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Frank Talk

Although Rabbi Helga Newmark survived the horrors of the Holocaust, a childhood slight—from Anne Frank—stayed with her for the rest of her life

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Anne Frank, second from the left, at her 10th birthday party in 1939 in Amsterdam. (Anne Frank Fonds)

I only ever met one person who had anything bad to say about Anne Frank.

I was 12 years old, among a hundred other Hebrew school students in the social hall at our temple in northern New Jersey, eating our weekly dinner at long, uncovered banquet tables, when the oldest woman in the world walked in the door. In truth, Rabbi Helga Newmark was only 67 then. But the darkness in her eyes gave her a worn toughness where she might have been inviting, like impermeable black stains on a welcome mat. She was sturdy, though petite. She was wearing a fuchsia suit.

Rabbi Newmark sat down to face us where we had gathered at a table stacked with empty pizza boxes. She looked to me then like a person for whom it is impossible to imagine eating anything without a fork. And then she told us: “Anne Frank was a brat.”

In the late 1930s—when Newmark was not much younger than I was upon hearing her tell the story many years later—she was living in a German-Jewish refugee neighborhood in Amsterdam, a few houses down from the Frank family. Their parents were friendly. Helga was three years younger than Anne, who had invited all the other girls from their block to her birthday party. “Everyone except me,” Newmark explained bitterly to my class.

Last week, when Rabbi Newmark passed away at the age of 79, I vividly remembered the resentment in her voice that night, and that I had recognized in her wavering tone how deeply troubling it can be to begin growing up, no matter when and where.

Newmark was an only child born to Orthodox Jewish parents, but she was raised somewhat like I was, in a secular house. They didn’t light Shabbat candles regularly, although she did attend services with her father. And then, when the Germans invaded Holland in 1940, such distinctions of devoutness were flattened and pinned to the chest. She put on her yellow star. In May 1942, sirens sounded outside her house—unlike the Franks, the Newmarks hadn’t gone into hiding—and she was packed up like cargo to Westerbork, then Bergen-Belsen, and finally Terezin (known in German as Theresienstadt) in Czechoslovakia.

When Newmark was 12, Russians liberated Terezin. She and her mother returned together to Holland in the hope of reuniting with her father. But he never returned. Later, she learned that he and her grandparents had been sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. At the time, in the house that had been emptied of them, Helga’s mother told her to forget that she was ever Jewish.

They immigrated to the United States when she was 16. Newmark went to high school, got married, had children. When she became a mother, though, she could not forget religion altogether because, she said, she wanted to have an answer for her newborn daughter when it came to questions of God. And so, after a few false starts with Catholicism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, Helga Newmark became a Jew all over again.

She dedicated herself to years of study—interrupted at the age of 55 by an initial rejection from Hebrew Union College—and Newmark kept trying until she became the oldest graduate in the rabbinical school’s history, and the first female Holocaust survivor to be ordained a rabbi. Soon after that, she was sitting in front of my class, quietly yet severely dismantling my conception of Anne Frank.

There is perhaps no greater test of faith than being in the seventh grade. By some unholy transformation our bodies take new forms, our squeaks fall to altos, our friends are re-cast. Meanwhile, as Jews, we are taught about the Holocaust. In 2000, when it was my turn, my synagogue had hired Newmark. She was there to teach us the history first-hand, having made her way through three concentration camps.

I don’t recall how she started talking to us. The beginning was on her arm. “Have any of you ever seen the numbers before?” I never had, not even on television. And when she pulled up the sleeve of her jacket, I was amazed by how small they were, etched in like that. If I hadn’t been looking for the numbers—if she had been wearing short sleeves and I had passed her on the street—I might have mistaken them for natural skin blemishes that come with age.

But within Rabbi Newmark’s intimidating darkness—a quality that, honestly, frightened me every time I saw her—there seemed to be a locked-up girl, trapped in her Amsterdam house, her bags packed, waiting to be torn away from her childhood. This old woman’s unrelenting disapproval of Anne Frank remained that of the one uninvited to a birthday party. Such a trauma is its own to be dealt with, distinct from the rest. But as I remember that evening in Hebrew school, it’s like re-reading a diary that is as telling in the scribbles of childish fixations as in the description of crushing terrors. Somehow, it was all part of growing up.

