April 2, 1963
I just finished reading The Diary of Anne Frank for school. I would rather be dead than have my diary published. What was her father thinking?
Publishing her diary was a waste if readers think hiding was the worst thing that happened to her. I was born six years after my mother’s liberation from Ravensbruck. She and Anne were both taken at sixteen. Anne could have been my mother.
As teenagers, my Hungarian mother and Polish father were herded into concentration camps, along with the rest of their families, who were mostly killed. Those scenes constantly hover like ghosts in my mind, especially when I'm sleeping, which I avoid as much as possible, except in history and religion classes, where it’s practically impossible to stay awake. I have no idea of the order of history, Biblical or otherwise. It's just a big jumble until Hitler arrived and suddenly history comes to life, my life. At night, I prowl the house for burglars and fires instead of sleep. No one knows that. I never feel safe.
Daddy tells me snippets. “You can't imagine how bad it feels to have icy rain fall on your naked body.” Or “how hard it is to sleep when you are exhausted, starving and freezing, with no blankets or clothes, like you will never feel warm again.”
His bottom lip quivers and his brown eyes dart like a beaten dog's. He constantly reminds me to honor THE SIX MILLION by obeying Jewish Law — Yiddishkeit -- though I don't see how that helps anyone, especially once they’re dead.
Mom confides in me about the camps, when we're alone in the dark living room on Friday evenings after candle lighting, while my father and brother are in shul and my younger sister, Lucy, tunes us out in the well-lit kitchen with one of her Agatha Christie mysteries.
Mom talks about the camps in this flat, distant monotone. She keeps going until I start to cry. Then she stops, looks around as if remembering where she is, and says, “Enough Gitteleh. Hitler ruined my life and now he should hurt you, too? Enough with the stories.”
And then I feel that by crying like a weakling who didn’t even go through these things. I have completely failed her and worse, THE SIX MILLION.
Privately Forever ESPECIALLY IF I DIE,
Anne’s Spiritual Daughter
2. A LIVING DIARY
April 3, l963
As a result of my mother cutting off my Holocaust stories whenever I start to cry, I have developed the perfect tactic to keep myself from crying by distracting myself with the pain of digging my nails into my palms ands arms until they bleed, and hold my breath, so I can hear as much as possible before Mommy realizes I’m upset. I mean, someone needs to know, and she doesn't tell anyone else. She’s too ashamed and feels humiliated if anyone felt sorry for her. Since I'm not actually going through it, listening without crying is the least I can do.
Everyone wants Anne Frank's story to end while she is still Miss Darling Sweetheart, before she turns into someone like my parents who can’t sleep and lose temper with their children. People love the whole Pollyanna-in-Hiding thing. No one wants to think of how disillusioned about humanity Anne must have felt the second those Nazis grabbed her and that sliding door slammed shut on her dark, squashed stinking cattle car to the concentration camp at Bergen-Belson where her older sister would die just before she did.
“We were forced to walk to a freight train,” my mother says. “ Old people and my little brothers and sisters carrying bundles. We were packed so tightly into freight cars that we had to stand. When they closed the door, it was so dark we could not even see. There was no room to sit down. The smell was so horrible we could hardly breathe. There was no food, no water, no toilets. You just went in your clothes. People were screaming and crying, grown-ups, children, babies. We were on that train for three days and nights. When they unloaded us in Auschwitz, many people had died. My 80 year old grandmother Clairel was one of them.”
No current Anne fans would want to imagine how Anne actually felt about humanity once trapped on the train or care how sad Anne's own teen-aged daughter might have felt, had Anne lived, years later, knowing of her mother's suffering as a teenager and her daughter’s infinite grief ever since. Had Anne survived the camps, she would have been too proud to admit to her suffering in public, only in private, to her eldest daughter, just around the age she was when it all happened. I am my own mother's living diary, which means that I always feel like I'm living a double life.
Anne’s Spiritual Daughter
3. SUFFERING CONTESTS
April 4, 1963
Fears of instantaneous death might have seized Anne Frank's daughter since she was little, just like they did me, especially in bathrooms, because they reminded us of gas chambers, you know, the whole shower thing, the worry that gas might come out instead of water, just in case God felt like it, so she would have to hold her breath like I do until she's sure it's just water and not gas somehow coming into the bathroom from our kitchen stove.
It's so creepy living under the scrutiny of a strict Orthodox God who can read minds, spy on you night and day, and yet still didn't answer the prayers of my dying child relatives. I keep having nightmares of trying to scrub filthy, crowded bathrooms with overflowing toilets and showers.
Every night in my sleep I run from killers camouflaged as policemen or friendly neighbors. It's too embarrassing to talk about the nightmares with friends. I can't even tell my mother about them because nothing bad ever happened to me in real life. It's all fantasy. I haven't earned the right to complain. I feel like such a sickly whiner, like someone who would not have made it through the camps in the first place, kind of like Anne herself, I guess. If my mother at Anne's age could stand the actual camps, I can at the very least put up with my scary dreams without complaining. Although they aren't real, they always seem so real every night that I am actually happy to wake up to a normal, peaceful, safe life every morning.
