LONDON — The tattoos on three women’s wrists — A-5272, A-5792, 73305 — may be fading, but their memories of the Holocaust have not. As the trio of Auschwitz survivors turn 90 this year, they continue to share their stories of tragedy, trauma and hope.
Eva Schloss, marked as A-5272, became a published author and public speaker. Bobby Neumann, A-5792, kept silent for 60 years, but is now defiantly taking on Holocaust deniers. Also known as the “Librarian of Auschwitz,” Dita Kraus — 73305 — became a kibbutznik in Israel and her story went on to feature in a book of its own.
While in Auschwitz, one woman clung to hope while each night another put off her plan to commit suicide for just another day. After liberation, all three became matriarchs of new branches in their suddenly barren family trees.
Even as they mark their 90th birthdays, for all three women, their mission to spread factual testimony about the horrors they endured by the Nazis has not been slowed. Especially for Schloss, speaking out is more relevant today than ever.
When The Times of Israel recently caught up with Auschwitz survivor Schloss, she has just returned to her home in London after a six-week tour of America. Now approaching her 90th birthday, which falls next week on May 11, Schloss is best known as the posthumous stepsister of Anne Frank — her mother Fritzi married Anne’s father Otto Frank after World War II.
Recently while traveling to packed auditoriums to share her story of survival, Schloss found herself conveying her message of tolerance in an unexpected forum. While she was in California, some high school students made international headlines by taking photos of themselves giving Nazi salutes over a swastika made of red cups used in a drinking game. The anti-Semitic images, one with the caption “master race,” went viral.
Schloss was asked to go to the students’ private school and speak to the 16 year olds in question along with their parents.
Schloss, who is the author of three books about her wartime experience, discovered the teens hadn’t studied the Holocaust in school. She admonished their parents, saying, “You can’t rely on the school only, you have to tell children what is going on in the world and about prejudice.”
The 16-year-old Californian students were “very emotional” when Schloss told them that she was their age when she found out she had lost her father, her older brother, and many of her schoolmates, she says.
“I really wanted to find out what was their motive,” Schloss tells The Times of Israel. “They didn’t really give me an answer. But, I told them my story.”
Below are the stories of survival of three women who still today embody the definition of resilience.
Eva Schloss was tattooed twice
Eva Schloss, nee Geiringer, was born in Vienna on May 11, 1929. Shortly after the annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938, her family emigrated to Belgium and finally to the Netherlands. She lived in the same apartment block in Amsterdam as Anne Frank; only a month apart in age, the girls were sometimes playmates outside their home.
In 1942, both girls went into hiding. But in May 1944, the Geiringer family was captured by the Nazis after being betrayed by a double agent in the Dutch underground. The family was transported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi concentration camps.
Upon arrival Schloss was tattooed with the number A-5222, but the next day the entire transport was re-tattooed. Her number became A-5272, the seven incised above the incorrect number two. Mother and daughter were “lucky” to be sent to work together in the block known as “Canada,” where murdered inmates’ possessions were searched, and conditions were slightly better.
It was hope that kept her alive, Schloss says. She hoped that one day she would be freed and life would return to how it had once been. She and her mother were liberated in 1945 by Soviet troops before making their way back to Amsterdam via Odessa, Istanbul and Marseilles.
Schloss was very close to her talented older brother Heinz, who was killed at age 17.
“I can never forgive the Nazis for murdering such a talented wonderful person, a genius in music, painting and poetry,” she says.
It was Otto Frank who helped Schloss move on after the war.
“Otto had no hate,” Schloss says. “He said, ‘If you live with this hate, you will be such a miserable person. You are young and you can have a good life.’”
At age 21, she met her husband, Zvi Schloss, while studying photography in London. They would make the city their home.
Schloss is particularly concerned about the intolerance that exists today among all religions and in all regions.
“In Pittsburgh they attacked the Jews in synagogue, in New Zealand it was against the Muslims, and in Sri Lanka it was against the Christians,” Schloss says.
“I don’t think there has ever been such unbelievable hatred against people with different religions. Instead of going forward, we are going backwards. We have to tackle this from the top down. We have to have proper religious education. It is not acceptable that people in their place of worship get murdered,” she says.
As for anti-Semitism, Schloss concedes it has always existed and she doesn’t think it will ever disappear completely.
“As long as it is with words and not attacks, and not coming from the government, we will have to live with it. But if the economic situation worsens there will always be a scapegoat and it will always be the Jews,” says Schloss.
