Whether we know her from a history textbook, a museum exhibit, or the play based on her diary, the prominent role Anne Frank occupies in our collective psyche is undeniable. Yet author Ellen Feldman uses the historical Anne to tell quite a different Holocaust story in The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank (Norton, 2005, $23.95).
Inspired by a tour of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, Feldman fictionalizes the survival and subsequent self-reinvention of Peter van Pels, the young man who hid with Anne and her family from 1942-1944. The Peter of Feldman’s imagination survives the final days of the war and immigrates to the United States. After clearing customs with his religion undocumented, Peter decides to create a new identity, one disconnected from his past and heritage. “I was born six years ago in a customs shed on the Hudson River,” he declares, recalling his first moments in the United States. Peter soon replaces his life in the secret annex with a thriving business and a loving wife in the suburbs of New Jersey.
The book is marked by a series of complicated obstacles that test Peter’s resolve to deny his past to himself and to conceal his traumatic history from others. Peter’s first love in America is a Jewish girl named Susannah, whom he leaves because she refuses to marry a non-Jew. He subsequently marries her sister Madeleine, who has no such qualms. When Madeleine gives birth to a boy, Peter must decide whether or not to circumcise his son. He ultimately chooses to have the newborn boy circumcised in the hospital. The procedure is clinical and devoid of ceremony, but Peter’s decision to physically identify his son as a Jew weighs heavily on his mind. Later, confronted by the visual reminder of his past, Peter considers laser surgery to remove the number tattooed on his left arm. Uncontrollable flashbacks to events from the war and conversations with his father’s ghost provide glimpses into Peter’s troubled mind and his increasingly unstable psychological state. When delving into this horrifying struggle, Feldman’s writing is most compelling.
When Peter discovers a copy of Anne’s recently-published diary on his wife’s bedside table, and a weII-publicized play and movie based on the diary follow shortly, his greatest challenge unfolds. The sudden pervasiveness of Anne’s words in the culture around him forces Peter to grapple again with his experience in the Secret Annex. Peter is shocked that Americans could claim to “know” the Holocaust after reading one book or sitting through a movie. Feldman suggests that this history is too complex for such a limited vision. Anne’s is but one story of the Holocaust, although it is a good place to start. Whether or not Peter will share his own story is the question that ultimately drives this book.
With the memory of his past intensified by the diary’s appearance, Peter finally confronts his Judaism and visits a synagogue. Here he encounters his foil: a Holocaust survivor who actively practices his religion and finds strength in the Jewish community. This survivor gently explains to Peter, “In Hebrew, you don’t pray I, you pray we….So, you pray we, it means you’re not alone.” Madeleine and Susannah, Peter’s wife and sister-in-law, form a similar dichotomous pair. Whereas Susannah discovers newfound importance in her Jewish community, Madeleine claims that the Holocaust led her to atheism. Feldman rightly raises the difficult issue of how the Holocaust both created and destroyed Jewish identities, and she reminds us to question how the Holocaust continues to shape the identities of Jews today.