Memories of Auschwitz

26th January 2001 at 00:00
On the eve of the UK's first Holocaust Day, Douglas Blane listens to Eva Schloss (right), a camp survivor and friend of Anne Frank, as she tells her story to a group of children.

When the train stopped at the end of a journey across Europe, the soldiers hauled open the doors of the cattle trucks. The fresh air and sunlight were a great relief to the people packed inside. "Then we saw on the platform the terrible sign," says Eva Schloss. "Auschwitz."

On that summer day in 1944 Eva stood at the railway station, a frightened 16-year-old Jew from Amsterdam who, with her family, had spent the previous two years in hiding from the Nazis.

Today, almost 57 years later, she stands in the City Arts Centre in Edinburgh, a fair-haired lady with blue eyes, talking about the Holocaust to an invited audience of local schoolchildren.

"First they separated us into men and women, so this is where I said goodbye to my father and brother. Then Mengele, the camp doctor, in his polished boots and white gloves - very clean and neat - looked us over and we had to march in front of him in rows of five. And he said 'Right' and 'Left'.

"We didn't realise it at the time, but later we heard that all the people who went to the wrong side went straight to the gas chambers. They never even got a chance to enter the camp. They were the old people and those who were maybe a bit pale or bent or tired looking. And the children."

Eva, wearing her mother's coat and hat, was one of the youngest allowed into the camp. Once past the gates and barbed wire, the prisoners were ordered to undress, their hair was shaved, they were tattooed and they stood for hours waiting to be registered.

"We had to say where we came from, when we were born, what our profession was.

"This gave us hope because we thought surely they don't want to know all this if they are going to kill us? But that was just the way the Germans were: meticulous about everything."

She and her mother survived for eight months in the camp that held at first 100,000 people. Fellow prisoners were beaten, shot or hanged from wooden gallows.

"They treated us like wild beasts," Eva says. "At night we saw the flames in the sky from the crematorium."

One day in January 1945 - as the Russians advanced from the east - they woke to find the guards and soldiers gone. There were just a few hundred prisoner left, most too weak to move.

In the weeks before their captors fled, large numbers of prisoners were sent away to prevent them being freed by the Russians. "Those were later called the death marches," says Eva, "Many, many thousands of people perished, walking in the snow from Poland into Germany. And this is where my father and brother died."

The survivors had to fend for themselves, not knowing whether the Germans would return. People were dying of cold, disease and malnutrition. Although they had food, they had no heating. Every day they broke the ice on a pond to get drinking water. Young Eva, with frostbite holes in her feet, had to help drag out the dead from the huts.

On January 27 the army advancing from the east finally reached Auschwitz. "We were liberated by the Russians," Eva says. "It was a time I will never, ever forget."

Eva's talk at the City Arts Centre was preceded by extracts from Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl, read by Joanne Minto and Sarah Gallagher of Holy Rood High school. Eva and Anne Frank were the same age and knew each other in Amsterdam. After the war, her mother and Anne's father - both having lost their families to the Nazis - married. For the rest of their lives they used the diary Anne had kept while in hiding to help educate people against the evils of bigotry and racism.

At the end of her talk, Eva answers the children's many questions calmly and thoughtfully. The memories still hurt, she says, but it is good to tell children what was done.

"They are our hope for the future. I want them to know we are all human beings and that differences and diversity are interesting and you shouldn't be afraid of them. I think the Nazis were afraid of the Jews because they didn't understand us."

* Anne Frank: A History for Today by the Anne Frank Educational Trust (tel 020 8340 9077) is showing at Edinburgh City Arts Centre (tel 0131 529 3993) until February 6, then in New Lanark until February 25.

* Following on in Edinburgh is a show of children's work inspired by the Anne Frank exhibition. Contact Laura Mitchell, tel 0131 469 3058.

* At Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum until February 4, Another Time, Another Place, by the Beth Shalom Holocaust Memorial Centre (, tells the story of Auschwitz child survivor Kitty Hart.Tel: Anne Wallace, 0141 287 2748.

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