Marsha Lederman is the Globe and Mail’s Western arts correspondent and the author of Kiss the Red Stairs: The Holocaust, Once Removed.
When I was growing up, the most precious item in our Toronto bungalow was a rectangular green photo album, thick with black-and-white photographs. Two of these photos were particularly important: one, a group of female students posing for a school photograph. The other, two young friends, posing for the camera with their arms around one another.
In both of these photos was my father’s big sister, Devorah. The woman who never got to be my aunt.
Devorah was 24 when she was murdered in the gas chamber at Treblinka on Oct. 20, 1942, along with her parents, Moshe Aron and Sara Lederman. And her little brother, Isaac. A fate my father miraculously escaped.
Another miracle: Somehow these two photographs found their way to my father in Canada, years after the war. Someone he met at a gathering, some information exchanged, a lightbulb going off in somebody’s head, a phone call (or perhaps a letter) to someone else she knew. And one day, those two photos arrived at our doorstep.
Growing up, I knew my dad’s sister was in these photos, but somehow I got the faces mixed up. In that class photo, I was drawn to a girl with long dark braids and a steely, I’ll-show-you expression on her face. In my head, I decided that she was my aunt. And in the photo of the two friends, I was drawn to the woman on the right, with her dark hair and haunting eyes, one hand on her hip and her right leg crossed over her left. I didn’t ask anyone, and maybe everyone just assumed I understood that in fact Devorah – for whom my sister Doris is named – was the woman on the left, the one who looked exactly like my other sister, Rachel. They have the same face. How had I not noticed? I was very young.
We were going through final proofs for my memoir, my editor and I, when Margot Frank once again got shunted aside.
I didn’t know how these things worked; I had never written a book before. So I asked for Margot Frank’s name to be added to the text.
Why? I was writing about Bergen-Belsen, explaining that that was the destination where my mother was heading on her death march in late March, 1945, with about 700 other women. I was imagining what would have happened to my mother had she not been liberated by U.S. soldiers on April 1, 1945, in a German town called Kaunitz. Had she and the other women marched all the way to Bergen-Belsen, pit of hell that it was. It was the place where Anne Frank died, I wrote in my manuscript.
Margot died there, too. And I have always felt for Margot: her mark on history chiselled by a little sister’s critical pen. Through Anne, she has been presented to millions of readers as a quiet, somewhat intense, obedient, brainy, flawed young woman.
The mixture of pride and resentment toward a successful big sister is perfectly natural. Anne grew up in Margot’s shadow. Now Margot is forever in Anne’s. I wanted to offer Margot this tiny tribute by not leaving her out; to remind readers that her life mattered, too.
But by this point in the editing process, it was too late. The only changes we could make would be to fix actual mistakes. Leaving Margot’s name out was not an error. It was an omission.
I was in my thirties before I ever saw what any of my grandparents looked like. A researcher had unearthed photos of my mother’s parents, Moshe Rafael and Rachel Lindzen. The portraits had been taken either for prewar visas to leave Poland for Palestine – in the end, they decided, fatally, not to go – or for identification cards after the Nazis invaded. They both looked sad. Stricken. There is no photo that survives of their youngest child, Rachmiel – who was either 11 or 13 when he was murdered by the Nazis.
After my mother died, the oldest of we three sisters, Rachel, became the keeper of the green photo album. She is a diligent archivist and researcher. She has learned a lot about our parents’ prewar and wartime lives – and our family members’ deaths. In 2016, another Polish researcher she hired unearthed a photo of Moshe Aron, my paternal grandfather, whose face I had never seen. He was handsome, with a mustache. His ears reminded me of my son’s.
Around that time, Rachel was deep into the project of getting copies of the few photos we have of our murdered family members printed for each of us. She took the beautiful photo of the two girlfriends with their arms wrapped around each other to a Toronto photographer who, through some process, turned it into a solitary shot of Devorah. The arm that had been wrapped around her friend was replaced with a replica of her other arm. Now, Devorah stood alone.
Rachel gave me a copy of the new photo, which I put on display over my fireplace. But it never felt quite right to me. It wasn’t the weird arm. I missed the dark-haired girlfriend.
