Anne was last in the oven, all on her own. One-hundred-and-twenty degrees. Twenty minutes. I look at her through the glass, lying on her thin back, bald- headed, faint smile, impish yet angelic, and her big dark eyes, eyes that had seen a great deal, now gazing at the roof of the oven, without blinking an eyelid. I didn’t leave Anne alone for even a minute, overseeing every stage of the baking process, taking no risks, so she wouldn’t get burnt. The girl had been through enough in life.
It’s hard to know where and when exactly this story begins. Perhaps it begins with the battalions of ghosts that inhabited my family albums that I had turned my back to my entire life. I didn’t want to know what the inside of the apartment in Krakow looked like, or the summer home by the lake, or the ski vacations, or what they ate, wore, thought.
I knew the end, and that was enough. So it seems that the story begins with The Diary of a Young Girl, that I dared page through. Here too I knew the end, and yet there was a kind of suspense in reading it, a peculiar hope- from the knocks on the door, through the radio reports about the advance of the British forces and Mussolini’s surrender, up until August 1944. The end.
In the summer of 1988, on the way to an enchanting nudist village full of wild blackberry bushes on Majorca with my mother and sister, we stopped over in Amsterdam and visited Anne’s house. Prinsengracht 263. We climbed the creaking stairs that scorched our souls and were still burning me when I played Marco Polo in the water with some golden celestial Germans on the liberated Spanish island.
And then, a month before Anne went into the oven, Mrs. Pearl, my Jewish studies teacher in Manhattan, announced that each student had to prepare a Holocaust project, and I began building my miniature model. First, I got hold of some wooden boards and built the skeleton of the house, and then I sawed and installed the floors, that could be pulled out, like trays, and I began to furnish, decorate, and eventually populate the tiny house of doom.
I sculpted little potatoes out of Fimo clay and baked them, and then I painted them brown. They didn’t look yummy. But that’s the way it was in reality, I reminded myself, and went on to prepare breakfast. I sculpted three miniature spoons and then baked them till they were hard and after they cooled off I sprayed them with silver paint and put a corpse-colored little blob of Fimo on each one. I wondered which of my little people should get a spoonful of porridge. The hiders had not yet moved into the house. I decided that when the time came I would give a spoon to Margot, to Peter, and to Dussel the glutton, although he didn’t deserve it one bit. After all, it was in Dussel’s cupboard in the room that he shared with Anne after the people in the house had let him into their hiding place with open arms and saved him from death, that this cunning dentist had hidden bread, cheese, jam and eggs! Anne was right. This man as no shame, I muttered to myself as I assembled the cupboard out of cardboard and filled it with the food that I sculpted and with which Dussel stuffed himself behind the backs of the others, without sharing even a crumb.
The intense preparations took their toll. Tensions were rising. Relations between members of the house were deteriorating at the project went ahead. Mom was constantly nagging me, trying to make her roast chicken on the rack below the tray holding Dussel’s secret foods. I told her to hold her horses until I finished preparing my own food. But mom didn’t like her turf being invaded. “That Fimo is made in Germany, you know. You can’t make Anne Frank’s house out of Nazi Fimo,” she argued.
“Fimo is Fimo and Nazis are Nazis,” I said, “Leave us alone, I’m working.”
“Yes, let her create,” interrupted Haya, Mom’s friend and a self-appointed therapist who was sitting in the kitchen as things were heating up. “Can’t you see the girl is haunted? She’s creating her own nightmare. It’ll help her get rid of her demons, to break free of her fears.” She then diagnosed me with an Anne Frank complex, that according to Haya was fairly common among girls my age who consider themselves super-sensitive, and she quoted some important person who said that anyone who ever built a new paradise drew his strength from his own private hell.
Paradise was not on the horizon. Hell was edging nearer, almost tickling me. I charged ahead with my project at full speed. Work sets you free, work makes you a slave, I didn’t know anymore. I sniffed around the house in search of a chamber pot for Mrs. Van Daan, the one she brought with her in a hat box. “Without my chamber pot, I don’t feel at home anywhere,” she declared. In the end I stole a thimble from Mom’s sewing kit, and I put it under Mrs. Van Daan’s folding bed. A matchbox turned into Mr. Van Daan’s folding table. Every screw, matchstick, piece of thread, was at risk of being looted for Anne’s house, my house. This house will be no less than perfect.
There were moments I was tempted to add a gummy bear, a Cheerio, some hope. But I reminded myself over and over again: brown-gray, brown-gray, and rushed to prepare the sad little pea soup that Mrs. van Daan burned, and while it was cooking in the oven I used the time wisely to dip little cotton balls in peroxide, Anne’s method to bleach the black hairs of her mustache, and then suddenly I smelled trouble and leapt towards the oven. Oh no! The soup!
