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May 1945 —Peter: Austria,
Mauthausen, sick bay
I think I’m still alive.
But I’m not sure.
I must be because I’m lying down. We never lie down.
In the camps there’s no such thing as rest.
I should be carrying rocks up the quarry steps. It’s a long way to the top of the quarry. I never know if I will make it. If someone ahead of us falls, we all fall—unless we’re quick.
Sometimes the guards wait until one of us is on the very last step, already thinking of laying down his burden, of the relief of letting down the weight. That’s when they reach out with their boots and kick us down. We fall like dominoes.
That’s all I remember, falling down the side of the quarry. I feel my body jolt and bounce. I feel the other bodies land on me. I am crushed, bony body on bony body. We are all so sharp now. My bones crunch. I am suffocating. The bodies move off me, the dead pushed aside by the living. I can breathe. My bones click back into place. I am alive and must get up, or I will be piled up with the dead. I try to stand.
I can see why the guards laugh. I look like a puppet. A puppet of bones with his strings all cut. I stand. I walk. I go on. But I know that really I am still dead on the ground, that each day a piece of us dies.
And we let it die. We have to—to survive. Soon someone will come and wake me and the nightmare will begin. I’m waiting for the word, that word:
Wake up. If they come, then I must stand up and work, or I must die. Perhaps I am already dying. Everyone does in the end, there’s no other way out. And now it’s my turn.
It’s a relief.
The problem with lying down is that it brings memories. They keep on coming, reminding me of who I am.
The German Jews have a word for it.
The longing for home. We avoid it if we can. It can be fatal.
I am hot. My head aches. My body hurts. These are just words, they don’t explain the pain. The way my bones grind against each other. There are no words for pain like this.
But the memories are worse—pictures of a time before. Of a time I must deny, so that when they come to wake me I can go on. Put one foot in front of the other, pretending that there is only this moment, this day, this night to get through—and survive.
To tell my story.
But the memories persist; they push at the edges of my resistance. They spill. There was a girl, wasn’t there? There was a place. A place where the leaves fell like golden coins from a tree into the water as we watched through the attic window . . . and before that there was a home, a street, a world, a girl I loved . . .
July 13, 1942 —Peter van Pels:
I’m running through the streets; it’s early morning and the sun tries to break through the mist. My footsteps echo. My thoughts race: I’m not going into hiding. I’m not going into hiding—especially not with the Franks!
I don’t know where I’ll go; I only know that I can’t do it. I can’t stay locked up in a tiny apartment with two girls (especially not Anne Frank) and Mutti and Mrs. Frank! Just because Father does business with them doesn’t mean we have to like them! I’d rather take my chances on the streets.
My feet hit the pavement. Somewhere behind me there’s the sound of an engine. I know at once what it is. We all know the sound—a military vehicle.
I slow down, keep to the shadows. It’s still curfew time for Jews, not that I look like a Jew.
I’m nearly there.
At Liese’s house.
I whisper her name. I imagine her face, her violet eyes and her soft dark hair. I imagine what she might do when I tell her I’m running. She might hold me; she might lie down in the grass with me. She might . . .
I need to concentrate. I need to get over the wall and into her back garden.
I take a run and try to vault it. It’s high. I miss.
The sound of the engine comes closer.
I hit the wall with my left foot, and with fear fueling my fist I grab the top of it with my right hand—and this time I make it.
I drop onto the grass. Breathe hard and reach around me feeling for a stone, a twig, anything I can throw at her window to wake her.
But something stops me. I listen. The streets are silent. There’s no sound. That means the engine’s stopped. I stand completely still. Did they see me? Are they searching through the streets right now, listening, waiting for me to give myself away—to make a sound?
Into the silence comes a banging, a crashing of fists on the door and voices shouting.
"Open up! Open up!"
I stand in the garden, frozen. I watch as the lights come on. I see Liese’s face appear briefly behind the window as she draws back the curtains—then she’s gone. I watch as the whole family reappears behind the lit-up window of the sitting room. They’re wearing their nightclothes. They gesticulate, argue, but in the end they pack their cases, put on their coats, and disappear—with Liese.
I know they’re calling up teenage girls. I know that’s why we’re going into hiding, because Margot Frank has been called up. But I never thought it would happen to Liese.
I try to run to her, but my legs won’t move; my hand’s still behind me holding the stone. I don’t know how long it is before I can move again, before I vault the wall and run to the corner of the street, but I know it’s too late. The van’s already moving. I watch it turn the corner and speed away.
With Liese in it.
I start to run. I run hard but the van’s already racing down the street.
The van goes on, disappearing. I keep on running until I’m on my knees. Too late.
I can’t believe it. Why? Why her? Why now?
