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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

Betsy Morais
March 13, 2012
Anne Frank, second from the left, at her 10th birthday party in 1939 in Amsterdam.(Anne Frank Fonds)
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.

Betsy Morais is an editorial fellow at The Atlantic magazine.

Betsy Morais is an editorial fellow at The Atlantic magazine.