June 10, 2004
Anne Frank: A Stepsister’s Story
Saturday, June 12, marks Anne Frank's 75th birthday, and Eva Geiringer, who posthumously became her stepsister, reflects on the young Dutch girl and their Holocaust experiences.
Eva Geiringer was 9 years old when her childhood came to an abrupt end. "I had had a very safe, shielded upbringing" she recalled, her strong Austrian accent giving away her mother tongue. "My parents were young, assimilated Jews, as were their friends and family who lived in Vienna, and they never saw themselves as anything other than Austrians. Then came March 1938."
That was when the German army marched into Austria. For Austria's Jewish population it marked the end of an era. Jews were excluded from public life and obliged to wear the yellow star. Attacks on Jewish businesses became commonplace, and physical attacks followed soon after.
"I remember my brother, Heinz, returning home from school one day with a cut eye," Geiringer said. "He had been severely beaten by the other boys in his class, because he was Jewish."
Fearing the worst, Geiringer's father, "Pappy," decided to flee Austria with his family. After a number of relocations, he moved his shoe-making factory to Amsterdam, where the family settled. It was there that Geiringer first encountered the Frank family and their daughter, Anne, author of the famous diary.
"The Franks' apartment was opposite ours," Geiringer said. "We were both 11 at the time, but Anne was more 'stylish' and grown up than the rest of us. She always seemed to know what she wanted -- and she got it."
"I remember once going with my mother to a local dressmaker in Amsterdam," Geiringer continued. "The dressmaker was inside the fitting room with another customer. I could hear her taking detailed instructions from a picky client with a very authoritative tone. When she finally drew back the curtain, I was amazed to see that it was Anne Frank."
"Heinz and Margot, Anne's elder sister, were in the same class," Geiringer noted. "Often they would do their homework together in each other's apartment."
"I also remember Anne's father, Otto, from those days. My Dutch was very bad at the time, and he would speak to me in German. He had a very kind manner, always calm and composed."
On May 10, 1942, Germany invaded the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium. Soon after the Nazis took control of the Netherlands, anti-Semitic legislation was enforced. The entire Jewish community began to feel increasingly fearful for its safety.
"One day, Heinz came home terribly shaken," Geiringer recalled. "Whilst out in the street, his friend had removed his jacket which had the yellow star. They were stopped by SS soldiers, and his friend was arrested for not having a yellow star on his clothing."
"Adults met to discuss the situation, but no one talked about their plans to escape or go into hiding," she explained. "This was kept strictly within the family and was not something that was aired in the open. We had no idea that the Frank family had already resolved to go into hiding, and that they had made such elaborate preparations."
As fate would have it, both the Frank and Geiringer families went into hiding the same day.
On July 6, 1942, an official call-up letter from the Nazi authorities in Amsterdam arrived by mail for Geiringer's brother, Heinz. That same day, Margot Frank was handed a formal card ordering her to report to the SS the following morning.
"My father contacted the Dutch underground, and within 24 hours we went into hiding -- my mother and myself in one place, Heinz and my father in another," Geiringer said, as her flow of words and memories sped up. "Overnight, our lives were placed at the mercy of total strangers."
"One of our hiding places," she remembered, "was in an attic belonging to a very kind lady, Mrs. Reitzman. A member of the Dutch resistance advised her that it would be prudent to build a secret partition in the toilet which would have a tiled trapdoor, so that it looked like a solid wall from the outside but have an empty cavity in it."
"He called on a builder, also a member of the Dutch underground, who came to our hiding place to build the partition," Geiringer explained. "He worked on it solidly, and the partition was finished by the late afternoon."
During the night, heavy knocking on the door shattered the silence. The Gestapo had come.
"We could hear them asking Mrs. Reitzman if she was hiding any 'filthy Jews,'" Geiringer said. "My mother sprung to her feet, quickly smoothed the bed covers, grabbed me by the hand, and we squeezed into the cavity in the fake wall that had just been built. We managed to shut the heavy trapdoor behind us seconds before the soldiers barged into the attic."
"We sat in silence, petrified. The soldiers inspected our beds, upturned furniture and then went into the toilet. My heart pounded so loudly, I was convinced that they could hear it, too. Finally we heard them close the door and leave."