Mom came running to the oven. We peeked inside. “It’s not so bad,” she tried to console me. “You said that Mrs. van Daan also burned it.”
“Yes, but only the peas on the bottom were supposed to be burnt, not the pot itself!” I cried, and pulled the tiny melted pot out of the oven.
“How am I supposed to concentrate in this madhouse?” my sister huffed, as she huddled with a pile of horror books, trying to get her comprehensive research paper on Auschwitz done before the big day. “I’m dealing here with the real Holocaust, and you…all you’re interested in is baby furniture and food and clothes. Shame on you! It’s got nothing to do with the actual Holocaust.”
“So what if I chose to focus on the story of one girl, instead of the whole nine million?” I fired back.
“Six million,” she corrected me, rolling her eyes in contempt. For a moment I fell silent.
“Believe what you want,” I said, blowing on the hopeless pot of soup.
In time, Mom gave herself over to my project and did her share for the demanding dollhouse. She knit little striped angora blankets for the hiders in gray and brown, and also mini yarmulkas that served as rugs. And she sewed tiny duvet covers that I stuffed with cotton balls and placed on the single beds made out of Virginia Slims boxes that Mom smoked and emptied and I painstakingly painted. I planted mini mothballs in the closets. I installed a night lamp above Anne’s bed, so that she wouldn’t neglect her diary. I placed a jar if codeine next to Margot’s bed, so that she wouldn’t cough and give everyone away. I drew the family tree that Anne and her father compiled together. In the living room I put a miniature radio, from which I could almost hear Prince Berhardt’s speech announcing that in January he and his wife would have a baby- news that overjoyed Anne, a true fan of the royal family. Next to the radio, I set up the makeshift dental clinic that Dussel opened, with eau de cologne for the antiseptic solution and Vaseline for wax.
Then I went on to furnish the slight hallway, where Peter lived. I put a bed there, with a dirty magazine on it. That’s where I’ll lay Peter, next to the stock exchange game he got for his 16th birthday. “I don’t think Peter’s gotten any nicer,” Anne complained, “He’s an obnoxious boy who lays around on his bed all day, only rousing up to do a little carpentry work before returning to his nap. What a dope!” I sculpted Mouschi, the cat, and also a rat with sharp teeth that hid in the attic. I equipped the bathroom with sticky green soap and a family comb. It barely had ten teeth left on it.
I continued on to Anne and Dussel’s room. I made Anne a small sofa bed and extended it with chairs. It was Anne who invented the method. On Anne’s wall, I stuck stamps with images of famous movie stars from the 40s, until they formed a colorful Hollywood wallpaper. I cut drapes from faded bits of cloth and pinned them to the windows with thumbtacks, like the original, and left them open a crack. I imagined Anne peeping out at the people scurrying about, falling over their feet in haste, as she wrote, “I’m sitting here nice and cozy, peering out through a chink in the heavy curtains. It’s dusky, but there’s just enough light to write by…our thoughts are subject to as little change as we are. They’re like a merry-go-round, turning from the Jews to food, from food to politics. By the way, speaking of Jews, I saw two yesterday when I was peeking through the curtains. I felt as though I was gazing at one of the Seven Wonders of the world. It gave me such a funny feeling, as if I’d denounced them to the authorities and was now spying on their misfortune.”
Now it was time to move the people in. I made a small, lovely Otto. “Don’t you worry, I’ll take care of everything, just enjoy your carefree life while you can,” he whispered in her ear. I undressed a male doll, frayed the edges of the trousers, and dressed Anne’s father. I wanted to take a bit of hair from my dad, but he wasn’t home, and then I remembered Otto was bald, so I could manage without dad. Then, when he was ready, I sat Otto down in the kitchen to peel potatoes, under a shelf I installed with a jar on it containing a preserved tongue.
Next in line was Mrs. van Daan, and after she was baked and painted I dressed her in a dirty pink nightgown that Mom sewed, made to measure. But Mrs. van Daan’s rabbit-fur coat, the one she’d been wearing religiously for over 17 years, nearly slipped my mind. How could I forget? Meanwhile, the van Daans’ time and money were running out. Soon she would have to give up the coat for the vast sum of 325 gulden, but the fur coat made it into the house at the last moment. I made Mrs. van Daan’s eye winking, winking at Otto, and I placed her standing with her back to the burnt pot of soup, facing Anne’s father.
“Let me pause a moment on the subject of Mrs. van Daan and tell you that her attempts to flirt with Father are a constant source of irritation to me,” Anne whispered to me. “She pats him on the cheek and head, hikes up her skirt and makes so-called witty remarks…as you know I’m quite the jealous type, and I can’t abide her behavior.”
