If she’d lived: Novel imagines Anne Frank survives the Holocaust

  • A portrait of Anne Frank that Gillham painted when he was 30. He’s long been interested in the famous teenage diarist from World War II.

  • A photo of Anne Frank, and others of the house she and her family hid in, line one wall in David R. Gillham’s study. “My affection for Anne Frank is boundless,” he says. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Books on Anne Frank rest on a shelf at the home of "Annelies" author David R. Gillham. “If I could get my hands on a book [about her] that I knew existed, I got it,” he says. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • “Annelies” author David R. Gillham, seen here at his home in North Amherst, said he first conceived of writing a novel about Anne Frank over 30 years ago. ”Annelies” is based on Anne Frank’s full name, Annelies Marie Frank. At left, a portrait of Anne Frank that Gillham painted when he was 30. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Maps, old photos and other reference items about Anne Frank and WWII-era Amsterdam that Gillham used for inspiration and background for “Annelies.” STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • "Annelies" author David R. Gillham talks about his novel about Anne Frank in his Amherst home. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A page from Anne Frank’s diary, which she began in June 1942 just as she turned 13. She and her family would go into hiding a few weeks later. Image from Wikipedia/public domain

  • Anne Frank in school in 1940 in Amsterdam, when she was about 11.  Image from Wikipedia/public domain

  • Anne Frank in a school portrait taken in December, 1941, when she was 12. Image for Wiki Commons/public domain

  • ”Annelies” is based on Anne Frank’s full name, Annelies Marie Frank.

Staff Writer
Published: 1/23/2019 4:31:38 PM

Over 30 years ago, David R. Gillham, then in his late 20s, read “The Diary of Anne Frank,” the famous first-person account by the German-Dutch teenager who hid with her family from the Nazis in wartime Holland. At the time, Gillham wasn’t long past a graduate program in screenwriting. But what he soon envisioned writing was a novel based on this question: What might have happened to Anne Frank had she lived?

“I picked up a copy of her diary and was just blown away, just thunderstruck,” Gillham, of North Amherst, said during a recent interview at his home. “The writing was so good, and I thought, ‘If she wrote this well at 14 and 15, what could she have done if she’d survived?’ ” 

It’s taken awhile, but Gillham, 61, has finally delivered his book. “Annelies,” by Viking Press, imagines that Frank, who was 15 when she died in early 1945 at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, survives World War II and the Holocaust to return to Amsterdam, where she’s reunited with her father, Otto — the only other survivor from her family.

It’s a very different Anne than the one who millions of people have come to know through her diary: the alternately sweet and sharp observer of life in “The Annex,” the Amsterdam apartment where she, her family and four other Dutch Jews hid for over two years. That Anne, who aspired to become a writer, famously wrote “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

Gillham’s Anne, by contrast, is alternately angry, despairing, and ridden with guilt, wondering why she made it through the war when her mother and older sister, Margot, and most of her old friends from school did not.

If it’s been a long road to completing the book, it’s not because he was waiting for a certain moment to write it, Gillham notes. “Someone asked me ‘Why now?’ and my answer was ‘This happens to be the time I finally finished it,’ ” he said with a laugh.

It’s his second novel, and the second set in the WWII era. “City of Women,” published in 2012, was a New York Times bestseller about a German woman, Sigrid Schröder, in Berlin in 1943 who begins helping Jews evade the Gestapo, even as she presents the facade of a dutiful wife (her husband is fighting on the Russian front) and supporter of the Reich. The book won praise for its accurate recreation of wartime Berlin, its crisp writing and its fast-moving plot.

With “Annelies,” Gillham has taken on a more difficult task, evoking an iconic figure and trying to imagine how she might feel, think and act after surviving the Holocaust. He’s aware of the criticism that’s been leveled at some writers and other artists for their “appropriation” of Anne Frank’s story, such as the producers of a Broadway play in the 1950s that was based on her diary and became a huge hit — but which downplayed Frank’s Jewishness and the Nazis’ murderous anti-Semitism in favor of Anne as a universal symbol of courage and humanity.

In a 1997 article in The New Yorker, for instance, novelist Cynthia Ozick wrote “any projection of Anne Frank as a contemporary figure is an unholy speculation: it tampers with history, with reality, with deadly truth.” Ozick went on to suggest history might have been better served — or perhaps more honestly served — if Frank’s diary had vanished during the war (though she also asked readers to imagine the books Frank might have gone on to write had she lived).

