Jemima Khan talks to Anne Frank's step-sister.
Jemima Khan talks to Anne Frank's step-sister.
A shorter version of this interview  appeared in the New Statesman's special issue on Jews and Judaism
Why did you wait so long before telling your story?
When I came back in 1945 I was desperate to talk about what had happened. But people were not interested at the time. The war was finished, people wanted to move on and everybody had suffered so there was just no interest yet so we suppressed it and we lived with it.
And how many years later did you actually write your book?
Well in ’86, when the first Anne Frank exhibition came to London and Ken Livingstone had organised it, and he put me on the head table at this exhibition, which was a very solemn opening - at the end he said, "and Eva will want to say a few words". Well as I said, I’d never spoken about it and I was quite in shock but eventually everything that I had suppressed for so many years came flooding out. So this was, for me, really a watershed. From then on I was always asked to speak and open exhibitions and then people said you should really write your story down, which I did; then it came out in 1988.
Was it a relief to have written it?
Yes it was; it was because till then it was never out of my thoughts really, but then I was able to let go more.
Had you ever talked to your close friends or your family about your experiences by that point?
No, not at all, certainly not to my family because it was too painful but of course Otto Frank (Anne Frank’s father) became my step-father and he was my children’s grandfather so of course my children knew the story of Anea Frank and knew there was something which wasn’t quite right.
Why do you think it’s so important that your story is told?
Some people say it’s enough about this, but it was the most horrendous event ever in human history and we have to learn from it - how it was possible for something like that to happen whilst the world was just looking on, and they didn’t take it seriously. So it’s important to talk about it and learn from it and as well. You know, six million Jewish people but many, many other millions of innocent victims were killed; three million Poles and Jehovah's Witnesses, Gypsies –so we try to remember those people who have left no trace behind. So they are not forgotten.
Do you think theatre or art can do more in dealing with tragedies like the Holocaust than perhaps more straightforward learning of history can?
Well for a lot of people seeing the visual acting out of particular scenes, they can understand it better. Often teachers say to me “I’ve taught the Holocaust for three weeks but seeing an hour of theatre depicting the events brings it home so much clearer to the students.” For young people to see it depicted is very helpful I think.
How many countries has the play been performed in?
Well the play was created of course in America and now we are doing it in England; we have been touring for three years. We have been in the Scottish Parliament, the European Parliament, English Parliament and a lot in schools, at least a hundred inner city schools; we have done it at the Edinburgh Festival, and we have been in Australia with it, in Germany, in Holland, in Latvia, in Riga . And China. So it’s widespread and we hope to do much more with it.
I know you’re interested in inter-faith understanding. In those schools, where there’s a high proportion of Muslim school children, have they responded well to the play?
Extremely well. I’ve got many photos where the Muslim girls come around me and say it’s an unbelievable story and they are quite ignorant about facts but when you explain it to them and when they see it they are quite shocked and very, very keen to learn. Some black children say “we didn’t know that Jewish people are persecuted, you are white after all”
If you could choose what the one message is that people take away after seeing your play or reading the book; what would it be?
That unfortunately we have not learned enough yet. The message has been forwarded but it hasn’t completely been embraced and there’s still a lot of discrimination and hatred and we have to work together to eliminate that.
And what’s your answer to inter-faith hatred?
Well, I think basically every person really wants the same; we want to live in peace, to have got a job, to bring up our family in a safe way. All religions are supposed to bring good to the community, to uplift communities and it seems to have just the opposite effect. I always say the Jewish religion got Ten Commandments from Moses, God and if we would keep just to this, that’s all we need.
Have you been following the Breivik trial?
A bit. I think it’s amazing that he is still not sorry. Travelling has become easier and people try to find homes where they are more happy, where they can make a living and we have to accept that we are a mixed society now.
Is the anti-Semitism of the past comparable to the Islamophobia of today?
No, I don’t think so. This Islamophobia, it’s really more political – the most people in the world are Muslims now and I think people are afraid that the Muslims are going to take over. So it’s different – nobody expects Jewish people to take over the world - we are only fifteen million people and Muslims, are a billion.
Have you been back to Austria?
Yes, actually, not for thirty years or so, but then our youngest daughter is very interested in her roots, in the German language, she studied German and so she wanted to go and see. So we went. I was young when I left, I remembered it as a beautiful country; my mother would never set foot there, she said “They threw us out, I don’t want anything to do with it”. I was thrown out as well, but I still have lovely memories there and I have no bad feelings against Austria at all now.
How do you get to a point of acceptance?
