At fifteen years old, Eva Schloss stood naked and crying beside her mother at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, surrounded by male SS guards who laughed and pushed at them with guns. Moments later, the guards beat the group of women into a shower together, and Schloss cried with relief when she felt water hit her skin and not poisonous gas.
She had just seen her brother and father for the last time. Her father, who was not a religious man, had taken her hands into his own and said, “Eva, God will protect you.”
“That is something that is with me to this day, because I realize he had to give up protecting his family, and he has to give me over to God—which he might not even believe in,” said Schloss during an interview at the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications on Feb. 24.
Schloss’s incredible story as a survivor of the Holocaust made its way around South Carolina last month through multiple speaking engagements in different cities, including at the Chabad Center for Jewish Life in both Mount Pleasant and Columbia. She also was the featured speaker for the University of South Carolina’s President’s Leadership Dialogue at the Koger Center, where over 2,000 individuals listened to the harrowing narrative of her early life.
After spending two years hiding in Holland during World War II, her family was betrayed and sent in a cattle car to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp with 80 other Jewish people. The terrors she faced in her eight months at the camp, including meeting the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele, were shared in her recent South Carolina speaking engagements. Hundreds of tickets to the Koger Center event were distributed to public schools across the state so that children could attend and hear firsthand the story of a Holocaust survivor.
For many young children, Schloss’s story is immediately interesting because she is the stepsister of Anne Frank, who died at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at the age of fifteen. Frank’s diary, as well as the plays, feature films, and documentaries based on it, serve as an introduction to studying the Holocaust for many young children today. But the diary fails to capture the vivid imagery of fighting for survival at a death camp in the way that Schloss’s own stories depict. “I’ve done different events for huge audiences, and I get letters from people,” said Schloss. “They say very often they don’t know half of what I’m talking about. Yes, they knew about camps, they knew about prejudice, but they never really heard how it was.”
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates that six million Jewish Europeans were killed in death camps during the Holocaust, as well as homosexuals, criminal offenders, German political opponents and resistance activists, Gypsies, people with disabilities living in institutions, Serb civilians, Soviet civilians, non-Jewish Polish civilians, and Soviet prisoners of war. Combined with other targeted populations, the number of human lives lost to the mass genocide would likely be a few million more.
In spite of these staggering numbers, obliviousness about the conditions of the concentration camps and the Holocaust itself is not something Schloss has just started seeing in recent years. At a media event held on the University of South Carolina’s campus, she explained that initially, upon returning from the camp, she wanted to share her story, but “people were not ready to hear, and didn’t really want to know anything about it.”
“There was a lot of guilty feeling when the movies [about the Holocaust] came out,” she recalled. “People were in shock. Nobody had really believed it. When survivors came back, they didn’t really want to hear anything [about their experiences]. And they said, ‘We know it was terrible—let’s just move on.’”
According to Schloss, about fifteen years after World War II ended, the public seemed more interested in hearing about the experiences of Holocaust survivors. By that time, survivors had been silenced for so long that “they were not ready anymore to speak.” Schloss said she herself fit that description.
There are many points in Schloss’s story that are incredible. She recounts in her speeches a series of miracles that happened. “The first miracle,” as she called it, was being spared by Dr. Mengele during the initial selection because she wore her mother’s coat and hat and he mistook her for an adult. Though, what is perhaps most remarkable is her own journey after being freed from the death camp.
Schloss studied art history for a year at Amsterdam University, then worked in London for five years as a professional photographer. She married, had children, and eventually ran an antique store. It was not until 1986, when an Anne Frank exhibition was held in London, she was asked to share her personal story. “It was a big event, the first time anything like that had been shown, and I was asked to talk,” she recounted at a Columbia speaking engagement.
It had been over 40 years since she and her mother had survived Auschwitz-Birkenau, but Schloss still felt an intense panic while preparing for the event. “I couldn’t speak freely—I wasn’t used to that. So my husband wrote my speech,” she explained.
Unaccustomed to public speaking or talking about the Holocaust, and filled with anxiety, Schloss said that first event “was very, very difficult, and my whole system was really in shock.” She acknowledged, though, that the experience “really changed my life.” Schloss decided to dedicate herself to Holocaust education. Although she first needed to take tranquilizers before speaking about the trauma she endured, she eventually grew more comfortable and stepped into her own abilities, writing her own speeches.
“I realized that people really were interested, and that I have a story to tell,” she said.
Now nearing her 88th birthday, Schloss says she is motivated to continue touring and speaking to inspire young people. She hopes that her story will teach youth about overcoming trauma and facing prejudice, and learning to speak on their own, just as she did forty years after being rescued from the death camp. At a recent University of South Carolina speaking engagement, she acknowledged how touched she was by letters that young people sent her about facing prejudice. “It’s unfortunate that they still have this going on in their schools. Kids commit suicide because they can’t cope with it,” she said in regards to the stories she has been told by audiences. “It’s a terrible situation. Young children get so frightened that they can’t carry on with their lives.”
Already in 2017, Schloss has grabbed national headlines here in the United States for her political commentary during her speaking engagements. “In 1945, when we came back [from the death camps], people really thought, we have really learned our lesson, and this is never going to happen again,” she stated during a Columbia talk. “But we haven’t really learned anything; this situation is just as dangerous, and there’s racial and religious prejudice, many, many horrible wars, there’s a terrible refugee problem again.” In her travels as a Holocaust educator, she has seen many parallels to the anti-Semitism of the Nazi party and present day issues. “People are dissatisfied all over the world, in Europe, in America—people don’t like what is going on in the world.”
Speaking at the Koger Center on Feb. 27, she recounted her own experiences as a survivor of genocide and discussed the current refugee crisis in the United States, stating simply, “Acceptance is the key to peace.” In her presentations, Schloss attempts to illustrate the impact that a lack of acceptance can have on both individuals and society at a much more expansive level.
However, during her Koger Center presentation, Schloss also declared that “the most important thing” that her experiences have taught her “is to give all people the best education possible.” Two days prior, Schloss spoke emphatically at the University of South Carolina about the need for extending affordable education to all socioeconomic classes, calling the Western world’s lack of free education “a terrible waste of intelligence.”
As jarring as her commentary may seem, the 87-year-old Holocaust survivor maintains a well-spoken, wise, and firm presence during her speaking engagements. In spite of years of silence and fear, she now is able to share her own experiences with poise and reflection. Her motivation to continue touring and speaking across the globe is simple—to educate and inspire children.
“Obviously our parents and our generation have made many mistakes…but I have great hope that the new generation can see really what is coming, and take measures against what has gone wrong in the world,” said Schloss. “I have great hope that the younger generation are going to study the situation and create a safer and better world, without prejudice, without racism, to accept each other, to work together.”