Bobby Neumann: A family’s sole survivor
In January 1945, following the death march from Auschwitz to Neustadt-Glewe, 15-year-old Bobby Neumann’s unconscious, typhus-ridden body was piled on top of a heap of corpses. She slipped down, blocking the path of a Russian army medic who happened to be Jewish. He felt a weak pulse and discovered she was alive.
Her nine-month enslavement in Auschwitz had finally come to an end. But with freedom came the brutal realization that Bobby Neumann, born Eva Birnbaum, was the sole survivor of her family.
Neumann was born on March 8, 1929 in Solyva on the Hungarian-Czech border in the Carpathian Mountains. For most of her first 14 years, she says she enjoyed a happy childhood with her parents and two younger brothers. Until the end of 1943, Jews lived side-by-side with their non-Jewish neighbors, many of whom even spoke Yiddish.
Everything changed on the day after Passover 1944, when Hungarian and SS soldiers rounded up Solyva’s Jews.
“They were so brutal. We had half an hour to take one suitcase,” says Neumann.
The Jews were then taken to nearby Munkac where they were forced into one synagogue along with the Jews from the rest of the district. From there they were sent to a brick factory.
After three weeks, they were crammed into the infamous railroad cattle cars, where there was no sense of time, “just children’s cries, silence, disbelief,” says Neumann.
Days later they arrived at a place she had never heard of: Auschwitz. Record numbers of Jews arrived day and night as part of the Nazis’ escalated plan for the rapid mass murder of as many as possible.
“We arrived in the pitch dark and we saw chimneys burning,” recalls Neumann. Soon afterwards, her mother and two younger brothers, Shmuel and Yitzchak Isaac, were taken to the gas chambers.
During the chaos, she suddenly saw her father, who gave her a blessing: “Keep on going. You must keep on going. Look after yourself and remember that you are a Jew. Hashem [God] will help you.” Indeed, in her darkest moments, she says these words kept her going.
Like Schloss, Neumann was sent to work in the warehouse nicknamed “Canada,” where she sorted out victims’ possessions. There she had the heartbreaking moment of handling her mother’s items, including the braided plaits her mother had cut and preserved from Neumann’s head when she was younger. Later, Neumann was moved to work outside the crematorium, where she met and spoke to her grandmother before she entered the gas chamber.
Neumann risked her life stealing bread for others, which resulted in repeated beatings. But she was beyond caring.
“To the contrary,” Neumann says. “Every night we went to bed and made a plan to touch the [electrified] wire. That was the only way out. But, when it came to it, we always said, ‘Tomorrow.’”
Rebuilding her life in the aftermath was more painful, in many ways, than the horror itself. After liberation, Neumann spent the next three years living with a cousin in Budapest, who helped her regain her health. But it did not prevent the immense sense of yearning, loss and confusion.
In 1950 she met and married Leopald Neumann. The couple moved to Manchester, England where they raised their family of five children, and where she still lives.
Instead of dwelling on the past she threw herself into building a family and a new life, embracing the same Orthodox Jewish traditions that her parents “held so dear.” Today she is the proud mother, grandmother and great grandmother of around 100 descendants.
It took over 60 years for Neumann to finally tell her story. It wasn’t that she was hiding it, but that she simply didn’t volunteer it, she says.
“My story and the story of the Holocaust is unbelievably horrendous. But if I had shared it, and then not been believed, that would have been painful,” Neumann says.
But she notes that the culture has changed. “Documentaries, films, books all have demonstrated that the unbelievable was true. My kids are grown up with their own families. Maybe they were never so vulnerable to hear what happened to me. But they certainly can hear it now,” she says.
Over the years, Neumann suppressed her sorrow, never returned to her hometown, and never spoke about her experiences with her family. Her tattoo — A-5792 — was the only evidence of her ordeal. But time alone has not been a healer.
“Time can make the impact of bad experiences fade, perhaps. I am not sure that has been the case for me. Because I know that if I am not using my thoughts and actions in a positive way, then time can actually make grievances worse. For me, what really heals is channeling whatever Hashem — or life — throws your way in the best way you can,” she says.
In 2006 Neumann was asked by the Jewish outreach organization Aish HaTorah if she would accompany a group to Auschwitz, inspiring them to strengthen their Jewish identity.
“When I first got to Auschwitz I was unmoved. There was nothing there apart from a few bricks and barracks. The pain is the same pain as it was then. The feeling is permanent and it doesn’t change no matter where I am,” Neumann says.
In an age of growing Holocaust denial, sharing her story has become paramount.
“These people are indecent, to say the least. So I try to do my decent bit to counter the effect of their lies,” she says.
