NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. (Reuters) - An Auschwitz survivor and stepsister of Holocaust diarist Anne Frank met on Thursday with some of the California high school students who posed in social media photos 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” - a reference to the Nazi belief in ethnic purity - went viral after being posted to Snapchat on Saturday, fueling concerns about a recent surge in incidents of hate speech in public schools nationwide.
Eva Schloss, 89, a peace activist who has chronicled her Holocaust experiences in several books, visited privately for more than hour at Newport Harbor High School with about 10 of the teens involved, along with their parents, student leaders, faculty members and a local rabbi who helped organize the meeting.
Speaking to reporters afterward, Schloss said the students described the Nazi salute incident as “a joke,” and she was surprised when they professed not to have fully understood the meaning and consequences of their behavior.
“It did show that education, obviously, is still very, very inadequate,” said Schloss, a London resident who was in California this week on a U.S. speaking tour. She said the students expressed sincere remorse for what happened on Saturday.
“I was 16 when I came out of Auschwitz,” Schloss said she told the students. “I was their age when I realized my life was completely shattered.”
The photos were taken at a party attended by students from several high schools serving a cluster of predominantly white, largely affluent Orange County communities. The images included teens with arms raised in a Nazi salute and students crowded around the cups arranged in the shape of a swastika.
School officials said they have interviewed more than two dozen students and are weighing possible disciplinary action.
The early life of Schloss, a native Austrian, closely parallels that of her German-born stepsister, Anne Frank. Both families moved to Amsterdam to escape anti-Jewish Nazi persecution in their homelands.
The two girls lived near each other and were friends before Germany’s Dutch occupation, forcing both families into hiding. Frank’s personal journal about her family’s ordeal was posthumously published in 1947 as “The Diary of a Young Girl.”
Frank died at age 15 at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany in early 1945.
Like Frank’s family, Schloss was captured by the Nazis in 1944 in Amsterdam and was sent to Auschwitz, where her brother and father died. Schloss and her mother were liberated by the Soviet army, and her mother married Frank’s father, Otto, in 1953.
Newport Beach Rabbi Reuven Mintz, who helped organize the students’ meeting with Schloss, said the controversy should be a “wake-up call” to a rising tide of anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which tracks acts of racism, says the number of anti-Semitic incidents reported at U.S. public schools jumped 94 percent from 2016 to 2017, the latest year such figures are available.
One factor appears to be wide-scale human migration stirred by war, political upheaval and environmental degradation, which in turn has fed a global rise in xenophobia and discriminatory politics that is “becoming mainstreamed in much of the Western world,” said regional ADL director Peter Levi.
“High school kids are not immune from that,” he said.
Another factor, he said, is the spread of extremist ideology by way of social media and the Internet, “and everyone has access to that in his pockets.”
Reporting by Steve Gorman in Newport Beach, California; Additional reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; editing by Darren Schuettler and Lisa Shumaker