Gillham first began to make serious progress on “Annelies” about eight years ago after he couldn’t get earlier versions of the novel to work. He previously worked as a book wholesaler in New York City before moving to Amherst in 1999 with his wife, Ludmilla Pavlova-Gillham, who is a senior planner in the Campus Planning Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The couple have two sons, ages 27 and 15.

Through every step of the effort to bring his novel across the finish line, Gillham says, he’s approached the subject both with careful attention to the historical record and with the intent to honor Frank as a person and a writer.

 “I knew she was an iconic figure for good reason, and I knew I was treading on sacred ground,” he said. “I just had to ensure that I [wrote the story] with as much respect to her legacy as I possibly could, and I hope that comes across.

“My affection for Anne Frank is boundless, and my respect for her as a writer is also boundless,” Gillham added.

A traumatized survivor

To research “Annelies,” Gillham visited  Amsterdam, Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz-Birkenau (where the Franks were initially sent) and read numerous books about Anne Frank; he also read interviews with people who knew her and her family, watched postwar interviews given by Otto Frank, and talked in person to one elderly Dutch man who had known Otto and shared his stories. As well, he plumbed the memoirs of Holocaust survivors.

His Anne Frank, when she returns to Amsterdam in fall 1945, above all is angry: furious at the Germans and their Dutch collaborators (including the unknown people who ratted out her family to the police). She’s ashamed by her still-sickly body and appearance, and angry (guilty, really) that she survived while Margot died beside her at Bergen-Belsen. (The sisters are generally believed to have died within a few days of each other, likely of typhus, in late February 1945)

Though she’s briefly lifted by reuniting with her father, and with the Dutch friends and employees from her father’s food company who helped the family when they hid from the Germans, Anne becomes steadily incensed that her father — her nickname for him is Pim —  does not share her outrage. He urges her not to be consumed by raw emotion: “We cannot allow ourselves to be crushed by it. God has given us life.”

“If it was God who has given us life, Pim, then where was he at Birkenau?” Anne responds. “Where was God at Bergen-Belsen?… God has given us the gas chambers. God has given us the crematoria.”

The novel takes place primarily in Amsterdam from 1945 through fall 1946 — there’s a short postscript set in 1961 — though it also begins with some shorter chapters set in 1942 and 1944, when the Frank family goes into hiding, to set the stage for the main section. In addition, there are flashbacks to the concentration camps, which make for horrific reading; Margot’s emaciated ghost periodically appears alongside her sister, adding her voice to Anne’s internal dialogue.

Gillham’s depiction of post-war Amsterdam feels spot-on. It’s a drab landscape of prolonged deprivation, denuded in some places of trees and houses taken down for firewood. Boarded-up buildings are everywhere, the canals are polluted, and everything seems washed in gray “as if color is now rationed along with milk and bread and coal.”

The author has also created a believable portrait of an older Anne Frank, now approaching 17, who begins testing her father’s limits: taking up smoking, sneaking off to meet a boy, Raff, who’s the object of her growing sexual feelings. Her anger eventually earns her rebukes by some other Dutch survivors of the Nazis, who tell her she has no monopoly on suffering and suggest she rein in her self-pity.

In her private moments, Anne acknowledges these criticisms; indeed, she reserves some of her harshest criticism for herself, looking back in shame at the hard judgments she made in her diary about her now-dead mother.

She can’t seem to find the spark to begin writing again, either, though a kindly bookstore owner who gives her a part-time job in his shop encourages her to keep trying. That task might be easier if she could recover her diary, which has gone missing — or has it?

Her father, desperate to find again the daredevilish, mostly buoyant girl he thought he knew, despairs at helping her, even as he attempts to put his own grief behind him. “I must try to find happiness again, and so must you,” he says to Anne. “Otherwise what is the point of having survived? What is the point of living if we are to be poisoned by our own sorrow?”

Anne must somehow come to terms with her grief, find the means for forgiveness and rediscover her joy of writing. It’s an empathetic portrait of a young woman of great spirit and ambition trying to overcome the trauma holding her back. In that, Anne Frank again becomes a symbol: the struggle to find meaning in life following history’s most brutal crimes against humanity.

Gillham says he can’t really point to specific entries in Frank’s diary as inspiration for building her fictional, postwar character. “All I know is that once a character starts working for me, they just start to expand on the page,” he said.

But he does say the line Anne Frank is most noted for — that she believes people are “good at heart” — was central to the novel.

“One of the reasons I started writing the book again was because I had heard people ask ‘Would she still have thought that had she survived?’ I thought that was a really good question to try to answer.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.




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