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Hate never takes a vacation, and neither do we.


How should children’s books deal with the Holocaust?

While Jane Yolen’s latest work has points in common with her previous Holocaust novels, it reflects the way the genre she helped to create has changed.


Jane Yolen’s books have used a framework of fantasy to mediate terrible realities. Illustration by Gerald DuBois.

BY RUTH FRANKLIN, The New Yorker, July 23, 2018.  Click for full report plus audio link.

As a child, I was obsessed with Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl.” Like Anne, I wanted to grow up to be a writer; like her, I kept a diary (though less faithfully), which for a time I addressed, following her model, as Kitty; like her, I agonized over how little my mother understood me and longed to swoon in a boy’s arms. My obsession peaked at the age of eight with a visit to the Secret Annexe, in Amsterdam—the warren of rooms where the Frank family hid from the Nazis. I had imagined it countless times and had the floor plan memorized, but seeing it was a shock: it was so much smaller than I had pictured.

That may have been the moment I began to understand how great was the distance between Anne’s world and my own. As a girl from a family of survivors, coming of age in nineteen-eighties America, I felt the Holocaust as a tangible presence, simultaneously inescapable and unknowable. My grandparents, Jews from Lodz who fled east when the Nazis began their advance into Poland, had better luck than many: taken prisoner by the Soviets, they spent much of the war in a Siberian labor camp. Some of their family had already made it to Palestine, but most of those who remained behind were sent first to the Lodz ghetto and then to Auschwitz. My great-grandmother died there, but my great-aunt survived.

The enormity of the losses my relatives had suffered was palpable in the deep lines around their mouths, the tremors in their hands, the sighs they heaved every time the war years came up. Once, my great-aunt, who had Alzheimer’s disease by the time I came to know her, even grabbed my arm in search of the tattoo that she thought she would find there. But they didn’t often talk in detail about their experiences. When they did, the stories they told were confusing and full of gaps, and I’d complain at having to hear them. I was terrified of my relatives’ emotion and of the crushing responsibility it inflicted on me: the paradox of being charged with remembering something I hadn’t experienced.

Reading about the Holocaust was my way of trying to fulfill that obligation. But the gaps remained. I pored over the final pages of my edition of Anne’s diary, where the facts of what happened after the police raided the Secret Annexe were stated tersely: deportation to Westerbork, Auschwitz, and, finally, Bergen-Belsen. Searching for more, I came upon a book in which Hanneli Goslar, a childhood friend of Anne’s who was interned in another section of Bergen-Belsen, recalled having caught a glimpse of her, almost unrecognizable, through a fence. She returned a few days later with a package of food, but when she threw it over the fence another woman caught it and ran away as Anne screamed. The chatty, cheerful girl had become a person I couldn’t identify with at all: skeletal, desperate, scrabbling for food. She had gone to a place I couldn’t follow, not even in my imagination.

Those who died in the camps left no testimonies, and, when I was growing up, the idea of writing imaginative literature for children about the death camps was considered almost sacrilegious. In February, 1977, The Horn Book, a magazine devoted to literature for children, published an article by Eric A. Kimmel, with the title “Confronting the Ovens.” Kimmel laid out a taxonomy for children’s literature about the Holocaust, a genre that was then in its infancy. If the Holocaust could be pictured as something like Dante’s Inferno, a descending order of circles with the crematoriums at the very bottom, the books that existed when Kimmel made his study were situated on the middle to upper rings. They told stories of resistance, of refugees, of people under occupation—but not of the camps. Kimmel could find only one such work of fiction: Marietta Moskin’s “I Am Rosemarie,” in which a girl and her family are sent to Bergen-Belsen. Yet even they are “comparatively fortunate,” Kimmel writes, as they were spared the transports east to the extermination camps. And, of course, because they survived.

Why, Kimmel wondered, had no writer for children broached “the ultimate tragedy”? He concluded that it had to do with the irreconcilable tension between the subject and our assumptions about children’s literature. To write about the Holocaust realistically, in all its horror, violates the tacit promise of writing for young readers, he maintained: “not to be too violent, too accusing, too depressing.” At the same time, a story that won’t keep young readers up at night contradicts the historical reality. Kimmel continued, “To put it simply, is mass murder a subject for a children’s novel? Five years ago, we might have said no; ten years ago we certainly would have. Now, however, I think the appearance of a novel set in the center of the lowest circle is only a matter of time.”

