The audience in The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman ballroom on Monday evening knew something serious was afoot when the programmed slide show preceding the appearance of Holocaust survivor Eva Schloss displayed pictures of her mother’s 1938 German passport.
Stamped in both German and Dutch, the pages bore entry and exit visas featuring the Nazi eagle, clutching in its talons the small circle and inlaid swastika.
Before Ms. Schloss took the stage in the packed room, organizers showed a 10-minute black-and-white film, detailing the rise of the Fuhrer, 1930s Germany and the escalating persecution of Jews, exemplified by random street attacks and silent witnesses.
The address by the 87-year-old Ms. Schloss to the 750 people in attendance took the form of an interview, conducted by Rikal Pewzner, wife of the Chabad head of the Jewish Community of Cayman, Rabbi Berel Pewzner, whose introductory remarks touched on the struggles of his own grandparents in 1942 when Nazi troops invaded their Ukraine village, killing more than 1,800 people.
Ultimately, he said, the family landed at New York’s Ellis Island immigration center in 1951 “as one of the very few survivors of six million victims” of the Nazi Holocaust.
Ms. Schloss, a veteran speaker, detailed memories of Nazi occupation, her family’s concealment behind false walls and floorboards, their capture, deportation to Poland, enslavement and torture, and the death of her father and brother.
She spoke in measured, calm tones, but was unsparing in her descriptions.
Born in 1929 in Vienna, she described Austria as beautiful, the people as lovely, but “it all changed in a minute when the Nazis marched in,” during the 1938 culmination of Hitler’s annexation of the country.
“I was 9 years old,” Ms. Schloss said, “and you could see the hate in their eyes,” describing both the military and her neighbors. Her best friend’s mother forbade Ms. Schloss to enter their home, while her brother’s friends “turned on him” in the street, beating him “as people watched.”
Her family fled to Belgium, then Holland, where schoolgirl Ms. Schloss, then 11, met Anne Frank, whose “Diary of a Young Girl” is among the best-known chronicles of the Holocaust, read in schools around the world.
In 1940, “The Germans marched into the Netherlands,” and while “things did not change at first,” Holland’s Nazi party greeted the invaders. The Frank family, the Schloss family and thousands of other Jews ignored a subsequent order to “10,000 people to report to a certain spot to go work in German factories.
“We knew better,” Ms. Schloss said. Despite a prohibition on Jews owning radios, the BBC’s Dutch-language service mentioned the 300 death camps in Germany and Poland, and said the Jews were systematically being gassed.
“We went into hiding,” she said, noting that the family changed places another six times during three years, eluding home invasions by Nazi troops who tore down walls and ripped up floors, confiscating anything of value.
Ultimately, her family – like the Franks – was betrayed, and while Ms. Schloss says no one can identify the culprit, she suspects a local nurse posing as part of the Resistance, but secretly a double agent. “She even betrayed her own boyfriend.”
For three or four days the family rode a freight train, packed with 80 others and two buckets, “one for a toilet and one for water.”
Her father wept, she said. “He could no longer protect us.”
When the train finally stopped and the doors opened, “It was Auschwitz.”
In a sense, the family was lucky, she said. Auschwitz had a selection process: One line went immediately to the gas chambers, a second went to the barracks and hard labor.
“At Treblinka and Sobibor,” Ms. Schloss said, “there was no selection. They went right to the gas chambers. At least in Auschwitz, you had a chance.”
She faced the infamous Josef Mengele, “the white angel,” as he winnowed the prison population, sending some to death, others to medical experiments. “My mother was selected for death,” she said.
A cousin in Mengele’s office saved her mother, but Ms. Schloss did not learn of it until months later, long after she encountered her father one day and told him of Mengele’s selection.
“He just crumpled,” she said, “and died days later.”
The sheer degradation is her overriding sense of the camp, she said. Women were forced to strip, standing naked for hours before guards. Their heads were shaved, they were ordered to forget their names and remember the numbers that were tattooed on their arms. Lethal competition for inadequate bread and water was underlined by prisoners’ theft from each other of concealed food; eight people slept in a single wooden bunk.
Somehow, she and her mother survived Auschwitz and the death marches forced on prisoners by the Nazis as Russian troops closed in. She again met Anne Frank’s father, Otto, and they waited in Odessa, Ukraine, for the war’s end, ultimately migrating to Amsterdam, then London, where Ms. Schloss resides today.
Mr. Frank had a small package “wrapped in string, which he gave to me to open because it was too emotional for him.” It was Anne Frank’s famous diary, which abruptly ended as her family was deported to Poland. Alone among the family, Otto Frank survived; Anne died in Bergen-Belsen.
Ms. Schloss’s mother ultimately married Otto Frank in 1953, making Eva Schloss Anne’s posthumous stepsister.
Ms. Schloss married in 1952, bearing three daughters, but not before struggling with the legacy of the Holocaust.
“I prayed every day, but God was either not there, not listening or didn’t care. I came out an atheist,” she said, describing what is now called “Holocaust Theology,” asking how God could permit something so unutterably monstrous.
“In 1946, I wanted to commit suicide. I still question. I am still searching for an answer: Why did this happen? How could it happen?
“Education,” she pleads, “is the only thing” to prevent a recurrence.