My mother nearly killed herself in Auschwitz. The air was thick with the smoke of her burning family.
“What did I know? I was only sixteen. I thought the whole world was one big concentration camp. I thought we would never get out of there,” she says. “It was very hard. Once, I remember we were standing outside in the winter. It was so cold. They would count us twice a day, in our flimsy dresses, make us stand for hours at a time no matter what the weather. On this particular day, there was a freezing rain, and I don't know, I felt especially cold. We had no shoes. Our heads were shaved bald. And they just kept us standing there, counting us, over and over. I must have been sick because I felt that I could hardly stand up and the cold hurt all over. I must have given up. Because soon after that, I went to get some butter that my cousin, Yolika, who worked in officer's kitchen had thrown to us over the electric fence. This time, the butter had fallen very close to the fence, and as I picked it up, I began to feel my hand reach out and feel myself drawn towards the electric fence, to touch it. I don't know what I was thinking. I had just lost the will to go on.
But I could hear my sister Ibika's voice begging me, crying ‘Don't go, Ilonka! Please, please don't go and leave me here alone!'
“And I pulled back my hand, because I knew that if I died, so would she. I had to stay alive for her,” my mother said. “And so I would not give the Germans what they wanted. They wanted us all to feel alone, without family, without God. They tried to separate family members, but Ibika and I were two of the very few sisters who stayed together, because we knew we had to stay together to live. We would never stand together, because we looked like twins. And we pretended that we were not related. But each of us knew that if the other one died, life would be over for both of us.”
Anne was probably suicidal, too, after her older sister died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen where they both were. There was no one left to encourage Anne to stay alive and she died soon after. Margot kept a diary, too, that was never found. All you had to do to die in a camp was give up any hope of living and you were dead within days. I am certain that's what happened to Anne Frank.
But had Anne survived like my own mother, I wonder if Anne's daughter might have wondered as a teenager whether to just kill herself rather than live in a world where these things could happen again, at any minute, only worse, with nuclear bombs.
Anne's daughter might also have been the opposite of suicidal, like me, constantly checking her heartbeat, afraid that she's just going to drop dead of panic, here in Boxwood, New Jersey, from a heart attack for no reason at all, just thinking about death. Even though she lives in a nice Jewish community and has nothing to complain about. OK, the air on summer nights is thick with the flatulence of factories. But that's nothing compared to breathing burning humans. And, OK, Anne's daughter might think God plans to kill her at any moment because she secretly hates Him for letting it all happen and He can hear her every thought. But that's not the same as starving with dying people all around. Anne's daughter would have it so much easier than her mother ever did that she would seem like a whiner, a weakling, someone born repulsively cynical, with no hope for the world to begin with, someone totally uninspiring to read about. At least my parents get along well, though I hate it when they gang up on me with the suffering contests I can never win. Actually, Dad wins those because according to my mother “The Nazis were in Poland for four years and only got to Hungary for the last year of the war. “ My suffering, like Anne's daughter's suffering, would be nothing compared to that.
4. PSYCHOTHERAPY, GOD AND ME
April 5, 1963
Anne Frank would not have understood why a straight A student like her daughter would try so hard to avoid school, awakening early with an alleged fever from holding the thermometer under hot water, being constantly sent home by the nurse with stomach aches, headaches and panic attacks. My own mother, a concentration camp survivor, considered me lazy because I could never get out of bed in the morning, the family unaware that I spent every night prowling the house to investigate burglar noises and fire smells, for God wouldn't protect us.
The last straw for Anne Frank would have been that Shabbos evening, after candle lighting, when Anne's daughter, like me, held her head in her hands and cried out: “Help me, Mommy, I'm going to die!”
“What are you talking about?” Anne would say.
“God is going to kill me because every time I look at the Shabbos candles, I keep thinking ‘I hate God, I hate God. I can't stop the thoughts."
“Gitteleh, don't worry, God knows you don't mean it,” Anne would have said, just like my mother, both avoiding the question “Why?”
I tried to pretend I didn't mean it, but knew deep down this was between me and God and I did really hate Him for the Holocaust inflicted on my parents.
After that, my mother had no choice but to do what Anne would have done. She took her sniveling child to see a psychotherapist.
I sat cupped in a giant leather chair in the corner of a dark office with dark curtains drawn, filled with gigantic mahogany furniture and walls of large books. The psychologist sat on the other side of a huge desk flicking lint or dandruff off his sleeve and asking irrelevant questions, barely looking at me, the God-hating-wreck, writing down my answers and frowning, as if they were all wrong.
The therapist started to seem increasingly far away, his head a tiny potato head, across the ignorant universe of his dustless desk that seemed to get bigger and bigger as the session progressed, like something out of Alice in Wonderland.
