Monday, April 12, 2010

Holocaust Days of Remembrance: Honoring the Victims and Survivors

This week marks the Days of Remembrance, commemorating the Holocaust. Today, April 12th, is Yom HaShoah—Holocaust Remembrance Day. I observe this day in a very personal way—I remember Mrs. Pearl and Miss Rosencrantz.
When I was in seventh grade, my English teacher, Mrs. Pearl, introduced us to the story of Anne Frank, whose World War II memoir, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, was part of our curriculum. Since many of the girls in our class kept diaries, we identified with young Anne’s adolescent struggles. Mrs. Pearl provided us with the broader historical frame of the Holocaust to contextualize Anne’s story. 
As we read the diary, Mrs. Pearl would have us imagine what it was like to live in a space for over two years, having to live in utter silence all day, always fearful of being discovered. I remember clearly the images from the camps that accompanied our reading, the awful devastation and unspeakable suffering.
I identified deeply with Anne, especially as she grew older, and the entries began reflecting challenges that I knew I soon would be facing as an adolescent. Anne also wanted to be a writer, which was my future goal as well. I still remember reading the final entry of the diary, dated August 1, 1944:
Believe me, I’d like to listen, but it doesn’t work, because if I’m quiet and serious, everyone thinks I’m putting on a new act and I have to save myself with a joke, and then I’m not even talking about my own family, who assume I must be ill, stuff me with aspirin and sedatives, feel my neck and forehead to see if I have a temperature, ask about my bowel movements and berate me for being in a bad mood, until I just can’t keep it up anymore, because when everybody starts hovering over me, I get cross, then sad, and finally end up turning my heart inside out, the bad part on the outside and the good part on the inside, and keep trying to find a way to become what I’d like to be and what I could be if…if only there were no other people in the world.

Yours, Anne M. Frank

Of course, we now know that this final entry was written three days before the Frank family (along with the Van Pels family and Fritzs Pfeffer) was betrayed by someone who knew they were hiding in the attic space at 263 Prinsengracht in Amsterdam. They were arrested by the German police, and all perished in the Nazi death camps except for Otto Frank, Anne’s father.
The summer after I read the diary, my mother took my brother and me to Europe. We arrived in Amsterdam late in the evening, and I remember my mother asking the hotel clerk where Anne Frank House, meaning 263 Prinsengracht, was located. It was within walking distance. The next day, we began our journey. We headed through the streets, which I believe were cobblestoned. I recall feeling a sense of apprehension when we turned onto Prinsengracht. 
When we arrived at the house, I was struck by how nondescript it was. When I got inside, however, I saw everything preserved/restored as it would have looked when Anne was there. I looked out the window and saw the tree she wrote about; I scrutinized the wall where Anne had plastered the photos of famous movie stars—it was just as I had read in the book. 
Many other people in the room, men as well as women, were in tears—as a 12 year-old, I was unused to seeing adults cry—it was disconcerting. And I remember staring hard at everything so that I would not cry. When I returned home later that summer, I read the diary again—this time, every line seemed to take on a profound significance. I had been to the house—I could see Anne’s life in the annex unfold in high relief.
Two years later, when I was in high school, I had another English teacher, Miss Rosencrantz, a somewhat intense and serious woman in her forties who always wore dark-colored clothing with long sleeves. I viewed myself as a wit back then (Read: occasionally amusing, but more likely just obnoxious), and I liked to verbally spar with my teachers. 
One day, when we were studying The Iliad, she asked us a question about modern day products we could associate with Greek mythology. Ever the smart aleck, I called out “Trojan condoms.”  As my classmates snickered, Miss Rosencrantz looked at me as if she were giving serious consideration to my answer. She then said, deadpan, “Hmmm…I wonder about that. The Trojans failed.”
The class laughed hard—Miss Rosencrantz had, for the first time, made them laugh—they were laughing at me and, although I was red-faced, I had to laugh, too. She smiled at all of us, and even at me, a warm, wise smile. She then raised her arm to write down my answer on the blackboard, and that is when I noticed the numbers inked into her forearm. 
I was stunned and deeply unsettled, because I knew what those numbers meant. She had been in the Auschwitz death camp. I stared at Miss Rosenkrantz for a long time, trying to imagine how she could be standing before us, teaching us, given what she had been through as a young girl. I became quiet in her classroom after that day. I never made another joke. Today, when I reflect on that day, I still cannot articulate that feeling, that emotion—it remains beyond my ability to process.
So, during this week, part of my observance will be to remember Mrs. Pearl and Miss Rosenkrantz, two teachers who helped to shape my understanding of the world around
For more information on Anne Frank House, click here: Anne Frank House
For more on the Days of Remembrance, as well as on how you can assist in preventing genocide, click here: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
All best, 



olddoc said...

As I would expect a wonderful human piece. Many years ago when we were in Amsterdam we did not get in to the Anne Frank House, because most impressively there was an extraordinary long line of YOUNG people waiting to visit. They were all Europeans and it was impressive that they would be interested in something that had happened more than a generation before them.

Although we were charter members of the Holocaust Museum, I think all that can should make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and while there visit the Yad Vasham. If you can leave there dry eyed you have no soul.

Anonymous said...

what an amazing touching post