"The boy who loved Anne Frank" By Hellena Feldman
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Nearly everyone recognizes the name Anne Frank; it is synonymous with wit, honesty and bravery. Her diary has touched millions. I can't imagine anyone not being inspired by her story. Ellen Feldman, however, can. In her novel, The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank, she imagines a man who suffers a mental break at the mere sight of Anne's published diary. Why would the writings of a young girl cause a man's psyche to disintegrate? Because he is Peter van Pels, the boy who hid in the Annex with Anne and her family. He is Peter van Pels, the man who has tried desperately to forget his past.
In the book's "Acknowledgments" section, Feldman, a New York author, describes her experience visiting the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam in 1994. Her tour guide stated that the fates of all the occupants of the Annex were known, they were arrested on 04.August 1944, except for that of Peter. Ellen Feldman was fascinated by the idea that Peter might have survived the Holocaust and decided to write a book about how his life might have turned out.. By the time she discovered her guide had been misinformed (according to a Dutch Red Cross dossier, Peter died in Mauthausen concentration camp on the 5th of may 1945, just 3 days before its liberation), the character had already formed in her head. Peter van Pels, whose family name was listed as van Daan in THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, allegedly stated to Anne while they were hiding in their Amsterdam attic annex during the height of WWII that if he got out alive he would reinvent himself entirely. There is no direct evidence that Peter perished in the Nazi death camps --- although this has been assumed by all who knew him, including Otto Frank --- so Feldman has taken this supposition and built a fictional life around it. Thus, it is Feldman's creation we meet in her book.
When The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank opens, it is 1952 and an adult Peter is sitting in a psychiatrist's office. The doctor has been consulted to treat the sudden, inexplicable bout of laryngitis which has seized Peter's body. Much to his dismay, the psychiatrist insists on peppering him with ridiculous questions, even inquiring as to his wife's reading material. Surprisingly, it's the answer to this last inquiry that gives him his answer: Madeleine (his wife) had been reading the newly-published The Diary of A Young Girl by Anne Frank. It turns out that Peter is experiencing what some professionals call a conversion disorder, channeling his shock at the sight of Anne's published diary into a hysterical reenactment of his years spent whispering in the Secret Annex.
The publication of the book causes not only laryngitis, but a psychotic break that has Peter grappling with a past he's worked desperately to bury. Unknown to the Red Cross, he's escaped the prison camps and starts in 1946 when he arrives in New York. After an encounter with an Immigration-officer who mistakes him for a gentile he realizes how easy it would be to change his whole personality, he wouldn't even have to lie, all he had had to do was keep quiet. When he steps off the boat in New York, Peter covers the tattooed number on his arm, hides his Jewish ancestry, and sets out in pursuit of the American dream. He begins his new life in total denial of his old one, deletes every memory of it and that with such sufficiency that he finally is not able to remember any more. He never answers any questions about it and starts to live a lie.
Peter van Daan is now living in America as Peter van Pels and passing himself off as Christian. Ironically, the first girl Susannah he falls in love with ultimately rejects him because she is Jewish and her family would not be pleased if she married outside of her faith. Funny enough, he begins dating her sister , Madeline, and she does not have an issue with his faith as their courtship eventually leads to marriage and a family. His greatest fear is that anyone could find out that he is Jewish but still he seems to be drawn to the Jewish community. His best friend and later business-partner Harry is Jewish. Peter finds employment in the growing field of Real Estate/Property Management and settles down to a nice suburban life in New Jersey. So not even a decade later, he has a successful career, a nice home and an unsuspecting Jewish wife. His business is going extremely well, the couple have two lovely little girls, a third baby is on the way (it will be a boy) and the future looks bright for Peter van Pels. He has hidden his past so successfully that no one - not even Madeleine - suspects the pains he endured during the war. However, Peter is continually haunted in his dreams by his secret and realizes the truth in the affirmation that you cannot run away from your past! In 1947, Peter's worst fears are realized as a novel is released worldwide titled ANNE FRANK: THE DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL (later re-titled to match the play/film, THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK). Not only is Peter horrified that he will be exposed but his own wife and daughters become fans of the novel. Peter at one point steals the novel and travels a great distance to dispose of it --- only to sneak back out into the night to reclaim for himself. Everywhere he goes, people talk about his past -- and there's nothing he can do about it, because although the teenage girl who wrote the book is dead, she's a mega-star of international proportions. He feels as a gawky teenager who spent more than two years locked up in an Amsterdam attic with the Holocaust's most famous victim -- had somehow survived the war and come to America seeking anonymity.
He reads the novel in secret, furiously turning the pages. While he disagrees with several portrayals within the novel he is moved by its' haunting passages that hit home for him. Then the diary is published and he feels the past whirring around him, a tornado that threatens to destroy everything in his carefully-constructed life. Peter's attempt to forget his past, and start anew after emigrating to America, only digs him deeper into the roots he tries to blot out. The events that follow that discovery are an analogy to the fear Holocaust victims carried with them…hiding, moving, whispering, running. The book became his stepping stone backwards, forwards, and backwards again into fear and loathing.