Bobby is often asked if she hates the Nazis. “Hate achieves nothing. Hate destroys you.” For those who ask, “Where was God in Auschwitz?” Neumann’s answer is simple: “With me.”
Librarian of Auschwitz, Dita Kraus
When Alberto Manguel wrote “The Library at Night” detailing the great libraries of the world, he included a “clandestine children’s library,” referring to a little-known secret library co-run by a young teenager.
That young librarian was a 14-year-old Czech girl named Dita Polachova, and she maintained the collection at Auschwitz from 1943 to 1944.
Polachova (now Kraus), who turns 90 on July 12, was raised in a carefree, loving secular Jewish home in Prague. An only child of intellectual parents, her home was filled with German, Czech and French books, and reading became an integral part of her life. Little did she know that just a few years later, while in Auschwitz, books would enable her to maintain her humanity in her darkest days.
Kraus’s blissful childhood ended abruptly before she turned 10, when in March 1939 the Nazis invaded Prague and started restricting the lives of Jews. Within a month her lawyer father lost his job and the family was evicted by Germans, who demanded the flat for themselves.
In November 1942, 13-year-old Kraus and her parents were sent to the Terezin ghetto, and from there to Auschwitz-Birkenau in December 1943. Kraus and her mother were housed in one of the women’s barracks at Auschwitz.
According to historians, the camp, called Family Camp BIIb, was established to hide Auschwitz’s true purpose: exterminating Jews. It contained a children’s block — Block 31 — overseen by the notorious “Angel of Death,” Dr. Joseph Mengele.
The children’s block was run by a young, charismatic Zionist called Fredy Hirsch that Kraus knew from Prague when he was her sports instructor.
“Fredy succeeded in getting those between the age of 14 and 16 designated as assistants, doing all types of work from sweeping the floor or helping with the distribution of the daily soup,” explains Kraus. “I together with another boy became the block’s librarian, entrusted to look after a few random books found among the luggage of the arrivals in Auschwitz.”
“A Short History of the World,” by HG Wells, in Czech, a geographical atlas, a work by Sigmund Freud and short stories by Czech writer Karel Capek were among the few titles.
But life in the Kinderblock didn’t save the children from being executed. In March 1944, half of the children living at the children’s block were murdered, and their beloved Fredy Hirsch also died in mysterious circumstances.
“The first transport from Terezin to the family camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau arrived in September 1943. Each transport was allocated six months to live,” recalls Kraus. “After the September transport was exterminated in March, it was clear that the December transport, which included my mother and I, would be sent to the gas chambers in June.”
However, in July 1944 Kraus and her mother were among 1,000 still able-bodied women selected by Mengele to go to a work camp in Hamburg. From there they were sent to Bergen-Belsen.
“Even without gas chambers, Bergen-Belsen was a horrific killing machine, where the starving prisoners died by the thousands,” Kraus says.
The British troops who liberated the camp in April 1945 confronted rotting corpses and sick and starving prisoners. Kraus caught typhus, a deadly disease rampant among survivors. Kraus’s mother became ill on June 27, 1945, and died two days later. Her father had been killed at Auschwitz, leaving Kraus orphaned a few weeks short of her 16th birthday. She returned to Prague alone, almost the only survivor of her family.
“I felt lost. I had no home, I didn’t know what to do with myself,” she says.
Just a few weeks after her return to the city, Kraus met her future husband Otto Kraus as she stood in line to get her ID card. She recognized him as one of the instructors from the children’s block. They married in 1947, and in 1949 they moved to Israel with their young son and other survivor friends, settling in Kibbutz Givat Chaim, near Hadera.
Otto himself was a writer. One of his books, “The Painted Wall,” centers around his experience as one of the instructors in the children’s block at Auschwitz. Otto died in 2000.
When Spanish writer Antonio Iturbe came across Alberto Manguel’s reference to the children’s library in Auschwitz in his book “The Library at Night,” he was very intrigued. He contacted Kraus and eventually met up with her in Prague and Terezin before writing the fictionalized book about her life called “The Librarian of Auschwitz,” first published in Spanish.
It has been over 75 years since Kraus’s number 73305 was tattooed on her arm in Auschwitz-Birkenau, but the memories of her hell remain vivid.
For Kraus, who now lives in Netanya, the publication of the book has made her confront her past and the Holocaust deniers head on.
“The guilt of the Nazi perpetrators of the murder of millions of innocent people, families, babies old men and women, is being forgotten or trivialized, if not outright denied,” she says.
“When I hear about people who claim there was no such thing I want to shout: ‘Look at my arm, at the tattooed number, where did that come from? Where are my parents and uncles and cousins? Where are their graves?’”