Tag Archives: Holocaust story

Dear Anne Frank,

Early Edition

Dear Anne Frank,

Thank you for The Diary of a Young Girl. Born in 1940, I was only two when you began your diary and ten or eleven when my mother gave it to me. By then you were dead and I had a little trouble processing this sad chronology. I’d paid no attention to the drone of Sunday school teachers and rabbis and I don’t recall my parents ever sitting me down and explaining the Holocaust. So I don’t think I knew about concentration camps where millions of Jews were worked to death, starved, or gassed. In retrospect, it occurs to me that maybe my mother gave me your diary as a way of informing me of this historical horror, just as she’d given me a book featuring diagrams of tubes and circles to explain sex. So you not only introduced me to the Holocaust, but you also taught me about diary-keeping.  Like your many other readers, I was hooked by your oft-quoted opening line, “I hope I will be able to confide everything to you as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.” Your voice, youthful, urgent, and full of hope and your desire for a nonjudgmental ear spoke for and to me.

Photo of Anne

I identified with you at once. We even looked alike. A photo of you in my copy of your book could have been a photo of me. We had the same thin faces, long bumpy “Jewish” noses, mostly straight brown hair, prominent dark eyebrows and eyes and wide mouths. If it had been deemed safe for you to venture out of hiding to see an eye doctor, you, too, would have been prescribed glasses. We both had elderly grandparents who moved in with us and we both went to birthday parties, were expected to do well in school, read a lot, and were eager to be “popular.” Yet again, like you, I was a daddy’s girl and very aware of my parents’ fear of antiSemitism. Unlike you though, I didn’t share my parents’ fears. In fact, in the early Fifties, I thought my mother’s preoccupation with being perceived as “too Jewish” was totally uncalled for. After all, The War was over, we won, and in America one was free to worship as one wished.Red Leather Diary and Key

Even as I identified so strongly with you, I was a little disappointed in your diary because contrary to your expressed wish to fill it with confidences, it seemed you had no secrets, let alone shameful ones, to share, whereas I did.  For my twelfth birthday, my parents gave me a diary of red leather with gold trim and a lock and key. I kept this little book and the key in a drawer in my desk in my room and unburdened myself on its pages every night. I treasured my diary and considered it the big sister I didn’t have. To my horror, one Sunday afternoon when I was at a movie with friends, my father opened it, read it, and then confronted me with what I’d written about myself, myJudge Daddy classmates, our neighbors, and him and my mom. None of these outpourings upset him but I’d also penned a rather lurid entry listing things I wished to do with certain boys I knew. Alas, my dad believed I’d actually done them, or feared I might do them. It took me a long time to convince him otherwise and a lifetime to get over the dreadfulness of having my own secrets exposed to my beloved, but notoriously stern father. Did I mention that he had served as a municipal judge? His intrusion and his reaction to my fantasies put a heavy and durable damper on my urge to write down stuff I made up. It’s no co-incidence that I didn’t really begin writing for publication until after both of my parents died.

Definitive Edition

It was not until 1995 that I read The Definitive Edition of your diary. In the preface to this book, edited by your dad, Otto H. Frank, and Mirjam Pressler, I learned that the edition I read back in the early Fifties had also been edited by your father not long after your death. He had expunged all references to your sexuality and all of the disparaging remarks you made about your mom and the others with whom you had shared the Secret Annex. So it wasn’t until I was forty-five with a teenage daughter of my own that I finally came upon all your girlish confidences I’d hoped to find in the earlier version. That’s when I understood that your biggest secret was really the one you struggled to keep from the Nazis, the fact that you all were hiding in an attic in Amsterdam to avoid being sent to the death camps.

 

The Secret Annex

Secret Annex

But even on my very first reading of your edited diary, I’d been aware that while I had been safe in Passaic, New Jersey learning to skip, dunking Oreos in milk, and taking care of my dolls, you had been imprisoned for years in a small secret annex with your family and some other folks you didn’t know and hadn’t chosen. There you all shared chores, money, food, and bath and bedrooms, and gave up much of your treasured privacy. Even as a child I’d noted how your affinity for reading enabled you to pass the time constructively, keep up your spirits, and write clearly and expressively. I doubted that I would have been able to handle the privations and unremitting proximity and dread that you describe so memorably. And without your detailed recording of the trials of your years in hiding, I doubt that I would have been able to begin to comprehend the series of events we call the Holocaust. Even in your teens you were a writer and you recorded your experiences for posterity. That would include me.

