Okay, I admit it: I have never read Anne Frank's diary.
There, I said it.
However, I have read the play, seen a production on stage, seen a few TV specials, and went to visit the actual annex in Amsterdam.
None of it, except for visiting the actual annex, really affected me. I have read countless books about the Holocaust, but the diary of a girl who was in an attic for two years never really sounded that interesting compared to people being tortured in camps or fighting Nazis. Perhaps if Anne had managed to write about the time she spent in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, I would have been more interested.
But going to the place where those eight people hid for two years was heartbreaking. Just climbing the steep steps behind the bookcase door was sad. And it made it so it's too hard to watch anything on Anne Frank on TV, so I'm amazed I actually made it through this.
'Annexed' tells the story of Peter van Pels, Anne's sort-of boyfriend who lived in the annex with her. This version of the story has Peter, feeling very alone, very powerless, and very teenaged. He doesn't have Anne's gift of writing, but his story feels true; he's just a teenage boy who is confused and doesn't know what he feels or who he is, or if he's a coward for hiding when others are fighting. In addition to normal teenage boy angst, he also has to deal with the fact that he's been told he's a 'cockroach,' that since he was born Jewish he should be eradicated no matter what he actually believes. And he doesn't know what he does believe.
The book takes the reader through Peter's last years of life, starting with his fictionalized girlfriend being taken away and him ending up in the annex wondering what happened to her and what was happening to others. He spends a lot of time by himself, at first finding Anne's presence irritating, but growing to love her as she matures, though he always feels second to her diary. Interspersed with the chapters about Peter's life in the annex are his musings about his life as he's dying in Mauthausen. The story doesn't stop where Anne's diary stops; instead, Peter tells of them being loaded into the cattle cars, riding for days among the other 'undesirable' people with no food or water, no place to urinate, and no room to lie down. He tells of his days at Auschwitz; how he had to steal things to survive, how he never knew what happened to his mother or the Frank women, how his father died, how he was sent on a death march, leaving behind Otto Frank, the only link to his past, at Auschwitz where he was sure the kind man would die alone. So much of this story is mixed up; no one is entirely sure what exactly happened to Peter van Pels, but it is known that he was at Auschwitz, that he went on a death march, that he died either on the march or at the Mauthausen sick bay, and that he was subjected to inhumane treatment and lost everyone he loved, even himself.
Taking the story of someone we all know of, but not well, and expanding upon it, can be a daunting task. There are historical facts and there are the subjective musings of Anne; there is Otto Frank, the only one to make it out alive, and taking all of this and building a believable and likable character is quite a feat. Sharon Dogar has created a story that people have wondered about for years; while we know what Anne said, we don't know how Peter felt, and perhaps Dogar has it completely wrong. But even if that is true, which we will never know, this book still has a ring of truth in it, as the thoughts and feelings are so honest and Peter's experience most likely mirrored that of others like him, and they should not be forgotten.
"Do you hear me? Is anyone listening?' he keeps asking.
Personally, I think a lot of us are. Even though it happened many years ago, people are still listening to the ghosts of the past, and people around the world are trying to prevent such atrocities from happening again, though unfortunately, sometimes they still do. Maybe if more of us listen, we can chage that.