I decided Mr. Potato Head could be of no help at all. I knew why I got so scared and panicked about hating God who had the power to kill me, but I wasn't going to talk to the therapist about it. Wouldn't he panic if he believed God could read his mind? Wouldn't he panic growing up with the knowledge that “one day we lived in our safe little world and the next day everything was changed forever”? But I would never tell this idiot therapist who clearly grew up in falsely safe delusional America where a nuclear bomb could go off at any moment and no one cared. I lied and said that thank-you I felt much better and would not be coming back. After that I kept my God-hatred between me and Him. It's been a war ever since.
Privately. BURN WHEN I’M DEAD,
Anne’s Spiritual Daughter
5. ARBEIT MACHT FREI
April 6, 1963
Anne Frank, like my parents, would have been the hardest workers I ever met, especially surviving the camps as slave laborers, at such young ages, fifteen and sixteen, when most that age quickly died of exhaustion, starvation, cold and thirst. My parents are fireballs of energy and action, practically living their lives by that sadistic inscription over the entrance to Auschwitz “Arbeit Macht Frei,” work makes you free.
“If I didn't keep busy I'd go crazy,” said my father repeatedly. “The problem with you is that you think too much.” I much later learned that this was Primo Levi's secret to surviving the camps: “Don't think.”
Compared to my parents, Anne's daughter, like me, would be a slug getting out of bed in the morning. So, tired as she may feel from insomnia, she, like me, would work ever harder to get perfect grades and have lots of friends, and be funny, smart, talented, and pretty. She would run lots of clubs and sports and be class and school president and make long checklists of things to do, books to read, new vocabulary words to use and exercises to improve her posture, and fashion to wear from Seventeen magazine. She would take art lessons after school and act totally normal, beyond normal, like nothing could possibly be wrong. Like me, she would have to be exceptional just trying to keep up with compensating for all the losses. She would have to be six million souls in one and always felt behind.
Anne Frank in fact made lists in her diary, too: about things Jews could not do, even before hiding; things she would buy if she had money and freedom and was on a trip to Switzerland with her father. I could relate to that. Lists make things seem more possible, the future more probable. Lists calm me down.
But Anne Frank's daughter, like me, would keep her most embarrassing fears to herself, her imperfections. She would act brave even when she felt faint, even when other people were scared. She would find secret rituals to relax, songs to sing to distract her from thoughts of dying, her own private religion that wouldn't help the six million at all.
After all I have written, I know that my English teacher Mrs. Starr does not want to hear what her model student really thinks about The Diary of Anne Frank. She'd feel too sorry for me. Or worse, judge me as evil or crazy. Either way, like Anne Frank, my real self is in hiding. Even though I go to a Jewish School, most of the grown-ups there are Americans. That makes them practically as guilty as the Nazis. They didn't lift a finger to help my parents' families. My smarmy principal had the nerve to brag at an assembly that he once stayed home from school to go door-to-door collecting money for the European Jews. As if that were some major sacrifice. As if that helped anyone besides him feel less guilty.
6. THE TORTURED NAZI
April 7, l963
It's dark out and I still have this major book report to write on The Diary of Anne Frank. I’ll just have to fake sick tomorrow to work on the book report all day. I wish I could write what I really feel without wanting to kill myself.
I would never admit this to anyone on the planet, but I do have a fantasy that helps me get to sleep after I've scanned the house for safety or if I'm just too exhausted to bother. When I can't fall asleep, I imagine myself carrying this heavy, blank tombstone onto a stage and setting it on a chair with great relief, like I have just put down a burden I always carry and am stopping to rest. A uniformed Nazi soldier is tied tightly to a chair nearby with the leather straps of Jewish prayer Tefillin, millions of them. He is freezing cold and I keep wetting him down with a hose to make him colder, just like he did to the Jews in the camps. The stage is dark except for a small spotlight right in his rodent eyes. There are piles of bones in the background. The empty theatre is overflowing with millions of pebbles, the kind Jews leave on tombstones as memorials instead of flowers.
I carry a very sharp little jacknife. I wave it around the tied up Nazi, especially near his face. I do him no harm, but I keep him scared to death, like I so often feel. This relaxes me. It's like all my fears and desire for revenge get funneled into this tortured Nazi soldier so I can get some sleep.
You can see now that at the end of The Diary of Anne Frank, Anne is a much better person than I ever was or ever will be. Much better than my parents will ever be. Much better than the person she became the minute she was tainted by those hate-sick Nazis who dragged her and her family away because they considered Jews contaminated. Which is why her diary, standing alone, is such a big lie. Everyone loves Anne Frank's hopefulness and love of humanity that immediately evaporated the second the book was over.
Very Top Secretly Yours,
Anne Frank's Spiritual Daughter Who Never Got to Live
Gloria Garfunkel is a psychologist and writer with a Ph.D. from Harvard University in Psychology and Social Relations. She was a psychotherapist for thirty years. She has recently published over fifty stories in literary journals.