Eva Schloss, a survivor of the Auschwitz death camp, spoke with parents and students for over an hour at Newport Harbor High School’s auditorium this afternoon just days after viral photos of youth flashed Nazi salutes over a makeshift swastika at a Costa Mesa party  last weekend sparked outrage. The 89-year-old stepsister of Anne Frank happened to be in Orange County, having given a talk at Chapman University last night.
“When I heard about this incident here, I was shocked that in 2019, in a well-educated town, incidents like this should still happen,” Schloss told reporters after the meeting, not far from a plaque dedicated to Newport Harbor alumni who died in World War Two. “I was very willing to come and speak and hear from the children themselves why they were able to do anything like that.”
Rabbi Rueven Mintz, director of the Chabad Center for Jewish Life in Newport Beach, helped bring Schloss to campus where she spoke privately with students, including a few who attended the now-infamous party.
“I truly believe that beneath the surface of every negative experience lies the opportunity to grow and become better people,” said Rabbi Mintz. “I am committed to continue working with these students, the school administration, other community leaders so that they don’t let this very dark moment in the story end here.”
Charlene Metoyer, Newport-Mesa Unified School District board president, turned to a seated Schloss, an author and international speaker, and expressed gratitude for her visit. “From the beginning we have done our best to take action and work with our community to provide opportunities that will now drive home the fact that there is no tolerance for hatred,” she said. “Hate doesn’t fix hatred.”
It’s a message that Schloss came to the United States about three weeks ago to promote. In making an unscheduled tour stop at Newport Harbor, she shared her story of surviving the Holocaust, although not all she knew and loved could say the same. She lost her father, brother and would-be stepsister. Once freed by Soviet troops, Schloss’ mother later remarried Frank’s father, but the two children became friends before that when both were German-Jewish refugees in pre-war Amsterdam. The Diary of Anne Frank, a collection of Schloss’ stepsister’s writings while her family hid from Nazis for two years during the occupation of the Netherlands, is one of the most well-known works of the era.
Being a teenager in the midst of the Holocaust gave perspective to the high school students. “I was 16 when I came back out of Auschwitz hoping that my family–especially my close family–would have survived and that we would be a family again,” said Schloss. “I was their age when I realized my life was completely shattered. This was really something very hard to endure and I think they realized that.”
Schloss called the Nazi-inspired gestures hurtful to millions of people, one the party goers told her they didn’t realize the full meaning of when they did them. She expressed hope that the incident would spread across the country in a positive way. “We have to learn from history and the mistakes we have made in trying to make a safe, better world for everybody,” said Schloss. “I didn’t tell them too much. I just told them that the Nazis did really horrible, horrible things, not just gassing Jewish people but even their own disabled people.”
During the course of the hour-and-a-half meeting, students at the party told Schloss they thought the gestures were just a joke, something they came to apologize personally to her for.
There’s about 300 Holocaust survivors who are OC residents. Rabbi Mintz and the Chabad Center is continuing to work with the school administration to introduce a Holocaust curriculum that will include future visits from such survivors. Schloss recommended And Then They Came For Me: The World of Anne Frank, a theatrical play that has proved to be instructive elsewhere.
A report released late last year by the Anti-Defamation League notes that antisemitic incidents in 2017 increased 94 percent at K-12 schools across the country . “The most striking thing I heard from the students when asked why was ‘we weren’t thinking,'” Rabbi Peter Levi, regional director of the ADL’s OC/Long Beach chapter, told the Weekly. “We need these conversations, but if the default is hate and bigotry, we need a systemic solution. These kids learned a lot, but the context that they’re growing up in hasn’t changed one iota.”
With much work still to be done, Newport Harbor students had an afternoon with Schloss that hopefully had a lasting impact. “I think they really didn’t think about the consequences,” she said. “I think they have learned a lesson for life.”