I turn back to the house. The door’s locked but I know where the key’s kept. Slowly, I unlock the door. Everything is neat and tidy.The piano lid is open—Liese’s favorite piece of music is on the stand. Everything looks the same, but the house is empty of her and so everything is completely different. Where have they taken her—and why did they take all of them? Where shall I go now?
I don’t know what to do.
I look out the window onto the street. I look at my watch. Six twenty-two. I’m meant to be at Mr. Frank’s workplace in a few hours. We’re arriving separately, all of us. We’ll walk into the building just like it was any other visit—only this time we’ll never walk out again.
We’ll stay in there.
We don’t know for how long.
I stare out the window.
The early-morning streets are empty, and so am I. I can’t think of anything—except the van disappearing, and the fact that I stood there and let it happen! How did I ever think I could escape them, or fight them?
And I know what I’m doing.
I’m going into hiding.
I wait and watch as the streets fill with people. I wait and watch the sun get higher. I wait and watch the world come to life. I wait knowing that I’m not running anywhere because there’s nowhere to run to.
I look out the window.
The world I can see isn’t my world anymore—it’s theirs: the National Socialist German Workers’ Party’s—the Nazis’. They’ve taken it away from me—piece by piece. I can’t ride in trams or cars like everybody else. I can’t swim in the same
water or sit and watch films in the same cinema. I can’t shop in gentile shops. I can’t sit in the street. I can’t drink from the water fountains. I can’t walk anywhere without a star on my chest. I can’t . . . I can’t . . . I can’t do anything. If someone decides to attack me I can’t expect any help—and I mustn’t fight back. If I do, then they might beat me to death, and no one would stop them. If I don’t fight back, then I’m exactly what they say I am—a cowardly Jew-boy.
I don’t exist anymore. They’ve turned me into a nobody so that they can wipe me off the face of the earth.
It feels so obvious to me now.
I can’t believe I didn’t see it before.
How did I miss it?
How did I ever think I could escape?
How did I ever think I could fight?
I should leave now. It’s time. I find a satchel and a spare jacket with a star sewn onto it, but then at the last minute I decide not to wear it. If this is my last walk through the city I’m going to do it free—as me—and if anything happens, if they find me—then let them.
The walk to Prinsengracht is a long way, maybe an hour. At the end of it is a warehouse; at the top of the warehouse, hidden at the back, is an annex.
No one knows it’s there, except the workers who’ll help hide us. Father says we’re lucky, lucky he happens to be in business with Mr. Frank. Lucky Mr. Frank’s asked us to join his family in hiding. I don’t think so. I’d rather be in America.
I’ve got a diagram of the Annex. I know where to go in, which stairs I have to use, and how to find my way to the back of the house where the rooms are hidden. Where I’ll be hidden.
I should go now.
If I’m going.
I’m on the street. The sun is on my face. There is no star on my chest. I’m free for another hour. One more hour. The whole world feels strange around me: pin-sharp and beautiful. Without my star I get no pitying looks. I’ve forgotten what it’s like not to be noticed. I stop. I drink from a fountain. Mutti would be horrified. I could be arrested, killed, sent away if I was found out. A Jew, drinking from a fountain! I could infect all the non-Jews, but with what?
What is it we’ve got that’s so evil?
"Beautiful morning!" a woman says, and smiles. I smile back, but inside I’m thinking, I’m a Jew, you stupid woman, can’t you see? Can’t you even tell what I am without my star to guide you? Here, I think of saying to her, put it on. If you feel so sorry for us why don’t you all wear them, and then who would know the difference between us?
But I don’t say anything.
I just smile back.
And walk away.
The walk is over quickly—too quickly.The wide avenues turn into the small canals and streets around the center of Amsterdam. And then I’m there. I’m at the warehouse—263 Prinsengracht. I stare at the wide, wooden warehouse doors and at the narrow door up the steps that I’m meant to go through.
I want to run. I want to run and run and never stop until I find Liese. I’ll hold her hand, and we’ll run together until we find some woods, some hills, some caves to hide in. But there aren’t any—only flatlands. We’ve already fled from Germany to here. And now we’re surrounded. The Nazis are everywhere: Luxembourg, Belgium, France. Holland is just a small pocket in a whole coat made of Nazis. There is nowhere else for us to run. I stare at the doors.
I feel sick.
I feel the sun hot on my back.
I turn and look down the street. I shouldn’t be doing this, I shouldn’t be doing anything that draws attention to me— but I can’t help it. I turn and look down the long, narrow street. I look at the trees and the water of the canal. I look at the people walking past me, but it doesn’t matter now how long I stand here, looking. Nothing will change.
Liese’s not coming back. I’m probably never going to see her again.
My name is Peter van Pels. I’m nearly sixteen years old. I walk up the stone steps and turn the handle of the narrow wooden door. I push it open and step forward. The door closes itself behind me.