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Bill Pearlman says:

Its interesting. People remember childhood insults. No matter how old they are

Jerry Meents says:

I have two problems with Rabbei Newmark story.
How could Rabbi Newmark be born in a Orthodox family bur was raised in an secular home?
As far as I know, nobody was tattood in Terezin (Theresienstad).
No confermation, no Holocausr museums that has any information that Tattooing was done in Terezin.
Tattooing was done in Auschwitz.

Voter One says:

After all those years, no forgiveness for a childhood slight.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of a rabbi.

Jedada says:

All the girls in the picture are about the same age. She was three years younger. What 10 year old wants a 7 year old at her party? Not me;not my kids and probably not their kids! This was not a slight, this ws a normal event. I am sorry this woman carried this imagined grudge for so many years. What a waste of emotional energy.

apikoyros says:

When the Mormons wanted to exploit Anne Frank, at least some Jews had the taste to object. Englander and Auslander also couldn’t resist getting “into the act.” So, when a “rag” also claiming Jewish “cred” and its “prima donna” columnists and writers offer yet another admittedly less offensive but pointless article prominently offering a provocative title calling her a “brat” — after she’s been dead now how many years? — just what should we call them?

Bryan says:

This made me remember an apology made possible a few years ago by Facebook, and it’s reception. I had felt bad about the way I had handled a conflict with a friend when we were teenagers that resulting in a falling out. We had not spoken since, and I was in my mid-30s when I came across her profile on Facebook. I wrote her saying that I valued her friendship and I continued to feel terrible about the way I treated her. She replied that there was nothing to forgive because we were both children. I had not looked at it that way; I had continued to judge myself according to my present self as I matured. The rabbi would have done well to judge Anne as a child rather than a peer.

Gaye Tischler says:

I am sad for all Jewish people, including me, to read about such a grudge. It was all awful, but at least this woman is still alive! I do feel for her and everything that she and her family experienced during the Holocaust, but it seems so sad to me to denigrate a young woman who was murdered and wasn’t able to live into adulthood.

Rabbi Suri Friedman says:

I hardly know what to say about your article on Rabbi Helga Newmark! I knew Helga both as director of my children’s religious school and as a classmate at HUC. While I understand the author’s noting a certain brooding quality that Helga had, I am appalled that you allowed a classic “mean girl” to write what amounts to Helga’s obituary in your publication. During her lifetime, Helga touched hundreds if not thousands of people. Most, I hope, have less jaundiced eyes than the author.

Hershl says:

We are not dealing with saints.

They were people just like us.

Sometimes they were nice and other times they could be mean sob’s.

And they were all marked for death because they were Jews, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gypsies, Anthroposophists, leftists, etc.

Marsha Katz says:

Thought you might find this interesting. Sad but true.

Geoffrey Dennis says:

Hegla was my classmate in Jerusalem. She once told that story to us, but it had a little more humorous tone to it. It humanized both her and Anne. Perhaps as a 12 year old the author missed some of the subtle colorinf of her memory. Perhaps Helga shouldn’t have tried to tell that tale to 7th graders. A nice lady. z’l.

Rabbi AJ Friedlander says:

Rabbi Helga Newmark z”l was my HUC classmate and dear friend for 20 years. The portrait presented in this article, IMO, is an undeserved slur on her memory. Those of us who knew Helga will speak of her kindness, her humour, and above all her compassion. I suspect that the bitterness expressed in this piece is more likely a projection of the author’s own feelings. However, since I do not know her, I shall not attempt to analyse the origins of her darkness. My memories of Helga will always inspire me. May she rest beneath the wings of Shechina.

d sager says:

So sorry that the author has such unpleasant remarks to make about Helga Newmark. I met her in 1984, worked with her for several years, and must say that it was Helga who taught me the most about being a JEw. From her I learned to teach, to learn, to grow. She was the consummate mensch, who, IMO, triumphed over extraordinary circumstances. Her influences here in Central NJ will not soon be forgotten. Zinchrona l’brachaeezied

Max Weiss says:

The Helga I knew had a kind heart and a wonderful generosity of spirit. She was giving with her time, her energy and her soul.