It took eleven years. In 1988, Jane Yolen, who is best known for picture books, including a popular series depicting dinosaurs as stand-ins for toddlers (“How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food?”), published “The Devil’s Arithmetic.” In it, she came up with an ingenious solution to the problem Kimmel had identified: employing a fantastical framing device that stops the atrocities of life in an extermination camp from being utterly overwhelming for her young readers. The book’s protagonist, a rebellious American preteen named Hannah, is magically whisked back to a Polish shtetl and then, along with its residents, transported to a camp. Four years later, Yolen elaborated on the formula with “Briar Rose,” which plays with the tropes of children’s literature by using “Sleeping Beauty” as a template for a survivor’s story. Her new book, “Mapping the Bones” (Philomel), alludes to “Hansel and Gretel” as it follows two siblings from the Lodz ghetto through a period among a group of partisans and, finally, to a death camp.

Conventional wisdom has long held that the closer a work of Holocaust literature hews to reality the more effective it is in helping readers understand what really happened. But the essential difficulty in writing convincing fiction about the Holocaust is that the events are so horrific that they seem almost beyond belief. What if the best way to make them feel real is to render them through the realm of imagination? “We say to fibbing children: ‘Don’t tell fairy tales!’ ” Angela Carter once wrote. “Yet children’s fibs, like old wives’ tales, tend to be overgenerous with the truth rather than economical with it.”

Born in 1939 to a New York Jewish family, Yolen graduated from Smith College and sold her first picture book, “Pirates in Petticoats,” at age twenty-two. Nothing in her career prior to “The Devil’s Arithmetic” would have led readers to expect her to write such a book. Her output, which now numbers more than three hundred works, is long on fantasy—the “Commander Toad” series features frogs and toads having adventures in space—and explorations of the natural world. “Owl Moon” (1987), which won the Caldecott Medal, is a soothing, poetic chronicle of an owling expedition undertaken by a little girl and her father, based on the experiences of Yolen’s husband and children taking such walks. There is no fantasy and very little drama: just the child and her father, the woods, and the owl.

“The Devil’s Arithmetic,” which Yolen spent several years researching and writing, came out just a year later. “I had thought about doing a book on the Holocaust for a long time, but quite frankly the idea overwhelmed me,” she has written. She based Hannah on her own adolescent self: “a little bit whiney, slightly uncomfortable in her own skin, able to make up stories on the spot.”

When the novel opens, Hannah is complaining about having to go to a Seder hosted by her survivor relatives. “I’m tired of remembering,” she says. Her grandfather Will frightens her by yelling at the TV set whenever footage of the camps comes on; once, when she used a ballpoint pen to ink a copy of his tattoo on her arm, thinking it would please him, he screamed at her in Yiddish. At the Seder, a little tipsy from the watered-down wine she has been allowed to drink, Hannah opens the apartment door to welcome the prophet Elijah—a key moment in the Seder ritual—and finds herself transported to Poland in 1942. Suddenly, she’s Chaya, the niece of Gitl and Shmuel, siblings who have taken her in after the death of her parents. At first, Hannah/Chaya thinks she’s stumbled onto a movie set or become the victim of an elaborate joke. There’s even some humor in her interactions with other shtetl girls, who are puzzled by her references to pizza and “General Hospital.” But when the guests arrive for Shmuel’s wedding to Fayge, a rabbi’s daughter from a nearby village, Nazis are waiting at the synagogue to transport them all for “resettlement.” To Hannah’s mounting frustration, no one will listen to her warnings:

“The men down there,” she cried out desperately, “they’re not wedding guests. They’re Nazis. Nazis! Do you understand? They kill people. They killed—kill—will kill Jews. . . . Six million of them! I know. Don’t ask me how I know, I just do. We have to turn the wagons around. We have to run!”

Reb Boruch shook his head. “There are not six million Jews in all of Poland, my child.”

“No, Rabbi, six million in Poland and Germany and Holland and France and . . .”

“My child, such a number.” He shook his head and smiled, but the corners of his mouth turned down instead of up. “And as for running—where would we run to? God is everywhere. There will always be Nazis among us.”