With memories haunting his every step, Peter begins lashing out. He knows he should tell his family the truth, but he's desperate to keep them anonymous, safe. As his memories of the War become harder to escape, he becomes obsessed with saving enough money to allow his family to run away in case they come back. He keeps the money in a safe at home and gets up to count it in the middle of the night. He's also obsessed with not wasting food - there is a scene in particular that greatly touched and disturbed me. He yells at his wife and at his astonished small daughters and tells them that they don't know what hunger is. It's true, they don't. Eventually, the play version of the novel becomes a big hit as THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK hits Broadway. Many people, including Anne's father, Otto Frank, object to the actress cast as Mrs. Frank who is a non-Jew. Peter has even more objection with Otto Frank who he feels watered down and tainted many passages of Anne's Diary. Specifically, he is not at all pleased with his father, Mr. van Daan, being portrayed as thief who stole bread from the cupboards at night, thereby depriving the rest of those in hiding from much needed nourishment. Madeliene describes a particular event - part of the fabricated story, although she doesn't know that - in the drama:
"It was the most awful scene. One night Mrs. Frank hears a noise and gets up, and there's Mr. van Daan [In her diary, Anne uses "van Daan" to hide the identity of Peter's family, the van Pels'], the father of the boy Ann's in love with, stealing bread from the cupboard. All the time they thought it was the rats, it was really him. He. Taking food out of his own child's mouth. Can you imagine?" (p. 149)
The diary has caused enough problems, but Peter can't tolerate the thought of America ingesting a horrid lie about his father. He snaps.
Otto Frank chooses to bring the author of the play version of Anne's Diary, Meyer Levin, to court. Levin will later go on to pen the book, THE STOLEN LEGACY OF ANNE FRANK: MEYER LEVIN, LILLIAN HELLMAN AND THE STAGING OF THE DIARY, which continues to show contention with Otto Frank's editing of his daughter's original work. Peter is intrigued by this court case and sends a note to Otto Frank attesting to his true identity and listing his grievances with the edited version of The Diary. Mr. Frank's legal representative writes Peter back suggesting that his impersonation of someone that was dear to Mr. Frank was not appreciated and further correspondence will lead to legal action.
Peter shows up at the courtroom during the Otto Frank/Meyer Levin case and runs into an elderly woman who also has issue with Mr. Frank's edited Diary. This woman introduces herself to Peter as the wife of the character incorrectly named Pfeffer in both the Diary and the Play.
Torn between telling the truth and protecting his family, Peter spirals out of control. On the brink of divorce and mental breakdown, Peter makes a scene during the trial of Otto Frank, which seals his fate. He has no choice but to reveal his identity, but telling the truth means remembering, and remembering means facing memories so torturous they could crush him forever. You could say that the more popular Anne's story gets the more Peter's situation worsens. He finally becomes a threat to himself and his family and has to decide whether to accept his past with all the consequences or to give up on staying alive.
As I mentioned before, I was about 12/13 years old when I read Anne's Diaries for the first time. Thanks to Ellen Feldman's researches I could obtain a lot more information about the people who used to live with Anne and Peter in the Secret annex. Especially Peter's parents and Fritz Pfeiffer (Dussel) are shown in a totally new perspective then in Anne's diaries and they lose all the comical characteristics they've gained through Anne's descriptions. This difference in between how those persons have been characterized in Anne's diaries and Ellen Feldman's book made me even more realize how young Anne was when she wrote her books. The way she depicts Peter's increasing paranoia is remarkable. This book also allowed me to learn about all the events that followed the publication of Anne Frank's book in America. I didn't know that Otto Frank had been involved in a lawsuit. Peter's emotional reaction to the whole thing was interesting to see, and Ellen Feldman raises some interesting question about how the diary was (and still is) received and responded to.
In my opinion this book is extremely well researched especially when it comes to dealing with the post-traumatic experiences which most survivors of the Holocaust had to go through. It shows clearly that for most of them it wasn't all just joy and happiness for having survived after their liberation, but that for most of them, even so their life-styles would change dramatically, the suffering never ends. Feldman details the historical, and little known facts regarding the diary of Anne Frank. She gives the audience a perspective of, “what if”. What if Peter had survived? What would his life have been like if he had survived? The flow of the story shows how the boy, Peter, grew into an adult. The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank leaves one to wonder whether promises made as a teenager should be kept as we grow and mature. The author analyzes that factor and how it plays into Peter's life. The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank is a remarkable story about fear, isolation, loss, the weight of memory and what it means to remember - and how perhaps we remember some things in order to forget others more easily. Mostly, it's just what its cover proclaims it to be: "A Novel of Remembering and Forgetting." It's spare, thought-provoking and utterly moving. It's not an easy read, but it's one you won't soon forget.
“Everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don't know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is! “- Anne Frank
”I don't think of all the misery but of the beauty that still remains.”
“I simply can't build my hopes on a foundation of confusion, misery and death… I think… peace and tranquillity will return again.”-Anne Frank
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