May 11, 1944, was Eva Schloss’s 15th birthday. It was a quiet but sunny morning in Amsterdam, and she was sitting down for breakfast with her mother, Elfriede Geiringer, when there was a knock on the door. Moments later, Nazi troops stormed in and took them captive. They were tortured and sent to Auschwitz. The nurse hiding the family had betrayed them.
Last week Schloss, now 86, was in Croydon as part of the borough’s Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations, organised by Cultural Community Solutions. The Holocaust survivor, who has lived in London since 1951, is better known as the step-sister of Anne Frank, but her story is equally harrowing as that told in the famous diary.
“When we arrived at Auschwitz, there were horrific scenes. The first thing was to separate males and females, so that was the last time I was with my family altogether. Husbands and wives, brothers and sisters separated. So many people saying goodbye for the last time.
“My father knelt down and took my hands and said ‘I can’t do anything for you, but God will protect you,’ she continued. “He was not a religious man, but there was nothing else he could do. We thought this would be the last day on Earth.”
However, Schloss survived the camp, and has gone on to lead a full life. She moved to London as a photography apprentice six years after the war, and met the man who would become her husband of over 60 years now, Zvi Schloss. They have three grown-up children.
But even her closest family did not know the pain that Schloss had endured in Auschwitz until 30 years ago when the Anne Frank Haus launched an international travelling exhibition.
Ken Livingstone, who opened the exhibition in London, invited Eva Schloss and her mother, Otto Frank’s widow, to join him at the event. Livingstone then asked Schloss to speak.
“I was shy and it didn’t come easily. I didn’t know what to say. Everything I had suppressed for the past 40 years just came flooding out.”
The exhibition, which was hosted across venues in Whitechapel, Tower Hamlets, and The Mall, went on to tour the UK. London was chosen as a first venue because of the high levels of Jewish immigration across the capital in the early twentieth century; by 1900, about 300,000 Jews lived in just two square miles stretching from Whitechapel to Stepney in Tower Hamlets. Just before World War Two, there were approximately 150 synagogues in the area, now there are only four.
“To speak to a Holocaust survivor is to bring the history alive,” says Schloss. “People say hearing me speak has changed their life and they’re going to change their attitude to other people.”
Schloss has now published several books describing her persecution, including, ‘Eva’s Story’, ‘The Promise’ and ‘After Auschwitz’, as well as featuring in play, ‘And Then They Came for Me’, but for a time after the war, she says, no one wanted to listen to survivors.
“I wanted people to know I had suffered, but nobody wanted to hear. I became very bitter and hated everyone. It was Otto Frank who told me if you live your life hating other people, you’ll have a sad, unhappy life.”
Now there isn’t a trace of resentment, but rather a lingering melancholy in her bright blue eyes, the size of saucers.
“My youngest daughter resents the fact that I didn’t tell her about it sooner. The second generation say they have suffered with parents who have had difficulty coping with the world, “ she said.
This is a world which said never again, but has seen unspeakable horrors many times since 1945: Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, Syria.
“The Holocaust could have been avoided if countries had given asylum,” says Schloss. “Now, we have millions fleeing their countries, fleeing their homes, but nobody wants them. This issue of refugees is seen as a European problem. It’s not: it’s a global problem.”
Primary global issues remain “discrimination and intolerance”, according to Schloss. “I’m very disappointed that the world looks just as bad. [The Holocaust] doesn’t seem to have changed anything. People kill, even in London. I don’t understand why people can’t accept each other.”
Holocaust Memorial Day 2016 is on Wednesday, January 27. The theme this year is “Don’t Stand By”, in reference to continued persecution of minority groups. There are several events across the ELL boroughs, including film screenings and an exhibition detailing the lives of East London Holocaust survivors in Tower Hamlets and a civic ceremony at Croydon Town Hall, which will be live-streamed online.
For those interested in local Jewish history, follow this walking tour: Walking tours of the area take in the history of these Jewish enclaves, and highlight just how crowded the space became, as depicted in this interactive map.