Yolen renders Hannah’s plight in language and imagery that make sense to younger readers: she is packed into a boxcar “worse than the worst subway jam she’d ever been in.” But the author does not condescend by evading the awful details. The stench of human vomit and excrement in the car grows thick; a child dies in its mother’s arms. When the train finally stops, after four days, Hannah is so thirsty that “she could feel her tongue as big as a sausage between her teeth.” Her head is shaved; she receives a tattoo. A girl named Rivka introduces her to the camp rules: “One does not ask why. . . . A person is not killed here, but chosen. They are not cremated in the ovens, they are processed.” When the commandant chooses Rivka for “processing,” Hannah goes instead, saving her. But, as she walks through the door to the gas chamber, she is restored to her real life in America, now with a new appreciation for her relatives’ stories.

At a convention for librarians soon after its publication, “The Devil’s Arithmetic” was attacked by an editor at a children’s-book journal who asked why readers should waste time on Yolen’s fiction when true chronicles, like Anne Frank’s diary, were available. To resort to fantasy, he said, trivialized the Holocaust. The science-fiction writer Orson Scott Card struck back in the magazine Fantasy and Science Fiction. Yolen’s book, he wrote, might actually be more powerful for its audience than the diary, not only because Frank’s account ends “where the true horror begins” but also because Yolen’s protagonist is a typical American preteen. “The Devil’s Arithmetic” allows readers to imagine themselves in Hannah/Chaya’s place, Card wrote, in “the most terrible part of the most terrible crime mankind is capable of.”

Yolen, too, in an article describing her rationale, emphasized the importance of personal identification. “Thrust a young reader back into the heart and mind of someone his or her own age. . . . Let that protagonist ask the questions our young people all want to ask. . . . The answers they get from the folk in the story will astound them, shake them into new awarenesses, really let them remember and be part of history.”

I was fourteen when “The Devil’s Arithmetic” was published. Although it won numerous awards, no teacher or librarian ever gave it to me. I wish someone had, because the book speaks in a profound way to the painful paradox I felt then and still feel now: how to be an adequate witness to something I haven’t myself experienced. The only way to do that is through magic, which is precisely the consolation Yolen gives Hannah. The once-sullen preteen ends the book not only appreciating her relatives and their stories but for the first time truly understanding them.

After “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” Yolen told herself that she would never write another book about the Holocaust; the process had been too draining. She changed her mind after an editor working on a series of fairy-tale retellings asked her for an updated version of “Sleeping Beauty.” Studying various versions of the story, she found that some were stunningly barbaric: in Giambattista Basile’s telling, later adapted by Charles Perrault, the princess, after awakening from her slumber, narrowly escapes being served to her father for dinner by her wicked stepmother. (The Brothers Grimm omitted that ending when they wrote “Briar Rose,” the version that is best known today and whose title Yolen adopted for her book.)

“Both the oral and the literary forms of the fairy tale are grounded in history: they emanate from specific struggles to humanize bestial and barbaric forces, which have terrorized our minds and communities in concrete ways,” the scholar Jack Zipes has written. Casting about for a modern setting for the fairy tale, Yolen thought of the movie “Shoah,” which includes a long section about Chelmno, the site of one of the grimmest episodes of the Holocaust. Situated in a bucolic area of northern Poland, Chelmno was not a camp so much as a mobile killing factory. Prisoners were brought to the mansion of an empty estate, stripped of their clothes and possessions, and loaded into trucks that held around eighty people, standing. As the trucks were driven, carbon monoxide flooded the compartment holding the prisoners. They were dead by the time the trucks reached their destination—a forest where mass graves awaited.

Chelmno, Yolen realized, offered some analogues with “Sleeping Beauty.” The fairy-tale castle could become the empty estate building, and the wicked fairy the Nazi commandant. Barbed wire could stand in for the briars, and gassing for the hundred-year slumber. The difficulty would be finding a figure corresponding to the princess who reawakens: there were only a handful of known Chelmno survivors, none of them female.

“I’ve invented the plastic straw! It’s so durable that, from now on, every man, woman, and child will only need a single straw for their lifetime!”

“I was the princess in the castle in the sleeping woods. And there came a great dark mist and we all fell asleep. But the prince kissed me awake.” So says Gemma, an elderly woman in America, trying to explain to her granddaughter, Becca, why she identifies so strongly with the story of Briar Rose. When Becca was little, Gemma told her the story over and over again. On her deathbed, she makes Becca, now an aspiring journalist in her early twenties, promise to find the castle.