Anyone who would like to read a respectful eulogy of this wonderful teacher and leader — (in contrast to this unfortunate reflection that Tablet decided to publish) – should check out http://www.beliefnet.com/News/2000/06/First-Female-Holocaust-Survivor-Ordained-A-Rabbi.aspx?p=1. I am so grateful for the opportunity to have learned from Rabbi Newmark z”l. I also heard her tell the story of her relationship with Anne Frank more than once, but it was clear to me that there was no bitterness, rather it was a reminder that those who were affected by the Shoah – whether they died or survived – were real human beings rather than perfect saints.

Cantor Judy Seplowin says:

From the moment I met Helga Newmark at our HUC orientation dinner, I was impressed by her gentle perseverance, fortitude, sense of humor and warmth. Our year of study in Jerusalem was all the more special because of Helga’s generous heart and friendship. I thank my HUC colleagues for chiming in appropriately as we honor Helga’s memory – truly, a mensch, an inspiration and a friend of many.

Nothing I tried to comment posted — so I guess it doesn’t matter

I found it to be a fascinating, well written story and quite a surprise.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Meyer Levin when he came to speak in Miami and he told me how disappointed he was with the interpretation of his book about Anne Frank which was made into a play on Bway.
But the writer is correct, I never heard anything bad about the girl who became a heroine to all who learned about her survival. Strange that the Rabbi held that grudge against her for so many years, but she didnt explain the reason she was not invited to the party??

Dina Truman says:

To me, both the article and comments are an interesting comemntary o writingn humanity. An adult is writing a story about her own childhood memory of an adult recounting a childhood memory. At least two of the “characters” are viewEd as heroes… but we as readers interpret the stories as if they should be scientific “facts”, and the characters should operate the way we want them to…..Sounds like the Scroll to me…

Marta Fainberg says:

This is interesting because I am the second person who thought Anne Frank was a brat! I picked up on that opinion when reading the book, her attitude toward her mother and her self-interest, rather selfish attitude.
I never felt I could express it, considering her eager following and the fact I never knew her in person.

Mich Silverstein says:

This anecdotal story is evidence of nothing except perhaps the writers imagination.

Bryan says:

Two things:

1) I believe the author misremembers seeing a tattoo on Rabbi Newmark z”l because they were only done at Auschwitz camp complex.

2) Anne Frank z”l was a bright and thoughtful but very human girl who was put into a “cage” at a time when a person begins to desire independence and exploration. She wasn’t a brat. Her thoughts were preserved in amber at a time in her development when emotions and conflicts with authority run high, and I can’t imagine living in her circumstances. I would be horrified for anyone to read my thoughts at that age, but at least (thank G-D) I was blessed to be able to grow into an adult. Reading the diary now, I feel so bad for her parents, the Van Pels, and Mr. Pfeffer who I’m sure wanted to be able to protect the children and give them a semblance of normalcy.

Jerry Meents says:

Miep Gies, never mentioned that Anne was a brad.
Miep was an aunt of my wife and we talked many times about Anne and her family with Miep.
Miep Gies knew Anne well.

Barbara says:

As I look at this photograph of these girls, I can only imagine what happened to them – their whole lives ahead of them with such promise. We all know what happened to Anne. Who knows if any of these girs survived. How sad to bring up the negativity of even one girl. Why would the author of the article want to write this?

Deborah says:

The author of this article chose to write this, in answer to Barbara’s question, because it is now chic to deride and criticize reverance for the holocaust, and who symbolizes the holocaust more than Anne Frank. Just as harsh criticism of Israel is now common, because “friends criticize friends”, so the holocaust is no longer held in reverance..see “ironic literature” of Auslander, Englander, for instance. It is not “Holocaust Denial”, it is “Holocaust Derision”, signaling empathy on the wane for Jews. Can you imagine an article touting some recollection of MLK Jr. as a “brat”? A novel with jokes about lynchings in the South? No. Because our culture still has empathy for black Americans, and respect for the victims of racism. Not so much for Jewish victims anymore. It is an ugly time in history when an adolescent girl who was murdered for her faith, and who left a poignant account of her ordeal, is subject to snarky recollections and ridicule.

