AMSTERDAM (March 17) - Frail, bone-cold and surrounded by death, Jewish teenager Anne Frank did her best to distract younger children from the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp by telling them fairy tales, a Holocaust survivor says.
The account by Berthe Meijer, now 71, of being a 6-year-old inmate of Bergen Belsen offers a rare glimpse of Anne in the final weeks of her life in the German camp, struggling to keep up her own spirits even as she tried to lift the morale of the smaller children.
That Anne had a gift for storytelling was evident from the diary she kept during two years in hiding with her family in Amsterdam. The scattered pages were collected and published after the war in what became the most widely read book to emerge from the Holocaust.
But Meijer's memoir, being published in Dutch later this month, is the first to mention Anne's talent for spinning tales even in the despair of the camp.
The memoir deals with Meijer's acquaintance with Anne Frank in only a few pages, but she said she titled it "Life After Anne Frank" because it continues the tale of Holocaust victims where the famous diary leaves off.
"The dividing line is where the diary of Anne Frank ends. Because then you fall into a big black hole," Meijer told The Associated Press at her Amsterdam home.
Anne's final diary entry was on Aug. 1, 1944, three days before she and her family were arrested. She and her older sister Margot died in March 1945 in a typhus epidemic that swept through Bergen Belsen, just two weeks before the camp was liberated. Anne was 15.
The stories Anne told were "fairy tales in which nasty things happened, and that was of course very much related to the war," Meijer said.
"But as a kid you get lifted out of the everyday nastiness. That's something I remember. You're listening to someone telling something that has nothing to do with what's happening around you - so it's a bit of escape."
In addition to her diary, Frank wrote several essays and fragments of fiction while in hiding, including stories about a fairy and a gnome, though they are usually considered only of historical interest. They have been published as "Tales From the Secret Annex."
The stories she told in the camp were "about princes and elves and those kind of figures," Meijer said. Despite having unhappy twists, the tales were "quite a bit less terrible than what we saw around us. So you thought: they didn't have it so bad. As a child, you think very primitively about that kind of thing."
Around 140,000 Jews lived in the Netherlands before the 1940-45 Nazi occupation. Of those, 107,000 were deported to Germany and only 5,200 survived.
The Meijers and the Franks were acquaintances before the war: members of both families had fled Germany during the rise of Hitler's regime and found a place in the tightly-knit Jewish community in Amsterdam. The Meijers lived on the same street where Anne attended a Montessori elementary school.
The Franks went into hiding in a secret apartment above a canal-side warehouse where Otto Frank, Anne's father, had his business.
The Meijers hid in their own home, boarding up the windows and hanging a sign on the door that read "contagious disease" to discourage visitors. They were caught in early 1944 and deported from the Netherlands that March. Both of Berthe's parents died at Bergen Belsen in January 1945.
Dr. Alan Hilfer, director of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in New York, said it's plausible that Meijer would have recognized Frank and stored the memory all these years if she knew her before the war and if she met her again at the camp.
A child of six or seven can "form memories reasonably well and hold on to them, though not in the same way as an adult," he said.
Records obtained by The Associated Press from Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial authority, show that Berthe was an inmate of Bergen Belsen for 13 months until it was liberated in April 1945.
Annemarie Bekker, a spokeswoman for the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam said Berthe Meijer has previously been interviewed by museum historians and she had no reason to doubt Meijer's testimony.
"It could very well be true," Bekker said. "We can't confirm it or deny it."
Hannah Pick-Goslar, a childhood friend of Anne Frank who also met her in Bergen Belsen, said she doubted Meijer's recollection was accurate.
"In that condition, you almost died," she said in a telephone call from her home in Jerusalem. "You had no strength to tell stories."
Meijer acknowledged that her recollections of the Frank sisters were fleeting.
She said there were many reasons she had waited until now to tell her story - not least that she was busy growing up, having a career and raising a family. She said a dedication ceremony at Bergen Belsen in 2006 made her realize how few Dutch survivors are still alive, and that there is little record of the impact the camp had on their later lives.
In addition, she suppressed her memories for years, and the horror of the camps have always been a difficult or taboo subject: at the orphanage where Meijer grew up, in polite company afterward, and even among her fellow survivors.
Still, "you remember a lot at age 7," she said. Meijer turned 7 in April 1945.
"You had to take off your clothes because there were lice in them that spread typhus. And you were wrapped in those blankets. And you sat somewhere in a corner half-frozen."
She said Margot had asked Anne to tell stories to cheer up the children, and that it was difficult for Anne to summon the enthusiasm.
The last time she saw Anne was in the camp infirmary, but they were both sick and "too weak and sad to even be pleasant to each other," she wrote.
