In my novel, Margot, I reimagine Margot Frank, Anne’s older sister, having survived the war and come to Philadelphia where she works as a legal secretary living under the assumed name of Margie Franklin. My book takes place in 1959, just as Anne’s diary is coming to the silver screen, and where Margie Franklin’s present and Margot Frank’s past begin to collide.
As I was writing the novel, I had trouble finding much information about the real Margot Frank. Though Margot also kept a diary when the family was hiding in the annex, hers was never recovered after the war, and very little is known about her today. I could gather only small tidbits from the descriptions of Margot in Anne’s diary and from a few other books published about the family.
But one thing that stood out to me in my research was the reason why the family went into hiding when they did: Margot received a call-up notice from the Germans to report to a forced labor camp. The family moved up their plans, and went into hiding the next day, essentially to keep Margot safe.
I read that Margot Frank left for the annex separately from Anne and their parents, so as not to arouse suspicion. She layered on clothes and rode her bike (which Jews were restricted from doing at the time) in the pouring rain. She rode to the annex with Miep Gies, as if the two of them were simply Gentile secretaries, on their way to work.
The fictional events of my novel are far removed from this bike ride that the real Margot Frank took, but that was the vision I began with of Margot – a young woman terrified and without her family, but composed enough to ride her bike through the pouring rain to go into hiding, to save herself. A woman who was brave even when she must’ve been deeply afraid. A woman who understood how to hide herself, even when she was out in the open.
My grandfather was a Kohen, which I’ve learned (thanks to Google) means he was a Jewish priest, a descendant of Aaron. I never really knew what he meant when he told me this (repeatedly), when he was alive, only that he had been raised deeply religious. But as an adult, as my grandfather, he was more of a cultural Jew. And this was how I was raised, filtered down even one more generation. As a child, I didn’t attend Hebrew School (though one year I begged my parents to send me, just so I’d have something to keep up with all my Catholic friends who regularly attended CCD). We never went to synagogue. We’d go to Passover and Rosh Hashanah dinner at my parents’ friends’ house each year (the only other Jewish people we knew who lived nearby), though I can’t remember my parents ever cooking their own holiday dinners. We celebrated Hanukkah instead of Christmas, of course, but my sister and I only sang “The Dreidel Song” as we lit the menorah.
My grandparents lived six hours away when I was growing up, and we only saw them a few times a year, but whenever we did, it was my grandfather who would remind us about being Jewish. As a kid I’d roll my eyes when he’d tell me that I’d care more about my religion when I grew up, when I had kids of my own. I couldn’t understand what he meant. His version of religion, by that point, was socializing at the JCC and reading The Jewish Chronicle. He also was fond of calling all us Bubbelah in public – an endless embarrassment to all the cousins in our teenage years.
My grandfather died almost five years ago, so he never got to see what happened when my children got old enough to talk, to start asking me questions. (Why doesn’t Santa Claus come to our house? My youngest son swore it was because our house didn’t have a chimney. . .). It was around this time that I started to understand what he meant, about religion feeling more important to me when I got older and had kids of my own. I didn’t suddenly start attending synagogue or learning Hebrew, but I did suddenly feel the need to teach my children about where they came from. I read them books about the Jewish holidays and cooked dinners for Passover and Rosh Hashanah. I bought a children’s version of the Haggadah so my oldest son could read from it at age four, when he was a budding reader, and I helped my youngest son memorize the four questions to recite. My husband, who is also Jewish and was raised more religious than I was, taught all of us the Hebrew prayer to say when we light the menorah, which we now sing in addition to “The Dreidel Song.”
When I was writing Margot, I did a lot of research about the Holocaust and the Frank family. But some of what I had to learn had to do with aspects of being Jewish that I never really learned growing up. At times I felt a little bit like an imposter, wondering if I really had it in me to write about being Jewish, when I was still figuring so much out for myself. But as I researched and wrote, I couldn’t help but think about my grandfather. If he were still here now, I can just picture him saying, I told you so, Bubbelah.
