That we came out of it is a miracle

The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank

The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank
by Willy Lindwer
translated from Dutch by Alison Meersschaert

This was a tough read, in more ways than one, but it was also an enlightening and occasionally reaffirming one and I’m glad I have read it, so thank you H (who gave this to me as a present).

The title is to be honest misleading. This is not a book about Anne Frank. Rather, Anne Frank is a loose link between six Dutch women who tell their stories of the war and their experiences of concentration camps. More accurately what they have in common is that they were all arrested by the Nazis toward the end of the occupation of the Netherlands and taken to Westerbork, the Dutch transit camp, and from there were transported to Germany or Poland – to Auschwitz-Birkenau or to Bergen-Belsen, where they had contact with Anne Frank and some other members of her family. But for the most part Anne Frank’s role in this book is small. Really, these are the stories of six remarkable women who survived not only the war but also the Nazi concentration camps.

“I always envied the birds who could fly away. It seemed so fantastic to me to be able to fly, to go wherever you wanted to…You saw the birds everywhere; everywhere, there were birds, even in Auschwitz, even in Birkenau, and certainly in Bergen-Belsen, where it was so beautifully green and, at the same time, so gruesomely grey.”
— Rachel van Amerongen-Frankfoorder

Five of the women were, like the Frank family and other occupants of the Secret Annexe, arrested in summer 1944 and they met the Franks at Westerbork (only one of these five had half known the Franks beforehand, as she was at the Jewish Lyceum with Anne and Margot, but not in either of their classes). Their late arrests are the result of them having been in hiding. Three of them worked for the Resistance, helping others to hide, producing pamphlets or false papers, getting food or ration books to where they were needed, and they were arrested for this rather than for being Jewish (though they all had Jewish heritage).

The one story that is different from the others and most strongly adheres to the book’s title is that of Hannah Elisabeth Pick-Goslar, who had been a close friend of Anne Frank’s (in the diary she was originally given the pseudonym Lies Goosens but more recent editions use her childhood name Hanneli Goslar). She had a very similar background to Anne, born in Germany to a respected Jewish family in 1928, they moved to Amsterdam in 1933 as a result of anti-Jewish legislation and her father, a lawyer, set up a firm to advise refugees. She went to all the same schools as Anne and lived on the same street. Their families even went away together a few times (a postcard from one of those holidays is still on the wall of Anne’s room in Anne Frank House). As the Goslars were more religious, the Franks would go to them for Jewish holidays and Hannah would go to the Franks for national holidays (New Year and Sinterklaas). Hannah was one of the first to find out that the Franks had disappeared in 1942, but she was told the false story that the Franks had gone to Switzerland (where Otto Frank’s mother lived). Hannah writes about Anne as a good friend who was charming, beautiful, flirtatious and already considered a talented writer, but also as someone who was often sick and, as anyone who has read her diary knows, stubborn.

The Goslars were rounded up by the Nazis in June 1943 and thanks to political connections spent eight months in Westerbork before moving on to Bergen-Belsen, where they were kept in relative comfort (and stayed together as a family, which was extremely rare). When Hannah found out that Anne and Margot were in another camp on the site, separated from her by a barbed wire fence, she arranged to speak to Anne regularly and threw small packages of food over. It is clear from Hannah’s description that Anne’s side of the fence suffered far worse conditions and that Anne herself was desperately changed, had basically given up, but it is the testimonies of the other women in this book that really fill in how awful those conditions were.

Perhaps the most touching part of Hannah’s story comes after the war ended. She and her sister, now orphans aged 16 and 5, had returned to the Netherlands and were waiting to see who would adopt them, when Otto Frank showed up. He had seen their names on a list and travelled a long way to come and help them (considering he himself had only recently returned from Auschwitz). He took them first to Switzerland, where they had an uncle, and then helped Hannah apply for Israeli citizenship. They stayed in touch until he died and Hannah describes him as being like a father to her. Her words made me look on Otto Frank very differently, as a man who despite all his work around Anne’s diary actually did move on and find happiness and fulfilment.

The other five women’s stories are quite different, to be honest much darker, and I think it does them a disservice to make it all about Anne Frank. But to a certain extent this is acknowledged by the author’s introduction. Lindwer writes that he interviewed these women in the 1980s for a documentary about Anne Frank and that afterwards he felt it was a shame that such small snippets of their testimonies were used, because telling their stories had been so painful for them but also because they were important stories that deserved to be told. And so this book was born, containing the full interviews, serving (much like the Definitive Edition of Anne Frank’s diary) as a historical record more than as a work of art. It appears as though little has been edited, including facts, as there are multiple points on which these testimonies disagree, but then they are recalling the most painful experiences from 40 years later.

