Despite of Everything

A young American woman wrote in her journal April 14th, 1971:

Amsterdam is lovely. The 17th century canal houses are mostly well preserved, the roofs are varied and fascinating, shaped into bells, triangles, curving “sculptures”, with ornamentation galore.

And below that just an underlined list:

Municipal Museum-Van Gogh, Braque, Klee.

Rijksmuseum- Rembrandt, Rubens, Vermeer, Hals.

Anne Frank House.

She was a college student, minoring in art history, on her first trip to Europe, and the spiral bound notebook written in ballpoint pen with unlined pages is filled with detailed references to galleries, Cathedrals, and other world class architecture, so the meticulous listing of famous artists is not unexpected.

What is surprising is the total lack of comment on her visit to what is sometimes called Anne Frank’s Backhouse, or “The Secret Annex”, the hiding place for where for two years during World War II eight Jews escaped being rounded up by the Nazis.

The four rooms in which  one teenager’s voice,  as reflected in the pages of a red checked diary became, as one writer observed, the most widely identified and most haunting reminder of the Holocaust.

You see the student on extended holiday tour was me, who like many Americans of my generation had read and adored the Diary of Anne Frank first published in the Netherlands in  l947, and/or had seen the  play based on the manuscript, or watched the movie version. Who had been moved by the descriptions of day to day living in complete confinement, as when Anne writes: “I long for freedom and fresh air.” The girl who had to live in artificial blacked out darkness and to whisper and tread lightly all day every day so as not to be found out by the neighbors.  Who shared a  bedroom with the family dentist, shared a bath with her sister Margot at best once a week , and lived  on barley soup and potatoes. To a middle class girl in mid-20th century America these seemed like unfathomable hardships.

While the particular context of Anne’s life in hiding was compelling, I, like so many others who read and will read the diary, was caught up in the more universal dramas of adolescent life: Anne’s crush and then budding romance with her “dear” Peter, a slightly older boy whose family shared the annex apartment with the Franks: her first kiss, her dreams for a romantic future. I found kinship in her complex relationship with her parents, especially the spats with her mother, so familiar to many teens.

Her self-description of being “a little bundle of contradictions” a giddy clown, a frolicsome goat— what she called her light superficial side—as well as what she saw as her finer and better side, her deeper side, was something many if not most girls could also recognize .

As a young girl, I shared with Anne “the greatest wish” to be a journalist and even a famous writer. So her fame, albeit after death, was something I also loved about her.

And what she saw as her “happy nature,” her seemingly eternal optimism, was also admirable, captured in her most popular quote, indeed one of the more popular quotes in history:

It is really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals because they seem too absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.

Anne’s mostly cheerful coping with confinement, her recognizable family life, her sweet budding love for a boy, her uninhibited self-revelation, her honesty, her hopefulness, these were the qualities that drew me to her as a real life heroine. Universal qualities, regardless of why and how she came to be hiding, the particularities of her identity, or the history that surrounded her.

It’s not that I was unaware that Anne was Jewish, whose family, following Hitler’s rise to power, had fled their home in Frankfort Germany for what they thought would be safe sanctuary in   the more tolerant Holland, or that her family had already suffered severe restrictions before her sister Margot received a call up to report to a so-called labor camp and they quickly implemented Otto Frank’s plan to convert the upstairs of his warehouse into a secret dwelling.

Early in her diary, Anne wrote that ” After May 1940 good times rapidly fled: first the war, then the capitulation, followed by the German invasion which is when the sufferings of us Jews began. Anti-Jewish decrees followed each other in quick succession and our freedom was strictly limited. Jews must wear a yellow star, Jews must hand in their bicycles, Jews are banned from streetcars,

Jews may not visit Christians, Jews must go to Jewish schools and many more restrictions of a similar kind. So we could not do this and were forbidden to do that.”

These edicts of discrimination, these infringements on basic freedoms, were horrible and horrifying long before any inkling of a Final Solution.

The suffering of us Jews. Anne was not just any adolescent facing just any hardship.  What happened to her first on the streets of Amsterdam, and then within the Secret Annex, and then following betrayal and capture and in Bergen Belsen concentration camp was a function of her identity, an identity shared with the 150,000 Jews who lived in the Netherlands at the time of the Nazi take-over, where by the end of the war all but 30 thousand had been slaughtered, many of them children, which was the highest percentage of any occupied country.

An identity I shared but could not own. Like Anne’s parents, my parents were socially assimilated: her mother Edith only slightly more religiously observant.  Anne’s father held on to the belief for a long time during the early years of Nazism that his service in the military during World War I and his pride in  being a German would buffer his family from harm.

My parents, like many American Jews, maintained that they could freely abandon their Jewish “affiliation” and in doing so both be true to their humanistic sensibilities and I believe also protect themselves and their children from anti-Semitic discrimination.  So talking about the Holocaust from the perspective of being Jewish ourselves, or indeed relating any of the other horrors their families of origin had suffered before coming to the United States—and those endured by the many left behind – was never deemed appropriate or necessary. Nothing was ever said.

