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Annelies by David R. Gillham has Anne Frank surviving the Holocaust. As the “what if” comes true, the book presents a story of hope, survival, trauma and redemption. But it is also a reminder of what was lost during the Holocaust: how many of those lives taken away had such promise. Gillham gives Anne Frank’s life back to her, a life brutally cut short by the Nazi monsters.
Gillham skillfully transforms Anne from a bright-eyed girl with dreams and ambitions to a bitter, angry teenager who suffers from survivor’s guilt and PTSD. The author should be applauded as he realistically portrays what many Holocaust survivors suffered. Because of enduring the atrocities and emotional/physical pain readers see Anne with a haunted tone that has different ideals. She is not the same person as she was when writing in her diary prior to, during, and immediately following the time her family and others were hiding in the space above her father’s workplace. In reading inserts from her diary at the beginning of each chapter people see an optimistic young girl who never gave up hope despite the cruel, unexplainable hatred and danger that threatened her daily.
But after being betrayed the family and their friends were found by the Nazi Gestapo Amsterdam branch. First sent to a concentration camp in Holland with her sister and mother, she was then transferred to the Auschwitz death camp and ended up in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. These scenes show how Anne and her family endured the packed train to the concentration camps, and the despicable conditions of dirt and disease throughout them. It is where the alternate history begins. Unlike the reality where Anne dies of Typhus she is rescued and reunited with her father Otto in Amsterdam. Now seventeen she grows from a person filled with frustration, rage, anger, and guilt to someone who finally understands she must live her life and honor the dead by using her diary to teach the world about her experiences. Although her father at first would not let go, he eventually allows her to move to America where the last pages show her with a happy ending, one the real-life Anne Frank never had, as she replies to readers notes about her best-selling book, The Secret Annex.
In reading portions of the real-life diary, people understand how Anne had hope amid the darkness of humanity. This novel transports readers as they take Anne’s journey with her to the hiding place, the concentration camps, and as she struggles to survive the aftermath of the Holocaust. Gillham should be given a shout-out for taking on this risky project, but he did it successfully with sensitivity and humility.
Elise Cooper: Why take such a harrowing undertaking, writing this alternate-history?
David Gillham: In writing this story, I was constantly aware that Anne Frank was a real person who wrote one of the most defining books of the twentieth century. I understand she is an icon and have tremendous respect for her legacy. I had Anne survive the Holocaust to give her the life she was cheated of. Through telling the story of one girl, I hope to tell the story of all the “Annes,” showing the lost potential of the millions who perished. Anne Frank’s legacy is one of hope and I want to show what we are missing in our world today, because of their loss.
EC: How did you get the idea to write a novel where Anne Frank survives?
DG: It started thirty years ago after reading Philip Roth’s novel, The Ghost Writer. In it Roth’s protagonist, Nathan Zuckerman, imagines that a young European woman in her twenties, is actually Anne Frank. Nathan quickly realizes that it is his imagination at work. But this book inspired me to read Anne’s diary where I became thunderstruck by her insight, perception, humor, and brilliance as a writer. I thought about writing a novel where she survives. After numerous attempts, about 6.5 years ago the story finally emerges with Anne surviving the camps, returning to Amsterdam, and being reunited with her dad, Otto.
EC: What about truth versus fiction?
DG: Everything that happens up until she survives is based on reality. I read many Holocaust histories, biographies of Anne Frank and her father, and transcripts of interviews with people who knew her. I visited in Amsterdam the old Jewish Quarter, the Resistance Museum, the former Diamond District, the bookshop where she might have bought the diary, her and her sister’s school, the former Gestapo headquarters, the Frank family apartment, and the Anne Frank house. I based her experience in the concentration camps on survivor accounts and those who had contact with Anne and Margot in those places. For example, the scene in which Anne meets her friend Hanneli at the barbed wire fence in Bergen-Belsen is based on an actual meeting.
EC: What about the characters in this story?
DG: Those in Anne’s family, and those in hiding with them are based on the real people. Miep, Bep, Kugler, Kleimann, and Jan are all based on the Dutch individuals who supported the Frank family in hiding. The important characters entirely fictionalized are the Dutch boy, Raaf, the bookshop proprietor, Mr. Nussbaum, and Anne’s stepmother, Dassah. It is also true that two uncles of Anne did emigrate to America in the 1930s, while the Frank family went to the Netherlands.
EC: What about the diary?
DG: The day the family and friends were arrested by the Nazi security the diary went into hiding. The Sergeant in charge was looking for something to hold the valuables he could steal and took her father’s briefcase where the diary was stored. He dumped it on the floor. It remained there until Miep finds the papers all over the floor and sticks them in a drawer, awaiting Anne’s return. Even after Otto returns she remains silent, hoping Anne will come back. But when it becomes clear Anne is dead she gives the diary to Otto.
EC: You made Anne’s sister her “ghostly” alter-ego?
DG: I wanted to explore how people recover from trauma. She lost her sister and mother and wonders why she survived and they did not. Anne brought Margot home in her mind to cope with what happened. Margot is sometimes scolding, critical, wise, but is also a reminder of the past. Remember at the beginning of the novel, she tells Anne she will never leave her, and never does.
