Sunday, 13 July 2008

Eva’s Story

Tomorrow marks Anne Frank’s 75th birthday. Ori Golan talks to Eva Geiringer, the girl who, posthumously, became her step sister.

Eva Geiringer was nine years old when her childhood came to an abrupt end. "I had had a very safe, shielded upbringing" she recalls, 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." Her voice trails off.

That was when the German army marched into Austria. For Austria’s Jewish population this marked the end of an era. Jews were excluded from public life; they were banned from outdoor activities 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. He had been severely beaten by the other boys in his class, because he was Jewish."

Fearing the worst, Eva’s father, "Pappy", decided to flee Austria with his family. After a number of relocations, he moved his shoe-making industry to Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, where the family settled. It was there that Eva first encountered the Frank family and their daughter Anne, author of the most famous diary ever to be published.

"The Franks’ apartment was opposite ours. 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. 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. 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. That same day, Eva’s family hurried to the port, in an attempt to board a ship bound for England. By the time they arrived at the port, the last ship had set sail and they were turned back.
Soon after, the Nazi regime took hold of the Netherlands and anti-Semitic legislation was enforced. The entire community began to feel increasingly fearful for their safety.
"One day, Heinz came home terribly shaken," recalls Eva. "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."

Deportation of Dutch Jewry had begun, with call-up papers being sent to Jewish families, giving them three days’ notice. The Dutch authorities’ meticulous record keeping was legion. Each town hall had a full name list of the city’s residents, along with their addresses, which accounts for the fact that over 80 percent of Dutch Jewry was deported during the war.

"Adults met to discuss the situation. But no one talked about their plans to escape or go into hiding. 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 Franks and the Geiringers went into hiding on the same day.
On July 6, 1942 an official call-up letter from the Nazi authorities in Amsterdam arrived by post for Eva’s brother, Heinz. That same day, Margot Frank was also 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. Overnight, our lives were placed at the mercy of total strangers" says Eva, as the flow of words and memories picks pace.
"One of our hiding places 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. 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 were at the door.

"We could hear them asking Mrs Reitzman if she was hiding any ‘filthy Jews’. 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."

Hiding Jews became extremely dangerous and those who assisted Jews did so at enormous risk. Collaborators and denouncers were rewarded handsomely, while non-Jews caught hiding Jews were themselves deported to concentration camps.

There had been quite a bit of tension building up between Pappy, Heinz and the landlady of the apartment where they were hiding. The strain of shielding them was taking its toll on her. She began blackmailing them into giving her more of their money and parting with their possessions. A few days later, under cover of darkness, Pappy and Heinz climbed out of the window and left for a new secret location, with the help of a Dutch nurse.

On May 11, 1944 Eva woke up early. It was her birthday. "We had been in hiding for two years and I had just turned fifteen" she recalls. "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. Eva and her mother had been denounced.

Given no time to pack or prepare, they were marched into the street and taken to the Gestapo Headquarter. Heinz and Pappy were already there.

"Pappy and Heinz had been taken to their new hiding place by a nurse working for the Dutch underground. Unbeknown to anyone, the nurse was a double agent working for the Gestapo. Following a clandestine visit my mother and I made to Pappy and Heinz at their new safe house, the nurse followed us back to our own hiding place," explains Eva. "She then denounced all of us."

After the war the nurse was brought to trial for this act of treachery. However, testimonies by other Jewish survivors who she had helped, eclipsed the Geiringer’s personal tragedy and she walked out of court a free woman.

"Years later", says Eva animatedly, "my mother said she wanted to gauge the woman’s eyes out with her own hands. She never could forgive her."

Four days after their capture, Eva and her family were herded onto a cattle wagon. She describes 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 grated open. 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. 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."

Evas’ experiences in Auschwitz-Birkenau is an odyssey to hell and back. It is a story of courage, tragedy, good fortune, resourcefulness, despair and hope. It is an account of resignation and hope; death and survival. Her mother was selected by the notorious Dr Mengele and Eva found herself in line for the gas chambers. It was a combination of initiative and good fortune which changed the course of their seemingly sealed fate.

On the 27th of January 1945, Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by the Russians. Both Eva and her mother had survived. Upon liberation, the two women – a shadow of their former selves – walked from Birkenau to Auschwitz where the men were kept. There they met Otto Frank who asked if they had any news from his wife and daughters.

"We recognised another person who we had known from Holland. He who told us that Pappy and Heinz perished during in the forced march from Auschwitz.

"A number of months later", Eva continues, "Otto Frank learnt of the fate of his wife and two daughters 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.

"Otto was devastated by the loss of his family and fell into deep melancholy", remembers Eva. "At the same time my mother and I were inconsolable over Heinz’s and Pappy’s death. It was a very difficult time for us all."

Eva’s mother, Fritzy, and Otto met regularly. On one of his visits, Otto mentioned a diary which Anne had kept while they were in hiding and which Miep Gies, his secretary, found after the secret annex – the Frank’s hiding place – was raided by the Gestapo.

Upon publication, in 1947, Anne Frank’s diary became the most publicised 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" Eva declares unhesitatingly. "It gave him a purpose - a cause and a reason to go on."

After the war, Eva moved to Britain where she met her future husband, Zvi Schloss, an Israeli student who had come to London to study economics. They set up home and family in North London where they live today.

In 1953 Otto Frank and Fritzi Geiringer, were 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" explains Eva. "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. 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 Otto Frank, Eva becomes subdued. "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."

Otto and Fritzi lived together for 27 years, until Otto’s death in 1980. Fritzi Frank, Eva’s mother, died in 1998. Otto and Fritiz’s ashes are both buried in Basle, next to each other.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jacqueline van Maarsen, the "Jopie" of Anne Frank's diary, has just published a new book, "Inheriting Anne Frank." Ms. van Maarsen claims that Eva and Anne never actually met. This would mean that the passages in "Eva's Story", claiming that the girls knew one another and Heinz did homework with Margot Frank, were completely false. Read van Maarsen's book and judge for yourself.