Maggie Meets Anne Frank [Excerpt - MOTHERLANDS]
The unspoken codes of the Canadian school community continued to dominate Maggie’s life over the next few weeks. She particularly liked Mr Van Reemer’s English class which was held in the school library. He asked the students to prepare a talk on their favourite book. Out of curiosity or maybe vague remembrance, Maggie picked up The Diary of Anne Frank and devoured it.
The day came for her turn to speak and the students lined long tables set up in a U-shape in the library. They jostled, leaning back in their seats and fooling around. Mr Van Reemer tapped his desk sharply. With an astute glance, he picked out a couple of troublemakers and separated them before turning his attention to Maggie.
‘Maggie, are you ready?’ he indicated the podium at the front of the room.
She had spent hours preparing but her excitement at sharing Anne’s story ebbed away when she saw the two dozen pairs of eyes staring in her direction. Her classmates sprawled in their seats, all clad in standard Canadian teen attire, including college jackets, jeans, sneakers. They appeared to be sizing her up; taking in her spectacles, her prim and proper little English girl look.
‘What’s the title of your book?’
‘The Diary of Anne Frank, sir.’ She picked up her papers and nearly dropped them. This was followed by a coughing fit.
‘Take your time, Maggie,’ Mr Van Reemer said, handing her a glass of water.
Her opening words were halting but in a minute or two, the words flew through the air. Afterwards, her teacher asked what it was about the book that gripped her.
‘I guess because I found out that Anne Frank was a real person. She was born in Germany and she was my age when she wrote her diary, so I thought I could learn a bit about the Germans. The book wasn’t what I expected. She and her family had fled to Amsterdam for starters. In 1942 they had to go into hiding in an attic at the top of a warehouse – they were squashed up for two years with four other people – until somebody must have betrayed them. I expected to feel sad or angry, but mostly I admired her.’
‘Oh, why is that?’ He pushed his glasses up onto his head.
‘Well, she wrote about the times they were really frightened in detail. The bombings, the roundups of the Jews. Sometimes, when the workers in the office downstairs had gone home she would creep down and watch the street below. The raggedy children scrounging for food upset her. And seeing the people with the yellow stars – other Jews – being put on trucks by the military Wehrmacht to the work camps. She felt bad about that too’.
‘Why do you think she felt that way?’
‘Well, sir, she mentioned how lucky they were to have supplies of food and a safe hiding place. It seemed unfair. It must have been hard to live with those thoughts day after day, especially when the adults in the annexe constantly squabbled – over food, over every little thing. Her mother was the worst. Then, if she said peep, they’d tell her she was ‘just a child’. At this point, Maggie paused in thought. How often had she heard her own mother’s words ring in her ears, ‘You’re just a child’. ‘Anyway, I thought she was very brave’.
Suddenly Maggie felt bad too, but for different reasons. Until now, she’d been infurated by her mother, groaning at her constant refrain ‘The war this, the war that’, ‘Eat what’s on your plate’, on and on. In a flash of insight, she realised that fighting with her mother was not unique to herself. Anne had fought with hers too. And the girl, Anne would be the same age as her mother now – if she had lived. She must have lived with the same harrowing sounds and pictures in her head as her own mother did. Maggie gulped, feeling tears rising. I’m not going to tell him that.
‘Maggie, Maggie!’ Mr Van Reemer’s words cut across her thoughts. ‘You say she was brave?’
‘Yes, Anne always stood up for herself. She looked for all the positives in life, even in her life in Germany before they left’. Maggie lifted her chin. I’d like to be like that in my life.
‘I never heard any stories like this from my grandmother. She and my mother survived the Liverpool Blitz. She told me it was the most heavily bombed city in England. And my nanna calls the Germans the ‘Boche’ or the ‘Hun’…she only told me about brave people on our side. She told me that all Germans are cruel and burnt people up in ovens. I know it’s true they did it, but it’s hard to imagine.’ She hesitated a moment, then blurted out,’ ‘I’ve met some Germans recently, seen their beautiful forests and mountains, their Fachwerk…traditional houses…well…the Germans seem…you know, normal…like us. As I said, Anne Frank was German as well as being Jewish. And Dutch and German people helped her family, even though the German army might arrest them at any moment. It’s all so confusing…’ By now, the class was staring hard at her.
‘How did you feel about her situation?’
‘Well…Anne Frank said in her book, ‘I don’t think of all the misery but of the beauty that still remains.’ Her words made me think maybe there was more to this than old history and I went looking for it. That’s when I found out about the German student resistance in Munich, the White Rose organisation.
My mum’s German friend told me about it. She grew up near Munich during the war. She found me some photographs of Sophie Scholl, her brother and friends who were killed by firing squad, and their side of the story confused me and made me want to cry. I said to her, the Fatherland was their Fatherland too, wasn’t it?’
‘And what did she say?’
‘When I asked her how can grownups do such things to their own people, at first she didn’t say anything. She just looked away. But later, she told me, ‘It was different then. Everyone was scared to speak out.’ That idea scared me too.’
Mr Van Reemer went quiet after that. He looked at Maggie, then at the class for a long time. For once, the kids sat stock-still. Then he said, ‘Thank you, Maggie.’
COPYRIGHT - Magz Morgan 2023