Within this framework of denial and historical ignorance, my understanding of Anne Frank’s life and death was no different than that of non-Jewish readers all over the world. Many degrees separated, with a tendency to see the Holocaust as an isolated, time-bound event, a dreadful aberration, a temporary blight on the ever progressing human spirit rather than a continuation of ghettoization, removal, mistreatment and slaughter.

Perhaps this was the reason that my journal entry of nearly 40 years ago was so sparse, that 16th century paintings on museum walls or the charming architectural details of the tall houses along the canals, or the rudeness of a fellow passenger on the overnight train from Switzerland merited more scrutiny and remembrance.

At least this is how I forgive myself my apparent indifference.

My second visit to the Anne Frank House and Museum was just a few weeks ago, as part of a very brief one day stopover in Amsterdam on the way home from Stockholm, this time the only place we planned on visiting. In fact, due to the occasion of what would have been her 80th birthday as well as the temporary closing of a couple of the other usual tourist sites, including the Rijksmuseum, we were advised to purchase tickets in advance online.

Everything about the second viewing was different, including changes to the museum itself, now fitted with more interactive exhibits as well as a café, which I found disconcerting.

I read briefly from a passage in the contemporary novel Joop by Richard Lourie,  a fictionalized account of the young man who may have betrayed Anne Frank’s family in exchange food to help save his ill and starving father. Here, he talks about his compulsion to return to the site of his moral crime:

I go by late at night or early in the morning before the Anne Frank House opens and the long line of people forms. It costs seven euros fifty to get in. They’ve turned you into a saint and a business.

The business part is indisputable. Besides the millions of copies of different versions of the diary translated into 65 languages, the 1959 American made film starring non-Jewish actress Millie Perkins converted Anne into a celebrity. In the decades since the Broadway play and film were produced, as one critic wrote ,the diary has been” reincarnated” as abridgements for younger readers, comic books and video re-enactments, new cassette and CD versions and a musical “Yours Anne.” And an upcoming film for Disney, directed by David Mamet.

The saint part may be disputable but it’s what troubles me as a grown up now all- too familiar with both the scope of the Holocaust ,the long and almost unremitting history of anti-Semitism, and personal stories in my own circle of family and landsmen, or clan, of brutal beatings, rapes and mass murder in what is now called the Ukranian Holocaust by bullets that have come to make me feel that her story, if it is to be THE story of the Holocaust and THE response to its human impact, has been misrepresented and misused. While the privations were harsh in that hiding place and fear all around, at the time of her diary she was still surrounded by her family and safe from harm.

I  toured the Anne Frank house, climbed the steep steps up, circled the bare ( and fairly spacious rooms) , saw the tacked up family pictures and movie star photos on the walls of her shared quarters glimpsed the attic where she and Peter spent their time alone. I read the stories of the fates of the eight who hid there, all but one of whom perished by gas or illness in various camps, leaving her father , a survivor of Auschwitz to come back, be given the diary, which had been overlooked by the Nazi police, and begin the process of preservation and publication.

But it was the videotape of a childhood friend, who had been sent to the side of the Bergen Belsen camp where Jews from countries allied with the Nazis, in her case Paraguay, were detained, that most moved me, as she described throwing a little bundle of food over the barbed wire fence to Anne in the final days of her life. Someone else caught it and Anne was too weak to try to wrestle it back. By then her mother and sister had perished from malnutrition, disease and exhaustion, and Anne had no idea that her father was still alive.

Perhaps if she had known, she may have held on, her friend said. It was only a matter of weeks before liberation.

Rachel van Ameronger-Frankfoorder was one of the last to recall seeing Anne and Margot in the barracks of the camp, wrapped only in blankets, wasting away from typhus, until, she remembers, they became so sick they had no hope. I didn’t pay any special attention to them, she admitted, because there were so many others who had also died.

But what if Anne had survived? What would she have said or written about her camp experiences, and what in particular would she have said or written about what has been interpreted as a nearly saintly confidence in the universal goodness of human nature, given what she saw and endured once she left the safety of hiding?

There are hints of her lack of full understanding of the evil surrounding her in a diary entry in May 1943, more than a year before her imprisonment and deportation:

If you think of how we live here, I usually come to the conclusion that it is paradise compared with how other Jews who are not in hiding must be living…

Lawrence Langer, a writer of books and essays on the Holocaust, has written: I am convinced that if Anne Frank could return from among the murdered, she would be appalled at the misuse to which her journal entries had been put. Above all, he notes, her journey via Westerbork,  a temporary camp and Auschwitz  to Bergen Belsen, where she died miserably of typhus and malnutrition  ( and the cold) would  have led her to regret writing the single sentimental line by which she is most remembered: I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.

What might she have asked, of my other views? For example, also in the journal, her notation that ” there’s a destructive urge in people, the urge to rage, murder and kill.”