“Auschwitz was really the end of everything; the clay soil always with standing water; a huge quagmire without a sprig of green…There was nothing, nothing that looked alive, no flower, nothing, absolutely nothing. It was the end of everything, really the end. That we came out of it is a miracle. Very religious people understand it better than I do, because I never understood that a higher being – if one exists – could let all of this happen.”
— Lenie de Jong-van Naarden

They are clearly all amazing women and they deal with their past and their survival in different ways. My favourite story (and I’m guessing Lindwer agrees as it gets by far the most pages) is that of Janny Brandes-Brilleslijper who along with her husband Bob worked in the Resistance from 1939, and later at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen volunteered as a nurse (she had some first aid training, though with the almost complete lack of supplies there wasn’t much could do for the sick except clean them with only a little water, but she did keep them company and sing songs). But they are all incredible stories and I learned so much, good and bad, from this book.

I suppose it is true that this has taught me more about Anne Frank, but mostly it has made me think of her death differently. It always seemed such hopelessly tragically bad luck that she was on the last Nazi prisoner transport from Holland, that she was moved from Auschwitz just weeks before it was liberated, that she died at Bergen-Belsen just weeks before that too was liberated, even that she died from illness and not from being selected for extermination. And of course it was tragic, but it was sadly not unusual. That last transport train carried more than 1000 people to Auschwitz, of whom just 127 survived the next eight months. The conditions at Bergen-Belsen were so bad that the majority of the inmates died of illness – typhus, starvation, pneumonia – shortly before or in the first few weeks after liberation. It was all awful and I am saddened and disturbed but also glad that I have learned a little more about it.

“I have told this because I want to make it very clear to a large number of people that all discrimination – whatever form it takes – is evil and that the world can go to pieces because of it…It only takes one person to say, ‘He isn’t as good as I am, because he has—’ You fill in the rest…We have to make sure that it will never happen again.”
— Janny Brandes-Brilleslijper

Die Laatste Zeben Maanden: Vrouwen in Het Spoor Van Anne Frank published 1988 by Gooi & Sticht.
This translation first published 1991 by Random House.

Source: This was a present from my friend H who bought it at Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.

Recent reads in brief

My lupus has been flaring, just a little, not enough to knock me out completely or even stop me reading completely, but enough to make my brain go blank when I try to write a review. So here are some short reviewettes of the books I’ve been reading.

Portrait Of The Mother As A Young Woman

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman
by Friedrich Christian Delius
translated from German by Jamie Bulloch

I had noticed for some time a growing number of glowing reviews for the books from Peirene Press, so earlier this year I ordered their Female Voice Series. This book is at once simple and highly experimental. A young German woman is living in Rome in 1943, waiting for her husband to return from the North African front. She is heavily pregnant and being cared for by nuns. The story follows her as she walks to a Bach concert at the Lutheran church and, once there, is transported by the music. That’s it. But it’s beautiful. Told in one long sentence, broken into paragraphs that work almost like the stanzas of a poem, her thoughts unreel. She ponders the sights of this foreign city, fear for her husband, faith in God, the contradictions of war and society in general, the possibilities of the future. She considers herself shy and uneducated but asks intelligent questions, questions she would only ever dare voice to her husband, if only he were there. A really excellent book and a great introduction to this new (to me) publisher.

“she sensed something within her rebelling against the constant obligation to stifle the feeling of longing with her reason and faith, because feelings were forbidden in wartime, you were not allowed to rejoice with happiness, you had to swallow your sadness, and like a soldier you were forced to conceal the language of the heart,”

Bildnis der mutter als junge frau published 2006 by Rowohlt.
This translation published 2010 by Peirene Press.

Source: I bought this direct from the publisher.

Challenges: This counts toward the 2013 Translation Challenge.

My Sister’s Keeper
by Jodi Picoult

This was a much better book than I expected. I thought it would be an easy, fluffy, light read. Well it was easy to read but certainly not the other two. It’s the story of a family whose second child, Kate, has a rare form of leukaemia. When her brother Jesse proves not to be a bone marrow match, the parents conceive another child, using IVF so that they can ensure a match this time. And so Anna is born. Every few years Kate’s leukaemia returns and Anna is again called upon to save her sister’s life. The story begins with 13-year-old Anna asking a lawyer to medically emancipate her from her parents, so that she won’t have to donate a kidney to her dying sister. Despite the emotionally charged background to the story, the book isn’t emotionally overwrought, in fact it’s often funny. But it thoughtfully considers all the options, all the situations this family has been through. Crucially they all have lives beyond this current drama, and the yo-yoing loyalties are absolutely believable. I was gripped and empathised with all the characters.

