The last Holocaust survivor died last week. Well, Trudy (not her real name) wasn’t literally the last survivor – but that day is not far off. She was my last Holocaust survivor, the last one I knew as a genuine friend, not as a congregant, or a colleague, or a symbol. She was a gossip buddy; we did lunch, drank wine, shouted at each other, laughed and cried together. Lately she’d taken to tweeting, or texting, or messaging me on Facebook – and since I don’t use any of those platforms regularly, she’d scold me for not getting back to her sooner. She wasn’t someone I would present to a synagogue confirmation class, or an inner city high school, or a gathering of non-Jewish clergy to teach about tolerance and suffering and empathy and Jewish history – all those weighty subjects we drop on the shoulders of Holocaust survivors, begging them to do the heavy lifting for us. She didn’t enjoy speaking in front of audiences larger than her immediate family, and anyway I never would have asked her, because she was merely, and most preciously, a friend.
In the beginning she was the mother of a friend, a gregarious, exotic, magical presence whose smile and heavy eye makeup lit up her suburban home. She’d regale me with stories of her life in prewar Amsterdam – ice skating, horseback riding, hiking - while I waited for her daughter, my junior high girlfriend (sort of). Oddly, we stayed in touch long after I stopped communicating with her daughter. I’d stop by for tea on my rare trips home, or she’d find me whenever she visited a city I lived in, and we’d trade photos, share sorrows, drink espresso. Then she discovered Facebook, and suddenly, late in the life of our relationship, we were never out of touch for more than a month. The Shoah never defined our relationship, but it came up as we swapped stories. I’d mention a recent break-up, and she, without the least bit of irony, would compare my heartache to how she felt watching her brother die of pneumonia at Westerbork. She had her stories and I had mine, and if hers were more insanely dramatic, she didn’t blame me, nor did she minimize my life. It’s not a bad definition of friendship.
I became acutely conscious of her survivor status about 20 years ago, when I suddenly put together a few of the facts I knew about her – Amsterdam, Westerbork, 1929 birthdate – and asked what should have been an obvious question: Had she known Anne Frank? She scowled, shut her eyes, then nodded. “Yes,” she said slowly, grimacing as if reliving a particularly bitter moment of indigestion. “I knew Anne.”
“Huh,” I said, noting the unusual frown, the downturned eyes. This wasn’t sadness or loss, it was — irritation. “You didn’t….”
“Arrogant girl,” she snapped. “Snobby. Self-absorbed. Typical German Jew. I didn’t like her.”
She didn’t like Anne Frank. At first I couldn’t absorb the sentiment, couldn’t really believe my ears. It was like hearing a Catholic say she wasn’t fond of the Virgin Mary, that she was sick of all her tiresome bragging. Virgin birth – big deal. But then I realized that Trudy’s distaste for Anne Frank the person – whatever girlhood tiff set it off – returned the Holocaust to where it belongs, in prosaic human history. It’s not a myth, or a sacred narrative, with demigods and martyrs and supernatural heroines. It’s not a biblical story, a tragic moment pointing to redemption. It’s a story of girls and boys, Annes and Trudys, and their brothers and sisters and parents, murdered and tortured the way humans have murdered and tortured since time immemorial.
But the next day, at lunch, I discovered that Trudy’s Anne Frank induced scowl wasn’t merely personal (it was mostly personal). “Of course, she was a mean girl – like you see today in the movies, yes?” Trudy said. “A mean girl. That was Anne. But that wasn’t really her fault. It was her father, you see, who spoiled her, and, well, never mind, I’ve said too much. But to me, what became insufferable was her optimism. ‘I know in my heart that people are good.’ That was from her diary, yes? People are good? Do you think she believed that in Bergen-Belsen?”
I’m not sure she realized it — she didn’t follow Jewish intellectual arguments — but Trudy had stumbled onto one of the key controversies surrounding Anne Frank’s diary: its supposed optimism. It was actually the hit Broadway play that highlighted Anne’s line about the essential goodness of the human heart; both the play and the movie end with the quote. The diary itself includes the line, but also Anne’s observation that the world would be better off without any people. Critics of the play, including Cynthia Ozick in an influential Commentary piece where she half-wishes the diary had never been found, accuse the playwrights and their supporters of using the diary – and therefore the Shoah – to promote an anti-Zionist, anodyne universalism that negates Jewish national concerns.
But Trudy wasn’t responding to the diary’s politics, or to the political uses others made of the book or the play or the movie. She was just pissed off at Anne Frank because, in her opinion, Anne got it wrong: People aren’t basically good. For Trudy, the Shoah was never a rhetorical weapon or a political tool – it wasn’t up for grabs to the loudest shouter. It was her personal story. To me, it felt like Trudy longed for Anne to have survived, just so that Trudy could have told her off, survivor to survivor, person to person.
I cried a little the day Trudy’s daughter emailed me that her mother had died; she was a friend, and I will always miss her. But a deeper gloom hit me the next day, when I realized that as the last of the survivors pass away, the Holocaust is truly up for grabs. Without the grounding of Trudy and her contemporaries, we’re free to hurl the term “kapo” at whoever doesn’t share our politics, free to spin the Auschwitz narrative whichever way suits our ideology, free to twist and bend and stretch the Shoah so that it speaks to whatever issue is on our mind. Trudy is gone, so there’s no one to shame us into stopping.