Her family fled to Amsterdam when the Nazis invaded in 1938. It was there Schloss met the girl who would become one of the most well-known voices of the Holocaust, 11-year-old Anne Frank. The two girls were the same age but could not have been more different, Schloss said.
“She loved talking, loved drawing attention to herself. Her nickname was ‘Mrs. Quack Quack’ because she never stopped talking in class,” Schloss said.
“I was still quite shy. I was more of a tomboy. I liked to play grounders with the boys — like your baseball — and I was very good … but Anna never did anything like that. She was very interested in hairstyles, clothes. She always had pictures of film stars.”
When the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, things started to change. Young Jewish people were called to work in German factories.
“Many people sent their children, but they never ever heard from them because they never went to Germany to work in factories,” Schloss said. “They were sent to Mauthausen, which is a horrific Austrian death camp, and they were just thrown down from the cliffs.”
To keep Schloss’ brother, Heinz, from that fate, the family went into hiding for two years. They split up — Schloss and her mother in one place, Heinz and her father in another.
Schloss described living underground as stressful but at the same time monotonous.
“We were not even allowed to move because neighbors might hear you move and then they might think you’re burglars and call the police,” she said. “We just had to sit still, which for a person who was very active was very terrible.”
The Nazis searched homes at night for Jews. Schloss and her mother switched hiding places several times to avoid detection, she said.
On Schloss’ 15th birthday the family was betrayed by a Dutch nurse who offered to find them a new hiding place.
Arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau
The family rode in a freight car packed with people to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Upon arrival, the men and women were separated.
The Nazis forced older looking women, small children and babies to one side and able-bodied women to another. Schloss and her mother survived the cut, only to be ushered into barracks where they were told to undress.
“One shock after the other happened. Our heads were shaved, then we were tattooed. We were told, ‘You are not a human being. You are like cattle. You are just a number’ … it was all degradation,” she said.
“While this was all happening they told us that the family you’ve been separated from went into a shower, and they went there expecting water to come and there were pipes and shower heads. Nothing happened. No water. Not a drop of water.
“They waited and waited and they started to have breathing difficulties, started to feel faint and within 10, 12, 15 minutes, everybody had fallen to the floor and they were dead.”
Life in the camp
In eight months at the camp, Schloss said the prisoners were treated worse than animals. The guards would laugh at the people, beat them and tell them they would burn soon.
“The cruelty, the pleasure (they took) in hurting us was just unbelievable,” she said. “They say the soldiers had to do their duty. That wasn’t duty. That was sadism.”
The only possessions they had were one garment and a pair of shoes. People were packed into barracks. Lice covered their bodies. They carried boulders for work. Prisoners didn’t have proper toilets, but rather latrine buckets that were emptied but never cleaned.
People died of typhus, dysentery, diarrhea and starvation.
Russian troops liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau on Jan. 27, 1945. They offered food, clothing and shelter to the prisoners who were still alive.
It took five months for Schloss and her mother to return to Amsterdam. They learned later that her father and brother had died.
It was then they reconnected with Otto Frank, Anne’s father, who survived time in the camp as well. He and Schloss’ mother later married.
Schloss and her husband, meanwhile, have been married for 63 years. They have three children and five grandchildren.
She was silent for four decades about the Holocaust, but has since written three books and spoken to thousands of people about her experience. She wants people not only to hear her story but to understand the circumstances that led to the Holocaust.
“Where does this hatred come from?” she asked. “This is why we try to teach young people not to be racist, not to have prejudice and to accept each other for a human being. We have a right — everybody — to have a life,” she said.