Becca finds some clues, including an entry form to the United States that lists her grandmother’s alias as Ksiezniczka (the Polish word for princess), and her last known residence as Kulmhof, the German name for Chelmno. But another refugee tells her that that’s impossible, because no woman ever came out of there alive. Becca travels to Chelmno to solve the mystery. The village priest shows her the castle and introduces her to Josef Potocki, an elderly man who lives nearby. He instantly recognizes Becca’s grandmother from a photograph she shows him and puts the pieces together. In the war, as a member of a group of partisans, he hid in the woods near the camp and witnessed bodies being unloaded into the mass graves. After the trucks left, the partisans noticed that one woman among the corpses was moving slightly. Josef gave her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and she revived and eventually escaped to America on forged papers. But she remembered nothing of her past, only the fairy tale.

The novel cleverly varies Yolen’s tactic of framing the past in the present. Whereas Hannah, in “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” is magically transported back in time, becoming Chaya, Ksiezniczka, miraculously saved, gets to experience, as Gemma, a future that was denied to the female inmates of Chelmno. In an epilogue, Yolen makes it clear that her story is invented: “Happy-ever-after is a fairy-tale notion, not history.” But the Holocaust elements are realistically portrayed—it’s the way Gemma interprets them that is fantastic. The echoes between the two produce a strange and chilling effect.

“The war was filled with such unbelievable stories,” Josef Potocki tells Becca:

“This man hid in the cupboard of his neighbor’s house the entire war. That one was killed out walking his dog. This woman missed her train and it was blown up. That woman begged a ride and was murdered. This child lived safely three years in the woods. That one had its brains slammed against the camp’s stone wall. There is nothing that is not believable in this world.”

These lines can be read as something of a defense of the very act of writing fiction about the Holocaust: if nothing is “not believable,” presumably all possibilities are available to the novelist. At the same time, all realist fiction, no matter how unbelievable, has to take place within the basic parameters of reality. Because the counterfactuality in Yolen’s work exists within a context of fact, there’s no confusion about where one ends and the other begins.

In the years since “The Devil’s Arithmetic” appeared, other writers for young readers have imitated Yolen’s method of introducing a fantastical element. Tomi Ungerer’s “Otto: The Autobiography of a Teddy Bear” (1999) affectingly tells the story of the friendship between two boys, one German and one Jewish, through the fanciful adventures of a stuffed bear that passes between them. Markus Zusak’s “The Book Thief” (2005), about a girl in Nazi Germany who befriends a young Jewish man in hiding, is narrated in the voice of Death.

But the book that has drawn by far the most attention—“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” (2006), by the Irish writer John Boyne—is not explicitly fantastical. A best-seller that was also made into a popular movie, it is told from the point of view of Bruno, a nine-year-old German boy whose life is upended when his father, a Nazi officer, becomes the commandant of Auschwitz. Bored in his new surroundings, less luxurious and far more isolated than the family’s former home, in Berlin, he discovers that from his bedroom window he can see, behind a fence, what looks like a whole city of people, all dressed in strange striped pajamas. Out for a walk one day, he finds a boy his own age sitting by the fence. They begin to talk, learn that they have the same birthday, and form a friendship.

The book has been both celebrated for its striking, parable-like style and condemned for sloppy moral equivalency and a cavalier treatment of historical fact. Even if a nine-year-old boy managed to get past the initial selection at Auschwitz—most children were gassed on arrival—he would not have had the leisure to sit and talk for hours. No one, prisoner or bystander, was allowed to go anywhere near the camp’s heavily guarded fence, much less to reach or crawl under it, as happens later in the novel. Bruno, whose passivity and lack of curiosity suggest a child much younger than nine, never asks why he is forbidden to cross the fence. Improbably for the son of a Nazi, he does not know what a Jew is—or whether he might himself be one.

Boyne, who is not Jewish, has said that he spent only a few days writing the book. He has defended his approach by saying that the writer’s obligation is to the “emotional truth” and that it’s “presumptuous to assume that from today’s perspective one can truly understand the horrors of the concentration camps.” This seems disingenuous. Whether or not it’s possible to understand another person’s horrific experience, writers and readers of fiction operate under the assumption that such an understanding is worth trying to achieve. Holocaust novels—for adults as well as for young readers—tend to include extensive afterwords detailing the stories on which they are based and the ways, if any, in which they deviate from their sources. Such research alone isn’t sufficient to make a novel effective, but at least it assures the reader that the novel has a basis in reality. Worryingly, Boyne’s book is now often included in Holocaust-studies curricula at schools, and many teachers say that young readers who first learn about the Holocaust by reading it form a drastically ahistorical impression of what took place.

