I first met Anne Frank when I was in high school. We very quickly became inseparable, very quickly. This was an odd and unexpected pairing on so many levels. I was a devote Roman Catholic at the time. She was Jewish. I had never met anyone who was not Christian at that point in my life. I didn’t even know if there was anyone who was not Christian who live in my home town – and everyone pretty much knew (or knew about) everyone else who lived in that small, small town. So, indeed we were an odd pair, Christian and Jew, living and dead.
Just because I met Anne Frank in “The Diary of Anne Frank” did not mean she could not be my best friend. Many of my dearest, most cherished friends, my most helpful teachers and mentors I met in books. Anne Frank lived with me, in my mind, constantly as I read the book. And for months after, memories of her life lingered and haunted my thoughts and dreams. Her feelings about family members, her frustration with her mother, her longings for love, her longing for more, her fears and anxieties, all of it was real to me. Anne Frank’s life so resonated with me, her life was so much more clearly articulated than my own, it was comforting to take refuge in it. Well, it was comforting right up until the last pages.
The memory of Anne Frank has stayed with me these many (many, many) years. She has remained one of my most cherished friends. So, imagine my delight when I happened on another book about her! I was browsing the library when I came across ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,’ by Nathan Englander. It turned out that this is a book of short stories, and none of them are quite about my friend Anne. But it is a haunting collection of short stories. The first story in the collection does allude to Anne. In that story two couples, both Jewish with common roots in Brooklyn, one Hassidic living in Israel, the other not religious living in Florida reunite in Florida. As the day and conversations progress, the two couples play “the Anne Frank game.” This is a game where they wonder and debate which of their friends would hide them in the event of another Holocaust. Who could they ask, who could they trust to put their own lives at risk, to shelter them if there were another Holocaust? And who would each of them put their own lives at risk to shelter if they were in a position to do so? In the story, unexpected truths emerge (of course, that’s what makes it a good story). As I came to the end of the story and put the book down, I was clearly not finished with the story. I found myself continuing to wonder . . .
If there was another Holocaust (G-d forbid!), who would I shelter? Who could I trust to put their life and the lives of their families at risk to shelter me?
This is not such an abstract, academic question. Look around our world. Since 1945 there have been (and ARE)ongoing genocides/holocausts. There ARE people and peoples in need of sheltering. We only need to look to Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Argentina, Azerbaijan, Bosnia, Botswana, Brazil, Burma (Myanmar), Burundi, Cambodia, Central African Republic, Chad, Chiapas, Chilé, Colombia, Côte d’Ivoire, Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, Democratic Republic of the Congo, East Timor, Egypt, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Georgia: Abkhasia, Guatemala, Guinea Bissau, Gujarat, India including Bihar, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel – Palestine, Kashmir, Kenya, Laos, Lebanon, Liberia, Macedonia, Madagascar, Mali, Mexico, Morocco, Mozambique, Nepal, Nicaragua, Nigeria, North Korea, Northern Ireland, Nuba, Pakistan including East Pakistan (Bengal), West Pakistan, Baluchistan, Sind, Paraguay, Peoples Republic of China, Philippines, Russia –Chechnya , Rwanda, Congo-Brazzaville, Senegal – Casamance, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, Southern Sudan and Darfur, Sri Lanka, Syria, Tibet, Togo, Turkey, Uganda, USSR national minorities, esp. in Crimea, Dagestan Ingushetia, Uzbekistan Fergana Valley, Venezuela, Vietnam, Western Sahara, Yugoslavia including Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Yugoslavia: Kosovo, Zimbabwe … there are genocides and holocausts afoot in our world today.
So, perhaps better put: who are you willing to put your life at risk to shelter? Do you need to actually know the person? Who gets to count as someone worth saving? What will you do? Really, what will you do today and tomorrow? what will you do now?