Nonfiction — print. Translated from the Dutch. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 202 pgs. Review copy.
Those who have read Anne Frank’s diary might remember that Anne made references to her friends and classmates from the Jewish lycssm in the text. Some references are to boys who are clearly in love with her and some are long passages about her best friends. And then there is Hannah Gosler, who is shown in one of the many film adaptations trying to help her friend and the Holocaust’s most famous victim, Anne, when she needed her the most by tossing a Red Cross care package over the fence at Bergen-Belsen.
Coster — known by Anne as Maurice just as she was known as Annelies by him — survived the Holocaust in hiding by posing in another city as the respected principal’s nephew. Some sixty years later, he decides to return to Amsterdam from Tel Aviv and meet with those classmates of his and Anne’s who also survived. Fifty percent of students from the Jewish lyceum survived the war, which is astonishing considering 80 percent of all Jews in the Netherlands parished. The group shares their stories, travels to their old school, and visit the Secret Annex, and their trip together was documented in a film. This book was born out that documentary; a companion guide, if you will.
Their insights into Anne were quite interesting. As I said before, some knew her intimately while to others, like Coster, she was simply a classmate. (Although, Anne wrote in her diary that he was one of her admirers. Coster, for his part, says he was twelve/thirteen and can’t imagine that he was actually interested in her.) Their recollections of her have faded with time yet most seem to remember Anne’s birthday party and seeing her with the now famous diary with the checkered fabric. None expected her to be such an astonishing writer, but they do all seem to agree that Anne would love the attention her diary receives around the world. She was, according to them, constantly trying to be at the center of attention in their classroom.
But I think the true strength of the novel comes from how the classmates’ individual stories are shared. Coster begins with his and then as he meets his classmates to organize and carryout this trip, he learns about how they survived the Holocaust. The book is more like an interview with each person, and the ways in which they survived are astonishing.
Some like Coster went into hiding, and one women spent years living in the forest with other Jews and downed British and American pilots. Others, through luck and circumstance and quick thinking parents, managed to have the “J” for Jew stripped from their passport or were placed on a list of those with ties from Palestine, which separated them from their compatriots in another camp for exchange with German prisoners of war (POWs). The wide breathe of stories reflects the wide breathe of experiences of Jewish people during the Holocaust, a fact that I was surprised to find in such a slim, little book.