In October 1941, Frank Schiller, his parents, brother and grandmother were ordered to report to Prague’s Exhibition Hall. There, Frank’s parents spent their days filling out documents while Frank and his brother wandered around. At night, they slept on straw mattresses. To Frank, who was 15, it was mostly an adventure. Still, he recalled, “I never saw my mother cry, but I saw her crying then. She knew our days of comfort were over.”
A few days later, on Oct. 26, Frank, his parents and brother, along with approximately 1,000 Jews, were transported to the Lodz ghetto. He never saw his grandmother again.
Frank — originally named Harry — was born in Prague on March 13, 1926, to Viktor and Lily Schiller. His brother, Gustav, was three years older.
The family identified as Jewish but secular. Frank attended Czech public school and then, at age 10, a private British school where he learned English.
Viktor was an attorney, and the family was well-to-do, owning an apartment building near Wenceslas Square. Viktor’s law office occupied the same floor as their apartment.
The Schillers also owned a three-story villa in Zelizy, 30 miles outside Prague, where they spent summers. And every winter they went skiing. “Life was very pleasant,” Frank said.
But things changed in October 1938 when Hitler annexed the Sudetenland, part of Czechoslovakia that bordered Germany. At that time, Frank explained, “Father made the fatal mistake of calling us back from Zurich,” where he had sent the family for protection. Viktor believed peace would prevail.
Then on March 15, 1939, German troops occupied the Czech regions of Moravia and Bohemia, with Hitler declaring them a German Protectorate.
Viktor immediately arranged for Frank and Gustav to live with their uncle, Viktor’s older brother, in Antibes, France. Two steamer trunks were shipped ahead while they awaited documentation.
The visas arrived in late August, and the exit permits followed on Sept. 1, 1939, the same day Germany attacked Poland, effectively closing the borders. The boys remained in Prague.
Soon Jews were no longer allowed to attend school, and Frank’s parents, along with other Jewish parents, arranged for their children to be taught privately.
More and more restrictions ensued until the Prague Jews were deported, to Lodz and then to Theresienstadt.
In October 1941, when Frank’s family arrived in the Lodz ghetto, they were housed in a converted school. Months later, according to Frank, they were given “a horrible room,” where cold and wind blew through large gaps in the planked walls. They shared the room with three families, and by June 1942, the fathers of all the families had died of illnesses.
Frank was assigned to a tailor shop that produced sleeveless fur jackets for German soldiers. His job was feeding coal into the iron.
Frank’s mother was hospitalized with typhus and later recovered. She then contracted tuberculosis and died in her sons’ arms in June 1943.
After his mother’s death, Frank moved into a warmer room. He also obtained a job at the ghetto’s vegetable distribution center, where he could eat raw potatoes.
Then, in early 1944, Frank was put in a compound, waiting to be shipped out to a labor camp. He was joined by one of his best friends from Prague: Hanus Adler Orlicky. (His other close friends, Yehuda Bauer and Hanus Spitzer, escaped as soon as the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia.)
In March, the group of 1,000 men was transported to Skarzysko-Kamienna in Poland. There, Frank polished bullet molds in a large ammunition factory run by Hasag, a German company.
In August 1944, as the camp was liquidated, the prisoners were ordered to manually load all the machinery onto railroad flatcars. They were then transferred to Czestochowa, another Hasag company, where Frank worked the night shift, again polishing molds.
In mid-January 1945, the camp was evacuated and the prisoners shipped to Buchenwald. A few days later, Frank and Hanus Adler, among others, were transferred to Dora-Mittelbau and then to Rottelberode, where they were housed in an old mill and worked in an underground factory constructing V-2 rocket bombs.
Frank spoke fluent German, and the German factory manager gave him a menial administrative job. He worked in a warm office and had access to extra bread.
In April 1945, the Germans evacuated the camp, loading the prisoners into open cattle cars in broad daylight. American planes fired at the prisoners, thinking they were German troops. One bullet flew directly under Frank’s chin and through his coat, killing the Russian prisoner next to him. The Americans then blew up the engine, halting the train. As the prisoners jumped out, Frank injured his ankle but kept running. The Americans ceased shooting.
Nevertheless, most of the escaping prisoners were rounded up and marched along a highway through a deep forest. When they exited the forest, they were confined in a cattle enclosure.
Then, the guards disappeared, and the prisoners began escaping into a smaller forest nearby. Frank was nursing his injured ankle and wanted to stay, but his friend Hanus was eager to leave. Frank acquiesced, but insisted on heading back into the deep forest. There, after an hour’s walk, they found two discarded German uniforms, which they donned, and a tube of toothpaste, which they ate.
The next day, Frank and Hanus walked into a village — Frank doesn’t recall the name — wearing their German uniforms. Frank, speaking German, asked where he could find the German troops. “Go to the center of town and turn right,” a townsman said, adding that American troops were to the left.
Frank and Hanus took the left turn and half an hour later encountered two American tanks. Frank, who spoke English, became an interpreter for the American Army.
Frank learned that the other prisoners who had escaped the bombed train were captured in the small forest and barricaded inside a barn near the city of Gardelegen. The Germans had set fire to the barn, machine-gunning those who tried to escape. Two days later, on April 15, 1945, American soldiers discovered the massacre of approximately 1,000 prisoners.
“Hanus saved my life, and I saved his,” Frank said. “Those bastards came back in civilian clothes with weaponry and finished their job.”
On May 23, Frank and Hanus left for Prague, where Frank learned that his brother, Gustav, had died on an Auschwitz death march in January 1945. Frank studied chemistry in Prague, and in June 1948 he left for London. He continued studying chemistry at the University of London and then worked as a food chemist.
In March 1951, having established contact with his Aunt Helen, his mother’s sister, he immigrated to New York, finding a job as a food chemist with Nedicks. He moved to Los Angeles in November 1953 to set up a soft-drink factory for the company.
In 1958, Frank was working at White Rock Beverages when the firm was acquired by Coca-Cola Los Angeles. Frank’s boss, Arthur McDonald, became president and named Frank vice president of manufacturing, making him, as far as Frank knows, the first Jew in a Coca-Cola managerial position. In 1984, Frank moved to the Arrowhead Drinking Water Co., retiring in 1989.
Frank met Liesa Beck in 1956, and they married on July 21, 1957. Son Gary was born in March 1959; daughter Vicki in January 1961.
Now 88, Frank volunteers one day a week as a SCORE mentor for the Small Business Administration, as he’s done for 25 years. He also plays golf and bridge, serves on the board of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and enjoys spending time with his family, including his two grandsons.
He also continues to fight for ownership of his family’s apartment building in Prague. The property was returned to him after the war but was nationalized by the communists in 1948. It is now owned by the city of Prague.
Frank said the events of the Holocaust never stray far from his thoughts.
“Unfortunately, one thinks about it every day, particularly when you’re retired,” he said.