Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)
The Diary of Anne Frank is one of the most important legacies of the Holocaust. It documents the experiences of a young Jewish girl, her family and their friends while hiding for years in concealed rooms behind a bookcase, called “the Secret Annex”, in Nazi occupied Netherlands. Anne Frank’s father, mother and sister moved into the Secret Annex in July 1942. Soon they were joined there by the Van Pels family and by Fritz Pfeffer, a dentist. Their non-Jewish friends and employees, Victor Kugler, Johannes Keliman, Miep Gies and Bep Voskuijl, provided them with food provisions as well as with information about current events, to reduce their anxiety and isolation. Although they could face the death penalty for harboring and aiding Jews, these courageous friends risked their lives to help those living in hiding.
In her journal, Anne documents the daily difficulties of living in hiding as well as the family dynamics and challenges of becoming an adolescent in such difficult and dangerous circumstances. However, we know much less about what happened to Anne and her family once they were caught by the Dutch Nazis. On August 4, 1944, the Secret Annex was stormed by the Grune Polizei, led by the SS officer Karl Silberbauer.
The Nazis had received a tip that Jews were living in hiding in that office building. The Jewish families were interrogated, then imprisoned in Weteringschans and sent to the punishment barracks for having lived in hiding. A few days later, the Frank family and their friends were transferred to Westerbrook, a transit camp for Dutch and German Jewish prisoners. Then, on September 3, 1944 they were deported to Auschwitz. The train journey to the concentration camp took three days. There the Franks encountered Anne and Margot’s friend from the Jewish Lyceum, Bloeme Evers-Emden, who was later interviewed about the Frank family by a Dutch filmmaker, Willy Lindwer, for the documentary which was also published as a book, The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank (Doubleday Publishing, New York, 1988).
The book contains several interviews by eyewitnesses and friends who encountered the Frank family in Auschwitz as well as information about how people were transported to Auschwitz (in cattle trains, without food and water) and what happened to them once they got to the concentration camps. After the men were separated, upon arrival, from the women, Edith Frank and her daughters, Anne and Margot, were sent to Barrack 29. The Frank sisters spent almost two months at Auschwitz in the hospital after they contracted scabies. Their mother stayed there too to take care of them until Anne and Margot were sent to Bergen-Belsen, most likely on October 28, 1944. They were part of large groups of Jewish prisoners who were led on death marches to concentration camps within Germany, as the Russians were occupying Poland and approaching Auschwitz. Within a few months, in January, their mother, Edith Frank, died from sorrow and exhaustion. Their father, Otto Frank, survived the Holocaust and devoted the rest of his life to preserving his family’s legacy—as well as the memory of the Holocaust–by disseminating Anne’s diary.
Although Bergen-Belsen was originally an exchange camp that had better conditions than the concentration and death camps, by 1944 it became overcrowded and disease-ridden as the Germans forced more and more prisoners into it. Lindwer states that the conditions became so bad in the camp during the final months of the war that “although there were no gas chambers, ten thousand people died… There was almost nothing to eat, it was winter, and sickness and disease were everywhere… As a result, in the last months before the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and in the first weeks thereafter, most of the inmates perished. Among them were Margot and Anne Frank, who died of typhus within days of each other. The camp was liberated by the British shortly thereafter, on April 15, 1945” (6-7). We still don’t know for sure when the Frank sisters perished. Although Lindwer’s book states that they died in March, the Anne Frank Foundation recently published an article that indicates that they probably died earlier, in February 1945.
In a genocide in which the death of an individual counted for nothing; in which millions of people were shot and buried in mass graves or incinerated anonymously in concentration camps, Anne Frank’s diary–as well as books like Lindwer’s—continue to remind us that each life was important and that each death in the Holocaust is worth commemorating.
Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon