Today is Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. I attended the official Los Angeles ceremony which this year was in memory of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps. A bunch of dignitaries were there giving the requisite speeches. I thought Governor Schwarzenegger blew it by avoiding any mention of his Austrian upbringing. I’m not saying he needed to indict his uncles as card-carrying Nazis or provide any kind of mea culpa, but come on—to not even mention that he was born and raised in the country that produced Adolf Hitler and is still rife with anti-Semitism? That is a missed opportunity. The Consul General of Israel railed against the UN, decrying how an organization born in the ashes of the Holocaust can now provide a forum for so much anti-Semitic, anti-Israel rhetoric. The truly moving part of the ceremony was listening to the Holocaust survivors. Several spoke and a group performed a heartbreaking rendition of the Jewish partisan song, “Zog Nit Keyn Mol” (“Never Say I Will Give Up the Fight”), written by Hersh Glick of the Vilna Ghetto before he was shot by the Nazis at the age of 24.
This is a year of many important commemorations related to the war. Saturday marks the 60th anniversary of Germany’s unconditional surrender, signed at Eisenhower’s headquarters in Reims, France, on May 7, 1945. Now that the number of survivors is dwindling by the minute and the legion of Holocaust deniers is on the rise, I think it’s more important than ever to have days such as this where we remember the countless people who suffered and lost their lives. I don’t remember Yom HaShoah ever coinciding with Cinco de Mayo but that was just an accident of the Jewish calendar. I know that after the war it took a lot of wrangling to choose a date for a Day of Remembrance. Many survivors wanted to commemorate the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, April 19, 1943, but Orthodox Jews objected because the Hebrew date was the 15th of Nissan, the beginning of Passover. Finally, in 1951, the Israeli Knesset declared Yom HaShoah to be the 27th of Nissan, a date that occurs after Passover but still within the timespan of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
There were over 2,000 L.A. schoolchildren of every ethnic background at the event today including several excellent choirs singing songs that were so poignant they tore your heart out. Watching these students I couldn’t help but think of the millions of children who died or were never born because of the Nazis’ obsessive hatred of the Jews.
In honor of Yom HaShoah, I’m posting an essay I wrote a few years ago about one of the most well known young victims of the Holocaust.
Anne Frank was my sister. Or so a New Age trance channeler once told me during a survey of my past lives. The 300-year-old entity said that Anne and I had been brother and sister not during the lifetime when she hid from the Nazis in an Amsterdam attic, but centuries before in a rural French fishing village. The channeler also told me that I had been the son of the Sioux chief, Crazy Horse, and that my sister used to train dogs for the Pharaohs of Egypt. Yeah, right. But despite my skepticism, something about the connection with Anne Frank made sense to me.
My first experience with Anne Frank was in seventh grade library class. Twice a week, when the girls went off to gym, the boys would meet in the school’s small, crowded library. We were supposed to do our homework, research class projects, and nurture our love of literature under the bifocaled supervision of Miss Leavitt, the school librarian. Miss Leavitt, dressed in several shades of beige, was one of those people born looking sixty years old. It was obvious that she hated her job, or maybe she just hated us. She had good reason. Segregated from the well-mannered girls, we considered the school library the ideal place to unleash our ever-increasing testosterone levels and act like participants in a pre-pubescent stag party. One of the main tools of our demented play that year was an audio recording of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” read by the actress Julie Harris.
