A Holocaust survivor claims in a new book that Anne Frank distracted younger children from the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp by telling them fairy tales — an account disputed by at least one Frank authority and a childhood friend of the diarist.
The story by Berthe Meijer, now 71, of being a 6-year-old inmate of Bergen Belsen crafts a touching portrait of Anne in the final weeks of her life in the German camp, struggling to keep up her own spirits even as she tried to lift the morale of the smaller children.
That Anne had a gift for storytelling was evident from the diary she kept during two years in hiding with her family in Amsterdam. The scattered pages were collected and published after the war in what became the most widely read book to emerge from the Holocaust.
But Meijer's memoir, being published in Dutch later this month, is the first to mention Anne's talent for spinning tales even in the despair of the camp.
The memoir deals with Meijer's acquaintance with Anne Frank in only a few pages, but she said she titled it "Life After Anne Frank" because it continues the tale of Holocaust victims where the famous diary leaves off.
"The dividing line is where the diary of Anne Frank ends. Because then you fall into a big black hole," Meijer told The Associated Press at her Amsterdam home.
Annemarie Bekker, a spokeswoman for the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam said Berthe Meijer has previously been interviewed by museum historians and she had no reason to doubt Meijer's testimony.
"It could very well be true," Bekker said. "We can't confirm it or deny it."
But Hannah Pick-Goslar, a childhood friend of Anne Frank who also met her in Bergen Belsen, said she doubted Meijer's recollection was accurate.
"In that condition, you almost died," she said in a telephone call from her home in Jerusalem. "You had no strength to tell stories."
Dutch filmmaker Willy Lindwer, who made an Emmy Award-winning documentary about Anne Frank, said he interviewed Meijer for the film and found her story unconvincing.
"Berthe ... had not more than a very vague recollection of this concentration camp," he said in an emailed message to The Associated Press. "She recalled the image of an older girl who told stories to younger children. It may have been Anne Frank, but also maybe not. Very vague."
A spokeswoman for Meijer's publisher, De Bezige Bij, said it had not vetted facts in the book itself. "It's possible that other witnesses will have differing memory of events in the book," said Suzanne Holtzer. But she said the publisher considered Meijer to be "an absolute authority."
The power of storytelling
Anne's final diary entry was on Aug. 1, 1944, three days before she and her family were arrested. She and her older sister Margot died in March 1945 in a typhus epidemic that swept through Bergen Belsen, just two weeks before the camp was liberated. Anne was 15.
The stories Anne told were "fairy tales in which nasty things happened, and that was of course very much related to the war," Meijer said.
"But as a kid you get lifted out of the everyday nastiness. That's something I remember. You're listening to someone telling something that has nothing to do with what's happening around you — so it's a bit of escape."
In addition to her diary, Frank wrote several essays and fragments of fiction while in hiding, including stories about a fairy and a gnome, though they are usually considered only of historical interest. They have been published as "Tales From the Secret Annex."
The stories she told in the camp were "about princes and elves and those kind of figures," Meijer said. Despite having unhappy twists, the tales were "quite a bit less terrible than what we saw around us. So you thought: they didn't have it so bad. As a child, you think very primitively about that kind of thing."
Around 140,000 Jews lived in the Netherlands before the 1940-45 Nazi occupation. Of those, 107,000 were deported to Germany and only 5,200 survived.
Their connection before the Holocaust
The Meijers and the Franks were acquaintances before the war: members of both families had fled Germany during the rise of Hitler's regime and found a place in the tightly-knit Jewish community in Amsterdam. The Meijers lived on the same street where Anne attended a Montessori elementary school.
The Franks went into hiding in a secret apartment above a canal-side warehouse where Otto Frank, Anne's father, had his business.
The Meijers hid in their own home, boarding up the windows and hanging a sign on the door that read "contagious disease" to discourage visitors. They were caught in early 1944 and deported from the Netherlands that March. Both of Berthe's parents died at Bergen Belsen in January 1945.
Dr. Alan Hilfer, director of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in New York, said it's plausible that Meijer would have recognized Frank and stored the memory all these years if she knew her before the war and if she met her again at the camp.
A child of six or seven can "form memories reasonably well and hold on to them, though not in the same way as an adult," he said.
Records obtained by The Associated Press from Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial authority, show that Berthe was an inmate of Bergen Belsen for 13 months until it was liberated in April 1945.
Meijer acknowledged that her recollections of the Frank sisters were fleeting.
The memories and the horror never go away
She said there were many reasons she had waited until now to tell her story — not least that she was busy growing up, having a career and raising a family. She said a dedication ceremony at Bergen Belsen in 2006 made her realize how few Dutch survivors are still alive, and that there is little record of the impact the camp had on their later lives.
In addition, she suppressed her memories for years, and the horror of the camps have always been a difficult or taboo subject: at the orphanage where Meijer grew up, in polite company afterward, and even among her fellow survivors.
Still, "you remember a lot at age 7," she said. Meijer turned 7 in April 1945.
"You had to take off your clothes because there were lice in them that spread typhus. And you were wrapped in those blankets. And you sat somewhere in a corner half-frozen."
She said Margot had asked Anne to tell stories to cheer up the children, and that it was difficult for Anne to summon the enthusiasm.
The last time she saw Anne was in the camp infirmary, but they were both sick and "too weak and sad to even be pleasant to each other," she wrote.
In some ways, Meijer grew up to be the person Anne had hoped to be, a journalist, a columnist and an author, albeit of a popular Dutch cookbook.
In her diary Anne wrote in April 1944: "I can shake off everything if I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn. But, and that is the great question, will I ever be able to write something great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer?"
Although Meijer associated with leading Dutch writers and artists, she said she suffered lifelong symptoms of post-traumatic stress, with overwhelming memories and emotions surfacing unexpectedly.
To this day she has a paralyzing fear of crowds and public transportation.
In her book, she wonders about her choices in marrying first a gifted, but alcoholic architect and later one of the Netherlands' most famed journalists — not coincidentally, another Bergen Belsen survivor.
She says she can laugh "through the tears" about having become a culinary expert years after fantasizing endlessly about food while starving at the camp.
She describes how the simple act of cleaning sauce from a pan with her finger can trigger the ambiguously pleasant memory of being allowed to lick one of the camp's enormous cooking vats.
And she proudly shows off a concealed crawl space behind an opening in her cellar where she could hide if need be.
In history books, "the war ends when we were liberated. No. Not for a lot of people," she says.
"Not for the lives of the people who survived those camps or went into hiding or had traumatic experiences because of that war. Those things, they don't go away."