With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
Subscribe and Save up to 45%
© Anne Frank Fonds Basel
The first time someone told me I looked like Anne Frank was also the first conversation I had about pubic hair. Now, of course it’s possible the two topics weren’t actually discussed back to back and my subconscious simply saw an opening one night while I was asleep and stitched the two memories together. All the same, this is how I remember it: We were still living in Israel. I was nine. It was a hot day in Jaffa, but the school hallways were cool. The teachers had set up a display of books by the entrance, and a friend of mine was examining one of them. I was bored, because books were boring. My friend looked from me to the cover of the book in her hand and back to me again and said, You kind of look like Anne Frank.
Oh, I said, hoping this was a compliment.
Then, as if picking up a conversation we’d dropped, she added, Are you getting pubic hair anywhere yet? I think I am, but I’m not sure.
I have another memory from that time, of standing in front of a full-length mirror for a good hour trying to figure out how the parts of my face fit together. I got so close I fogged up the glass.
It was a hot day in this memory, too, our balcony sunny in the mirror’s reflection.
It must have been around then that my mother, bless her heart, made an earnest attempt to turn me into a reader. I do recall having some books in my room growing up, including a collection of children’s poems by Shel Silverstein that I’d taken out of the library because a friend had dragged me there. The book had been overdue for a year or more, something I worried about a lot. I also recall a children’s encyclopedia from the sixties, a pile of comics, maybe a few schoolbooks. I just don’t remember actually reading any of them. When my mom gave me a Hebrew copy of Anne Frank’s diary, which had an orange cover made to resemble an older edition and no photo of Anne, I think she said something like You don’t have to be a big reader, Yael, but give this a try.
I gave it a try, which to me meant staring blankly at the first page for about ten minutes while vividly daydreaming about flying. Then I put it down. When my mom asked about the book a week later, I handed it to her with the explanation — and this is a direct quote — The letters were too small. Sorry.
Anytime I remember my childhood in Israel, the images are always sun drenched, always an inch away from what feels like reality: The chocolate factory at the end of the street, which, if the wind blew just right, made the smoggy breeze sickly sweet. The park called the Monkey Park, which didn’t have monkeys but did have a woman named Yael (like me), who spent nights in the park — because walls, she felt, were always coming at her. The sex workers in the apartment block next to ours who would buy groceries by tying a basket to a rope and lowering it down to street level with a list and money inside. Daliah, the kiosk owner, would take the money and fill up the basket with the listed items. Then the sex workers would lift the basket back up.
When I was ten, we moved from Israel to the Netherlands. It was the 1990s, and my artist parents, unemployed and in debt, had decided to try their luck in my father’s home country after a decade in my mother’s.
My memories of the move are vague. I recall moments, such as waking up in an airport hotel the day after our arrival, taking my sister onto the balcony, looking out over miles of grassland, and watching rabbits jump between tall weeds. Or seeing a swastika spray-painted on an old barn along the highway. My grandfather had come to pick us up from the airport hotel, and on the car ride north I spotted the ugly thing. I panicked and insisted we pull over and call the police, and my mom — really, bless her heart — tried to calm me and explain that, no, no one was going to call the police. Probably more tired and confused than actually scared, I started to cry, which set off a domino effect that will be familiar to families of criers: My sisters saw me and started crying, too. Then the two dogs crammed into the car with us began to whine. Our father shouted at us to calm down, and our mother shouted at our father for shouting at us, and the shouting made us cry harder. What a single swastika can do.
I also became a reader that first summer in the Netherlands, out of complete and utter boredom. We were staying with my grandparents, who lived in the woods: no malls, no kiosks that sold Slush Puppies for a shekel. Their TV got three channels and was only ever turned on for the news at eight o’clock. I spent the first few weeks exploring the house for hidden cabinets, doors — anything. I found an old doll and a stale bag of nuts. I played with the dogs and tried to translate the Destiny’s Child hit “No No No” into Hebrew. When that stopped being entertaining, I surrendered to opening Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s novel The Secret Garden. The first few days I read reluctantly — offended, really, that it had come to this — but by the end of the week I’d finished, breathless and convinced I was the human incarnation of Burnett’s protagonist: young Mary, who, following her parents’ death, is made to live with her hunchbacked uncle in his menacing mansion. Over the course of the novel Mary transforms from a sour little girl to a healthy, pink-cheeked young woman who is fond of walkabouts and converses with birds. My very kind grandparents were a far cry from Burnett’s grumbling uncle, and their cottage was no mansion, but none of this proved an obstacle to my imagining myself as Mary. I took long walks in the woods and expected the birds to respond to my loud hellos.