In some ways, Meijer grew up to be the person Anne had hoped to be, a journalist, a columnist and an author, albeit of a popular Dutch cookbook.
In her diary Anne wrote in April 1944: "I can shake off everything if I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn. But, and that is the great question, will I ever be able to write something great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer?"
Although Meijer associated with leading Dutch writers and artists, she said she suffered lifelong symptoms of post-traumatic stress, with overwhelming memories and emotions surfacing unexpectedly.
To this day she has a paralyzing fear of crowds and public transportation.
In her book, she wonders about her choices in marrying first a gifted, but alcoholic architect and later one of the Netherlands' most famed journalists - not coincidentally, another Bergen Belsen survivor.
She says she can laugh "through the tears" about having become a culinary expert years after fantasizing endlessly about food while starving at the camp.
She describes how the simple act of cleaning sauce from a pan with her finger can trigger the ambiguously pleasant memory of being allowed to lick one of the camp's enormous cooking vats.
And she proudly shows off a concealed crawl space behind an opening in her cellar where she could hide if need be.
In history books, "the war ends when we were liberated. No. Not for a lot of people," she says.
"Not for the lives of the people who survived those camps or went into hiding or had traumatic experiences because of that war. Those things, they don't go away."
Thursday, March 18, 2010
Friday, March 5, 2010
The beautiful Lena Stolze stars in this acclaimed feature based on the true story of five German students and their professor who formed a secret society dedicated to protesting the Nazi regime. Known collectively as the “White Rose”, the Munich-based group distributed anti-Hitler literature in a resistance effort which cost them their lives. Initially, the German government refused to allow the film to be shown abroad due to an epilogue which pointedly observed that the legal judgment condemning the White Rose society had never been rescinded. Ultimately, the political controversy surrounding Verhoeven's film directly caused the German government to officially invalidate the Nazi “People's Court” system that sentenced the group to death.
The movie opens with Sophie Scholl arriving in Munich on a train, to attend the university with her brother. Upon arrival she meets Hans’ close knit group friends and they kindly throw her a birthday party. Although she enjoys her classes, her newfound friends, she is none the wiser about her brother’s peculiar activities until she stumbles upon this eye opening leaflet written by the clandestine group, the White Rose. Sophie agrees with the leaflet and hangs onto it, and is stunned when she discovers that her brother is one of the authors of it. Despite the group’s opposition to allow her to take part, she forces her way in and runs errands for them, soon becoming a full-fledged member. The movie closely follows the groups escapades, from stealing paper to buying an enormous amount of stamps (which was forbidden and suspicious in the days of Nazi Germany) to the Scholl’s father’s arrest for making a derogatory comment against Hitler.
When the men of the group are sent to the eastern front, they must temporarily suspend their leaflet distribution until they return. Hans and his friends witness the execution of Jewish prisoners and it inspires them to continue their mission no matter what. While Hans is in the east, Sophie works at an ammunition factory and while she is working, she watches with satisfaction and foreign prisoner sabotage her work.
When the students return for the winter semester, they are faced with new challenges. The acceptance of two new members, Professor Huber and Gisela Schertling. The professor makes an excellent contribution of writing his own leaflet, however, there is a confrontation when it is edited. As for Gisela, she listens to a mandatory speech (which the core members of the White Rose skip) of Gauleiter Geisler and when he insults the female students with degrading and lewd comments, a spontaneous protest erupts from the majority of the students there.
With this new development, along with the dismal surrender at Stalingrad, Hans and Sophie decide to make the daring move of distributing the sixth leaflet at the university itself, in broad daylight. Their decision seals their fate. Observed by a custodian, they are reported and arrested, and interrogated. Within five days, they are executed.
For when it was made, the White Rose is a good movie but it is also a product of its time. It’s a little cheesy at times, considering the music and some of the melodramatic acting. To me the only convincing actor of the film was Ulrich Turkur who portrayed Willi Graf. He plays a relatively small roll but he is a fine actor. Counting this role, he has acted in three other movies based in Nazi Germany: “Bonhoeffer,” “Amen,” and “Stauffenberg.” Lena Stolze, who portrayed Sophie, did an okay job at displaying Sophie’s youth and enthusiasm; she looked the age and she even looked like the Sophie herself. But at times the character came across as silly as a young teen when she was in fact in her twenties. She failed to capture Sophie’s depth and inner strength. I wish to high heavens that somebody would remake this movie. A few years ago, Angelica Houston was working to bring the story to the big screen once again, but unfortunately it has fallen by the way side. Christina Ricci was slated to star as Sophie, Albert Finney was to be Robert Mohr, and Liam Neeson had a role as well. I think with the release of “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days” over in Germany, Angelica Houston opted not to go through with it. However, I hope (and sometimes pray) that she might revive this project.