The comparison with Yolen is telling. Not only are her Holocaust books extensively researched, and their departures from historical fact scrupulously noted, but her fantasy framing devices also reflect a kind of imaginative humility about the difficulty of “truly understanding”—something to which Boyne pays only lip service. A book that involves time travel deliberately relinquishes the possibility of being taken as historical fact.

The popularity of “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” demonstrates another important way in which Holocaust literature has changed in the years since “The Devil’s Arithmetic”: it is no longer unusual for such books to feature non-Jewish protagonists. Many of the most-read young-adult Holocaust books depict the events of the war years from the perspective of a main character who watches the tragedy from a distance. “Number the Stars,” by Lois Lowry—the best of these books—tells of a Danish family’s effort to save their daughter’s best friend, who is Jewish. In “Behind the Bedroom Wall,” by Laura E. Williams, a German girl discovers that her parents are hiding Jews in a secret room in their house. “Girl in the Blue Coat,” by Monica Hesse, is a mystery about a teen-age member of the Dutch Resistance.

Boyne’s success may have emboldened authors without a personal connection to try their hand at a Holocaust story. But it seems just as likely that, as the survivors die out, their stories are, in some sense, becoming common cultural property. There’s nothing wrong with this—the Nazi extermination of European Jewry isn’t exclusively the domain of Jewish writers, any more than the subject of slavery belongs exclusively to African-American writers. But, just as we now recognize the limits of a book that depicts slaves only from the perspective of slave owners, it seems to me that something important is missing when a book about the Holocaust depicts its Jewish characters through the eyes of bystanders or perpetrators. Those stories are real, and they are worth telling, but they’re not central, and I know that I won’t find what I’m looking for in them.

Yolen’s latest work, “Mapping the Bones,” has points in common with her previous Holocaust novels, but it is also different, in a way that reflects how the genre she helped to create has changed in the three decades since. Although it uses “Hansel and Gretel” as a loose model, just as “Briar Rose” used “Sleeping Beauty,” the fantastical element operates mostly at the level of allusion, and the book unfolds as a historical novel.

It is told from the perspective of teen-age twins, Chaim and Gittel Abramowicz. When the story begins, they are living with their parents in the Lodz ghetto and, like their almost-namesakes in the fairy tale, they are starving. The situation worsens when a family of displaced German Jews arrives to share their apartment. Soon the family members learn that their names are on a list for the next transport—a notification known in ghetto slang as a “wedding invitation.” They make a plan to escape, but things go awry, and the children, separated from their parents, spend weeks wandering in the forest with a band of partisans. With the Soviet border in sight, they are ambushed by another group of partisans, who capture the children and tell them they’re being taken to a camp.

The camp—Yolen calls it Sobanek, an amalgam of actual names—is populated mainly by children, whose small fingers are useful for stuffing gunpowder into munitions. Those who grow too big, they learn, “simply . . . disappear.” An evil doctor presides over the camp and its killings: the wicked witch, in a new shape. In this “fairy tale world gone mad,” the doctor comes bearing candy, which he doles out in exchange for information. It soon becomes clear that he has a particular interest in sets of twins such as Chaim and Gittel.

As always, Yolen is excellent on the mundane details that make her story real to younger readers: the pebble in Chaim’s boot that plagues him as the family make their escape; his anguish over leaving behind his model plane when his backpack grows too heavy. The hints of “Hansel and Gretel”—a handful of pebbles tossed off a cart “so we can find our way home”; the camp’s nickname, House of Candy—are fairly subtle, but the novel channels a larger network of mythical allusions. Chaim, like a fairy-tale character whose tongue has been cut out, is functionally mute; because of an incapacitating stutter, he can speak only five words at a time. He compensates by writing poetry, using discarded bags when paper is hard to find. During the period in the forest, he is stricken with despair and abandons writing. But when he and Gittel arrive at the camp another boy tells him, chillingly, “Just because we are in hell doesn’t make us fallen angels.” The comment awakens Chaim: “He could do something with that if he could bear to write again. And had some light to write by. If he still had his journal. All of which, he told himself, sounds like the impossible three tasks given to the hero of a fairy tale.