I carried on, one person after the next: a midget Dussel, wearing trousers pulled up to his chest, a red blazer, shiny black slippers, and horn-rimmed glasses. I sat him down in the bathroom, his favorite place, according to Anne. I put Anne’s mother in the kitchen, and painted red blotches on her face, from all the stress, and then I sat Mom down in our kitchen and cut a lock of her hair and she giggled. I glued her hair onto Anne’s mother’s head, as she sat watching Mrs. van Daan winking at Otto.
I dressed Margot, Anne’s waifish sister, in a bra two sizes too small, and over it a robe that Mom sewed from an old towel. I suspected that my sister wouldn’t volunteer her hair for the project. She was buried deep in Auschwitz. So I waited until she fell asleep that night and then I took a pair of scissors and crept up close to her head, seized a thick raven-black curl and did what I had to do.
I put all of me into that house. Math, history, everything else dwarfed next it. I skipped classes, neglected homework, flunked exams. The teachers complained. But I promised them that they were in for something huge. Just wait for Holocaust Day.
The big day drew closer. Over and over I ran in my head the moment I’d arrive at school with my model. The house at Prinsengracht 263 was almost finished. Only Anne was missing. Now she was lying in the oven, the last one, all alone. Silence feel over the house. Now Mom didn’t even dream of putting anything else in the oven, neither on the upper or lower racks. She also sat and waited for Anne to harden.
When Anne was ready I took her out of the oven and while she was cooling off, I cut some hair off my head, took crazy glue, and stuck it onto her head. Then I give her a suitable bowl haircut. I dressed Anne in a skirt made of hideous jute-like cloth, a white shirt that barely covered her tummy by now, and shoes that had been strangling her aching feet for ages. Only her high ski-boots still fit, but they weren’t comfortable for wearing around the house so I set them aside, and in Anne’s hand I put a tiny diary that I bound together out of yellowing paper that had started the whole story.
The sky wasn’t smiling at Anne and me on the day I had to hand her in. I wrapped the model in a waterproof cape, and hugged it tight to my chest. Mom walked close beside me with an umbrella. We didn’t care if we got wet, we just made sure that not a drop of destruction would get anywhere near Anne’s house. We advanced in slow, cautious steps, along Columbus Avenue. Anne and I were late for school. By the time we got there all the kids had already gone up to their classrooms. The lobby was deserted. I carefully laid the house down on the lobby’s carpet. “Your house came out perfect. I’m proud of you,” Mom said, and patted my wet head, “I’m sure everyone will die when they see it!” I thanked her for the robes and the blankets and the hair and for surrendering to the German Fimo manufacturers. Mom left.
I stayed there to watch over my model. Mom was right. Everyone really did go crazy about the house. At first a few people who happened to walk by stopped to check it out, but rumor spread fast. By second period there was already a real hubbub in the lobby. Third period class was cancelled altogether, and everyone was allowed to come and look, ask questions, praise. Your house is breathtaking, people said, hugging me. It was like I had dreamt, but different. All of a sudden, I felt a need to take cover, but there was no kind Dutch family to offer me a hiding place.
“She looks like Winona Ryder,” remarked Stuart, the boy with the chronic runny nose form a grade above me, as he stroked Anne’s noble nape.
“Leave her alone, she doesn’t like that,” I told him. I felt trapped.
In the days that followed, parents began streaming into the school to observe the phenomenon. Even teachers and students from the rival Jewish school on the East Side made their way across the park to visit my house. And then Mrs. Pearl told me that there would be a formal launching ceremony of Anne’s house during the Holocaust Day event, and that I needed to make a speech.
I didn’t sleep a wink the night before the ceremony. My sister went to bed without saying goodnight. Perhaps she’s suspicious about Margot’s hair. Perhaps she’s jealous of my house. I lay in the dark, wrapped in the gaily colored striped angora blanket that Mom had knitted for me. Anne was crying out in my head, “Leave me alone, let me have at least one night when I don’t cry myself to sleep with my eyes burning and my head pounding. Let me get away, away from everything, away from this whole world!”
On the morning of Holocaust Day, I put on a navy blue skirt and white buttoned shirt. I fastened a barrette in my hair and looked at myself in the bathroom mirror. My sister banged on the door and said my time was up. “I once asked Margot if she thought I was ugly,” Anne whispered. “She said that I was cute and had nice eyes. A little vague, don’t you think?”
I put the diary in my Danish schoolbag and walked silently to school, where Vernon Young, the janitor, had just moved the model into the auditorium and placed it on a podium next to the microphone. The principal spoke first, about the Holocaust and the model, and then a boy went up and read a poem written by a boy who died in Terezin: “And I never saw another butterfly, another butterfly, another butterfly, another butterfly…”
But everyone knew what the real story of this Holocaust Day was. I was next. The audience looked at me thirstily. I didn’t know what to say, what my story was. I stood on the tips of my toes to reach the microphone and opened the diary. Anne began speaking: “really, its not easy being the badly brought-up center of attention of a family of nitpickers. In bed at night, as I ponder my many sins and exaggerated shortcomings, I get so confused by the sheer number of things I have to consider that I either laugh or cry, depending on my mood. Then I fall asleep with the strange feeling of wanting to be different than I am or being different than I want to be, or perhaps of behaving differently than I am or want to be.
