But Why Anne Frank?

Screen capture: YouTube

By Cheyenne Paris

But Why Anne Frank?

Annelies Marie Frank was born in Frankfort, Germany on June 12, 1929. She was welcomed into the world by her mother, Edith, father, Otto, and older sister, Margot. A short fifteen years later, she would die of typhus in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in March of 1944, exact date unknown. Through her diary she would touch millions of lives, including my own.

Over Thanksgiving break 2019, I traveled to Amsterdam to live Anne’s life in reverse as a Together, Restoring their Names (TRTN) fellow. TRTN is a Holocaust memory service-learning initiative that is part of Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) Boston. Starting in the last Jewish quarter, our group visited what is left of the robust Jewish community which existed before World War II. On Thanksgiving Day, we drove five hours to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to visit the site of tragedy and now, a place of memory. Over the next three days, we visited museums, monuments, and, of course, Anne Frank’s House.

The most humbling experience of this trip was to see how wide Anne’s message had spread.

For so much of my life, it seemed like Anne belonged to me.

She was alongside me during my adolescence as I crushed on boys, argued with my mother, and felt utterly alone. I had a close bond with my father when I was younger, that still exists now (which in adulthood is equally as strong with my mother) and I, too, kept a diary.

As I continued to learn about the Holocaust, Anne Frank always held a special place in my heart. She was my introduction, my first death in the Holocaust.

By the time I reached middle school I had learned as much about her as I could. I remember sitting down with my parents to watch the TV miniseries “Anne Frank: The Whole Story” in 2001 and remember reading Memories of Anne Frank: Reflections of a Childhood Friend in homeroom in seventh grade every morning, often not hearing the bell and having to be told to go to class by my teacher.

As I continued to learn more about the Holocaust I drifted from Anne. I read more and more books, watched as many movies as I could, and started to investigate other aspects of World War II.

While traveling to Amsterdam with friends in 2013, I made it my singular mission to visit Anne Frank’s house. Words could not describe what it meant to be in the space she stood, slept, dreamed, wrote, and was ultimately taken away from on August 4, 1944.

I wanted to touch the walls, the floors, peak out the windows as she had. I felt that I, more than anyone else I was with, someone who knew so much about her, had spent so much time with her as a child, deserved this time alone with the Annex.

But of course, while visiting the Anne Frank House as a tourist, I didn’t have that luxury. I stood in line with dozens of people to peer at the remaining photos she had plastered to the walls of her bedroom. I waited to view her diary. I stood in a room with strangers living out a dream I’d had since childhood. It was not private or intimate. I couldn’t cry or be as emotional as I wanted to be. I had to be respectful of how much time I was taking, how much space I was occupying.

I had wanted a private moment with Anne’s memory to thank her. To stand in silence in that space to tell her what she meant to me. But I didn’t get that moment. Maybe I was too embarrassed to have to in the presence of others or it couldn’t find the words. Either way it didn’t happen.

Flash forward six years.

It wasn’t until this trip in 2019 that I revisited my relationship with Anne Frank in a critical way.

As much as I value Anne Frank and what she has done for Holocaust education and memory, I struggled with her image during this trip.

Before embarking, the group read the book, The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank by Willy Lindwer. Lindwer is a Dutch filmmaker who received an International Emmy in 1988 for his film with the same title. Lindwer published the interviews from the documentary as a book the same year. The project was an attempt to gain more information about the last seven months of Anne Frank’s life. The Anne we know only existed in her diary, however, Lindwer’s book contains six interviews from six women who knew Anne Frank in life, some before the war but all after the time of her arrest up until her death.

Perhaps the catalyst this internal dilemma was a line from one of the interviews from Lindwer’s book. In the last paragraph of Rachel van Amerongen-Frankfoorder’s interview she talks about visiting the Anne Frank House with her family. Rachel’s granddaughter wanted her to tell the people in the crowd that she, Rachel, knew Anne. But she couldn’t. She says, “Because it was so bizarre, that entire Anne Frank House. All those people, all those cameras. I saw Anne again and I thought that this really wouldn’t have been anything for her. In the Anne Frank House, you can see what I wrote in the registration book: ‘Anne Frank didn’t want this’.”

Rachel didn’t know Anne before Westerbork, the Dutch transit camp where she first met the Frank family. Rachel was more than ten years older than Anne, so even if they had crossed paths before, it would not have been as intimate of a relationship. However, Rachel saw Anne and Margot again at Bergen-Belsen up until their deaths. Rachel knew Anne at a time that few living people can speak about. We will never know if the Anne within the pages of her beloved Kitty was the same Anne that walked ghostly through Bergen-Belsen.

However, Rachel’s statement still stuck with me: “Anne Frank didn’t want this.”

I thought back to my own experience at the Anne Frank House, crowded and very public. I didn’t think much of Anne then. I thought of what Anne was to me. She was a symbol for me. A symbol of what happens when evil and hate win. A symbolic guardian through my own childhood woes.

But she was a real person. A complex person. I began to think whether it was right for me to make her into a symbol. Whether it was right for me to feel the need to possess her and cling to her as my own. Funny enough, as I looked around, it seemed everyone else was already doing that.

Anne Frank belongs to so many. Not only her memory but her name and legacy are all over Amsterdam. The Dutch have made Anne, a German-born girl, their own. Her old apartment is now owned by the Anne Frank House and is used to house a writer who is oppressed in their own nation. The Montessori school – Sixth Montessori – she attended before transferring to the Jewish Lyceum now bears her name. The classroom she sat in for the famous class photos has a photograph of her on the wall. There is even an Anne Frank street, Anne Frankstraat, around the corner from the National Holocaust Museum (however, not close to the Secret Annex).

I was forced to ask myself: why Anne?

What did she give to this city that the thousands of other survivors didn’t? Why didn’t they choose to embrace a Dutch born survivor? I began to question my own disproportionate amount of attention on Anne Frank.

Anne was accessible to me as a young child. The horrors that Anne endured were not a part of her own personal narrative. Everything stopped with her arrest and as a reader we were left to guess and assume what her daily life was like in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. And for those who don’t know much about the camps, their imagination is probably not close to the reality.

I am thankful for Miep and Otto who made Anne’s diary possible. I am thankful that people still feel the desire to know her and live alongside her. I am thankful that she keeps the Holocaust relevant and accessible for generations of young people.

But I urge – implore – people not to stop at Anne. Keep reading and learning. Listen to testimonials, visit museums, listen to podcasts, watch movies. Keep conversations about the power of hate and discrimination alive. Never stop talking about what happens when complacency takes over and we forget to act.

I am not writing this in spite of Anne but because of Anne. She was young, intelligent, and deserved so much better. And I am writing this for the six women in Lindwer’s book who endured before and after in real time and while reliving through story telling. For all the Anne Franks of Europe who hid from the Nazi’s, crushed on boys (or girls), fought with their mothers, were beloved by their fathers, or who simply, wanted to be remembered after death. And to all whose names and stories we may never know, who were murdered before their time.

Cheyenne Paris is a graduate student at Brandeis University. Her concentration is Holocaust education, specifically looking at its current state and identifying improvements that can be made to keep it relevant for students and as a way to teach about the dangers of antisemitism and discrimination