In “The Devil’s Arithmetic” and “Briar Rose,” the primary emotional pull comes from the struggle of a character from a younger generation to come to grips with what happened to her grandparent. But, having dispensed with this framework, “Mapping the Bones” immerses us in Chaim and Gittel’s struggles directly. There’s no reason that Yolen should repeat herself, of course, and it makes sense that the troubles of survivors’ descendants don’t feel as pressing as they did thirty years ago. Most children today will never see a survivor’s tattooed arm. Those of us who did are likely trying to figure out how to approach the Holocaust with our own children, wanting them to recognize its significance in their family history without allowing that knowledge to burden or define them.

Still, to me, there’s something essential about the interactions among generations in the stories we tell about the Holocaust, and I don’t think that my view is merely the product of my own childhood. In Yolen’s first two Holocaust novels, a younger person literally bears witness to the stories of an older generation—either by experiencing them herself, as Hannah does, or by listening to the testimony of survivors. And the reader, by imagining herself in the place of the main character, can vicariously bear witness, too. If there’s a consolation in reading these books, that’s where it can be found. “There is no way that fiction can come close to touching how truly inhuman, alien, even satanic, was the efficient machinery of death at the camps,” Yolen wrote in an afterword to “The Devil’s Arithmetic.” “Fiction cannot recite the numbing numbers, but it can be that witness, that memory.” We may emerge from these books without grasping the true horror of their stories. But at least we’ve learned how to listen to them. ♦

What America knew in the 1930’s

8 April 2018, Days of Remembrance and 25th Anniversary, the first tours through the new "Americans and the Holocaust" exhibition.AMERICANS AND THE HOLOCAUST

Holocaust history raises important questions about what Europeans could have done to stop the rise of Nazism in Germany and its assault on Europe’s Jews. Questions also must be asked of the international community, including the United States.

What did the US government and the American people know about the threats posed by Nazi Germany? What responses were possible? And when?

This exhibition examines the motives, pressures, and fears that shaped Americans’ responses to Nazism, war, and genocide.

Refugees At Portholes

German Jewish refugees, looking through portholes aboard the Hamburg-Amerika liner ‘St Louis’ on arrival at Antwerp. June 17, 1939.
Gerry Cranham—Getty Images

‘It’s not that the story was buried.’ What Americans in the 1930s really knew about what was happening in Germany


Updated: July 10, 2018, Time Magazine

Few are as aware that the news is the first draft of history as is the team behind a recently opened exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). To put together Americans and the Holocaust, they combed through the German news column in more than a decade’s worth of issues of TIME magazine — and parallel sections from many other magazines and newspapers — and what they found refuted a persistent, though oft-debunked, myth about World War II and the Holocaust: the idea that, as the museum puts it, “Americans lacked access to information about the persecution of Jews as it was happening.”

Click for article in time.com

Anne Frank’s family tried to escape to US, hit roadblocks

FILE – In this Monday, June 14, 1971 photo Dr. Otto Frank holds the Golden Pan award, given for the sale of one million copies of the famous paperback ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ in London, Great Britain. New research suggests that the family of Anne Frank, the world-famous Jewish diarist who died in the Holocaust, attempted to immigrate to the United States and later also to Cuba, but their efforts were tragically thwarted by America’s restrictive immigration policy, cumbersome bureaucracy and the outbreak of World War II. Only Otto Frank survived the holocaust. (Dave Caulkin, file/Associated Press)
July 6.  Click for full report from Washington Post.

BERLIN — Research suggests the family of Anne Frank, the world famous Jewish diarist who died in the Holocaust, attempted to immigrate to the United States and later also to Cuba, but their efforts were thwarted by America’s restrictive immigration policy and the outbreak of World War II.

The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum said Friday that documents indicate Anne’s father Otto tried twice to collect the papers needed to obtain visas for the United States. He later also appears to have applied for a visa to Cuba.

However, the Frank family’s escape efforts were all in vain. Eventually they went into hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam on July 6, 1942 — exactly 76 years ago.

“I am forced to look out for emigration and as far as I can see USA is the only country we could go to,” Otto Frank wrote in English to a friend in the United States in 1941.

His efforts to get the family out of the Netherlands to the U.S. likely started as early as 1938 — a turbulent year in which Nazi Germany annexed Austria and part of Czechoslovakia into the Third Reich. On Nov. 9 that year, Nazis terrorized Jews throughout the country in the violent Kristallnacht pogroms, also known as the “Night of Broken Glass.”