During an argument between Hans and Sophie, Hans is without a shirt and it appears he is about to take a bath. In a scene closer to the end of the movie, Sophie is struggling to get into her sweater just as Hans enters the room.
There are three objectionable scenes that stick out in my mind. The first scene involves Sophie and her boyfriend Fritz, who is on leave and visiting her. As they kiss and are on the verge of sex, Sophie’s blouse is off and her bra is on, he is kissing her upper body. A disagreement prevents them from going any further. The second scene is of Hans and his current girlfriend Traute. They are outside and it is implied they just had sex, she is upset with him and struggling to get into her bra, and her bare chest is partially in view. The third scene is not sexual or romantic. It is when Hans and his friends are on the eastern front; they observe a group of Jewish men who are nude and awaiting their execution. There is one last scene, that isn’t sexual but it appeared odd to me. Days before Hans and Sophie pass out the final leaflet, Sophie goes to Hans when he is in his bed and climbs in beside him, and places her head on his chest. I know it was meant to be innocent, but in this day and age it was strange. Of course it could be possible that over in Europe siblings are more affectionate.
I don’t recall much violence, except for one part and no one is physically harmed. On one of their missions at night, the men of the group paint anti-Nazi and anti-Hitler slogans on walls and monuments. They are caught and to get away, one of the members knocks a can of paint onto the head of a Gestapo agent. Also, when protest erupts at the Gauleiter’s speech, the women are forcibly restrained and forbidden to leave. Angered by this action against the ladies, the men of the university burst through the doors and overtake the guards.
There is one use of the d-word and Sophie and her friend mention the s-word in singing a little ditty. The main language concern of this movie stems from the historic speech by Gauleiter Geisler. He not only states that women do not belong at the university, that they more useful birthing a son for Hitler and goes as far as offering one of his adjutants so that women could have an enjoyable experience.
Most of the members of the White Rose were professing Christians, but for the most part of the movie this is downplayed. There is a mention of the famous sermon by Count von Galen. He was a bishop of Munster and was the only clergyman to vehemently and publicly oppose the Nazi regime. Though Hitler and the Nazis had hoped to have von Galen arrested and sent to prison, the bishop could not be touched due to the devotion of his followers. The Scholl’s collected his sermons and passed them out as well. The most obvious reference to faith was close to the end of the movie, before the execution, when Sophie is speaking to her mother. Her mother reminds her of Jesus and Sophie encourages her mother to remember Him too.
For Further References:
Five Last Days (Fünf letzte Tage) (1982)- Details the last five days of Sophie Scholl’s life from the point of view of her cell mate, Else Gebel. This movie was actually made prior to “The White Rose” and by a different director. Unfortunately I have never watched it (it is difficult to find) but if you have a chance, I suggest you see it.
Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005)- In my personal opinion, this is the best movie ever made on Sophie Scholl and the White Rose. It follows the final days of Sophie Scholl’s life; the distribution of the leaflets at the university, arrest, interrogations, trial and ultimately her death. The director and scriptwriter delved into the personal lives of the White Rose members, the transcripts of the interrogations, letters, interviews, biographies, etc. The psychological and intellectual battles between Sophie and Gestapo agent Robert Mohr are superb. I command you to watch this; you’ll walk away a different person.
“The Rose of Treason,” by James DeVita- A play based on the White Rose group and their activities.
“Sophie Scholl and the White Rose,” by Annette Dumbach and Jud Newborn- (originally titled, “Shattering the German Night”) a newly re-released biography on Sophie Scholl, her life and involvement with the White Rose.
“Ceremony of Innocence,” by James D. Forman- A bio-fiction on Hans Scholl, written in the 1970’s. Although it is entertaining, newly discovered facts on Hans and the White Rose makes this book dated.
“A Nobel Treason,” by Richard Hanser- A fantastic non-fiction book on the White Rose and the personal lives of those involved in the group. Much detail, I highly recommend it.
“Sophie Scholl: The Real Story Behind Germany’s Resistance Heroine,” by Frank McDonough- A new biography on Sophie Scholl, nicely written but I wish it were longer and that it went deeper on her personal life, and reasons for joining the White Rose.
“At the Heart of the White Rose,” by Hans and Sophie Scholl- The diaries and letters of Hans and Sophie Scholl. Although obviously pre-selected and edited, it delves into their hearts and minds and their motives of why the White Rose was formed.
“The White Rose,” by Inge Scholl (originally, “Students Against Tyranny”)- The original book to shed light on the resistance group, written by Hans and Sophie’s older sister, Inge. A must read for any White Rose enthusiast.
“The Short Life of Sophie Scholl,” by Hermann Vinke- A nice biography on Sophie, I wish I could complement it more but it has been awhile since I’ve read it.