Thursday, March 18, 2010

Holocaust Survivor Knew Anne Frank

A 360 Degrees Perspective

"The Diary of Anne Frank" sits on our sidebar; it is on our recent and current reading list here as a reminder of many things: the tragedies of World War II, lost innocence, torn families and the destruction of one of the greatest countries in Europe by a madman let loose; it is a reminder to never forget.

A Holocaust survivor who says she met Anne Frank in a Nazi concentration camp is standing by her story in the face of skepticism from historians, filmmakers and a childhood friend of the diarist.

Berthe Meijer, 71, claims in a memoir to be published in Dutch this month that while she was in Stalag XI-C Bergen-Belsen as a 6-year-old, she remembers the severely ill Frank trying to cheer up some of the children at the camp by telling them fairy tales.

"On its face, it seems too good to be true," said David Barnouw of the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, who has studied Frank for three decades and edited the definitive scholarly publication of her diary.

He said his primary objections to Meijer's story are that Anne would probably have been too weak from hunger and illness to tell stories shortly before her death in March 1945, and it would be an amazing coincidence that Meijer would have a memory about someone who only became well known many years later.

"But you never know," he said. "I don't dare to judge."

Anne Frank became one of the most prominent victims of the Holocaust when the diary she kept for two years while in hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam was found after the war and published. Frank died in a 1945 typhus epidemic at Bergen-Belsen, but the exact date is unknown.

Meijer on Thursday rejected criticism from Hannah Pick-Goslar, a friend of Anne Frank's who saw her at Bergen-Belsen and said she was in no condition to tell stories; and from Willy Lindwer, a filmmaker who said he did not include Meijer in his Emmy award winning 1988 documentary about Anne Frank because her testimony was too vague.

"How do they think they can look into my memory?" Meijer said..

Meijer's memoir, "Life After Anne Frank," focuses on how the early trauma of the camp affected Meijer's later life, and "what war does to a human life." It describes the alleged meeting with Frank in an early chapter.

"I make it clear in my book, some things are vague, some things are crystal clear," she said. "For me, the memories are paired with the emotions that went with them."

She said Frank was very ill, but still mustered the strength to tell short fairy tales while lying in the camp barracks. Meijer said she remembers it because the stories gave her a feeling of escape from the horror that surrounded her.

Chris Brooks, Curator of the Shoah Foundation Institute Archive at the University of Southern California, which preserves testimony of Holocaust survivors, said it has 43 records of people having seen Anne Frank in Bergen Belsen.

Most of them described her as desperately ill. However, at least one woman who said that Anne Frank was in her barracks also said that orphaned children from the camp were allowed to play there.

Another important witness, Marianne Brandes-Brilleslijper, is cited in the 2007 book "Anne Frank: The Young Writer Who Told the World Her Story" as having said that Anne told jokes and stories to keep up the spirits of several Dutch women in her barracks.

A spokeswoman for publisher De Bezige Bij said the house stands behind Meijer "100 percent."

Suzanne Holtzer said the Bezige Bij is discussing selling publishing rights with publishers in multiple countries, including the United States.

The Anne Frank House Museum says its historians have previously interviewed Meijer and have no reason to doubt her truthfulness - but that her story is unverifiable.

Records from Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial authority, show that Meijer was an inmate of Bergen-Belsen for 13 months until it was liberated in April 1945.

They also show the Meijer family lived on Amsterdam's Niersstraat, the same street where Anne attended a Montessori elementary school from 1934 to 1941. Meijer says the two families were friendly acquaintances.

Psychologists say it's conceivable that if Meijer knew Frank before the war, and if she met her again in Bergen Belsen, she could form a lasting memory about it, even at a young age.

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.

On the Web:
Anne Frank House and Museum
The Anne Frank Center USA
Anne Frank on Wikipedia
The Bergen-Belsen Memorial website
Bergen-Belsen on the Jewish Virtual Library
Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp on Wikipedia

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