A story of sisters that imagines Anne Frank’s sister Margot survived World War II and was living in America, from the author of The Lost Letter and The Hours Count
Anne Frank has long been a symbol of bravery and hope, but there were two sisters hidden in the annex, two young Jewish girls, one a cultural icon made famous by her published diary and the other, nearly forgotten.
In the spring of 1959, The Diary of Anne Frank has just come to the silver screen to great acclaim, and a young woman named Margie Franklin is working in Philadelphia as a secretary at a Jewish law firm. On the surface she lives a quiet life, but Margie has a secret: a life she once lived, a past and a religion she has denied, and a family and a country she left behind.
Margie Franklin is really Margot Frank, older sister of Anne, who did not die in Bergen-Belsen as reported, but who instead escaped the Nazis for America. But now, as her sister becomes a global icon, Margie’s carefully constructed American life begins to fall apart. A new relationship threatens to overtake the young love that sustained her during the war, and her past and present begin to collide. Margie is forced to come to terms with Margot, with the people she loved, and with a life swept up into the course of history.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I should begin with the simplest of truths: I am alive.
You might wonder how this is possibly the simplest of truths, when you have thought me dead—when the entire world has thought me dead—for so very long. But this, I promise you, is really quite simple in light of all the rest of it. I breathe, and sometimes I eat and sometimes I sleep. But every morning, again, when I wake up, I find myself still breathing. Simple. Really, it is nothing more than science.
I can already picture you shaking your head. It is not simple at all, you are saying to yourself. Maybe your face is turning an angry red, and you are yelling that the Red Cross lists said I was dead. Maybe you are wondering where I have been, why I haven’t found you yet. I’ve come this far. Why not just stay hidden forever?
But a person cannot really stay hidden forever. We both know that now, don’t we?
The truth is, I have wanted to find you for a long time, but I have been afraid. Afraid of what you might think if I told you everything. Afraid of what you’ve become since I’ve seen you last. Afraid, even, of what you might think of what—and who—I’ve become. I am not a girl anymore. Neither am I a Jew. And I have done things that I can’t understand or explain, even to myself.
But I promise you this, I am alive. There are simple truths about me. I live in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States of America, where I am a legal secretary by the name of Margie Franklin. . . .
THE THIRD DAY OF APRIL 1959 SEEMS, AT FIRST, JUST LIKE any other Friday of my American life. I sit at my secretary’s desk in the law office of Rosenstein, Greenberg and Moscowitz, typing out Joshua’s schedule for the following week, gnawing carefully on an apple.
The office is quiet this afternoon, except for the sounds of the girls’ fingers tapping against the typewriter keys and the hum of Shelby’s radio coming from the desk across from me. Nearly all the lawyers have already left for the weekend, including my boss, Joshua Rosenstein, who has gone to Margate with his father, Ezra, who is Shelby’s boss. Ezra Rosenstein is one of the partners in the law firm, so perhaps it is no surprise that he owns both a boat and a house by the ocean in New Jersey, which he and Joshua visit nearly every weekend, especially in the spring and summer.
By this particular Friday, I—Margie Franklin—have been a resident of Philadelphia for nearly six years. I have been Joshua’s secretary for three of those years, which means I have spent somewhere around 150 Friday afternoons like this one, typing at my desk, eating my apple, listening to Shelby’s music.
This Friday, the Platters—Shelby’s favorite—pour softly from her radio, crooning about how the smoke gets in their eyes, which is a song that always makes me think of Peter, even from the very first time I heard it, when I was with Shelby at Sullivan’s Bar last month.
“We’re leaving early today,” Shelby announces to me just after she has devoured a ham sandwich she bought from the cart downstairs. “You’re too thin,” she had proclaimed in between bites. “Have half of my ham.” She’d tried to force it across the desk.
“No thanks,” I’d told her, pulling the apple from my satchel and then saying, “I don’t really like ham.”
“You’re an odd duck, Margie.” She’d shaken her head, but she’d smiled as she’d said it, so I knew she was saying it all in fun, that she had no idea why I would never bring myself to eat pork. And besides, that conversation, we’d already had it thousands of times. Or at least 150. Shelby often eats ham sandwiches, tries to offer me half, and insists I leave early with her when the Rosensteins are away.
Now Shelby switches off her radio and taps an unlit cigarette on the side of her metal desk. “You are going to leave early with me, aren’t you, Margie?”
I shrug, though I know that she will pester me until I agree to do it. It’s almost too warm today for my thin navy sweater, which I wear wrapped around my plaid dress, and I already feel the sweat building in pools under my arms, even in the office, but I resist the urge to fan myself with a file folder or even push up the sleeves.