Otto Frank wrote in his 1941 letter to his friend Nathan Straus that he had filed an application at the American consulate in the Dutch port city of Rotterdam in 1938.

However, he also mentioned that “all the papers have been destroyed there,” because on May 14, 1940, while the Frank family was still on a waiting list for possible visas, the American consulate was devastated during German bombardment and all papers were lost.

Even without the loss of their visa application, it would have been difficult for the Franks to immigrate to the United States. With hundreds of thousands of people seeking refuge in the U.S. each year by the time war broke out in 1939, Washington was issuing fewer than 30,000 annual visas.

The processing of a visa application also lasted several years and included a huge amount of paper work, affidavits from relatives or friends in the U.S. Even with all these demands fulfilled, applicants could still be turned down.

The new research focused on the paper trail, looking at documents like the affidavits of support, testimonies on character and other such items provided to the U.S. authorities in the screening process, in addition to items like birth certificates, wedding certificates, tax clearances and more.

The war further complicated any immigration efforts. A renewed attempt in 1941 to get the family to the U.S. failed because all American consulates in Germany-occupied Europe, including the Netherlands, were closed by the Nazis. A visa application to Cuba that same year also never came through.

While the Franks were not explicitly denied visas by the American consulate, “their efforts were thwarted by American bureaucracy, war and time,” the historians wrote.

“All their attempts failed, so going into hiding was their last attempt trying to get out of the hands of the Nazis,” said Annemarie Bekker from the Anne Frank House.

The family hid for more than two years during the war and it was then that Anne wrote her famous diary. On Aug. 4, 1944, they were discovered and ultimately deported to Auschwitz.

Only Anne’s father Otto survived the war. Anne and her sister died in Bergen-Belsen camp. Anne was 15.

After the war, Otto Frank had his daughter’s diary published, and it went on to become a symbol of hope and resilience that has been translated into dozens of languages.

The house where the Franks hid was turned into a museum that is one of Amsterdam’s most popular tourist attractions.

Claude Lanzmann, chronicler of the Holocaust and director of ‘Shoah,’ dies at 92

Claude Lanzmann in 2016. His Holocaust film “Shoah” is considered one of the greatest documentaries ever made. (Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images)
July 5

Claude Lanzmann, a French journalist and filmmaker whose 9½-hour documentary “Shoah” bore witness to the Holocaust through a harrowing selection of interviews from Jewish victims, Nazi murderers and Polish bystanders, died July 5 at a hospital in Paris. He was 92.

His publisher, Éditions Gallimard, announced the death but did not give a cause. Mr. Lanzmann’s latest project — “The Four Sisters,” a 4½-hour documentary assembled from interviews with Holocaust survivors — was released in French theaters the day before his death.

To many critics, Mr. Lanzmann’s work was an unflinching rejoinder to Theodor Adorno, the German philosopher who declared, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” With “Shoah” (1985) and five companion films that followed, Mr. Lanzmann made movies that seemed to come further than any other director — perhaps any other artist — in capturing the enormity of the Holocaust.

Reviewing “Shoah,” movie critic Roger Ebert wrote, “There is no proper response to this film. It is an enormous fact, a 550-minute howl of pain and anger in the face of genocide. It is one of the noblest films ever made . . . It is not a documentary, not journalism, not propaganda, not political. It is an act of witness.”

Mr. Lanzmann, a former communist resistance leader who befriended Jean-Paul Sartre and had been the lover of Simone de Beauvoir as a young man, was 59 when “Shoah” opened in Paris. It was only his second film, following a documentary on Israel that led to a commission from that country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Officials envisioned a ­two-hour Holocaust documentary that would take about 18 months to create.

Instead it took 11 years, five of which Mr. Lanzmann spent in the editing room, chopping some 350 hours of film into a cohesive whole that focused on the Warsaw ghetto and the death camps of Auschwitz, Treblinka and Chelmno, where poison gas was first used to expedite the mass murder of Jews.

Mr. Lanzmann in 1967, with his friends Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. (AFP via Getty Images)

“When I broke down in tears,” Mr. Lanzmann told People magazine, describing his editing process, “I knew the scene was good.”

In all, an estimated 6 million Jewswere killed by the Nazi regime and its collaborators, along with hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities, Roma (or Gypsies), Jehovah’s Witnesses and gays, among others, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Mr. Lanzmann, following efforts by directors including Alain Resnais, Marcel Ophüls and Haim Gouri, was not the first filmmaker who set out to chronicle the Holocaust. Yet he said that early in his research he realized that “what was most important was missing: the gas chambers, death in the gas chambers, from which no one had returned to report.”

