“Why can’t we live in harmony with each other and accept each other, even if we have a different religion?”
So Holocaust survivor Eva Schloss asked more than 2,700 people gathered at the Spokane Convention Center on Thursday night.
Chabad of Spokane County brought the 90-year-old to Spokane to share her experience in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and her perspective as a survivor.
Schloss was met with a standing ovation and continued to draw strong responses from the audience as she told her story.
The event sold out and had to be moved to a larger space, and many people arrived early to buy Schloss’ book, “Eva’s Story.”
“This is probably the first time I’ve seen it packed like that,” said Christian Walker, who works for the convention center.
Rabbi Yiroel Hahn, from Chabad of Spokane County, welcomed the audience and encouraged respect rather than tolerance.
“The world speaks about tolerance. I find tolerance to be an ugly word. You see tolerance means that I can’t stand you but I’m going to tolerate you, so you tolerate me,” Hahn said. “Respect and acceptance is much greater than that.”
Dr. Hershel Zellman then set the stage by giving historical context of the Holocaust.
“The Holocaust was the most extensive state-planned and -executed genocide in world history,” Zellman said.
More than 6 million Jews – about two-thirds of the European Jewish population – were murdered in the Holocaust, along with another 5 million people who were considered undesirable, Zellman explained.
That context is why Heidi Peck and Gayle Noble wanted to hear Schloss speak.
“Since learning about this in school, I’ve been fascinated by it,” Peck said. “Children of today don’t understand the impact that the Holocaust had.”
The women were seated behind a few rows full of junior high students, something they said in unison was “fantastic.”
“I feel like in today’s world we’re close to another Holocaust situation,” Peck said.
The women agreed education about the atrocities of the past is the key to avoiding them in the future.
Schloss has spoken at more than 1,000 events in the last few decades in an effort to educate future generations and create a personal connection to the horrors of the Holocaust.
Schloss was born in Vienna in 1929 and had a happy childhood until the Nazis invaded and everything changed, she said.
“Suddenly, our friends turned against us,” Schloss said.
She recalled going to her friend’s house one day after school, shortly after the invasion and being told to never come to the house again because she was Jewish.
In February 1940, the family made it to Amsterdam, which was a haven for many Jewish refugees at the time.
“The Dutch people were very, very friendly. I got a bicycle,” Schloss recalled with a smile. “We were very happy.”
The family moved into an apartment building where they made friends with other Jewish families, including that of Anne Frank, whose father Otto married Schloss’s mother after the Second World War ended.
Schloss recounted when she first met Anne, who she called a “chatterbox.”
“One day after school I was playing with other children and there came a little girl and she said, ‘Oh, you are new here,’ ” Schloss said.
Frank learned that Schloss had an older brother and quickly invited herself over to Schloss’ apartment.
She was “a very big flirt,” Schloss said, drawing laughs from the crowd.
The Franks came to Amsterdam from Germany after Otto heard an increasingly popular anti-Semitic song, Scloss recalled. “When Jewish blood drips from our knives, things are going to get better” – that was the alarming line Schloss remembers Otto Frank reciting to her.
After two years in Amsterdam, the Nazis invaded Holland and the families went into hiding.
Schloss and her mother, Mutti, were separated from her father and brother.
“I started to cry. I didn’t want to be separated,” Schloss said. “I think this is the first time, at 13, that I realized it might be a matter of life and death. And it was.”
In 1944, the family moved to new hiding places and were betrayed by a nurse who had pretended to help them.
It was Schloss’ fifteenth birthday.
“I never forget this day, as you can imagine,” Schloss said.
After the war, the nurse who betrayed them only got a four-year prison sentence.
“In this house, she betrayed 200 people over the years,” Schloss said.
The family was transported to Auschwitz and said a tearful goodbye before being separated.
“My father, with tears in his eye, apologized to us that from now on we were going to have to be on our own, he couldn’t protect us anymore,” Schloss said.
Schloss and her mother survived years in Auschwitz-Birkenau before being liberated by Russian forces.
“We waited for the end of the war, and when that came we realized we had survived,” Schloss said.
They made their way back to Amsterdam, where they waited for news of Schloss’ father and brother, only to find out they had died days before Americans liberated the camp they were held in.
“I became very depressed,” Schloss said. “I hated everybody. Not just the Nazis but everybody.”
Schloss finished her schooling and eventually married and had three daughters and five grandchildren. The entire family lives in England.
During the audience question-and-answer period, Schloss was asked if she had been able to forgive the Nazis.
“If you hate so much the people you hate, they don’t suffer but you become miserable,” Schloss said.
And after speaking in Germany years ago, she said she realized the young people were deeply ashamed of what had happened.
“I realized I have no hatred of against the German people,” Schloss said.
When asked why she feels it’s important to speak out and share her experiences, Schloss said she sees religious prejudice growing again.
“We have to learn to accept each other for the person we are, not for the color or religion we have,” Schloss said, drawing applause and cheers from the audience.
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