Keren David

When we mourn Anne Frank's lost years, we must mourn the loss of millions like her

Keren David reflects on living in the city where a frightened teenager hid from the Nazis

June 12, 2019 15:37

This week Anne Frank could have been celebrating her 90th birthday. She wasn’t, of course, because as a teenager, she died a terrible premature death,  betrayed and handed over to the Nazis, one of the millions of victims of their industrialised genocide of the Jews of Europe.

The office where the family hid is now a major tourist attraction, with 1.2 million visitors a year. A quarter come from the United States, and a further 15 per cent from the UK.

As a former resident of Amsterdam I’m used to people asking me what they should see when they visit. These requests invariably start with the words “Of course we’ll book the Anne Frank House.”

The reason for this lasting legacy is, of course, Anne’s diary. Rescued after the war, it was given to Anne’s father, Otto, the sole survivor. He said later that it was a revelation. “There, was revealed a completely different Anne to the child that I had lost. I had no idea of the depths of her thoughts and feelings.” 

What makes the diary so memorable, so important? Partly it is the character and plight of Anne herself, the very relatable feisty teenage girl, caged in a small space, longing for freedom.

And then there is the heart-breaking optimism of statements such as “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world,” and “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart."

That and the forthright way in which she sets out her right as a young woman and a Jew to have a voice, a life and freedom.

So, the poignancy of imagining an Anne at the end of a long life —as the artist Fiona Graham-McKay has done in a haunting portait — is almost unbearable. What would she have gone on to do with her life, if only she could have had it? Would she have written more books? Would her diary have ever been published?

Might she have suffered the plight of many a survivor, and wrestled with mental and physical illness? Or would she have moved on from writing and changed the world in some other way — as a speaker, a politician, a mother perhaps. Maybe she would have moved to London and been among the group of survivors awarded medals this week.

The hope is always that the diary and the house affect people who read and visit, that they become more aware of the need to fight prejudice and hatred. I know many people whose lives have been changed by Anne Frank, and who cite her as an inspiration. 

If I have a worry though, it’s about the way it is so easy to relate to this girl and her story. Is there a risk that people begin and end their understanding of the Shoah at the point where Anne’s diary ends?

When my daughter was six, a pupil at the International School in Amsterdam, I remember classmates of hers from Japan, Korea, America and other nations being taken to visit the Anne Frank House. We felt it was too early to explain to a little Jewish girl the enormity of the crime against our people. Their families were keen to tick off a must-see site while they were living in the Netherlands. Quite what the children made of it I am not sure.

We waited until she was nine to take her (and if you want to go when there are no crowds, a rainy weekday morning in winter is a good bet). We also told our children about the wider picture.

The resistance movement who helped save many children — and yet the many who died nonetheless. The way their own grandfather had fought in the British army (and took part in D Day) against the Nazis; the terrible fact that their great-great-grandfather died either in Auschwitz or in transit.

Every year we went to the local Memorial Day service, held at a spot where resistance workers had been shot. We pointed out that the school on the street where we lived was once the Gestapo headquarters.

Our aim was to widen the context, to give an idea of the scale of the crime, and always to mix hope and horror. The Shoah narrative must never become too focused on one individual, however wise, however talented, however special.

When people tell me that “of course” they’ve booked to visit the Anne Frank House, I suggest they add the Hollandse Schouwburg to their list. This is the former theatre where Jews were taken before deportation.

Resistance workers smuggled Jewish children out of here, and took them to a nursery across the road and then to hiding places around the country. It is now a memorial to the Dutch Jews — more than 100,000 of them — who died in the Shoah. Here, among the pictures of children, of weddings, of communal events, Anne Frank would just be a face in a crowd.

When we mourn her lost years, we must also mourn their lost potential.

June 12, 2019 15:37

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