Tentatively, not wanting to jinx it, my mom began feeding me more books.
The second time someone said I looked like Anne Frank, nothing about it felt like a compliment. We had moved from my grandparents’ house to a city. One day a boy on the school playground shouted, Anne Frank! and then got frustrated when I didn’t react. He shouted it a few more times: Anne Frank! Anne Frank! Anne Frank! Somehow it turned into a chant, and the nickname stuck.
That year they took down the Star of David from the only synagogue in town after the building had been vandalized in the night. Once, when the window to my parents’ bedroom was left open, neighborhood kids threw lit firecrackers through it. Later, in my teens, I would move into that room and develop a bad case of insomnia. I’d sit on the windowsill at night, stare out at the street, and fantasize about what I would do if someone came to our door with a can of spray paint or a brick. I pictured myself going berserk on them with the hockey stick I’d bought at a secondhand shop expressly for that purpose.
Once, in middle school or high school or somewhere in between, I told a friend that I didn’t like it when kids called me Anne Frank, and she said, kindly enough, It’s not like Anne Frank did anything wrong, right? So how is it an insult? Her argument seemed solid enough. I couldn’t yet put into words what bothered me about it. Another time, after I found a swastika scratched into my locker at school, a different friend tried to comfort me. I don’t get it, she said. It’s not like you can help being Jewish.
Not for lack of trying, mind you. Maybe it was the shock of going from never having to think about my Jewishness, to having to explain it on a daily basis, to understanding that I was it, to defending it even though I didn’t want to defend it. Whatever the reason, I resented the way it clung to me. Most of all I resented Anne, whoever she had been. I resented that her face was my face and that her story — as far as I understood — was as uneventful as writing a diary, as simple as dying. By that time, around the age of thirteen, I’d graduated from Edwardian children’s novels to fantasy stories — anything that felt like escape. And yet, trying to avoid my own life, all I did was read about versions of myself: kids who move great distances and are surrounded by adults who don’t understand; kids who discover a great secret about themselves. Later I’d look back and see this clearly, but at the time the narratives of young witches narrowly escaping being burned at the stake, or of men who turn into wolves, seemed impossibly brilliant compared to my Jewish story, which felt sad and small, like nothing I wanted to identify with. I didn’t do well at school. I got held back a year and spent after-school hours at the library, writing long stories about characters — all variations on me, of course — who beat up bullies using their newfound magic powers. I still hadn’t read Anne Frank’s diary.
I tried to chameleon my way through the rest of high school. One year I had a friend who was a preppy, the daughter of dentists, so for those twelve months I wore old, pilled sweaters and plastic pearls. The next year I hung out with some skaters and started wearing wide pants — though they weren’t wide in the right way, just too big and held up at the waist with a belt. Another year I got a blond streak in my hair, done by one of my mother’s friends in her kitchen sink, which on occasion masqueraded as a hair salon. The next year I got a perm. None of this had the desired effect. Especially not the perm.
We discussed Anne Frank’s story in history class. The Dutch have a very specific way of remembering it: Anne Frank was mostly Dutch and only a little Jewish, and the Germans were bad and occupied Amsterdam, and the Dutch people were good and helped Anne and her family, but the bad Germans took her away and killed her. Two boys who sat behind me in history drew a cartoon of me as a witch and decorated it with clusters of swastikas. I managed to wrestle the notebook away from them and tear out the page. In one of those rare moments in which you say exactly what you want to say, I told them, You have no talent, and threw away the paper. But they still called me names. The Dutch have a very specific way of cursing in which they use cancer as an adjective, adding it to whatever slur they throw your way: Cancer bitch. Cancer whore. Cancer Jew.
Someone told the history teacher, and he came to me after class and said that if this happened more often, I should come to him. I remember being angered by the “more often” comment — as though once weren’t enough; as though five years of it hadn’t been enough. When I did go to the administration, they reacted with the appropriate shock. Not in our school, they said. When I listed the names of five bullies, they gave me two options: Would I like for them to be expelled or only suspended?
Just tell them not to call me Anne Frank anymore, I answered.
The bullies were suspended for three days, and I got a different locker. The old one still had a swastika on it, but that was for another student to lament. I had to repeat my final year of high school at night — twice — and graduated at nineteen with barely passing grades. I still have nightmares in which I have to go back because of a mistake someone made, and I’m stuck in that last year of night school for eternity — sleeping in fits during the day, keeping watch over our front door after dark. But in reality I moved on: went to vocational school, clawed my way up in the Dutch educational system, and stumbled into a university in Utrecht as if I’d walked into the wrong party but decided to make the best of it.