Well you know, I was full of hatred and discrimination, and not just against the Germans but against the whole world because I felt everybody had let us down. But I was miserable, I was really suffering from my own hatred and it was actually Otto Frank who told me, you know if you go through the world hating people you will be suffering, not the people you hate. So slowly, slowly I started to accept what had happened and see that there are some wonderful people; there is a lot of good being done in the world, and the Germans I think are at the moment, the least anti-Semitic people in the world because they have learnt their lessons.
Have you got any German friends?
Yes I have German friends; I’ve been quite a lot to Germany, I’ve been to Berlin, I’ve been to Munich, to Frankfurt and many places and I’ve spoken to many, many young Germans and do you know, they are very, very sorry, very guilty about what has happened and we can’t carry on into generations who had nothing to do with it. My mother felt much more bitter, but then it wasn’t so long ago, but now it is really seventy years ago that all this happened and we can’t really carry on our hatred and discrimination into the future, then we do the same as Hitler to discriminate against innocent people.
Have you ever met anyone who denies the Holocaust?
I had once been confronted with in America, a man who admitted he had been in the Hitler Youth, but he said you know we didn’t do any harm; it was just like Boy Scouting. So he had really not admitted that there was anything bad being done by them. Nobody has really confronted me and said, you are just telling lies. Personally my opinion is we should just ignore them, not give them a platform. The more we let them speak and the more we listen to them and the more we defend our position the more they talk.
Have you been back to Auschwitz?
In 1995 the Dutch television contacted me because it was the first time there was a big memorial service in Auschwitz with all the heads of states from the western world, and they wanted to do a programme with me there. At first I said no I certainly won’t go, but then I was thinking it over and I thought well perhaps if I go I can close the circle, you know, and I will be able to get over it easier. But it was horrific; I went back, it was January 1995 and it was very bleak and it was really horrible. They did the programme and after that I have never been back, and I won’t go back. Now it’s become sort of a tourist attraction, you know, people go and I’ve seen a film about an American group going to Mauthausen and he was saying oh now I’ve seen Buchenwald, Auschwitz, Mauthausen, I have still to go to Dachau – and they are filming to show to their friends – it is a very solemn experience, it shouldn’t be used as a – well, as a tourist thing.
Why did you decide to keep your tattoo?
Well when we came back, first of all we didn’t – it was an expensive process, we didn’t have the money and we had other worries.– I’m actually glad to have it because in schools children always want to see it and I say to them it’s very important for you to remember because when we are not around anymore in twenty years, thirty years perhaps, there will be more people who will write the Holocaust never existed and so it’s a new generation of youngsters who will have to keep the story alive and tell well yes, I’ve seen somebody, I’ve seen their tattoo. It’s important to have a visual remembrance of it.
How did you find your family and friends, initially when you first came out ?
Well my mother was with me - in ’45 we were liberated, the war wasn’t finished, so we couldn’t go back home yet, so we went east and we travelled for four months with the Russians till we ended up in Odessa. So then after, when the war was finished, we came back via Marseille and up through France back to Holland and there were transports coming back from Germany, people who had survived at different camps, and it was a very, very sad period; people going around asking have you been in this camp, have you met this person, do you know anything? We personally didn’t hear anything till we got a letter from the Red Cross saying that both my father and brother had died in the camp. So this was for us of course the worst, you know. I got over my own suffering and I’m not bitter about that, but that loss – that they have killed my brother who was not quite nineteen, my father was forty-five, they were in the prime of their lives, for no reason whatsoever, you know, that is something I will never be able to forgive.
Were you scared to have your own children after your experience?
No not at all, on the contrary I wanted to build up again a family because many of our family members were lost. So I wanted to – I really wanted a large family and carry on the Jewish tradition and our families' genes.
What happened to your faith during your years at Auschwitz?
I definitely came out of Auschwitz an atheist; I really lost faith in everything, in humans, and even in God, because the suffering was just unbelievable and if we are supposed to be the chosen people, you know, God’s people, how can he let this happen without helping, without stopping it. God wasn’t there for us, so obviously I came out of the camp an unbeliever. But as I got my life back in a way and the birth of my first daughter was really a miracle. I couldn’t conceive at first because in the camp you have no periods - they put bromide in your liquids - and so obviously my hormones weren’t working properly. I was really very, very worried that I wouldn’t be able to have children, but through treatment I was able to and that was, for me, a turning point actually in my life. I started to believe, well perhaps God did protect me, perhaps I should carry on the family and, you know, I started to have faith again.
And so now, would you say that you are a believer in God?
Yes, I certainly believe there is something - there is a purpose, there is a reason why the whole world exists .
Were your parents religious?
No, certainly not orthodox; We were a liberal Jewish family.
Would you mind describing the moment when you last saw your father?