He decided, he wrote in his autobiography, “The Patagonian Hare” (2009), that “the subject of the film would be death itself, death rather than survival . . . For 12 years I tried to stare relentlessly into the black sun of the Shoah.” The term means “catastrophe” in Hebrew and is often used as a name for the Holocaust.

In an obsessive search for witnesses, Mr. Lanzmann tracked down some of the last surviving members of the Sonderkommandos, groups of Jewish prisoners ordered to assist in the arrival and disposal of victims for the gas chambers and crematoriums. And he was persistent in seeking interviews with former Nazis. He initially approached his subjects directly, telling them who he was and what he was working on. All refused.

Mr. Lanzmann began using a fake name while seeking out interviews, telling his Nazi subjects that he was merely an academic scholar conducting research. He sat for interviews with a microphone concealed under his tie and a video camera hidden in an assistant’s bag.

Mr. Lanzmann’s subterfuge failed at least once, when he had two of his ribs broken by a group of young Germans while trying to meet with a former SS official. On other occasions, he did not hesitate to lie to his subjects, promising them anonymity that was never granted on-screen.

In a striking departure from traditional documentary style, “Shoah” featured no archival images or footage. The film was almost entirely composed of long shots from his interviews — without subtitles or voiceovers — juxtaposed with lingering footage from the present-day grounds of the camps.

“It’s not easy to watch ‘Shoah’; it’s not supposed to be,” Columbia University film professor Annette Insdorf wrote in an email. “Lanzmann’s aesthetics of discomfort serve as a reminder of the horrific things that human beings can do to one another. But it is also a reminder of human resilience, and of the need for historical awareness as well as vigilance.”

The son of French Jews from Eastern Europe, Claude Lanzmann was born in Paris on Nov. 27, 1925. His parents separated when he was a boy, and he went to live with his father at a farm in rural Brioude before attending high school in Clermont-Ferrand.

During the Nazi occupation, Mr. Lanzmann and his two younger siblings were taught to hide from the Gestapo in a hole their father dug in the garden; he and his younger brother later fought in the resistance.

Mr. Lanzmann studied philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris and then moved to Germany, where he taught literature and became a journalist, writing a 15-part dispatch for Le Monde on the new state of East Germany that brought him into a social circle that included Sartre and Beauvoir.

Mr. Lanzmann and Beauvoir soon moved in together in Paris. Beauvoir later described Mr. Lanzmann as a haunted man, writing in a memoir that he “seemed to be carrying the weight of a whole ancestral experience on his shoulders.”

Their relationship fizzled, but they remained friends until Beauvoir’s death in 1986, when Mr. Lanzmann became editor of Les Temps Modernes, the influential journal she had presided over with Sartre. A longtime contributor, he had once edited a 1,000-page issue of the magazine devoted solely to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Israel remained a lifelong preoccupation for Mr. Lanzmann, who explored life in the country in his first documentary — “Israel, Why” (1973) — and later chronicled the Israel Defense Forces in “Tsahal” (1994).

His marriages to actress Judith Magre and writer Angelika Schrobsdorff ended in divorce. He married Dominique Petithory in 1995. In addition to his wife, survivors include a daughter, Angélique Lanzmann. A son from his third marriage, Félix Lanzmann, died in 2017.

While the outtakes of “Shoah” were acquired by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1996, Mr. Lanzmann also assembled much of its leftover footage into shorter stand-alone films. They included “A Visitor From the Living” (1999), about a Red Cross official who wrote a favorable report on the Theresienstadt ghetto and concentration camp and “The Last of the Unjust” (2013), about a Jewish prisoner who was appointed by the Germans to carry out orders at Theresienstadt.

Mr. Lanzmann was often critical of Holocaust films such as Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful” and Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” which he described as “a kitschy melodrama” in which “the extermination is a setting.” Among his chief complaints of the Spielberg film was its ending — a relatively happy one in which survivors placed pebbles on the grave of Schindler, who was credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews.

For Mr. Lanzmann, the scene suggested a closure and finality that never truly existed. “The last image of ‘Shoah’ is different,” he wrote in a column for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. “It is a train which rides and never stops. It says that the Holocaust has no ending.”

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