Holocaust survivor and author Eva Schloss spoke at the Oxford Union last week, describing her experiences during the Holocaust and the importance of remembering and learning from the past. After the event, Schloss spoke to Cherwell regarding public understanding of the Holocaust, Anne Frank’s diary and the trend of tourism at concentration camps. It was one of her first in-person events since the beginning of the pandemic; “Zoom is okay but this is much better”, she quipped.
Mrs Schloss began by describing her childhood in Vienna with a “big caring family” and a “very comfortable life”. “One day, it all finished”, she said, describing the arrival of the Nazis into Austria. Her family eventually fled to Holland and stayed in the houses of sympathetic individuals – one, a Dutch nurse, betrayed them to the Nazis. Schloss told attendees that over 200 people had been taken to concentration camps from this collaborator’s home; after the war, she only received four years in prison.
In May 1944, Schloss and her family were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Schloss was only 15 years old. Describing the conditions in the camp, Schloss spoke of frostbite – “a rat came to suck the blood from my foot” – being treated “like an animal” with callous violence and being fed only a chunk of bread each day – “how long can you work the whole day with so little food?”
After escaping the camps, Schloss described her travel back to Holland via a transport ship originally based in New Zealand. It was a “lovely journey” and “the first time we were human beings again”. In 1951, she moved to London. At a 1986 exhibition about Anne Frank’s life (by this time Schloss’ posthumous step-sister after the marriage of her mother to Otto Frank), Ken Livingstone asked Eva to speak. She told the Union attendees how she originally wanted to hide under the table, but couldn’t stop telling her story once she started.
Mrs Schloss also attended a meet-and-greet with members of the Oxford University Jewish Society the morning after her speech.
Speaking exclusively to Cherwell after the event, Mrs Schloss expressed frustration with the public’s lack of understanding of the Holocaust: “A lot of people don’t know the details. They know there was a bad war, and that Jewish people – and gay people, and gypsies – were discriminated against. They know about it, but they don’t know the details. It is the details which are the horrible things. People don’t understand how cultured people could do this, that they could take a baby and step on their head with a boot. You can’t believe that it happened! But that’s what people need to hear – the little details.”
“We know antisemitism is not new. It’s been going on forever. I would like to know why, but there’s no answer. It is something I would really like to know because the Jewish people are – in general – well educated, very social, well-educated, charitable. I’m very proud to be a Jew. I often get asked if I had known [that the Holocaust would happen]: ‘would you want to change your religion’? I said ‘no, no way!’. There were people who converted. But with Hitler it didn’t help,” she added when discussing the history of antisemitism.
Mrs Schloss also discussed Holocaust education with the Jewish Society. She told Cherwell:“I often speak at high schools, and I ask teachers whether they have prepared their students to learn about the Holocaust. They say: ‘Yes, we read the diary of Anne Frank’. I don’t think that is preparing them to learn about the Holocaust. [Anne Frank] didn’t write anything about her experience [in a concentration camp]. She wrote about hiding, which was bad, but is nothing compared to what happened to her later.”
Mrs Schloss became Anne Frank’s posthumous step-sister after her mother married Otto Frank, the diarist’s father. Anne Frank’s diary has been translated into more than 70 languages, and has sold over 30 million copies since its publication in 1947. Mrs Schloss attributes the book being used in school to its fame: “Everybody knows about it. It has become so popular. So many people have written books about her – even fantasy stories! Imagine!
“[The Diary of Anne Frank] is not difficult to read because it’s not about what happened. People who read it have no idea about what a camp was, or what the Nazis were really going to do. This is what I talk about: the gassing and selection. That is what people are shocked about, not just that we didn’t get enough food. They didn’t treat us like human beings.”
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is also used in many UK schools to teach about the Holocaust. It has been criticised for its lack of accuracy and the emotional climax of the film. Mrs Schloss told Cherwell: “It is a nice book, but it is fiction. That is bad because it could never ever have happened, that he could have played chess under the barbed wire. They say that it got people interested in the Holocaust, so they might have started to read other books.
“There is another film – Life is Beautiful. That was a complete fantasy. I think that is bad. The Pianist is an amazing film which everybody should see because it is true, it is humane, it is amazing…There are enough films and stories about what the Nazis did. It is important to realise what people are able to do to each other.”
A record 2.3 million people visited Auschwitz in 2019. When asked about whether people should visit concentration camps, Mrs Schloss said: “There is nothing really to see at Auschwitz anymore. It has become a tourist attraction…It has become a commercial thing, where people take photos under the sign reading Arbeit Macht Frei. My daughter went, and she said it didn’t move her because it was empty. Now you just see empty space, and you can’t imagine what it was like.
“I went to Mauthausen. There are no barracks, but a stone quarry. There is a famous staircase, which the men had to go down, then bring rocks up. At the top, a Nazi would stand. He would give a man a push, and with a big rock on him he fell like an accordion – the whole group fell backwards and were killed. When you see that staircase and hear what happened, you wonder how cultured, educated people could invent a thing like that.”
Image: The Oxford Union.