Why Anne Frank continues to haunt us
The holocaust is remembered every year and we say, ‘never again’. But the world doesn’t learn any lesson and ethnic cleansing has not stopped
One dusty afternoon in the summer of 2006, I spent the lunch hour in my high school library reading a book called 'The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank', written by Willy Lindwer. Last month I pulled out a copy of the same book from my own bookshelf on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which falls on 27th of January.
Most children’s introduction to Anne Frank—arguably one of the most well-known victims of the Holocaust—is through her diary, an account of her life while in hiding. That book is considered essential reading for middle school students across the world.
And perhaps it is so because the diary was written in the backdrop of the second world war, while hope still existed in young Anne’s heart that she and her family would survive. This other book, that tells the story of Anne’s last months in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen is devoid of such hope.
Those were the last seven months of young Anne. Anne, who was just discovering what it was like to have a crush on a boy. Anne, who had hoped to grow up and make the world a kinder place.
Told through the eyes of six women who knew Anne at various points during her imprisonment in the concentration camps, Last Seven Months is a small book that carries a huge burden.
I should note here that Anne and her older sister Margot were separated from their mother Edith soon after their arrival at the camp in August 1944. A few months into their imprisonment, in October or November, the girls were transported to Bergen-Belsen without their mother.
Edith Frank died of starvation in Auschwitz-Birkenau on January 6, 1945, roughly a month before her daughters passed away in Bergen-Belsen. Otto Frank, Anne and Margot’s father, was the only member of the family who survived the war. It was through his efforts that the diary of his dead daughter was published.
The horror of such loss is palpable in the pages of Last Seven Months. While some died of exposure, disease, and starvation, others were immediately marked for active murder and executed with swift precision.
“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,” remembers Janny Brandes-Brilleslijper.
“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.”
It was amid these horrors that Anne Frank and her sister Margot Frank passed away in a delirium of Typhus fever, unaware of the fate of their parents, and devoid of comfort and warmth in a filthy hospital bed at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. They were buried unceremoniously in an unmarked mass grave somewhere on the camp compound.
Strangely enough, these heartbreaking stories of individual suffering feel even sharper and harsher than the entirety 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 over 10 million 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.
These people were not mere statistics. These were people whose hopes and dreams were shattered, who kept their prayer books hidden under loose floorboards even as they lay dying, who hid their wedding rings in false bottoms of broken cups hoping to wear them again someday, and who observed their holy days in silent camaraderie while performing backbreaking labour for their captors.
The words ‘Never Again’ are spoken every year on Holocaust remembrance days. And yet, in the decades following the Holocaust, genocide and ethnic cleansing have remained ever present realities in our world. Rwanda, Indonesia, Darfur, Bosnia, East Timor, Yemen—the list is long and heartbreaking.
Even as I write, Uighur Muslims in China are undergoing genocide at the hands of the Chinese state. At the same time, the Rohingya people of Myanmar continue to remain stateless in a world where citizenship of a country is a vital marker of personhood in the eyes of the global community. In our country too, the current regime is paving the way to cancel the citizenship of millions of our marginalized and Muslim citizens.
That was also how everything began for Anne Frank and her family. The first step to Auschwitz was taken through the cancellation of their national identity.
People often wonder what they would have done had they lived in Nazi Germany. Would they have been a part of the Nazi murder machinery? Would they have been silent spectators complicit in Nazi crimes?
Well, the answer lies in what they are doing now. The Holocaust didn’t begin in Auschwitz. It began in the mind of ordinary German citizens who bought, sold, ignored, and peddled anti-Jewish bigotry under the leadership of their führer who promised them economic prosperity and a restoration of their lost dignity in return.
In the hindsight, the price was too high. Are we about to pay the same price for similar events today?