Well my mother had been selected by Mengele to be gassed. For three months I thought I had lost her and I was in a very, very bad mental and physical state. I was really on the point of giving up. One day a couple called me and said somebody is here to see you and I went out of my barrack and there stood myfather with his SS boss. I don’t know how he was able to get to see me, how he was able to find me amongst hundreds of thousands of women – it was unbelievable and he told me that my brother was still okay. I told him that my mother had been killed – Now I feel very guilty because I think that probably made my father give up. He didn’t want to live anymore. But, this is what I thought, and he came three times to see me and then I never saw him any more. I was fifteen.
And when did you see your mother again and how did you find out she was alive?
When the Germans realised the Russians were approaching, they evacuated most of the camp and took them into Germany and Austria. It wasn’t so strict any more; there were many, many camps, A, B, C, D, E and you could go around from one camp to the other and those people we had come with on the transport with told me that they’d seen my mother alive. At first I thought they just told me that to cheer me up, but it was true and then I was able to go to where she was and we were reunited. She was very, very weak, so this was the point really when I became an adult. I had to look after her.
And Anne Frank, you knew each other as children. What was she like?
Well we were eleven years old; I knew her from eleven to thirteen and at that time she was definitely not anything sospecial and I certainly didn’t have any inkling that she might write such a diary with such a message and such a meaning. When I knew her she was a child, interested in clothes and fashion, in hair styles, in boyfriends and certainly not anybody who I would have suspected to become famous or even be able to write such a book with so much depth in it.
And when did you first read her diaries?
At a time when I was still very, very bitter - I was a very miserable teenager and I must say at that time I thought it was the same thing I went through; I wasn’t particularly impressed.
Is peace in the Middle East possible?
I always thought Ireland and Israel is a bit similar; there has been no peace in those countries for ages, but it has been possible in Ireland and people start to be more reasonable and realisethat if both parties really want peace, you know, it doesn’t help anybody to be in a war and to kill each other. So I do hope eventually people will see reason and come to a solution because theremust be a solution and there can be a solution, but both sides have to cooperate.
Did you ever consider living in Israel?
No, definitely not. My husband had emigrated to Palestine in 1936 and when we got married he definitely wanted to go back but at the time my mother asked him not to take me so far away. My husband has lots of relatives there, it’s amazing what they’ve achieved in this relatively short time but I’ve lived in four countries Austria, Belgium, Holland and England; all with these different languages and different cultures and it’s difficult. and so I never had any intention to move there. But on the other hand I think it’s a country which has to stay a Jewish country because if ever something like this happens again we don’t have to wait, we don’t have to wait to get out, we can just go there and be safe.
Would you describe yourself as a Zionist?
Well in theory, yes. I think we need that country but it is not a country where I would say I want to go and live.
How do you respond to those who compare what Israel is doing to the Palestinians to what the Germans did to the Jews?
Well I think that is completely nonsense because the Germans killed innocent people, they were good citizens, there was no quarrel, there was no dispute about anything and now of course Israel and Palestine are in war. There is no peace treaty, the Palestinians haven’t accepted the existence of Israel and there are attacks on Israel’s population – the Jewish people, because we are so small, value life very, very, very much, you know. Each soldier, each civilian who is killed, it is a tragedy for us. But the Palestinians don’t seem to realise that and – I don’t agree with the war- but the Jewish people, but the Israelis are defending themselves against continuous attacks and of course in a war situation accidents do happen- innocent families are killed, children are killed, but it is because there is a war going on. So it’s completely incomparable.
Of what are you most proud, personally?
I am amazed that I’ve been able to survive and my family sometimes don’t like it that I’m a strong person, quite domineering, but it is through my strength I was able to survive A lot of it was luck aswell, but without my strength I would certainly not have made it.
Do you have any personal regrets?
The only thing is I really wanted to have a much larger family. I had the fourth child but I had a miscarriage and I couldn’t have any more children, and this is really quite a regret for me.
What are your plans for the future?
Well I’ve been approached by Hodder & Stoughton, the publishers, they’ve commissioned me to write a new book and this is what I’m working on now which will come out in March.
Don’t you ever get tired?
Well, I do but I have a good night’s sleep and that’s it, I can carry on again. Next month, I’ll be eighty-three and I hope I’ll be able to carry on my work because I hope that I have a little bit of influence on young people.
Do you ever nightmares about your time in Auschwitz?
I used to; I used to have it for many years because you had to suppress it and then of course it came out at night. But since I began to speak out, even though I think about it daily, I don’t have nightmares anymore.
Eva Schloss is the author of “Eva’s Story” and “The Promise” (Puffin, £5.99)