He invites us to critically examine some of her other diary entries in the context of the developmental stage of adolescence and her own mercurial temperament. Where just a few lines following the gloomy commentary I just read she could write ” I look upon our life in hiding as an interesting adventure full of danger and romance.”

He asks us to consider how could any mature mind accept this as a serious reflection of the Holocaust experience where thousands of Jews spent the war in hiding in chilly attics and barns, or in pits who would have been stunned to learn that such an ordeal might be labeled an interesting adventure. Or, and these are my words, would the grown Anne agree with Anne’s premise as a 15 year old that universally people are  truly good at heart in light of these experiences?

Phillip Roth  has taken a stab at writing a surviving  Anne Frank into history in his novel The Ghost Writer, wherein she makes her way to America and renews her dreams of being a successful writer, using another name. When this Anne re-reads her childhood diary she observes how very little Jewishness had made it into those pages,  and seeing clearly that despite her love of Holland, her identity first as German and then Dutch, ” none  of it made any difference. Europe was not theirs, she realizes, nor were they Europe’s, not even their Europoeanized family.”

Instead, he writes, three flights up from a pretty Amsterdam canal, (huddled together in a hundred feet square ) they were as isolated and despised as any ghetto Jews… first expulsion, next confinement, and then it came to cattle cars and camps and ovens, obliteration. And why? Because the Jewish problem to be “solved,” the degenerates whose contamination civilized people could no longer abide, were they themselves, Otto and Edith Frank, and their daughters Margot and Anne.

Roth writes that this was the lesson that on the journey home she came to believe she had the power to teach… the lesson of systematic, indiscriminate identity based oppression. She was not after all the 15 year old who could, while hiding from the Holocaust, tell Kitty ( her imaginary friend) I still believe that people are really good at heart.

“Her youthful ideals had suffered no less than she had in the windowless freight car… she had not come to hate the human race for what it was— not what it could be but what it was—but she did not feel seemly any more singing its praises.”

And in another passage: “an ax was what she really wanted, not print. On the stairwell at the end of the corridor in her dormitory there was a large ax with an enormous red handle, to be used in case of fire. But what about in case of hatred-what about murderous rage?

Whom could she kill in Stockbridge to avenge the ashes and the skulls?…”

This chastened, realistic sense of her world and the role her identity played in  it, the cruelty people were capable of , the gap between human potential and human action, these observations  would perhaps have come to Anne Frank had she survived.

We know something about the world view she might have developed from the hundreds of stories captured by victims of the Holocausts, the letters and diaries of the many less famous, including dozens of other young girls, as well as those who lived to share their stories with families and historians.

Would they agree with the young Anne Frank in the universal goodness of people (after all) and therefore  perhaps rush to offer the torturers and murderers what psychologist Jeanne Safer calls false forgiveness, what I call cheap atonement, especially at this time of year in the Jewish Calendar of the High Holy Days, which calls for both asking forgiveness (atonement) and extending forgiveness to those who have wronged them? (teshuvah)

As Rabbi Albert Friedlander tells us, before authentic forgiveness, first there must be repentance and an attempt to undo the evil committed. Forgiveness, he says, is the proper response by the victim but is not always possible if the hurt is too deep and enduring.  And can it in the case of the Holocaust or other national acts of torture and genocide, be expected to take place at all?

In Judaism, he reminds us, we see this act of forgiveness in the face of such injury as the prerogative of God. Nonetheless we are approached and asked to forgive. What then, he asks, can we do?

A possible reconciliation depends upon much self-examination on both sides. An honest peace always contains within itself the remembrance of the past. The shadows still live in the past and are present in the future.

Who is to give the answer about when forgiveness, if forgiveness is ever possible? The survivors? The Jewish people? The shades of the dead?

Arising out of a natural sympathy, many still feel that the survivors of the Holocaust cannot forgive because they are filled with hate, Rabbi Friedlander observes.  On the contrary, he asserts, we could not have survived if we had been filled with hatred and only hatred, life would be too much to bear.

Bebe Forehand, a member of our own congregation, like Anne Frank spent years in hiding, in her case in an attic in Antwerp, Belgium, with no privacy, with a sink for a bathroom, with little food.  Does she forgive those who made her family suffer, early on with the humiliation of being publicly told that she could not return to her school because she was a Jew, and later on when her own grandfather was taken away and never seen again? No, she cannot.

Does she agree with Anne that despite of everything people are really good at heart?

When I look at a tiny baby she says, I can see we are born free. I don’t believe any of us are born sinful.

I would like to read the full text of Anne Frank’s famous quote, not the one most of us are familiar with, and then I ask you to listen for the true message within, according to your own conscience:

It is difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all of my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything that people are truly good at heart. I simply can’t build my hopes on a foundation of confusion, misery and death… and yet… I think this cruelty will end, and peace and tranquility will return again.

With the will to justice and reconciliation and atonement, may we make it so.