Last Wednesday was the 90th anniversary of the birth of Anne Frank, 75 years since the last birthday she reached before she and her family were betrayed.
I have in front of me a small book, really a pamphlet, called Kinder der Naechte, Children of the Nights. I’m sure I’ve written about it before. On the front is a picture of letters, maybe a name, carved into what looks like a cellar wall, with the date, 1940. The booklet was published in the 1960’s, in Frankfurt, Anne’s place of birth, ‘for pupils of 13 and above’.
I almost threw this meagre item away when clearing their bookshelf after my grandparents died. Fortunately, I chanced to open it and saw that a note had been pasted in: Otto und Fritzi Frank, mit sehr herzlichen Gruessen.
Anne’s father must have given it to my grandparents after the war. The families knew each other from Frankfurt, where both Anne and my mother were born. Only, Anne’s family fled to Holland. Who ever imagined it would be overrun in mere days? My family reached England. Who knew then that it would survive, at first little aided, but uninvaded, and win the war?
I’m ashamed to say that I never read the book – until now. On page 32 there’s a letter from 12-year-old Bernard, dated Paris 18.7.1942
They’re looking for me. Yesterday morning they took Papa and Mama away. I’d gone to get milk; when I came back a neighbour quickly pushed me into his cellar. He told me that every evening he’ll bring me food for the whole day. He’s going to try to get me to his brother in the country. Jojo, if something like this happens to you, don’t lose courage. I promise you I’m not sitting here with my head hanging low…
Jojo is Bernard’s 16-year-old cousin in Toulouse.
At a gathering hosted in Parliament, Tim Robertson, chief executive of the Anne Frank Trust, reminded us that it was not the words of a politician, religious leader, general, financier or celebrity which had most deeply touched the heart of the world, but that of an ordinary, gifted, articulate teenage girl:
I will make my voice heard, I will go out into the world and work for mankind. (April 11, 1944)
Anne could not have known the sad manner in which her voice would reach the lives of hundreds of millions. But reach us it has; and it’s up to each of us to hear.
Our community should be proud of the work of The NNLS Destitute Asylum Seekers Drop In, (and other ways such as Refugees At Home or OSH, Our Second Home) in which we listen and offer support to those whose experiences of persecution are beyond our knowledge and imagination. Still, we need more financial support and fresh volunteers.
Most of all, we need more compassion. Of course, every country has limited capacities for absorption and a primary duty of care to its own citizens. But that does not mean that unaccompanied children should be left destitute, desperate and in danger; or that thousands with well-founded fears of persecution and death in their countries of origin should find no resting place, no heart open to their suffering and no chance to build a future.
The coming days, 17 -23 June are Refugee Week, with its theme of You, Me and Those who Came Before.
A Christian couple helped my mother’s family when they fled to Britain from Nazi Germany. We now, the great majority of us, have safe homes. We have the capacity to assist.
Generation after generation, refugees have sought the hands of others – and not always found them outstretched. Who knows what the future will bring, whose great-grandchildren may need help from whom? Perhaps the ancestors of those whose hands our descendants may need are right now stretched out in hope towards us?
In words given prime-time in the Jewish year, the morning of the Day of Atonement, Isaiah stated simply: ‘Lo tuchal lehit’alem – You are not at liberty to hide yourself away’.