Cheryl Rives says:

The nerve to criticize Anne Frank. This person survived the camps, but Anne did not. She was only 12 when she slighted this person. Get over it!!! It’s part of adolescence, and it’s normal behavior. Why not celebrate all the normal times in Anne’s life, as well as, in the critic’s life. How small and inappropriate, and insulting to Anne’s memory, and the memory of all those who perished, and could not participate in normal life. Boo’s to this critic of Anne Frank.

Nicole Teweles says:

I enjoyed your story. I lived in Amsterdam at this time and played with Anne occassionally. I didn’t like her because once when we played marbles she cheated and I saw it. When I see the photos of poor Anne at this time I cannot help but feel “there but for the grace of God go I”!
Thank you for the article!

Was this really necessary? It degenerates two heroic females — Rabbi Newmark and Anne Frank. I’m sure that the Rabbi did not sound bitter, but instead, the writer of this article was clearly projecting.

Why is it in vogue to criticize and degenerate people that we admire? Of course, Anne Frank was not perfect. I think all of us can figure that out, and I’m sure each one of us have slighted somebody and were rude and mean to our parents as teenagers! However, Anne Frank had an unquenchable spirit and a true gift for writing, and her legacy is one that will live on.

Rabbi Cohen says:

Helga was a friend during rabbinical school and we  traveled together to Germany, along with other Jewish and Christian seminary students.  We visited Bergen-Belsen together, where she was a prisoner during the Holocaust.  Helga was bright, insightful, humor-filled and kind.   She does not deserve this article as part of her legacy. 
  
I remember Helga talking about Anne Frank and protraying her as a typical adolescent girl -Helga had no spite in her voice.   She was just emphasizing that Anne was ordinary and their shared lives before the Holocaust was ordinary and included ordinary quibbles and slights.  Anne Frank herself wrote:  “Everyone thinks I’m showing off when I talk, ridiculous when I’m silent, insolent when I answer, cunning when I have a good idea, lazy when I’m tired, selfish when I eat one bite more than I should.” 

It is unfortunate that the author remembers and has chosen to publish one, persumably random comment, and to protray it as a window into Helga’s character.     But, then, the author was just a 12-year-old gir when she knew Helga.

Nicole…you need to share your story!!

Geoffrey Dennis says:

Again, you are relying on the recollection of what someone thought she heard as a 7th grader (because we know they always hear exactly what we are trying to say) from someone else’s recollections.

Geoffrey Dennis says:

Again, how do you know that Helga held a grudge? Because fifteen > years after she heard her speak in passing in 7th grade, this one person thinks she perfectly understood what an adult was saying to her about a historical (and mythologized) figure.

I WOULDN’T HAVE INVITED HER EITHER.

Richard Rabinowitz says:

Ah, so that’s what people REALLY talk about when they talk about Anne Frank! lol

Richard Rabinowitz says:

Agreed. Perhaps it was a misremembering. (Shrugs) Perhaps Anne Frank had forgotten to invite the future Rabbi. How would we know for sure?

Thalia says:

I was in the same Hebrew school class as the author. It’s funny how memories work – they serve as a gallery of facts, whether true or false or something in between – and they are true experiences.

I remember when Rabbi Newmark told us about Anne Frank, and I remember her stories of working in the kitchen at Bergen-Belsen, taking scraps of food whenever she could. How she experienced devastating pain dealt by power-hungry nazis, and how she survived because of the kindness of a few German soldiers. Rabbi Newmark did tell us that she wasn’t fond of Anne because they would play games together with the other girls on their street, and that Anne could be very bossy and take control of the games. Rabbi Newmark preferred hanging out with Margo. But she expressed sadness and almost disbelief that Anne didn’t survive and Rabbi Newmark miraculously did. I liked Rabbi Newmark very much. She was a warm presence, wise, and honest. She really listened to me even though I was just a kid, and was open about her life and her world. I do not remember seeing tattoos on her arm – I think that would have stuck with me – but who knows? All I have to rely on are memories.

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Frank Talk

Although Rabbi Helga Newmark survived the horrors of the Holocaust, a childhood slight—from Anne Frank—stayed with her for the rest of her life

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