Life

On the Search for Victims Who Are Too Perfect to Be Us

Or, what I learned from my friendship with Helga Newmark and her friendship with Anne Frank.

Photo of Anne Frank sitting at a school desk and holding a pencil to an open notebook page.
Anne Frank in 1940
Unknown photographer; Collectie Anne Frank Stichting Amsterdam/Wikipedia

“Anne Frank,” Helga told me, “was a brat.”

She pronounced the words across her kitchen table—a petite, auburn-haired woman with an I-dare-you look in her very blue eyes. A look that said, go ahead, be shocked.

Helga had the right to an opinion about Anne Frank. She grew up three houses from Anne and Margot in Amsterdam. The girls played on the same streets and shared friends and pastimes, before the Nazis sent all three of them to Bergen-Belsen—the camp where first Margot and then Anne died.

Helga Newmark was close to 60 when she spoke to me about Anne. She was just beginning the long road to rabbinical ordination. I was a recent college graduate, working for a women’s rights group in Jerusalem. I’d met Helga through mutual friends, and she’d invited me to tea in her Jerusalem apartment, where we sat amid the rabbinical school homework she’d labored over all afternoon.

To say that Helga was the oldest rabbinical student in her class does little justice to the gulf separating her from her classmates and from my 22-year-old self. Helga Newmark had survived two concentration camps, married a fellow survivor, and become a mother and a grandmother before finally fulfilling her dream of enrolling in rabbinical school. But her warmth and sense of mischief—and the plaintive humor with which she described her struggles with Hebrew verb conjugation—drew me in immediately.

Helga, I learned in the course of our friendship, sometimes visited American schools to educate children about the Holocaust. When she did, she made her opinion of Anne Frank known. The cause of Helga’s hurt feelings, apparently, was this: For her 10th birthday, Anne invited some of the other neighborhood girls to her party, but not 8-year-old Helga.

I never thought that Helga bore an actual grudge against Anne Frank. The wink with which she pronounced her verdict seemed to signal that she was deliberately inviting all within earshot to shed their rigid piety. Helga, who would soon become the first female Holocaust survivor ever to receive rabbinical ordination, seemed to be making a deliberate point: Anne Frank was human. And human beings—all of us—are brats sometimes.

When we’d known each other for a few months, Helga asked if she could tell me the story of what she’d gone through in the concentration camps. What she needed, she said, was a test audience. Despite all she’d overcome to reach this point, she hadn’t yet been able to bring herself to tell her children or grandchildren what she’d endured as a girl in the camps.

To this day I don’t know why she chose me. Perhaps it was only that we met at the moment when she was ready to speak. Perhaps it mattered to her that I’d grown up around survivors, my mother’s family, meaning I understood that it was all right to listen to horrors one minute and follow Helga into outright silliness the next. Maybe she knew that I wouldn’t consign her to eternal solemnity if she shared stories of darkness, that my own beloved relatives’ conversations pivoted between tragedy of inconceivable scale and the day’s most mundane details.

During those months in Israel, I did my best to listen. Later, after we’d both returned to the U.S., Helga put her thoughts into long handwritten letters, and I answered. Time passed. And eventually Helga didn’t need to confide these things in me anymore because it was time to tell them to her intended audience: her family.

We remained in warm but infrequent touch; then somehow, as both our lives became busier, we didn’t.

Two decades later, when Helga died, her obituary appeared in a prominent magazine. The article was written by a young journalist who had been a seventh grader when Helga visited her school, and it focused primarily on Helga’s anecdote about Anne Frank. The headline featured Frank’s name, not Helga’s. The article referred to Helga as “bitter” and “dark.” Not only did the writer seem to have missed the wink with which Helga spoke of Anne Frank, but she also described Helga as carrying a lifelong grudge. Moreover, in a passage in which the author bemoaned the awkwardness of being a seventh grader sitting alongside her peers listening to a Holocaust survivor speak, she wrote: “There is perhaps no greater test of faith than being in the seventh grade.” It took me a very long time to move past that sentence.

Worse was the way the comments section lit up as soon as the obituary was published. Outraged Anne Frank defenders delivered personal attacks on Helga for daring to demean the martyred Anne Frank. “The nerve to criticize Anne Frank!” began one comment. Another declaimed, in all caps, “I WOULDN’T HAVE INVITED HER EITHER.”

