Anne Frank, American Icon

When I told my sister, two years ago, that I had been invited to the Netherlands to speak about Anne Frank, her response was something of an eye-roll.

“Well, of course, you’re going to speak about Anne Frank,” she said, dismissively. “What else would you be talking about in the Netherlands?”

My sister’s comment was not intended as an affirmation of my status as a renowned scholar of either Anne Frank or the Holocaust. Rather, both the comment and, in fact, the invitation itself — to lead a workshop about Anne Frank at a summer institute focused on “Tolerance, Diversity, and Lessons from the Holocaust” — underscore Anne Frank’s role as iconic Jewish girl, and, despite her birth in Germany, Dutch exemplar. For most Americans, Anne Frank is not just a but the Dutch girl. For us, Anne Frank (pronounced American style, rather than “Ahnna Frahnk,” as she would have called herself), is the third single story about the Netherlands.

Anne’s story, and the supporting role of Miep Gies and the other helpers who enabled Anne’s family, the van Pels family, and a dentist, Fritz Pfeffer, to remain in hiding for over two years, fundamentally shape the American view of the Dutch experience of the Holocaust and of World War II in general.

Most Americans, for example, do not know that the Netherlands lost a higher percentage of its Jewish people than any other country in Western Europe. We do not know that the trains to and from Westerbork (the Dutch transit camp from which Jews, Sinti-Roma, and people from other targeted groups were sent to the extermination camps in the East) were never delayed, and that the people living in the surrounding community did not try to stop the trains they saw arrive and depart each week.

A memorial plaque, inscribed with a quote in Hebrew (and its translation, "my sorrow is continually before me," and dedicated Israeli president Chaim Herzog. is displayed surrounded by green foliage, with a background of trees, at Memorial Camp Westerbork
A memorial plaque at Camp Westerbork

Most of us know nothing of the travails of the Dutch under Nazi occupation, or the Hunger Winter of 1944-45, during which, in retaliation for a railroad strike, the Germans cut off almost all food supplies to the Netherlands. Pregnant women were particularly vulnerable, and the children they gave birth to have borne the effects of that famine throughout their lives, experiencing higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and schizophrenia, for example, than does the general Dutch population.

Anne’s voice, so poignantly and powerfully preserved for us in her diary, is for many Americans the single story about the Holocaust, at least in the Netherlands. And, like all single stories, it is incomplete, a radical simplification of multiple narratives about Anne Frank and the Dutch experience of the war for both Jewish and Gentile people.

For example, most of us are unaware that, in addition to the denizens of the “Secret Annex” (Het achterhuis, which is the name that Anne chose for the novel she hope to publish after the war), 25,000 other Jewish people in the Netherlands also went into hiding. Unlike Anne, her sister Margot, her mother Edith; Hermann, Auguste, and Peter Van Pels; and Fritz Pfeffer, approximately 16,000 of these onderduikers (pronounced OhnderDOWkers) survived.

A book with the title, "Ondergedoken als Anne Frank: tales of Jewish children in hiding."  The cover features black and white photos of several children.
Diving under like Anne Frank: Tales of Jewish Children in Hiding During World War II

The term onderduiker literally means someone who “dives under.” The Frank family was unusual, first, in that they “dove under” in the midst of a big city, Amsterdam, and second, that they remained together as a family. Hermann Pollack, a survivor who spoke to me and my students at Memorial Camp Westerbork last summer, described being hidden as a small child in as many as six different locations, including by himself (at age 6!) in a department store’s bedding section. Emuna Elon’s novel, The House on Endless Waters, provides a haunting account of the choreographed transition of hands pushing a baby stroller, as a mother passes her beloved toddler to a member of the resistance in the midst of a crowded market.

A number of Dutch friends have shared with me their families’ experience of the war. As a small child, one colleague’s sister was surprised to see a man suddenly emerge out of a trap door in the living room. Both grandmothers of Liesbeth, co-director of the Windesheim Honours College where I am teaching, sheltered onderduikers. One of these grandmothers was caught, and although her husband, a jeweler, was able to rescue his wife with the bribe of a gold watch, he could not save the Jewish man they had hidden.

Not all onderduikers were Jews. The term also refers to Dutch young men who went into hiding rather than be conscripted into the occupying German army. It includes many who were part of the resistance, secretly forging ration books and identity papers. Indeed, in addition to the 25,000 Jews, perhaps as many as 300,000 other Dutch people were hidden by illegal “landlords” who risked their own lives in this powerful act of verzet, resistance, .

During our own challenging times of illness, fear, and social distancing, a popular meme on facebook reminds us that “Anne Frank and seven other people hid in a 450 square foot attic for 761 days, quietly trying to stay undiscovered, to stay alive.” I have already been thinking a lot about Anne Frank these days (it’s part of my job), but I find this posting slightly puzzling: Is it meant to admonish us, just a little, to stop whining about social distancing? Or can we view it as a call to empathy and courage, in a challenging moment?

The Frank family hid, it is true, because they feared for their lives. But the Dutch term for them, onderduiker, reminds us that theirs was not an act of cowardice. Rather, “diving under” was a choice of tremendous courage at an unfathomably difficult time. The Franks chose to protect their daughters. They and their helpers chose to include a second family. And then, despite the cramped and uncomfortable conditions, the unbelievable difficulty of finding enough to eat, they chose to offer shelter to another man, one they did not know.

Remembering the experience of Anne or any of the other onderduikers can put in perspective our time of social distance and sheltering in place. The challenges of the healthy members of our community, compelled to remain in their own homes in the midst of the current pandemic, are not truly analogous to the travails of both those who went into hiding, and those others who protected them, at great danger to themselves. And yet we are living in a frightening moment: many have lost their livelihoods and even their lives. Healthcare workers, police officers, and grocery cashiers are placing their own health at risk for the sake of others.  In times of uncertainty and pain, it is inspiring to be reminded of our own power to make difficult choices, and of the powerful difference those choices can make.

Het achterhuis. The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, taken by me in June, 2019.

If you want to learn more about Anne Frank and the other onderduikers from the secret annex, here is a video from the Anne Frank House https://www.annefrank.org/en/anne-frank/who-was-anne-frank/