Before I’d settled on acting or writing, my greatest aspiration was simply to “Be Anne Frank,” and when I was twelve, I auditioned for the title role in a community theater production of the Goodrich and Hackett play. I’m pretty sure I was one of the few, if not the only, Jew(s) to audition (in a town known for its Evangelical Christian college), and I thought I had it in the bag. All they had to do, I thought, was look at my last name and cast me immediately, to lend credibility to their production.
At callbacks, it was between me and one other Anne. I wore a plaid skirt and a pale sage cardigan with tiny rosebuds around the collar. I parted my dark hair on the side. While the other Anne smiled and laughed and generally behaved like she was at a food court in the mall, I delivered my lines with gravitas. I looked at the imaginary sky with longing. I was sarcastic, but never silly. I never let myself forget that Anne was a victim of the Holocaust, and it was my job on stage to honor that fact. More than anything, I felt I deserved to be Anne because I knew her so intimately after reading her diaries.
Shocker: the other Anne got cast. “But you look so much like her,” the director told me on the phone, as a consolation prize. “It was really tough.”
The only thing I could console myself with was the fantasy that after I died, God would rectify this injustice by allowing me to play the role in Heaven. (It’s funny that I imagined this and not, you know, actuallymeeting Anne there in the afterlife.)
One of the reasons I loved Francine Prose’s recent book, Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, is because it tells the fascinating and fraught history of the theatrical adaptation. Reading it fourteen years after that fateful audition was a revelation: it wasn’t my fault that I was wrong for the part of Anne. It was the play’s fault. The play reinvents Anne as some kind of Jewish Polyanna. Prose really hits the nail on the head when she compares the insightful diarist with her characterization:
On the page, she is brilliant; on the stage she’s a nitwit. In the book, she is the most gifted and sharp-sighted person in the annex; in the play, she’s the naïve baby whom the others indulge and protect. For all her talk about being treated like a child and not knowing who she was, Anne saw herself as an adult and the others as children. In the drama, those relations have been reversed.
Years after I first read her diary, Anne is still an inspiration to me. Prose’s book is an excellent account of her aspirations as a writer (Anne hoped her diaries would be published, and revised scrupulously), and I recommend it highly. I also can thank Prose for leading me to this twenty-one second video, the only video footage known to exist of Anne, in which we see the young diarist briefly from a window, flickering, alive.
The other day I had a discussion with a group of girls about their ideal bat mitzvah (the celebration that marks female coming of age at 12 or 13 among Jews and sometimes of adults who missed the opportunity as adolescents).
Several of the girls said that that their ideal was to celebrate away from home. A few wanted to go to Israel, specifically the Western Wall or Masada. Other ideas were more surprising: “Germany, because it has great technology,” “Japan, because I love anime,” and “France, so I can see a real fashion runway.” One Massachusetts girl actually had her wish for an overseas bat mitzvah come true. She and her family celebrated in Amsterdam “because it is the midpoint between my relatives in the U.S. and Israel, and because of Anne Frank.”
We’ve all heard of destination weddings and birthday parties. But what about destination bat mitzvahs? Our book, Today I am a Woman: Stories of Bat Mitzvah around the World, includes the amazing example of two American sisters whose joint bat mitzvah took place in a Tunisian desert town, complete with camel rides, drummers, and a religious service under the stars in honor of the father’s Tunisian heritage.
Imagine taking your daughter to Split, Croatia where there is a small Jewish community led by a woman I’ve met who surely would welcome the idea. Or, if it still exists, imagine a bat mitzvah in the town where a grandparent was born. A few North American boys actually have celebrated a bar mitzvah in Uganda, where a Jewish community has existed for five generations. As far as I know, there have been no bat mitzvah ceremonies for non-Ugandan girls in the modest synagogue. Such a ceremony would be eye-opening for guests and bridge-building with the community there.
Bringing the bat mitzvah girl to a place where the Jewish community is small and out of the mainstream would enhance the part of bat mitzvah that is mitzvah – the religious good deed/obligation, the core element of the event. How wonderful it would be to be able to share the joy with a newfound community someplace else in the world! Now if the stock market would only rise so we could afford it!
- Shulamit Reinharz