The well-coiffed, plain-spoken Schloss has her own nightmarish tales from World War II Europe and the camps. And of overcoming postwar suicidal depression. And of her famous stepsister. But in her books, work with prisoners and public speaking around the world, she talks just as much about what she sees as today’s horrors: Syrian refugees on the run, ISIS torture of Christians, the immorality of drone and atomic warfare, environmental degradation, a slipping interest in public education. And what she calls the enduring need to pay attention.
“I talk about it and tell people, this is what Germany was. Not everybody was — by no means — anti-Semitic or supported Hitler. They had good Jewish friends, but they took the easy way out and looked the other way. It is the danger of the bystander,” Schloss said in an interview Wednesday before an evening appearance at the Center for the Arts at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. “This is what we have to teach young people — not to be indifferent, but take part; if you see injustice being done, speak out.”
Schloss is on a U.S. speaking tour, with the first stop at George Mason, where she appeared for more than an hour. Schloss spoke in a matter-of-fact tone as she was interviewed by Eli Rosenbaum, a federal prosecutor who has investigated Nazi cases. The crowd of 1,200 filled two levels, and remained rapt and silent — except for a few standing ovations.
“I remember I didn’t want to go to school” after the war, she told the crowd. “My message even for President Trump is: He said he wants to make America great again, which is wonderful, but you can only do that if you have education, not just for rich people, but give all people a good education.”
Schloss is among those outspoken on a controversial, complex topic: What are the best, most appropriate ways to keep the moral lessons of genocide alive? While for many the story of Frank, who died at 15 in a German concentration camp, is still a simple, tragic tale of a talented, precocious writer; the portrait of her life is increasingly becoming more nuanced and real over the decades as additional details come out.
In 2013 there was an uproar when a less abridged version of her diary came out, including a few snippy comments about others and frank talk about her body and budding sexuality. Some called it “pornographic” while others applauded the mature observations of a real teenager.
Schloss has long spoken bluntly about Frank, a girl she met in an Amsterdam courtyard when both of their families were on the run. They never lived as sisters, and Schloss’s mother married Frank’s father after the war. During the war, many of their family members — and spouses — had been murdered. On Wednesday, in a Post interview and on stage, Schloss said Frank was a “leader, outgoing” — her nickname, Schloss said, was “quack quack” because she talked so much — but also sometimes “naughty” and “bossy.” Schloss told The Post about the challenge and pressure of becoming part of the family of Otto Frank, who Schloss said became “nearly obsessed” with the legacy of his dead youngest child. She later praised him for saving her with his positive perspective.
Many scholars of the Holocaust and other societal horrors say it’s essential to keep people like Anne Frank real, not one-dimensional, not martyrized.
“When we talk about ‘victims of the Holocaust’ it strips them of their essential humanity. It erases the fact that they were regular people leading regular lives. They deserve to be remembered as full human beings, ” said Edna Friedberg, a historian with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Otherwise, it’s dangerous, because it flattens our understanding and makes it harder to relate to them. When we think of people murdered in the Holocaust in human, relatable terms, the impact, the loss, the devastation becomes more real and, I think, more galvanizing for us. Less like a natural disaster and more like murder on a massive scale.”
Frank’s stepsister, who later became a studio photographer, ran an antiques shop and had three daughters (and now five grandchildren), made news in 2013 when she defended pop star Justin Bieber. The singer visited the Anne Frank House Museum in Amsterdam after a show and signed in the guest book that he hoped Frank would have “been a belieber” — jargon for his fans. Many were outraged.
On Wednesday, Schloss said it’s important “not to put her on a pedestal” and to consider that Frank — had she been a girl today — may well have been a belieber. Frank loved Deanna Durbin, a Canadian American musical film star in the 1930s and 1940s, Schloss said. Frank “would have loved” Bieber, she said, noting how positive it is that he visited the historic site.
Friedberg said there is a similar debate about the many people who visit concentration camps and snap selfies — including smiling ones. “Don’t smack people for starting where they are. See it as an opening — even one that may seem distasteful. As we get further from these events, we need to be open to new avenues.”
Schloss is also part of a new project by the Steven Spielberg-founded Shoah Foundation, which has recorded nearly 52,000 interviews with Nazi-era survivors, and the Institute for Creative Technologies, both at the University of Southern California. Through detailed, prerecorded interviews with survivors — including Schloss — the exhibit creates life-size holograms that can “answer” questions that some may be afraid to ask in person. At a time when the number of Holocaust survivors is dwindling, the idea is to keep them alive. As time passes, different narratives become accepted until others rise. Some experts warn that the Holocaust not become a “game,” Friedberg said.
Schloss’s hologram project is the subject of a mini-documentary called “116 Cameras” that came out last year and was shortlisted briefly as a finalist for the Oscars.
While her visit to George Mason was organized by the regional branch of Chabad Lubavitch, an Orthodox segment of Judaism focused on outreach, she said in the interview that she is “definitely not a practicing Jew” — though she is very proud of her faith heritage. In the concentration camp, she said, “the only thing you could do was pray to God to stop it, and God didn’t. So I came out and didn’t believe in anything, and not in humans.” It was her stepfather’s ability to still proudly claim his own German heritage and to believe in others that allowed her to continue, she said.
Anne Frank has long been iconic, but her writings about the dangers of intolerance and also about feminism are receiving new attention these days. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, long focused on gender equity, earlier this month began a public talk by reading an excerpt from Frank’s diary, pondering why men are thought by many superior.
Schloss has written three books and been the subject of not only the documentary but also a play — much about Frank. But her own story is dramatic.
She lived a happy, safe life with her brother and parents in Austria until the Nazis invaded. They later went on the run, wound up in Amsterdam and remained hidden in backrooms by sympathizers for two years until a double agent turned them in. She and her mother were separated from her father and brother in a grueling scene on the way to the camps in which Schloss’s father told the others: “ ‘From now on I can’t protect you.’ I can’t imagine what that was for him. He was a proud, good father and said: ‘From now on it’s out of my hands.’ ”
Schloss and her mother never saw the other two again. Her brother, a talented musician, became a painter as a teenager in hiding. After the war, dozens of his paintings and poems were discovered under a floorboard in Amsterdam.
After nine horrifying months in Auschwitz, the war ended. Searching for her father and brother, Schloss and her mother visited just-closing camps and came across their old neighbor from years ago — Otto Frank, barely recognizable, “very yellow, very thin.” His wife and two daughters were dead, and she recalls him trembling as one day he showed them a little parcel, which he opened carefully.
“It was the diary. He read a few sentences, but always burst into tears,” she told the Fairfax crowd. It took him weeks to read the whole thing. “It was the only thing he had of Anna.”