“This is not Anna. I am used to struggling with Jesse, to lightening Kate’s load; but Anna is our family’s constant. Anna comes in with a smile. Anna tells us about the robin she found with a broken wing and a blush on its cheek; or about the mother she saw at Wal-Mart with not one but two sets of twins. Anna gives us a backbeat, and seeing her sitting there unresponsive makes me realize that silence has a sound.”

Published 2004 by Simon & Schuster in the US, Hodder & Stoughton in the UK.

Source: I bought it secondhand.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

The QI Book of the Dead
by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson

For those who don’t know, QI is a TV quiz show presented by Stephen Fry in which the celebrity teams have to come up with Quite Interesting answers. A whole raft of books have been published as an offshoot. This one is a series of vignettes about interesting dead people. They are grouped by topic (“Happy-go-lucky”, “Driven”, “Monkey keepers”, etc) and each person gets just 5–10 pages to have their life story told (and with more than 400 pages total that’s a lot of dead people). They’re a good mix of famous and not famous, though most were famous in their own lifetime. Often it’s the ones who have been forgotten with time that make the best reading. The book definitely lives up to its Quite Interesting label but it’s not one to read all at once. This perfectly suits dipping in and out of, reading 10 minutes at a time over a few months. The downside of this is that I’ve forgotten half the characters I swore I would look up to learn more about after John and John had whet my appetite.

“The establishment saw [Jeremy] Bentham as deeply dangerous. His ‘algebra of utility’ seemed to eat like an acid through centuries of accumulated privilege and injustice. He opposed slavery, and both capital and corporal punishment; he believed in equal rights for women, and for animals; he called for the decriminalising of homosexuality; he praised free trade and the freedom of the press; he supported the right to divorce and urged the separation of church and state. Most of what we now call liberalism can be traced back to Bentham.”

Published 2009 by Faber and Faber.

Source: A Christmas present from my brother a few years back.

War novels do not necessarily glamourise war

Slaughterhouse 5
or, The Children’s Crusade: a Duty-Dance with Death
by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr

Slaughterhouse-Five

This is a book I had been meaning to read for a long time. I bought it, some people recommended it, and I got excited and lined it up for the recent 48-hr TBR read-a-thon. Then someone else told me it was really hardgoing and I got scared of it. Then some lovely people on Twitter encouraged me to give it a go anyway so I did. Yes, it’s a little crazy but it is a great great book.

There are no surprises in this book. Everything is laid out in chapter one, which is actually a sort-of prologue, or a “Why I wrote this book”. Vonnegut’s style takes a little getting used to. It’s chatty in a realistic kind of way, by which I mean that it’s not always fluid, jumping around between subjects, but not in a stream of consciousness way.

The central story is that of Billy Pilgrim, a WWII soldier, prisoner of war, optometrist and time traveller. At least, he says that he was kidnapped by aliens on the night of his daughter’s wedding and ever since has been able to travel around in time the way they taught him to. This allows his life story to jump around in time, only dealing with the horrors of war in small chunks. I was never entirely clear how seriously we’re supposed to take the time travel thing, or whether Billy himself really believes it. But it makes sense for a person whose whole life has been coloured by the awfulness of witnessing the Dresden firebombing, who was institutionalised and became a fan of cheap science fiction, to latch onto this coping mechanism.

Vonnegut gives Pilgrim a lot of his own wartime experience, often stating things like “I was there too”. It is unclear how much Pilgrim is himself or how much Pilgrim is other people he observed during the war. Despite the awfulness of what both men observed, Vonnegut doesn’t linger on gruesome details. Though they are there, this book is primarily about the emotional impact of war. He states early on that this is an anti-war book and that is undeniably true. There is a very telling quote directed at his publisher: “It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.”

Despite the tough subject matter and obscure manner of storytelling, this is a tender, funny book. It is moving and also oddly innocent – Vonnegut’s subtitle is certainly apt. He shows great sympathy for dogs, horses and children, which challenged my assumption that a war veteran would be hardened emotionally.

First published 1969.