EC: How would you describe Anne before capture?
DG: Vivacious, precocious, demanding, high energy, charming, fun, a dreamer who could be self-centered. She loved to be the center of attention, a chatter-box, and what you saw is what you get.
EC: How would you describe Anne after the Holocaust?
DG: All the before was still there, but buried under the fear, anger, and trauma. She is angry, guilty, and feels betrayed by everyone including her protectors, and feels like a dislocated soul. Anne is lonely and rebellious.
EC: Anne and her dad are at odds?
DG: They had two different approaches to redemption and trauma. Otto refuses to dwell in the tragedies of the past and looks to a better future. He tells Anne in my book quote, “What is the point of having survived? What is the point of living if we are to be poisoned by our own sorrow?” He refers to their motto of work, love, courage, and hope. He feels that those loved ones who died can be kept alive with love in the survivor’s hearts. But Anne refuses to relinquish these tragedies and faces them with anger and guilt. She believes the guilty deserve punishment and the dead deserve justice. I drew a book quote from survivors who wondered where was God at Bergen-Belsen? Anne feels, “The only thing God has given us is death. God has given us the gas chambers. God has given us the crematoria. Those are God’s gifts to us and this:” She then exposes her forearm with the number A-25063.
EC: The book and diary show that Anne had a strained relationship with her mother?
DG: Yes, especially when they were in hiding. Otto actually edited the diary where Anne was unfairly cruel to her mother, but remember she was a teenager. Witnesses reported after they were arrested and sent to the camps the two sisters and their mother were inseparable, and the conflict with her mother vanished. I hope I get this across in the book, especially in the scene in Bergen-Belsen.
EC: It is inconceivable to me that at the end of the war the Germans were still cruel. I guess a leopard does not shed its skin?
DG: I also had a hard time understanding the psychopathic attitude of the Nazis. At the beginning of Anne’s diary, she refers to the German language as uncivilized. Even at the end of the war they still tried to murder as many Jews as possible. They tried to hide it by blowing up the crematoriums. It is hard to get into the mindset of the Nazis. For example, the Commandant of Bergen-Belsen at the end of the war agreed to turn over the camp to the British. The SS staff and he were continuing to do their duties and expected to be treated as soldiers after capture. They were actually shocked when the Commandant was immediately arrested.
EC: You also have a scene where returning Jews were required to pay unpaid taxes?
DG: True. In Holland those returning from concentration camps faced a tax bill. I am not aware that anyone said they would let it slide.
EC: What about those in Holland deporting Jewish refugees back to Germany after the war?
DG: Also true. A scene in the book has Anne being told that those in Holland, by denouncing the Nuremberg racial laws, have converted all German-born Jews back into German citizens-thereby branding them ‘enemy nationals,’ that are subject to deportation back to Germany. It was not specifically directed to German Jews, but I think in 1946 there were about fifteen German Jews deported to the people that brutalized them. Anne’s character at the end of the war has no sympathy for the Germans.
EC: What about the betrayals?
DG: I put forth the many theories because there is no smoking gun. The only character who overtly declares her belief concerning the identity of the betrayer is Bep who feels it was her sister Nelli, a Nazi collaborator, who betrayed the Franks to the Germans. A story told to me by someone who knew Miep, another family friend: They asked her if she knew and she answered ‘can you keep a secret. Well so can I.’
EC: What do you want readers to get out of the book?
DG: Anne is a representation of the Holocaust. Six million is but a number, but in reading her diary we see a tragedy. In this book, I hope people will see that Anne is someone we can identify with on an emotional level. She is a very skilled writer as evidenced by her last entry in August 1944. The message of the book, and maybe what Anne Frank tried to tell us is that hope can survive even in the face of destruction, despair, and brutality.
ABOUT THE BOOK
A powerful and deeply humane new novel that asks the question: What if Anne Frank survived the Holocaust?
The year is 1945, and Anne Frank is sixteen years old. Having survived the concentration camps, but lost her mother and sister, she reunites with her father, Pim, in newly liberated Amsterdam. But it’s not as easy to fit the pieces of their life back together. Anne is adrift, haunted by the ghosts of the horrors they experienced, while Pim is fixated on returning to normalcy. Her beloved diary has been lost, and her dreams of becoming a writer seem distant and pointless now.
As Anne struggles to overcome the brutality of memory and build a new life for herself, she grapples with heartbreak, grief, and ultimately the freedom of forgiveness. A story of trauma and redemption, Annelieshonors Anne Frank’s legacy as not only a symbol of hope and perseverance, but also a complex young woman of great ambition and heart.
Anne Frank is a cultural icon whose diary painted a vivid picture of the Holocaust and made her an image of humanity in one of history’s darkest moments. But she was also a person–a precocious young girl with a rich inner life and tremendous skill as a writer. In this masterful new novel, David R. Gillham explores with breathtaking empathy the woman–and the writer–she might have become.
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