June 12, 2019 would have been Anne Frank’s 90th birthday.
It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around the fact that this teenager, who died at 15 in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, could have been alive today if not for the hate that fueled the Holocaust.
There are those who wonder what more there is to say about someone who has written her own account in the form of Anne Frank, the Diary of a Young Girl, and who has had innumerable representations of her life in print, on stage and on the small and big screens.
This year, two picture books address that question. Meeg Pincus’ exquisite Miep and the Most Famous Diary, The Woman Who Rescued Anne Frank’s Diary, coming out Aug. 15 from Sleeping Bear Press, brings passion and purpose to a story told through the point of view of Miep Gies, the woman who hid Anne, the Frank family and their friends for two years before they were discovered and arrested by the Nazis.
By focusing on a friend who risked her life to do the right thing, this book, with evocative illustrations by Jordi Solano, silently floats the question of what it means to be a friend and what the reader would do in the face of injustice.
The other book, which looks at Anne from a different angle, is mine. Martin and Anne, the Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank, brilliantly visualized by Sydney Taylor Honor-winning illustrator Yevgenia Nayberg (Creston Books, Lerner Books), gives Anne’s story a historical and sociological subtext. The book was released March 5. It was featured by eMissourian Newspapers in Education in March and at the Ruby Bridges Reading Festival at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn. in May. I will present it at the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center in Pasadena, Ca. in June.
Both Dr. King and Anne Frank were born in 1929, the year of the Great Depression. As I considered the significance of two people I admire so much, people who talked of love being the answer even in the face of unbearable hate, it came to me that if I told their stories in a parallel fashion, that would illuminate that prejudice, ultimately, has less to do with race or religion than it does with who is part of a vulnerable minority when times are hard and people in the majority are angry or desperate to find someone to blame or plunder.
At the same time, I focused on how Dr. King and Anne Frank responded to the hate that segregated, persecuted and ultimately killed them. They both used words to articulate a vision of a better world — a world of love in which every child is seen as beautiful as all children are — a compelling, shared vision that continues to inspire.
By showing the similarity of their beliefs, I hope those who revere Dr. King will find a window into the world of Anne Frank and the victims of the Holocaust and those who revere Anne Frank will find a window into the world of Dr. King and the victims of racism. This year, I experienced those possibilities when I addressed multiple groups of children in Texas who knew about Dr. King and his legacy, but hadn’t heard of Anne Frank or the Holocaust.
In Miep and the Most Famous Diary, Meeg Pincus shows us how Miep’s love for Anne drives her to find and hide the diary before the Nazis return for the last of the family’s possessions. She risks her life to do it because, as Meeg writes: “She pictures Anne leaning over her cherished diary, her hair skimming its pages. She knows Anne dreams of publishing it as a book after the war. It has been Anne’s paper friend, her lifeline, during two lonely years in hiding.”
Children will feel the deep unspoken question of what it means to be a good person. As they follow Miep’s choices, they’ll see how she protects her friends by defying unjust rules and, I hope, consider what actions they would take in such a situation . The story of the Holocaust is filled with people who helped the Nazis — because after all, discrimination was the law of the land — or stood by and did nothing which is all that you need for evil to flourish.
Miep’s courage sends a message that should resonate with every child who has to make a decision about whether or not to stand up against a bully that threatens the vulnerable.
And here’s another note of many to treasure, found in the back matter of this beautiful book:
“But, Miep did not want to be viewed as a hero,” Meeg writes. She goes on to quote Miep: “Imagine young people would grow up with the feeling that you have to be a hero to do your human duty,” she said. “I am afraid nobody would ever help other people, because who is a hero? I was not.”
The other element I love about Miep and the Most Famous Diary, which echoes a theme of my book, is the reminder that friendship is bigger than our differences. Religion isn’t mentioned, but it’s clear that Miep isn’t Jewish; if she were, she would have gone in hiding, too. But being of different religions is not important to their friendship — another great message for kids.
I like to point out the differences between Dr. King and Anne Frank when I present Martin & Anne to kids. We talk about how they were of different genders, races, religions, were from different countries and spoke different languages, yet their hearts beat with the same hope for humanity.
Sometimes when confronted with the horrors of the Holocaust, we can be complacent, thinking that such things couldn’t happen here or now. Telling the stories in parallel underscores how horrible deeds are not unique to any culture or time and how important it is to recognize the signs of segregation and bullying and to stand up to the forces that would divide and persecute.
