Anne Frank’s final days, as told by her former classmate

April 28, 2017

Obituaries

(JTA)—Looking through the barbed wire of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, 14-year-old Nanette Konig could barely recognize her friend and classmate from Amsterdam, Anne Frank.

Both girls had been caught by the Nazis in the Dutch capital and were sent to starve to death in a place Konig describes today as “hell on Earth.” Both were emaciated when they saw each other again in different sections of the same German camp in 1944.

“She looked like a walking skeleton, just like me,” Konig, one of the few living friends of the teenage diarist, told JTA in a video interview from her home in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on April 6, which was her 88th birthday.

As more and more Holocaust survivors die each year, Konig was compelled a decade ago to break her long silence and join a diminishing group of witnesses who now tell their story in the media and at schools. Her lectures, which Konig says she has delivered to thousands of students on three continents, are something that “survivors owe to the victims.”

But it’s also her way of repaying Anne Frank’s father, Otto, who comforted Konig in the aftermath of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, even as he was grieving for his own two daughters and wife.

Otto Frank, who edited the diaries his daughter wrote while the family was in hiding into the best-selling The Diary of a Young Girl, met Konig in 1945 at a rehabilitation center in eastern Holland. Konig, who was 16 and weighed only 60 pounds, was brought there following the Allies’ liberation of Bergen-Belsen—“a hell where people were not exterminated immediately, but died from hunger, dysentery, typhus, cold, exhaustion, beatings, torture and exposure,” she says.

Yet Konig was one of the lucky ones to survive. Anne Frank and her older sister, Margot, were among the estimated 50,000 who perished at Bergen-Belsen in 1945 after arriving there from Auschwitz. Their mother, Edith, died at Auschwitz a month before her daughters, just three weeks before the Red Army liberated the death camp.

Otto Frank, the sole survivor from his family, already knew his daughters and wife were dead when he came to the rehabilitation center to visit Konig, who is also the only survivor from her family. Konig says he wanted to know as much as possible about his family’s last weeks.

Listening to her stories and seeing her emaciated physique “visibly caused Otto Frank a lot of pain,” Konig recalls.

But despite his grief Frank, who died in 1980, “gave me support, encouraged me at a point in my life when I had no one,” she said. “He was a very special man and I will always be grateful for the consolation he offered me.”

Like many of Anne Frank’s schoolmates and friends, Konig recalls the diarist as a “sunny, smiley child.”

But unlike most of them, Konig also witnessed Anne “change into an adult” in a matter of weeks at Bergen-Belsen, she says.

“We had a childhood and then we had no adolescence,” she says.“We simply became grown-ups overnight. It was the only way to survive.”

During their meeting, Otto Frank told Konig that he intended to edit his daughter’s diaries—there were three of them—into a book. During their conversation, he said he was still thinking of omitting some of the personal details that Anne included in the diaries, including her tense relationship with her mother and her account of getting her first period.

Ultimately, though, he included these details—countless readers of Anne Frank’s book regard them as crucial to achieving the personal connection many of them feel to her.

The Diary of a Young Girl is perhaps the world’s most-read manuscript about the Holocaust; it has been translated into 70 languages in dozens of countries.

- Cnaan Liphshiz

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