On June 12, Anne Frank would have been 89 years old. Born in 1929, she and her family spent two years from 1942 to 1944 hiding from the Germans and their collaborators in an annex in Amsterdam.
Sam, my son Daniel’s childhood friend and current college housemate, had two pet rats he named Annie and Franki because they were in hiding when he bought them, squished together at the back of their rat house. Sam’s mother Rachel, a close friend of mine, is a psychologist and a child of Holocaust survivors. Adam grew up with dinner-table conversations like this: Rachel: “My father was a partisan in the forest.” Guest: “My mother … Auschwitz. The brisket is delicious.”
Then Annie the pet rat died. When Sam discovered the dead rat, the other rat had already begun cannibalizing it. In a series of family text messages Daniel explained what had transpired. “The rats were bonded sisters and apparently rats do this all the time – eat each other after they die.”
My older son David said, “Dogs eat their human owners if the human dies…”
Daniel replied, “If they’re starving. …This rat had food for weeks.”
David said, “Buttons would start after two hours.”
Daniel defended Buttons, our exuberant and naughty collie mix. “He would not!”
David’s fiancée Vivyan sent a photo of Buttons licking his paw. Daniel said, “He’s eating his foot. Not a human.”
David: “Gateway drug.”
And on it went. It all brought to mind Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”
A first, I’d thought it irreverent bordering on sacrilegious to name rats Annie and Franki. However, Sam, who is an observant Jew, got a pass because of his grandparents’ experiences in the Holocaust and because his mother has devoted her life to helping Holocaust victims heal from the trauma they suffered, as well as exploring the effect of the Holocaust on the second and third generations.
Children and grandchildren of survivors, these second and third generations, have co-opted Holocaust imagery and stories, whether privately like grandchildren who tattoo a grandparent’s camp number on their own forearms, or publicly, like the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Art Spiegelman, whose graphic novel, “Maus,” was based on conversations with his father, a survivor. In the identity politics trend of recent years, it’s all of a piece with hipster Jews reclaiming the anti-Semitic slur “heeb” and making it the name of a magazine, or a craft beer maker (Schmaltz Brewing Company) calling one of its lagers “He’Brew.”
For those living in the long shadow of the Shoah, like Sam, each has his or her reasons for actively incorporating the Holocaust into their daily lives: it links them to their ancestors; it reminds them more viscerally to never forget; it is so much a part of their own identity; or for some other reason. Anne’s reputation and legacy could survive two rats.
Anne Frank died of an illness in Bergen-Belsen in February or March of 1945, but in reality she was murdered, the same as those who were gassed or shot or froze to death or starved to death. After the war, Anne’s father, who’d survived Auschwitz, returned to Amsterdam and discovered one of their protectors had saved Anne’s diary, which documented Anne’s life in hiding. “The Diary of a Young Girl” was published in English in 1952, and was made into a play as well as a film. It’s been translated into over 65 languages and sold more than 35 million copies. One of the most quoted lines from her diary is, “I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
That point is debatable. Some would say humans are domesticated creatures; others, that they are untamed and will turn on each other. However, many things separate us from wild dogs and rats, not least of them, our urge to tell our story, to come out of hiding and to be known for who we are.
Anne wanted to be a writer:
“I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met,” she wrote. “I want to go on living even after my death! And that’s why I’m so grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and to express all that’s inside me! … When I write I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived! But, and that’s a big question, will I ever be able to write something great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer?”
Happy birthday, Anne. You did it.
Angela Himsel is a writer living on the Upper West Side. Her soon-to-be-published memoir is “A River Could Be a Tree” (Fig Tree Books).