In James Q. Whitman’s Hitler's American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (Princeton University Press), Whitman makes the case that Adolf Hitler, the leader and mastermind of the Nazi party, sent his lawyers to the Jim Crow South to study American segregation policies as a model for the ones he would use against the Jewish people.
In a story I wrote for Religion News Service to run in time for what would have been Dr. King’s 90th birthday in January, I talked with another children’s book writer, Sarah Aronson, whose lovely Just Like Rube Goldberg: The Incredible True Story of the Man Behind the Machines came out this year, too.
Sarah shared stories about how her late grandfather, Joseph Klein, a rabbi in Worcester, Mass., invited Dr. King to his synagogue to address the congregation. (Audio of Dr. King’s address is here.) She talked about her grandfather and Dr. King, a Baptist minister, were of one mind and heart on the concept of tikkun olam, the Hebrew words that refer to healing the world. “What Dr. King did was meld the righteousness of faith and equality with repairing the world,” she told me. “He had the faith of God in him and my grandfather did as well.”
I know from talking with Meeg that Miep and the Most Famous Diary is deeply personal to her. Meeg met Miep years ago when she interviewed her for a newspaper. This book exemplifies the mission that Meeg has set for herself, to write “Solutionary Stories” for elementary-age children—nonfiction & informational books that inspire kids to make a difference. Meeg is Jewish, but has a diverse family that fires her compassion for all beings and everyone who is marginalized.
Like Meeg, I am a former journalist. I am Jewish with an extended diverse family. I have always been haunted by family members I never got to meet because of the Holocaust: a great grandmother, great uncles, great aunts and their children that were herded into a synagogue and set on fire by Nazis. That is why Martin and Anne is dedicated “For those whose lives were cut short everywhere, including Bialystok June 27, 1941. Your memory is a blessing. Love lives on.”
It’s hard for me to express how much comfort this dedication has given me. In a way that I feel more than I understand, these words have provided a place in my heart for these lost loved ones to live.
I’ve heard some express concern that picture books are aimed at elementary school children who may be too young to be exposed to the Holocaust.
The issue of what age is appropriate for these books is a matter for adult discretion. But I have read Martin & Anne and would read Miep and the Most Famous Diary without hesitation to elementary school children. Both books are careful, both in how they are written and how they are illustrated, to be honest but not developmentally overwhelming.
Personally, too, I defer to the great Jewish songwriters Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, who won a Pulitzer Prize for drama for South Pacific in 1950, in considering when we need to start teaching children about the dangers of the hate that mass media makes it ever more difficult to hide. The iconic song in this great musical that inveighed against American racism is the song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”
Consider these lyrics: “You've got to be taught/Before it's too late/Before you are six/Or seven/Or eight/To hate all the people/Your relatives hate.”
If that’s when kids are most vulnerable to the lessons of hate, then that’s the age you may need books that show children the importance of love and what it means to be a friend.
I’m proud that both Meeg and I have had our books endorsed by representatives of Anne Frank organizations which have dedicated themselves to speaking out against hate and discrimination and speaking up for those at risk. In my book, Kristen Carvalho, Board Member of the Anne Frank House, Inc. of Washington, D.C. writes: “A wonderful weaving of the stories of two amazing and courageous people who both answer hatred with love.”
Elisa Rapaport, Ph.D. and Chief Operating Officer of the Anne Frank Center of Mutual Respect in New York City writes in Meeg’s book: “In a time when we ask children to resist negativity and instead respect one another as people, the story of Miep Gies helping others and rescuing Anne Frank’s famous diary truly resonates; even more, it helps restore our faith in the human spirit.”
In her diary, Anne wrote: “I want to go on living even after my death!”
There is only one way for people to live on after their deaths: in our memories.
We must remember Anne and Martin and Miep along with the millions who lost their lives, those who escaped and those who risked everything to save or make things better for others.
Even through the pain of the aching emptiness where a beloved presence should be, it is good to remember. Because in these dark times, when hatred feels once again on the rise, when the vulnerable are increasingly at risk, Anne and Martin and Miep and so many others, including those whose stories are waiting to be told, remind us to love, to hope, to have courage and to do the right thing no matter the consequences.
Happy birthday, Anne. May there be many, many more books.