On May 11, 1944, Geiringer woke up early. It was her birthday.
"We had been in hiding for two years, and I had just turned 15," she recalled. "I was unwrapping a birthday present when a knock at the door shattered the jovial atmosphere."
Within seconds, two Gestapo officers stormed their way in. Geiringer and her mother had been denounced. Given no time to pack, they were marched into the street and taken to Gestapo headquarters. Heinz and Pappy were already there.
Four days after their capture, Geiringer and her family were herded onto a cattle car. She described the moment the train doors were slammed shut, as her "descent into hell." Three days later, the train ground to a halt, and the doors opened. They had arrived at their destination: Auschwitz-Birkenau.
"As soon as we arrived, we were told that if we were too ill or tired to walk, we could go on a lorry that would take us to the camp," Geiringer remembered. "Many jumped at the opportunity and made plans to see their family later on in the camp. None of them ever did: They were all transported directly to the gas chambers."
Geiringer's experiences in Auschwitz-Birkenau was an odyssey to hell and back. It is a story of courage, tragedy, good fortune, resourcefulness, despair and hope. Her mother was selected by the notorious Dr. Mengele and Geiringer found herself in line for the gas chambers.
However, on Jan. 27, 1945, Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by the Russians. Both Geiringer and her mother had survived. Upon liberation, the two walked from Birkenau to Auschwitz, where the men were kept, to search for Heinz and Pappy. They were not there, but Geiringer recognized a familiar face: Otto Frank.
"He came to me and said, 'You are Eva, Anne's friend, aren't you?' And he hugged me. He wanted to know if Anne and Margot were with me."
Among the male survivors was another person who remembered Heinz and Pappy. They were taken on the forced march from Auschwitz, he told them.
"It was terrible news for us," Geiringer said.
"A number of months later," Geiringer recalled, "Otto learnt of the fate of his own family by a survivor who was with them in Bergen-Belsen."
Both Anne and Margot died from typhoid. His wife, Edith, died of exhaustion and starvation in Auschwitz.
"At the same time, my mother and I were inconsolable over Heinz's and Pappy's deaths. Otto was devastated by the loss of his family and fell into deep melancholy."
Geiringer's mother, Fritzy, and Otto met regularly. On one of his visits, Otto mentioned a diary that Anne had kept while they were in hiding and which Miep Gies, his secretary, found after the secret annex where the Franks were hiding was raided by the Gestapo.
Upon publication in 1947, Anne Frank's diary became the most publicized piece of writing to emerge from the Holocaust. It was translated into 55 languages and spawned a variety of plays and films.
"The diary saved Otto's life," Geiringer declared unhesitatingly. "It gave him a purpose -- a cause and a reason to go on."
After the war, Geiringer moved to Britain, where she met her future husband, Zvi Schloss, an Israeli student who had come to London to study economics. They settled in North London, where they live today, and raised a family.
In 1953, Otto and Geiringer's mother married in Basle, Switzerland.
"My mother and Otto had a wonderful marriage. They adored each other and became one. He was also a wonderful grandfather to my three daughters who were very attached to him. The way they looked at each other, the way they were always together -- they were perfectly suited. It was a marriage of true love, there can be no doubt about that."
"Otto was a very private and dignified person," Geiringer explained. "To his last day, he never talked about his experiences in Auschwitz to anyone. We shall never know how he survived, or what he went through."
"What struck me most was that he had no feelings of retribution or revenge," she noted. "He was a true humanist. He would get hundreds of letters each week from around the world, and he and my mother would answer them, each one."
Asked about her own relationship with Frank, Geiringer became subdued, saying, "At times it was painful for me to see Otto and my mother in love. On the one hand, I was happy for them to have found each other, but on the other hand, it was painful for me, because Otto was not my father. I imagine he felt the same: That I was not his daughter, and it should have been Anne who was with him."
Frank and Geiringer's mother lived together for 27 years until his death in 1980. Geiringer's mother died in 1998, and the couple's ashes are buried next to each other in Basle.
Eva (Geiringer) Schloss' experiences and memories are penned in her autobiographical book, "Eva's Story" (Castle-Kent 1999, $9.50).
Ori Golan, a writer for The Jerusalem Post, wrote this story exclusively for The Jewish Journal.