A group of boys, led by Louie Fishbein, had found a short passage on the recording where Miss Harris, as thirteen-year-old Anne, writes in her diary about getting her period for the first time. In our limited universe, this thirty-second clip provided enough titillation to cause a near riot in the library as boys fought to gain control of the scratchy LPs. Miss Leavitt, at first delighted that we had taken an interest in the story, eventually became suspicious of our zeal. One afternoon, she ripped the headphones off of Michael Blumenthal’s head just as the brief passage was being read. Her blond Brillo pad head jerking, the librarian unleashed a tirade of outrage and condemnation. We were sick, we were perverts, we were the final indignity suffered by the Franks, insults to the memory of six million murdered Jews. To make matters worse, Danny DiNatale had stuck a glob of Bazooka gum on the black and white photo of Anne on the album’s dust jacket. Another shameful crime, made worse by the fact that Miss Leavitt considered bubble gum as nefarious a substance as heroin or cocaine. At our next library session, she brought to class a large mason jar filled to the brim with a thick, translucent liquid she said was human saliva. “This is what you’re swallowing when you chew gum all day,” she explained. I tried to imagine Miss Leavitt spitting into a mason jar for hours end and I thought it odd that she railed about the evils of gum-chewing with more intensity than she had used to decry Nazi war crimes. Still, I did feel bad about using Anne Frank’s diary as a source of fun, and I vowed to learn more about the circumstances surrounding the young girl’s death.
Later that year, in history class, we were shown a French documentary about Auschwitz called “Night and Fog.” Without the slightest historical context, the gruesome newsreel images of the mountains of hair, eyeglasses, shoes, and gold teeth extracted from Jewish mouths numbed us into uncomfortable silence. By the time we saw the corpses being bulldozed into large pits, we had the same detached reaction produced by nightly color pictures of the Vietnam War on the network news. History as shock therapy did little to foster our understanding of the world around us.
By high school, I had read Anne Frank’s diary in earnest along with several of the short stories she had written in hiding. Despite our different circumstances, it was easy for me to identify with Anne Frank. She was a strong-willed child who was misunderstood by her family and she found comfort only through her writing. Anne did not fit in. She found it hard to live up to the standards set by her perfect sister, Margot, and she had a difficult time dealing with her mother’s unpredictable emotions. The miserable living situation of the Franks reminded me of the growing sense of claustrophobia in my own home. My parents’ marriage was coming to an ugly end and, like Anne, I felt I faced a very uncertain future. I almost envied the Franks’ forced confinement—they had to stay together and unite against the evils lurking outside. The Frank’s co-horts in hiding, the Van Daans, reminded me of many of my parents’ friends—loud, obnoxious Jews with lots of opinions and little tact—I could relate quite well to Anne’s intolerance of them. I remember watching the film version of the diary and thinking that if I had been Anne Frank, I would have run out into the street and turned myself in to the Gestapo rather than spend another minute listening to Shelley Winters’ abrasive nagging.
Anne Frank and my mother were born within five years of each other. I began obsessing on the parallel lives the two girls led during the war. The week that Anne was ferreted to the attic hideaway in the middle of the night, my mother moved into a luxurious five-bedroom apartment on Chicago’s lakefront. While Anne was going hungry on watery potato soup and stale bread, my mother was gorging on Frango mint sundaes at Marshall Field’s department store. Anne charted the course of the war on a little wall map of Europe and dreamed of being rescued by the Allied forces. My mother’s war-time experience consisted of going to bond drives at the Oriental Theater to see her idols Bob Hope and Mickey Rooney. In their love of movies and movie stars, my young mother and Anne Frank had much in common. Both girls’ bedroom walls were covered with photos of Hollywood actors including Norma Shearer and Deanna Durbin. But why was it that my mother lived a life of carefree privilege while another young Jewish girl faced such a cruel and harsh reality? When Anne Frank was arrested in August 1944, and sent with her family on the very last shipment of Dutch Jews to the concentration camp of Auschwitz, my mother remained blissfully unaware that such a fate could ever befall a girl her age.
Most of the events in Anne Frank’s short life were dictated by anti-Semitism. Born in Germany, Anne was three years old when Hitler became Chancellor and began placing restrictions on Germany’s Jewish citizens. Otto Frank moved his family to Holland, hoping for a more peaceful existence, but the onset of World War II and the German occupation of the Netherlands put an end to such hopes. Anne began losing many of the freedoms she had taken for granted—she was no longer allowed to ride a bicycle, she couldn’t go to movies, she was thrown out of her Montessori school, and finally, the family was forced into hiding to escape deportation.
