Though documented by many witnesses, Anne Frank’s last months are rarely probed by teachers, filmmakers or others seeking to make the diarist’s voice relevant.
For starters, the details of Frank’s post-capture incarceration are not exactly uplifting: The seven month-long demise of a 15-year old girl through starvation, scabies and typhus is a poor postscript to the “people are really good at heart” message, the one most lifted from her diary.
Seventy years ago this month, Frank and her Secret Annex co-fugitives arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau in a sealed cattle car. Theirs had been the last deportation train from the Netherlands’ Westerbork transit camp, after two years of weekly “transports” brought 100,000 Dutch Jews to the death factories.
For decades, the public knew almost nothing about Frank’s post-capture experience, except that she died with her sister Margot at a place called Bergen-Belsen.
Finally, in 1988, a Dutch television documentary – aptly named “The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank” – fleshed out what happened to Frank after her deportation from Amsterdam.
For the first time, Diary fans heard from six women whose paths crossed Frank at the end of her life. Filmmaker Willy Lindwer interviewed some of the women on-site at the former camps, and he also compiled the unedited interviews for a book.
Frank arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau after an unprecedented, summer-long killing frenzy in which more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews were gassed.
The Frank and van Pels families had maintained good health during two years in hiding, so they survived the initial “selection” between work and death. Even having landed in Auschwitz, the families could hope that labor and a swift Allied victory would see them through.
Survivor Ronnie Goldstein-van Cleef met the Frank family at Westerbork, and was close with Anne in the Birkenau labor camp.
‘Anne was very calm and quiet and somewhat withdrawn’
“Anne often stood next to me [at roll call] and Margot was close by,” said Goldstein-van Cleef, who recalled taking turns sipping “coffee” from a cup with Frank and four other women each morning.
“Anne was very calm and quiet and somewhat withdrawn. The fact that they had ended up there had affected her profoundly – that was obvious,” said the survivor.
After several weeks at Birkenau, the Frank sisters contracted the skin mites which cause scabies, a ravenous camp mainstay. Confined to the scabies barrack, the girls were without their mother’s care for the first time.
“The Frank girls looked terrible, their hands and bodies covered with spots and sores from the scabies,” Goldstein-van Cleef told Lindwer. “They were in a very bad way; pitiful – that’s how I thought of them,” she said.
Lenie de Jong-van Naarden was another Dutch Jew who knew the Frank women at Auschwitz. When the sisters were confined to the scabies barrack, she helped Edith Frank dig a hole under the structure to smuggle bread to her daughters.
“In the barracks where [the Frank girls] were, women went crazy, completely crazy,” said de Jong-van Naarden, who, along with other witnesses, observed Edith Frank’s tireless devotion to her children.
‘In the barracks where [the Frank girls] were, women went crazy, completely crazy’
“There were people who threw themselves against the electric fence,” said de Jong-van Naarden. “To work it out completely alone – that didn’t work; even very strong women broke down,” she said.
Survivor Bloeme Evers-Emden first met Anne Frank in 1941, when Jewish children were forced to attend the same school in Amsterdam – the Jewish Lyceum. Reunited at Auschwitz, the teenagers spoke about the war’s toll on their families.
“When [Anne] was in hiding, which was a very unhealthy situation, her mother was someone against whom she rebelled,” Evers-Emden said in her interview. “But in the camp, all of that actually completely fell away. By giving each other mutual support, they were able to keep each other alive – although no one can fight typhus,” she added.
As the Russian army advanced into Poland during October, many of the camp’s 39,000 women prisoners – Anne and Margot among them – were transported west to Germany. Having been forced to stay behind, Edith Frank died of exhaustion and grief in early 1945.
Anne Frank’s last chapter
Bergen-Belsen, on an isolated, desolate heath in northern Germany, would be the Frank sisters’ final home.
Though not equipped with killing facilities, Bergen-Belsen became severely overcrowded and disease-plagued with the arrival of transports from Auschwitz and other camps. Dozens of mass graves were filled during the war’s last winter, including one with the Frank sisters.
Rachel van Amerongen-Frankfoorder is one of several women who told Lindwer about the Franks’ slow decline in a camp known for “unorganized hell,” in contrast to Auschwitz-Birkenau’s “organized hell.”
“They had little squabbles, caused by their illness, because it was clear they had typhus,” said van Amerongen-Frankfoorder, who first met the Frank family at Westerbork.
“Typhus was the hallmark of Bergen-Belsen,” she said. “[Anne and Margot] had those hollowed-out faces, skin over bone. They were terribly cold. They had the least desirable places in the barracks, below, near the door, which was constantly opened and closed. You could really see both of them dying,” said Amerongen-Frankfoorder.
Survivor Janny Brandes-Brilleslijper gave Lindwer the most detailed account of the Frank sisters’ last days. For months, she had helped “organize” food and clothing for the girls, whose bodies ultimately succumbed to typhus.
“At a certain moment in her final days, Anne stood in front of me, wrapped in a blanket,” Brandes-Brilleslijper said.
‘She told me that she had such a horror of the lice and fleas in her clothes and that she had thrown all of her clothes away’
“She didn’t have any more tears, and she told me that she had such a horror of the lice and fleas in her clothes and that she had thrown all of her clothes away. It was the middle of winter and she was wrapped in one blanket. I gathered up everything I could find to give her so that she was dressed again,” said the survivor.
Three days after her disturbing encounter with Frank, Brandes-Brilleslijper learned that both sisters were dead.
“First, Margot had fallen out of bed onto the stone floor,” said Brandes-Brilleslijper. “She couldn’t get up anymore. Anne died a day later. Three days before her death from typhus was when she had thrown away all of her clothes during dreadful hallucinations. That happened just before the liberation,” the survivor said in the documentary.
Earlier that winter, with just weeks to live, the Frank sisters helped Brandes-Brilleslijper and other women take care of a large group of Dutch “mixed race” children placed in the camp. With Allied victory a near certainty, authorities found it more expedient to maintain the children than destroy them.
“We did our best to help them,” said Brandes-Brilleslijper. “Not only Anne and Margot, but also the other girls we knew went regularly to provide them with a little balance and sometimes a little culture,” she said.
Survivors of all three camps in which Frank spent time spoke about her teaching and entertaining children, as well as making deep human connections. Even in Bergen-Belsen, convinced that both her parents were dead, the Diary’s “young girl” uplifted others.