I don’t know a thing about her. Not even a name. Who was this teenager in the belted sweater, pleated skirt and dark stockings? Did she have any family who survived? Statistics suggest this is doubtful. And that she most likely perished: in a gas chamber, probably; her ashes chugged out into the sky.
Our decision to disappear her from this photograph felt like another violation.
While writing my book, I read through a diary my father kept in 1979, when he returned to Poland for the first time since the war. He visited Lodz, where he grew up. And Piotrkow Trybunalski, where he and his family had been imprisoned in the ghetto.
“Found all mass graves, took some pictures of that tragic scene, looked with horror at that huge grave which my dear, gentle brother with sweat and blood over His face helped to dig under the inhuman rigor of the S.S.,” my father wrote in his little green notebook.
“Walked from one grave to the other and said a prayer for them, because I knew very many of those young, fine men and girls, women and little kids who are buried there in those big piles.”
I read that shattering entry and made a decision: I was going to go to Poland and find that site and say kaddish, the memorial prayer, for all of those people who were murdered there.
When I first wrote that sentence, I called them “nameless people who were murdered there.” But they weren’t nameless. They had names, every one of them. They had lives. Dreams, hopes. Little troubles before the biggest trouble arrived. All of this, buried in this pit that my would-be uncle Isaac was forced to dig. I wish I could tell you something about even one of these people. I wish I could tell you something about Isaac Lederman. But I know almost nothing.
Like her sister, Margot Frank kept a diary while she was in hiding in the Secret Annex in Amsterdam. Unlike Anne’s, it was lost. Destroyed – like Margot and Anne and Isaac and the Moshes and Sara and Rachel and Devorah and Rachmiel and millions of other people whose names we will never know.
Margot Betti Frank was born on Feb. 16, 1926, in Frankfurt am Main. She was 7 when her family moved to the Netherlands. There, she picked up the language quickly and excelled in school, in particular science and math. She skated, played tennis and was a member of a rowing club. She had to give this all up after the Nazis invaded and Jews were no longer allowed to participate in sports. She wore eyeglasses. Her career ambition was to become a maternity nurse.
Margot was called up by the Nazis to report to work (“work”) on July 5, 1942. The family went into hiding the next day. They were eventually joined by four others. Margot slept in her parents’ room.
In May, 1944, in her diary, Anne made a list of what the people in hiding were studying. Margot’s was the longest: correspondence courses in English, French and Latin, shorthand in English, German and Dutch, trigonometry, geometry and solid geometry, mechanics, physics, chemistry, algebra, biology, bookkeeping, geography, modern history, economics. English, French, German and Dutch literature. Margot, Anne added, “reads everything, preferably on religion and medicine.”
The next time Margot – and Anne and their parents Otto and Edith; Hermann, Auguste and Peter van Pels; and Fritz Pfeffer, the dentist – were in the outdoors was Aug. 4, 1944. That was the day their hideout behind the swinging bookcase was discovered by the SS and Dutch police. They were arrested, and taken to the police station. According to a witness, Margot was weeping silently. She was sent to the transit camp Westerbork, then Auschwitz, and finally Bergen-Belsen, where she died of typhus the same month she would have turned or did turn 19.
She would never become a maternity nurse.
What could Margot have been, if she had been allowed to grow up? How many babies might she have delivered?
How many millions and millions of babies would never get to be born?
Still, we know so much more about Margot Frank than we know about most victims of the Holocaust.
For many other victims – like all four of my Polish-Jewish grandparents, my father’s big sister and little brother and my mother’s little brother – we only have bits of information: names, possibly birthdates, maybe even death dates. We might know a few little things about their lives. Moshe Rafael played the violin and was a voracious reader. My grandmother Rachel was traumatized by having all of her hair shaved off when she wed in an arranged marriage at 16 – to Moshe, a virtual stranger, in Radom, Poland. I know far less about my paternal grandparents, Moshe Aron and Sara. They owned a little shop in Lodz that sold delicacies and produce. I don’t know what it was called.
And yet, I know something. I know they existed. And that is a lot.
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