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Saturday, 10 January 2009

Truth or Life?

Every night this week, the BBC have shown a dramatisation of the Diary of Anne Frank. Anne is known throughout the world for her famous diary, which she wrote while hiding from the Nazi's in an annex above her father's warehouse in Amsterdam. It is a remarkable piece of work, not only for its historical value but also because of the insights that it provides into the mind of a growing teenager living in what were incredibly difficult circumstances.

The family, father Otto, mother Edith and daughters Margot and Anne (Anne was the younger of the two) lived like this for over 2 years, with their friends Hermann and Auguste van Pels and their son Peter. They were later joined by the family dentist, Fritz Pfeffer. Anne's father had been preparing this place as a hideout for over a year, gathering furniture and cooking implements. Anne had received her diary as birthday gift from her father just weeks before the family moved, having left an elaborate trail that led others to believe they had fled to Switzerland in safety.

The family moved into their hiding place on the morning July 6th, 1942, following the Nazis request that daughter Margot was to present herself to the railway station within nine days for transport to one of the camps. Since Jews were forbidden from using public transport, they walked several kilometers from their home, which had been deliberately left in disarray, wearing several layers of clothes, as they dare not be seen carrying luggage.

The Achterhuis (a Dutch word denoting the rear part of a house, translated as the "Secret Annexe" in English editions of the diary) was a three-storey space entered from a landing above Mr Frank's offices. It consisted of two small rooms, with an adjoining bathroom and toilet on the first level, with a larger open room above with a smaller room adjoining it. A ladder from this smaller room led to the attic. The door to the Achterhuis was covered by a bookcase to ensure that it remained undiscovered.

Otto's four employees together with a few of their family members, were the only people who knew of the family's whereabouts, risking their lives to provide the family with food and other supplies via the black market, and a vital lifeline to the outside world. Tensions quickly developed within the group who were forced to live in these confined conditions. Anne frequently clashed with most of the adults, as a fiery and growing teenager, detailing all of this in her diary. Thrown together, romance blossomed between Anne and Peter, the teenage son of Hermann and Auguste van Pels, but the infatuation soon waned.

The family were eventually discovered and arrested after an anonymous tip off and transported to various camps. Her father Otto to the notorious Auschwitz and her mother together with the two girls to Bergen-Belsen in Southern Poland. From the eight people who lived in the annex, Otto was the only one to survive. Anne died from typhus in March 1945, five days after her sister, and just one month before liberation.

After the war her father returned to Amsterdam and found some of his employees, one of whom gave him the copy of Anne's diary that had been left behind after it fell from her father's briefcase. The Nazi's had emptied the briefcase to carry the family's gold, which they looted. The first edition was published in France and Germany in 1950, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I visited Amsterdam briefly in 1990 when my sister and I were inter-railing across Europe as students, but did not get the opportunity to visit the house, as we were only in the city for a few hours. Nevertheless, I have always been fascinated by Anne's story and bravery, as a teenager living in what must have been incredibly difficult conditions. The dramatisation was remarkably lifelike with superb acting from all those who took part. I found myself touched by this young girls will to survive and her comments in particular that she did not want her life to have been in vain, that she wished to live on afterwards through the words that she had written. I can identify very much with that myself, as most writers probably can. The final scenes of the family's arrest were difficult to watch and I found tears streaming down my face, as I had become quite attached to them all.

Afterwards I watched a documentary about the family on BBC 4 which provided more background information, including an interview with her father, the only survivor. Included were scenes of the various camps to which the family members were taken and where they died. I have often wondered if I was transported to one of these, during a former life.

I remember when I was new to the spiritual path, I attended a past life workshop with Dick Sutphen. To help set the mood and to test our responses, Dick played a variety of different sounds, one of which was a train blowing its whistle. Every hair on my body stood on end, as I saw the image of a train moving through a darkened tunnel and coming to a stop inside a walled compound with a large chimney in the background. The first time I saw the film Schindlers List, I recognised the image of Austwitz from this workshop. That was possibly the most frightening experience of my life.

The closing scenes of the dramatisation and my reaction to them also brought to mind my visit to the Museum of the Holocaust in Jerusalem, which I visited in 1993. We were led into this darkened dome shaped room, which was pitch black. The only light came from the illuminated handrail that was used to feel your way around, and the one million stars on the ceiling, one for every Jewish child who perished during the War. I don't think I have ever experienced such sadness or tears as I shed that day, sadness for the depths of cruelty and depravity that the human race could sink to, and the dreadful acts that were carried out in the name of politics.

The saddest thing of all is that we appear to have learnt nothing at all from these experiences, as similar atrocities continue to be carried out throughout the world to this day - the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia, the genocide in Rwanda, and more recently in Zimbabwe. Religious wars are no different - albeit on a smaller scale and being much more visible - the senseless destruction of the Twin Towers, the Oklahoma bombing, or closer to home, the troubles in Northern Ireland. What binds all of these things together is the sense that the victims were considered to be different, sufficiently different to pose such a threat to their neighbours that they had to die. Truth was considered more important than human life for a bunch of over inflated egos who had to justify their own belief's and their own survival at any cost.

It may be a cliche, but it is as true today as it ever was, that we cannot stand by and allow these things to continue to take place or to ever happen again. There are some alive even today who refuse to believe that the Holocaust took place at all, but I have travelled to Israel and shared a room with someone who was there, I have seen the sites of the mass graves in Russia and the Museum of the Holocaust in Jerusalem, so I know that it did. We must never allow anything like this to ever happen again.

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