Rarely in my life have I felt as angry as I did sitting in the glow of my computer screen, scrolling through the fury of strangers who had never met Helga, yet felt entitled to comment on her obituary. I drafted and deleted comments of my own, struggling and failing to encapsulate my outrage. Friends and colleagues of Helga’s quickly published their own heartfelt rebuttals and tributes. I was grateful for their words, yet still felt as though I were holding my breath, waiting for my anger to subside enough so I could see around its edges.

Now, years later, rage-flooded internet discourse is the norm. I’ve grown skeptical that anyone can hear anything new over the cacophony. Yet some stubborn part of me still needs to say it: Yes, Helga said Anne Frank was a brat—and do you know who else said so? Anne Frank. Read her diary. Read Anne’s accounts of those years when Anne and Helga were schoolgirls in Amsterdam—before the Franks went into hiding, before Helga and her parents were sent to the camps. Read about how Anne’s math teacher, frustrated by Anne’s endless talking in class, had Anne write an essay titled “A Chatterbox”—and how, when Anne responded with a sassy essay defending her need to talk, the teacher had her write a second essay titled “Incurable Chatterbox,” and finally a third called “Quack, Quack, Quack, Says Mrs. Natterbeak.” By her own description, Anne was “cheeky” and a nonstop flirt. As her surroundings and mood darkened, she often had occasion to question her own behavior.

Among the reasons Anne Frank is the Nazis’ best known, most widely beloved victim is that she was so open about her flaws and struggles—so insistently honest about her humanity. Of course she hurt people’s feelings at times, and she probably was a brat on occasion. It’s also very possible Anne thought Helga was a brat sometimes, too. War takes us as it finds us; it doesn’t wait until we’ve perfected ourselves before it rips into our lives.

In a poem Helga once wrote in a letter she sent to me, she prayed for the strength “to take the risk of … simply being who I am, less than perfect, but alive without the terror of being destroyed.”

Less than perfect. A basic human right.

Most Americans turn hushed and reverent at the mention of the Holocaust’s victims. This is well-intended; reverence seems like a necessary corrective, especially in a time when manifestations of racism and anti-Semitism are on the rise. But reverence also does damage. When people insist on the perfection of martyrs, they forget that one of the great violences accomplished by the Nazis was in robbing their victims of their right to be seen as real, complex people. In the eyes of the Nazis, Anne and Helga weren’t people; they were insects, subhumans.

The remedy for that dehumanization isn’t deification. Yet that’s exactly what we flirt with when we insist that the people murdered by Hitler were perfect. Idealizing the Nazis’ victims—cordoning them off from the flaws the rest of humanity is subject to—may be an attempt to rebalance the scales, but there’s something deeply untrustworthy about it.

Outrage is easy. It’s less painful than grief, less gutting than fear. And because it’s easy, it sneaks in, insidious and distracting. The impulse to be outraged on Anne Frank’s behalf isn’t in fact aimed at protecting Anne Frank; Anne Frank, as we know, is beyond protection. We give in to outrage because its unacknowledged function is to protect us—all of us, the living.

Righteous outrage separates history’s martyrs from the rest of the human herd. Once separated, these figures become unrecognizable. They’re perfect—so unlike us that we can breathe easier. From our safe perch, we regard Anne Frank and history’s other victims as figures in a diorama of martyrdom. It might not be our intent to condescend, but it’s almost impossible not to. Surely those poor doomed ones should have sensed something? Surely they heard the scary soundtrack that told them something bad was about to happen? But alas, being doomed, the martyrs stepped on toward their fate. They were innocent, pure, iconic … nothing like flawed, bratty, querulous us.

What a relief. Because if martyrs turned out to be people like us—mischievous, selfish, loving, occasionally horrible—if it turned out there were nothing separating us from them but chance, our vulnerability would be intolerable.

Today would have been Anne Frank’s 90th birthday. Helga would have turned 88 this year. And here I sit, still shadowboxing an obituary that’s now seven years old. Seven years: long enough that I shouldn’t still feel this blind fury over the obituary’s headline … or over a myopic sentence about the miseries of seventh grade, composed by a writer who was herself only 12 years old when she drew her conclusions about 8-year-old Helga’s opinion of 10-year-old Anne. Here I sit, my hands striking the keyboard harder than necessary, ready, it seems, to join the vast and swelling ranks of the righteously outraged. Ready not only to defend Helga’s warmth and good-heartedness, but to insist that I know that Helga, in her wisdom and kindness, never truly held a grudge against Anne Frank.

Which is something I don’t in fact know. Why is it so hard to let them be less than perfect? Maybe she did. Maybe she didn’t. All I know is that she was my friend and I loved her.