I remembered Anne’s oft-repeated line, that “in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart” and I wondered if I would have had the same outlook had I experienced a fraction of the indignities she suffered. Growing up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Chicago, I had little experience with anti-Semitism. Once, Kit Bergman, the six-year-old son of our landlord, forbade me to step on the grass in front of our apartment building because I was a “dirty Jew.” The fact that I just rolled my eyes and we continued our game of “Mission: Impossible” tells me that Kit’s remark did not make me fear for my safety.
When I reached college, my anti-Semitic radar was more developed. One of the professors at my university published a pamphlet claiming that six million Jews were not murdered by the Nazis, and that the diary of Anne Frank was a hoax. When I spent my Junior Year Abroad in Paris, I was horrified to see the amount of neo-Nazi propaganda and anti-Jewish graffiti. Visiting a French friend’s cousin in the Black Forest region of Germany, I asked my friend to translate the section of her cousin’s 5th grade history text that pertained to World War II. “During the war, some Jews were sent to work camps” was the book’s summation of the Holocaust.
During that year in Europe, I made my first visit to the attic where Anne had hid with her family. Walking around the rooms that I had read about so often induced a kind of altered state. I could see Anne and Peter Van Daan looking out of the little piece of window that was their only link to the outside world. I could visualize Mrs. Frank standing over the sink peeling the rotting potatoes that the helpers below would bring them with stolen ration cards. When I spotted a small piece of the original frayed wallpaper sticking out in Peter Van Daan’s tiny bedroom, I couldn’t help myself—I ripped it off and stuck it in my pocket. My God, I later thought, if everyone did that, the whole attic would be picked clean in minutes. I kept the wallpaper fragment next to the small rock I had lifted from one of the barracks during a visit to the Dachau concentration camp. As if to punish my sins, I lost both relics before returning to the States.
Several years later, I was working as a writer of educational films. I heard that the Anne Frank Center in Amsterdam wanted to develop a project for schools involving the diary. They wanted to use Anne Frank’s story to teach young children about prejudice and discrimination. My obsession paid off and I got the assignment. I was given access to never-published scrapbooks of the Frank family that had recently been discovered in Germany. I re-read every page of Anne’s original diary, the version she herself edited towards the end of the war, and the version Otto Frank edited for publication after his daughter’s death. As part of my research, I was given after-hours access to the Anne Frank House. Wandering through the darkened rooms alone, I truly felt a connection to the soul of my long-lost sister. I studied each room in detail, looking away only when I came to the now glass-covered spot in Peter Van Daan’s bedroom where some psycho vandal had torn off a small piece of wallpaper.
Anne Frank remains one of the most recognizable symbols of World War II and the Holocaust. I often wonder what Anne would be doing today had she not died of typhus just before the Liberation. Having experienced the horrors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, would she have still believed that people were really good at heart? As a survivor, would she have published her diary after the war? Would the world have embraced her story as fully as it did coming from such an innocent source, frozen in eternal childhood? I do believe that Anne Frank would have become a remarkable person, a dynamic, complex, and gifted writer. Towards the end of her life, Anne Frank displayed a maturity that belied her young years. In her last diary entry, on August 1, 1944, three days before her arrest, she wrote:
“I’ve already told you that I have a dual personality. One half embodies my exuberant cheerfulness, making fun of everything, my high-spiritedness, and above all, the way I take everything lightly. This side is usually lying in wait and pushes away the other, the better side and that’s why most people find me so insufferable…I try terribly hard to change myself, but I’m always fighting against a more powerful enemy…finally I twist my heart round again, so that the bad is on the outside and the good is on the inside and keep on trying to find a way of becoming what I would so like to be and what I could be if…there weren’t any other people living in the world.”