I’ve just visited the hiding place of some troublesome refugees who should make Donald Trump very angry. It’s not the first time I’ve called at the little house on the old canal, but you only have to glance at the family’s papers to see how they fall under Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. They fled a dangerous country full of extremists – a nation which threatened its own neighbours – and they sought their first new home for “economic reasons”. Worse still, they even tried to enter the United States. They were turned away – on the grounds that even if they had good reason to flee their persecutors, they didn’t have good enough reason to choose America as their place of refuge.
No, they’re not Syrians or Turkmens or Yazidis or Afghans, although the younger daughter of the family was reading a book about “Palestine” and was very much a member of a persecuted race. She was, of course, Anne Frank, the German Jewish girl who with her family fled the Nazis in 1933 and was given sanctuary in Holland – until Germany invaded the Low Countries in 1940 and she found herself under the rule of her own vicious country all over again. By 1941, her father Otto – realizing that the Nazis had in store for Jews in Holland the very same fate that was already being perpetrated against the Jews of Germany – sought visas to the United States. And the door was slammed in their face.
Yup, I do wonder what the Trump administration would have done.
Anne Frank’s diary was the first book my mother wanted me to read “on my own” (without having it read to me) and this wonderful narrative of childhood-growing-into-adulthood, of fear and love and joy and fury – especially at the other refugees crowded into the family hiding-place behind Otto’s office on the Prinsengracht Canal in Amsterdam – has stayed with me all my life. With other people too. It has been translated into 70 languages. It’s even been translated into Arabic. Officials at the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam tell me, sadly, that – despite its awful relevance – they sell only about one copy a month in the Arabic language.
No matter. So powerful, so tragic and so relevant is Anne’s story to us today – and that of her mother Edith and her elder sister Margot and the others squeezed into the secret annex in Prinsegracht – one of them a boy called Peter van Pels with whom Anne is slowly falling in love – that queues stand round the block in the cold Amsterdam rain to take their turn to walk up the stairs behind the false bookcase to see where these frightened Jewish men, women and children lived until, two years after they first hid here, the Gestapo arrived. You can still see – it’s so genuine, it allows of no clichés – the newspaper photographs of 1930s film stars (Ray Milland, Diana Durbin, Ginger Rogers) and of a very young Princess Elizabeth of England (plus sister Margaret and corgis) and of the Dutch royal family in exile whose nationality Anne wished to adopt after the war and whose pictures she glued to the wall of her room.
The Dutch nation would certainly have been more loyal to her than the Americans. Otto sought help for US visas from friends who were relatives of those who owned Macey’s department store. He had two brothers-in-law in the States. He wrote of the plight of his wife and two daughters. The State Department was not interested. Otto even pleaded for Cuban visas. He got one – on 1st December 1941 – but it was cancelled a week later when Germany declared war on Japan after Pearl Harbour. Thus did Japan as well as Hitler and the Americans join hands to doom the refugees on the Prinsengracht Canal. Roosevelt’s US – and Democratic – administration did a “Trump” on the Frank family.
To add to the travails of refugeedom, Nazi Germany had already deprived German Jews of their own citizenship – so the Franks, originally – and legally – in exile in Holland, also became stateless under their own country’s occupiers. Stateless? Economic migrants? Illegal migrants in Holland now that their German passports were invalid? What earthly chance did they have?
Each time I read Anne Frank’s diary – and reader, if you haven’t read it, make up for lost time, as they say, and do so – I find something new which I missed on my previous journey through her pages. She wanted to be a writer. She wanted to turn her diary into a novel called The Secret Annex. And she wrote, on May 11th 1944, “my greatest wish is to become a journalist one day.” You can’t beat that.
I find that one day she is about to read a book called Palestine at the Crossroads. Although she does not say so, it was published in 1937 by a Jewish writer called Ladislas Farago – an author I read many years later when he wrote a best-selling biography of General Patton – which is a rather plodding pro-Zionist book, put together after Farago visited, rather indifferently, the old British Mandate. I’ve read bits of it. I doubt if it would have persuaded Anne to help found the state of Israel, had she lived long enough to do so, for she was wedded to European culture and wanted to live among the Dutch and return to school with their children. She waited with childish excitement for her liberation, recording in her diary the joy of learning about the Allied landings at D-Day, writing movingly of the plight of the crew of an RAF bomber which she sees – through the secret office skylight – shot down over Amsterdam.
But then – and her story sometimes seems to have the inevitability of Greek tragedy about it – her family was betrayed and three members of the Dutch Nazi Party and an Austrian (and therefore Reich) SS officer came storming up the staircase behind the false bookshelves on 4 August 1944. And that was the end of all of them. Except for Otto. He was eventually freed from Auschwitz by the Soviet army and travelled slowly back to Amsterdam to find that his family were dead. Edith died in Auschwitz, Margot and Anne at Bergen-Belsen, both of typhus. Anne, now 15 years old, died last. An old school friend says she caught sight of Anne in her last days and threw food to her over the camp barbed wire.
Anne’s was one of tens of thousands of corpses piled into the mass graves of Belsen. Even if he can’t find the time to fly his private jet into Schipol airport and visit the little house on the old 17th-century Amsterdam canal, Donald Trump could at least read Anne Frank’s diary. It’s a short book. It’s by a child, and is therefore easy to read. It’s by a Jewish girl, who asks at one point why God has visited such terrors upon her people. Just as refugees today seek to know why God has forsaken them.
Four Dutch citizens helped Anne and her family and friends throughout their two years of solitude, at daily risk of their lives. They said later that it was a natural thing to do. Odd, that. Because today we are supposed to find it “unnatural” to help these people. I guess that’s Trump’s view. Yet in the streets around the Prinsengrach this week – after all the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have arrived in Europe, and just 72 years after the Gestapo came to Anne’s hiding place round the corner, I found small cafes whose Dutch owners had written on their front doors the words: “Refugees welcome”.