It was a warm summer day and there was a bite to the hot wind that blew sand into our school playground. The other girls were playing inside while the boys were out in the sun, throwing fistfuls of sand at unsuspecting teachers. I was seldom invited to be a part of the games. That day was no different and like always, I found my way to the far corner of the library, away from prying eyes and hateful bullying remarks.
I was thirteen and awkward. My hair was always tied back into a tight plait and my skirt was too long for any of my classmates to think of me as one of them. With my nerdy way of talking and devotion to rules, I was an outcast, a weirdo. And in the worst moments, the library was my sanctuary.
I read everything. I read large history books about medieval India, atlases full of crumbly old maps, shelves upon shelves of Enid Blyton’s books, and as many novels as I could lay my hands on. Mostly I came across regular children’s literature. A few times I chanced upon books that changed my life.
The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank was one such book. It looked similar to another book I had heard about. An older girl in the school bus had been telling her friend about Anne Frank’s diary. At that time, I had wondered quite stupidly if Anne Frank was a new foreign student like Klaudia and Patricia. The book in my hands though told me, that the girl had passed on. And this was the story of her last seven months, told by an author called Willy Lindwer.
I began reading and the first story was of a woman called Hannah Elisabeth Pick-Goslar. The first few pages of the book were about her life with her best friend. She painted a beautifully happy picture; of picnics and playdates, of the warm sun and the boys they found attractive. And then it all came to an abrupt halt.
From the pages of the book, I could sense that something ominous was coming. And even though this was a book talking about something that had happened 60 years ago, for me the grief was acute and shocking. The cool and dark library morphed into a stuffy claustrophobic cattle car, filled with the stench of urine, feces, and fear.
The horror of the holocaust was very different to a child. And that is what this book was about. As a 13-year-old, I could feel the hurt and confusion that must have torn through the world of young Anne Frank and her friend Hanneli.
The rest of the book was hard to read. And I grew up by a few years in the span of a few days as I read the book, afraid of what I’d read next, but convinced that the least I could do to honor their memory was to make sure that I knew what had happened to them. It was a childlike thought, but to me, these girls were my friends even though one of them was older than my grandma now and the other one had been lost forever in the disease filled hospital ward of Bergen-Belsen.
The other stories in the book came from women who had lived with or met Anne at some point during her imprisonment. And this is what became of the young girl who wrote a diary that is today considered a classic in children’s literature.
“Mrs. Frank had smuggled out a pair of overalls, and she sat by the light of the candle, ripping off the red patch. She must have thought that without that red patch, they wouldn’t be able to see that we were convict prisoners. Well what she did made no sense, because when we arrived in Auschwitz, we had to leave everything behind in the cattle cars. Even so, for her it was important and she got some satisfaction from doing it,” said Lenie de Jong-Van Naarden, a woman who had been transported to Auschwitz in the same cattle car as the Frank family.
Life in the camp was harsh. Possessions were dear but they lost their meaning as people’s identities were stripped from them. Their personhood was taken away and replaced with as much value as bare life; something that lives but isn’t alive, like a worm in the folds of lettuce leaves.
“He had her come up to him. She had to take those shoes off and set them down. The SS man stuck her so severely with the whip that I don’t think she survived. Look, there were so many things that you saw happen; one incident didn’t stand out. They were busy with our extermination. She, too, was a Jewish woman, who was, it seems, allowed to sweep the floor.”
Naarden did not even know the name of this woman, but like other memories of the camp, this one too haunted her, now that she’d had years to get over the need to survive and begin the long process of grieving and healing.
“They held selections on a regular basis, right after roll call. Instead of dispersing us, we were all ordered to go to the barracks, and then to come out, one by one, where death stood: Mengele and two others who said, ‘you, to this side; you to that side, You have scabies, go to the scabies barracks.’ Then you were lucky because it could just as well have been that you didn’t go to the scabies barracks. And we knew what that meant. We had seen that fire, that large, black, dirty fire. We were naked when the selections were made. We were sent into the barracks to undress- we were completely naked, whether it rained or not, whether the sun was shining or not. Everyone, one by one, naked, out of the barracks. Mengele looked you over, from head to foot, and if you had pimples or a rash, then you could count on going to that side.”
This was the testimony given by Janny Brandes-Brilleslijper. These selections that were a daily routine, ensured that some of the people would go to the other side every day and be exterminated. It was all a way of getting to the final solution. And those who lived in the camps are still haunted by the phantom stench of burning human flesh, sickening and nauseating in its charred sweetness.
“The first night, a woman went outside the barracks; she was shot. That woman, horribly wounded, spent the whole night lying there, groaning. We didn’t know what we should do- go out there or not- but the others shouted, ‘no, no you have to stay in bed; that’s not allowed.’ That woman lay there dying in a gruesome way. Then I knew, yes, they really shoot people here. Early in the morning, she was dead, lying in front of the barracks, and we saw that.”
Ronnie Goldstein-van Cleef, who saw this spectacle and wisely kept to herself from this point, hadn’t known until now that they had all been brought here to die.
By her own admission, those who died in the gas chambers early on were considered lucky. Because far too many people suffered like the Frank sisters before death took mercy on them.
“One of them said, ‘If you speak to my husband, please send him my regards.’ That man didn’t come back either. But the women went off with that incredible courage. And that little girl too. To the gas chamber and afterward to the crematorium. Why? They probably didn’t look healthy enough; were a little thin.”
These are Cleef’s words about what happened in the camps just before the war ended. Strangely enough, these heartbreaking stories of human tragedy are so much bigger and harsher than the whole of the Holocaust which is often seen as a large collective tragedy like an earthquake or a tsunami. It is hard to remember that it was a collection of 10 billion people’s lives as they were taken apart essence by essence, with more than half of them dying through six years of unspeakable torment which became their everyday.
It was amid these horrors that Anne Frank and her sister Margot Frank passed away in a delirium of Typhus fever, devoid of comfort and warmth in a filthy hospital bed at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Today is 27th January. It is the Holocaust Remembrance Day. Today, Anne’s sweet smile and spirited writing is a reminder of how she was broken down and beaten into a fevered existence. It is for us to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. That the Anne Franks of Syria, Somalia, Yemen and scores of other countries do not fall into unmarked graves because President Trump said so. And the responsibility to ensure this, is yours and mine.