OAKLAND -- The pages of a book can teach us much about history, but very rarely is there an opportunity to actually meet a living part of it.
While Anne Frank's diary has become a symbol of the Holocaust, its tragic story is inextricably tied to a woman who has been both a steward of its message and a unique window into what Anne's life was -- and could have been.
A sellout audience of more than 400 gathered on Jan. 16 at the Kaiser Center in Oakland to hear -- and see -- history through Eva Schloss, the stepsister of Anne Frank. For more than 25 years, Schloss, who now lives in London, has been a trustee of the Anne Frank Educational Trust and has traveled extensively to promote understanding and tolerance. The event was also Schloss' chance to share personal stories.
"It wasn't just about Anne Frank," said Rabbi Dovid Labkowski, head of Chabad of Oakland and Piedmont, which organized the event.
"It was more about the next generation ... to make sure that they understand that these things can happen. We have to be so careful about teaching our children," he said in a later interview.
Schloss, now 83, is a natural storyteller, with her melodic Austrian accent and disarming sense of humor. That sharp wit is a trait that struck moderator Clifford Fried, who said few Holocaust survivors have as much zest and optimism.
"My relatives that did speak about the war were extremely serious and they didn't have much humor in their lives," said Fried, a Bay Area attorney, in a later interview. Fried volunteered to interview Schloss on stage in part because his own mother, herself a survivor, never spoke of her ordeal. According to Fried, no topics were off-limits and special effort was made to answer questions from the large number of children in the audience.
Schloss and Frank were just 11 when they met near the apartment building in which they both lived in Amsterdam.
"She was very polite and introduced herself," Schloss recalled. "She took me up to her apartment and I met her family and we became friends."
Although Schloss was a self-described "tomboy" and Frank "more of a delicate little girl, very interested in hairstyles and her clothes," the girls were close friends for two years until their families went into hiding in 1942, fearing deportation. Certain aspects make their lives very similar -- born only a month apart and each with an older sibling -- they would eventually become linked by the marriage between Frank's father and Schloss' mother after the war. But aside from those facts, their stories are significantly different. Frank perished in Auschwitz, while Schloss escaped and faced the daunting task of starting over.
"When we went into hiding, I was just 13 and I didn't quite understand hiding," Schloss told the audience. "My father explained that you will stay with strange people, you will never go out, you will be quiet the whole day, and hopefully, you will not be discovered."
While the Franks were able to go into hiding together, Schloss went with her mother while her older brother, Heinz, stayed with their father. Both families were eventually betrayed, arrested and sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in May 1944. Schloss never saw her father or brother again.
After the war, Schloss and her mother settled back in Amsterdam, where they attempted to resume their lives.
"I had just turned 16 and I was desperate to tell people what had been going on," Schloss said. "And people didn't want to know. They said, 'We know it was terrible, but just move on' ... so you just lived with it, and this is actually why it took so much longer for people to get over this experience."
Schloss went on to complete her high school education but, unable to escape her internal turmoil, was relieved to leave Amsterdam for a year-long apprenticeship with a London photography studio in 1951. The next year, Schloss married and her mother and Otto Frank followed suit not long after. But the horrors of the war, coupled with infertility, continued to haunt Schloss.
"When I came out of the camp, I was definitely an atheist, especially when I heard that my father and brother had not made it," she recalled. "I really didn't believe in anything, not in humans, and not in a higher being." It was only after giving birth to her first daughter that Schloss said her faith was restored.
"I've gone through a lot of terrible, terrible things," said Schloss later in the evening. "Nevertheless, I'm a very happy person, and an optimist."
When asked by an audience member if current unrest surrounding immigrant populations in Europe was a sign of returning anti-Semitism, Schloss replied in the affirmative: "I think there will be again persecution ...but never anything like the Holocaust."
Public speaking had not always come so easily to Schloss. In fact, for 40 years following the war, Schloss said she battled depression and struggled to come to terms with her experiences. Her silence, Schloss told the audience, was broken quite unexpectedly in 1986 during the dedication of a traveling Anne Frank exhibition in London when she was put on the spot by the city's then-Mayor Ken Livingstone.
"I wanted to crawl under the table," Schloss recalled. "I had never spoken in public, I was still a very, very shy person, and to speak about something which I had suppressed for 40 years -- it was terrible ... and after a few minutes, everything that I had suppressed for 40 years came flooding out."
Eventually, the flood led to Schloss' first book, "Eva's Story."
Regrettably, Schloss revealed that no such breakthrough occurred between her mother and herself.
"My mother pretended that she was able to cope easily," she said, adding that it was only some time after her mother's death, having read letters written by her, did Schloss realize the depth of her pain.
"We never spoke about how we felt, and we accused each other that we had no feelings ... we were crying inside."
But perhaps most haunting and tragic is Schloss' memory of her older brother, Heinz, who died in Auschwitz at 18.
Schloss described a gentle and artistic brother who, unable to make music while in hiding, instead wrote poetry and painted, the latter of which were on display during the event.
"He was very much afraid of dying," Schloss explained, recalling that when Heinz was 12, he approached their father to ask what happened after death.
"And my father said, 'Well, you will live on in your children.'" But when Heinz pressed on, wondering how that could be the case if he died before that, their father reassured him: "He said, 'Everything that you've done in your life, someone will remember ... I promise you that you will not be forgotten.'"
Schloss' second book -- "The Promise: A Moving Story of a Family in the Holocaust" -- was written in her brother's honor. She is currently working on a third, due out in April.