Thank you for keeping this diary under such duress. I’m glad that in your too-short life you did what journalists do. You wrote history as it happened, so when you died at Auschwitz, the world lost not only a young girl, but a clear and compelling witness and writer.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear Art Spiegelman,

Maus I

Maus I

 If my mother and father were still alive I think your Pulitzer Prize winning Maus books recounting your father’s life before, during, and after the

Maus II

Maus II

Holocaust would astound them more than the ten-dollar movie ticket, a black president, or cell phones. It’s not your subject matter that would dumbfound them, but your chosen format. Maus I: My Father Bleeds History and Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began are what my parents disparaged as comic books and forbade me to read or buy.

Forbidden Fruit

Forbidden Fruit

My mother, a former school teacher, was sure that reading comics would instantly deplete my vocabulary and distract me from reading “real” books. My father refused to allow even one thin dime of his hard-earned money, including my allowance, to be squandered on “that trash.” Of course, my curiosity was piqued, and I devoured the adventures of Archie, Betty, Jughead, and Veronica at the home of my next-door neighbor with that furtive lust kids reserve for the forbidden.

            So why didn’t I read Maus I when it came out in 1986? It got great reviews, earned you a Pulitzer, and was responsible for the transformation of the much-maligned comic book into the graphic novel. I’m not sure what kept me from your book, but I suspect that I didn’t think I would assign it to my students, almost none of whom were Jewish or European and, after reading The Diary of Anne Frank and Sophie’s Choice, I didn’t care to read Holocaust stories. Even as an adult, I found them terrifying and depressing in spite of the fact that back in 1986, I thought anti-Semitism was over.

Jews as Mice

Jews as Mice

Now, a quarter of a century later, I know anti-Semitism lives on and I decided to read your Maus books. I found them fascinating and am so grateful to you for making the effort you describe and for being so forthcoming about your own thorny relationship with your dad. I’m also very grateful for those black-and-white drawings. You are an acclaimed visual artist and by depicting Jews as mice, Germans as cats, and Poles as pigs, you somehow condense our stereotypes of the animals and the humans and remind us of them without having to constantly reword or qualify them. You are not afraid to evoke those stereotypes either, and the fact that they’re politically incorrect does not detract from their effectiveness.

Thus your medium leaves you free to concentrate on what happens when your characters converse and what is going on in the background. Your

Yinglish Word

Yinglish Word

father’s speech with its overtones of Yiddish and Polish is familiar to me even though my parents’ English was uninflected. It becomes clear in your dad’s transactions with you that his life experiences have left their mark on his everyday acts: eating, sleeping, talking, managing money, and relating to those he loves. To be a survivor is no cakewalk. So it follows that to be, like you, the offspring of two Holocaust survivors, one of whom killed herself, isn’t either.

Although I am very glad I read Maus I and II, I am also glad it didn’t take me too long. I didn’t want to linger in those trains and trucks or at Auschwitz or even in your dad and Mala’s kitchen in Rego Park or their cabin in the Catskills. Reading your books is a little like looking at scans of one’s broken bones or a suspicious cluster of cells. One wants to know the worst and yet one doesn’t, so one looks quickly. I did not dwell on your illustrations but scanned them as I read the dialogue in the balloons and in the rectangular spaces enclosing your dad’s narrative interjections.

While reading I was very aware of your scribbling notes or taping your dad’s answers to your questions. I share with you the desire to preserve the past, especially the Jewish past, as it was actually experienced by those who lived it. That’s why I relied heavily on oral histories of Seattle Jews archived by the Washington State Jewish Historical Society at the University of Washington when researching material for The Bones and the Book.

Pulitzer Prize

Pulitzer Prize

I suspect that my parents would have to admit that by telling your father’s story so graphically, you have done us all a great service. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, Immigrant story, Jewish fiction, Uncategorized