A statue of Anne Frank stands in the middle of Utrecht, flanked by a church on one side and the university on the other. For a long time I couldn’t figure out why. Anne had never come to Utrecht, had no connection to it. But there she stood, arms behind her back, looking content, even dreamy. Every other day or so, flowers appeared at her feet. Once, I put a flower there, too, with a note attached to it. I’m not you, it said. I still hadn’t read her diary.
At the university I discovered a whole different version of what Jewishness meant to other people, and to me. The swastikas had disappeared from the bathroom mirrors, tables, and notebooks, but to my mind they still persisted in the shape of comments that seemed to go unnoticed. Let me tell this part of the story the way I remember it, and you tell me what you see:
You think she’s pretty? the girl asks the guy.
I guess, he answers. I mean, if you’re into that Anne Frank look.
I finished my BA in comparative literature with a thesis titled “Anne Frank and the Irony of the Subverted Victim.” I’m not sure, in retrospect, how I ended up with the topic. I’m guessing it was part anger, part attention-seeking, part simply looking for confirmation: See? You are nothing like her. Or maybe Yeah, you are everything like her. My thesis was about the many ways in which Anne’s story had been received over the years, the many adaptations it had been given — on screen, in the theater, in literature — and how every interpretation had been more about what people wanted her to represent than about her. I spent a good year immersing myself in the scholarship and adulation her diary had inspired. I’d gone through every literary adaptation I could find, such as Shalom Auslander’s novel Hope: A Tragedy, in which the protagonist gets to chew over his white masculine angst by fucking a non-Jewish woman of color named Aleeyah while Anne Frank, now an old lady and still hiding in his attic, agonizes over writing a follow-up to her first book. Or Philip Roth’s novel The Ghost Writer, in which a maybe-survived-in-secret Anne Frank idolizes Roth’s fictional alter ego — but, you know, in a sexy way.
I discussed the diary at length, feeling for once that I was in charge of this topic everyone expected me to be an expert on. I reveled in the shock value of being an Anne Frank look-alike who shows up at a conference to talk about Anne Frank.
Throughout all of this, though, I still hadn’t read her diary.
A few years ago I was invited to speak at a conference in Vienna, Austria, the place where my grandmother was born and from which she had fled in the 1930s. When I told her on the phone where I was going, she said: Why would you go there? Vienna has nothing for you.
I suddenly had a deep desire not to be Anne Frank anymore. The day before I left for Vienna, I walked by a hair salon and on impulse went in and asked if they could please cut off most of my hair. I got a pixie cut, a really short one. Before getting on the plane, I colored my eyebrows as dark as I could. I looked nothing like her anymore.
The conference was an odd affair. I was the youngest person there, one of the few women, and the whole thing took on the feeling of a performance. I ended up in a role where whatever I said was either not clever enough or just clever enough to inspire ire in the audience. I spent my evenings feeling blank, going for walks, and trying to see Vienna for the marvel that I’d been told it was. It was, indeed, very pretty. I found my grandmother’s old home a half-hour outside of the city: a gray cinder-block building. Vienna has nothing for you.
On the last night of the conference I ran into one of the other speakers at the hotel bar, a writer. Over dinner he’d mentioned his next work would be about women’s voices, which are so often silenced: a statement he’d directed at the handful of women present as part of a lengthy monologue during which none of us had gotten the chance to speak.
Now at the bar he asked me, And what about you? What do you want to do?
I guess be a writer? I replied. At twenty-four I thought speaking with uncertainty was a sign of humility.
Then you’re not a writer, he said with conviction and took a long sip from his beer.
I laughed because I didn’t know how else to react.
A real writer, he insisted, doesn’t guess. If you’re not sure of it, don’t do it.
I remember his words much better than I do my own response, which was something along the lines of a small-voiced Now, hold on, you don’t know me, before he continued and I retreated into myself. Later, on my way to the elevator, a friend of his who had overheard the conversation caught up with me to say, Don’t worry. He’s always like this with the young ones.
The young ones. Anne Frank was thirteen when she began her diary. In the hotel room that night I stared out at Vienna while she talked to me with the voice I’d given her, one probably nothing like her own. How fucking ironic, she said, these men and their obsession with me. I imagined her taking the pins from her hair and holding them in her mouth as she fussed with her part, so that the next words came out muffled: What if I was alive, they wonder, and, like, their sexy student they could teach about existentialism, or whatever. But the moment they have an actual woman with actual thoughts trying to talk to them, they can’t see her. They can’t even—
I know, I told Anne Frank. I know.
You still have to read my diary, she said, putting her pins back in at a different angle.
I know, I told her. I will.
Yael van der Wouden