“Oh dear, now I’m confusing you too. Forgive me, but I don’t like crossing things out, and in these times of scarcity, tossing away a piece of paper is clearly taboo. So I can only advise you not to reread the above passage and to make no attempt to get to the bottom of it, because you’ll never find your way out!”
I paused for a moment. Everyone was staring – at me, at the house, and at Anne, as the monologue continued: “Relationships here at the Annex are getting worse all the time…I’ve been taking valerian every day to fight the anxiety and depression, but it doesn’t stop me from being even more miserable the next day. A good hearty laugh would help more than ten drops of valerian, but we’ve almost forgotten how to laugh. Sometimes I’m afraid my face is going to sag with all this sorrow and that my mouth is going to permanently droop at the corners. The others aren’t doing any better. Everyone here is dreading the great terror known as winter. Another fact that doesn’t exactly brighten up our days is that Mr. van Maaren, the man who works in the warehouse, is getting suspicious about the Annex.”
Holocaust day came and went, but the Anne Frank festival showed no signs of dying down. The house became an object of pilgrimages, the praise kept pouring in, haunting me. A persistent rumor spread that Elie Wiesel, who also lived on the Upper West Side, had heard about the house and was planning to come visit it soon.
One day I saw a few teachers huddled together, whispering nervously, deliberating, sending sympathetic glances in my direction. Then Mrs. Pearl approached me and told me in a shattered voice that my house had been destroyed. It turned out that Vernon had sat on it by accident. She tenderly placed her hand on my shoulder and said that she was deeply sorry. I didn’t say anything. She led me hesitantly to the disaster site, and suddenly I felt like I was floating down the corridor.
Vernon really had crushed the thing to death. Mother, Peter, Margot, all goners. It looked like everything was wiped out. But then Mrs. Pearl fished little Anne out of the wreckage and placed her in the palm of my hand. I looked at her. Not a scratch. At least she survived, said the teacher, take good care of her now.
I didn’t know what to do with Anne. I wrapped her in a sweater and put her in my schoolbag.
At first Vernon didn’t get what the big fuss was about. He said he was sorry and thought that that was the end of the story. But from day to day the resentment towards him at the school grew stronger. The affair reached a peak when I was informed one day the the following morning at 10 a.m. the he janitor was going to deliver a formal apology to me, face to face. Hadn’t anyone learned a lesson? The next day, we reported to the art room for the apology, and waited for Vernon. Anne was still smiling faintly, clutching her diary. I gently stroked her dark bowl cut, and then I plaited some fine braids. Why is your your hair so mousy, so wispy, I thought. I removed the yellow badge from her thin arm, and then I took a brown magic marker and colored her face. Vernon walked in, his head bowed. “I’m really sorry about your dollhouse,” he said.
“It’s ok, forget it,” I told him. Vernon looked at Anne in my hand and smiled. “Hey, isn’t that the girl from the Cosby Show?” he asked, oblivious to the doom in her eyes, to Kitty in her hand. I nodded.
“Cool,” he replied.
“Take her,” I said, and handed her to him. Vernon looked surprised, he asked if I was sure, and I said I was sure. Vernon said “Thanks,” and put Anne in the pocket of his blue work uniform, and they both proceeded to change a burnt light bulb in the girls’ bathroom.
Only that evening I told Mom what happened. She went red in the face. “God help us!” she cried. “What- the whole house is ruined!?”
“Yes,” I said, “my house is ruined.”
“And what happened to Anne?”
“Anne moved on,” I said.
Dea Hadar is an award-winning writer and journalist who lives in New York. She is the author of two critically acclaimed Hebrew books: “Sweet Dreams, Isawiya” (2000), a collection of short stories, and “Still Morning” (2008), a novel about a dysfunctional family of Israeli immigrants in New York in the 1980s. In 2012, Still Morning was awarded the prestigious Am Hasefer translation grant by the Israeli Ministry of Culture and the Yehoshua Rabinowitz Foundation of the Arts. Dea worked at the Israeli newspaper Haaretz for over ten years as a magazine writer, TV critic and personal columnist, with foreign assignments in Guantanamo Bay, Turkey, and many other places. She studied journalism and international relations at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
* A different version of this story in Hebrew was previously published in Haaretz newspaper in April 2009.
Stunning …from beginning to a riveting end. This is a must read for students and teachers who have before them an account rich with details and meaning. My mind is racing. What a treasure of a piece for classroom discussion with multiple areas of meaning.