The premise of Annelies is very simple: what if Anne Frank had survived? What might her life have been like after the camps? Would she have been able to adapt to postwar life in Amsterdam? How would the war have changed her? Would she have achieved her dream of being a writer?
In this novel, everything in Anne’s life unfolds exactly as it did in real life — up until the crucial moment when Anne’s sister Margot dies in Bergen-Belsen. Instead of dying herself a short time later, this fictional version of Anne survives, to eventually be liberated. As in reality, the only other survivor of the eight Jews hidden in the “Secret Annexe” is Anne’s father, Otto. Her diary has also survived, but now she is the one who must decide what to do with this record of the war years she spent in hiding.
In many ways, of course, what Gillham is writing here is just a fictionalized version of what did happen to many people — though six million European Jews died in the Nazi camps, many did not die, but survived to try to integrate back into society alongside the very people who had, in many cases, betrayed them to the Nazis. The added twist here in making Anne Frank the survivor is that she does have the diary, which makes her the bearer of a potentially powerful message to the postwar world. But does she want to share it.
When I read Elie Wiesel’s Night with my students, I often contrast one of his bleaker passages with the well-known passage from Anne Frank’s diary where she states that she believes that despite everything, people are still basically good at heart. Both Wiesel and Frank were intelligent, sensitive, thoughtful teenagers when they were sent to the camps: the difference in tone between the two passages obviously lies mostly in the fact that we never get to hear what Anne Frank’s reflections might have been like after going to Bergen-Belson. Her diary was written while she was in hiding, while Wiesel wrote Night after Auschwitz (and after having some years to reflect on the experience of the camps).
The Anne Frank who emerges in this fictional re-creation is not unlike Elie Wiesel, in some ways: angry, scarred, disillusioned, but also determined (eventually) to make sure that the world knows what happened to the Jews of Europe, and never allows it to happen again. The novel focuses mainly on the first year after the war, while she is still struggling with post-traumatic stress and survivor’s guilt, trying to forge a new relationship with her father and figure out how to live in an Amsterdam that she can never truly consider home again.
For many people, the powerful piece of writing that is Anne Frank’s diary has been boiled down in memory (or report — for those who haven’t read it) to that one inspiring quote about believing people are good at heart. People often forget that the diary is a complex portrait of a brilliant, strong-willed, sometimes troubled teenager living in constant fear for her life. Battles of will with her mother, sister and housemates, the rise and fading of a romance with literally the only other young person in the house, and Anne’s own reflections on life, war, death, God, humanity and her own legacy, make the diary in its fullness a portrait of a very real and complicated young woman — which makes the tragedy of her death all the more poignant. Some readers may not like the fact that Gillham imagines a different ending for her in Annelies, but I found the book compelling. It reminded me of the depth and complexity of the diary itself, of the difficult experiences of those who did survive the Holocaust, and, once again, of the tragedy of the life that Anne Frank and millions of others never got to live.