“Good girl.” Shelby laughs. “And one of these days, I may even get you to try one of these.” She tosses the unlit cigarette in my direction, and then pulls a fresh one from her pack, teasing it between her lips.
“No thanks,” I say, pushing it gently back across the desk. We have played this game many times before, and I know Shelby does not honestly expect me to smoke it. Many girls in the office smoke, but I do not. I still cannot stand what it reminds me of: another time, another place, one which I never wish to go back to in my mind. But these are things I’d never even dream of telling Shelby.
Just past three, Shelby hangs on to my arm as we walk out of the office building and onto the sidewalk. The street is still fairly empty, as most people in the offices around us are still working, and the midafternoon sun glints off the low glass windows of the buildings on Market Street.
Shelby wears a short-sleeved white cotton blouse and full green skirt today, because it is April and the sun is warm enough to be without a sweater. But I still have my navy sweater on. I wear a sweater always, no matter what the temperature, so the dark ink on my forearm remains hidden, unseen.
“Any plans this weekend?” Shelby asks me, as if she doesn’t know the answer, the same answer I give her every weekend.
“Studying,” I tell her.
“Oh, good grief, Margie. All work and no play.”
“Joshua thinks I’ll make an excellent paralegal,” I tell her. Joshua is tall, with an oval face and curly hair the color of warm chestnuts. Sometimes I have the urge to reach up and run my finger around a curl, and I have to hold my hands together, to stop them from moving.
“Oh, Joshua does, does he?” She laughs. Shelby’s laugh is like water. Sometimes it’s good, cleansing, even refreshing. Other times, I feel it might drown me. “Come on.” She yanks my arm, turning me in the direction opposite my studio apartment. “I want to see a movie this afternoon. And I don’t like to see a movie alone.”
“What about Ron?” I ask her, referring to her beau, who I have no doubt she’ll marry at a moment’s notice if he ever asks, though some doubt he ever will. They have been dating for as long as I’ve known Shelby, which, as Shelby herself admits, is a long time for a girl to date a boy without any kind of promise.
“Ron is still working. Everyone else is still working. Come on,” she wheedles.
Shelby is always wanting me to go somewhere with her after work. Mostly, it is to Sullivan’s Bar to have a drink, and sometimes I do go with her even though I don’t drink alcohol, but just because she is my friend and her laugh can be so much like water that I want to swim in it, to close my eyes and float away. But at least once a month or so, there is a movie she wants to see. And nearly always it is one that Ron is not able or willing to see with her.
Last month Shelby dragged me to see Some Like It Hot and then went on and on about Marilyn’s curves and her butterscotch voice. I thought the movie was fine, but I did not laugh at the places Shelby did, at Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon’s antics dressed as women. I still do not fully understand the American sense of humor. Hiding is hiding is hiding. What’s so funny about that?
“Come on,” Shelby is still urging. “I’ve read the book and seen the play. The movie will complete the trifecta, and I don’t want to see it alone. The Diary of Anne Frank is much too sad for that.” She pulls her tiny pink lips in a pout, and all I can do is stare at her, not saying anything. I feel a tugging in my chest.
I saw a bit in the Inquirer a while back about the possibility of a movie being made, and something about non-Jewish actors being cast, but then I put it out of my mind. Perhaps if I didn’t read the article or pay attention, it would simply go away? “I can’t believe they’ve made a movie,” I finally whisper.
“Oh, Margie, seriously, I swear it. Sometimes I really do think that apartment of yours is located under a rock.” She shakes her head. “You’ve at least read Anne Frank’s diary by now, haven’t you? Oh, tell me you have!” All I can think is that she’s saying it wrong—not “Frank,” like the American version of hot dog with beans, a dish that Shelby seems rather fond of, but “Frank,” rhymes with “conk,” which is what I’d like to do right about now, conk Shelby over the head with my satchel if she doesn’t stop talking. And she is still talking.
“I’m not feeling well,” I interrupt her, and that is a gross understatement. I am sweating, and my hands shake. Black spots float in front of my eyes, and I close them, then open them again, which only makes the spots turn white. “I think I better go home,” I whisper.
I disentangle my arm and take off briskly, hoping she won’t follow me. “Margie,” she calls after me. “Margie. It’s the sweater. Take off the sweater. It’s too darn hot outside.”
But I don’t stop running until I put the key in the lock, turn, and step inside my apartment.
IN 1959, MY STUDIO APARTMENT IS IN A FIVE-STORY BRICK building with evenly spaced square windows on Ludlow Street, in Center City, Philadelphia. The building is much wider than the buildings on the Prinsengracht, but not any higher. Philadelphia, like the canal district of Amsterdam, is a city of lower buildings, surrounded by water. Shelby told me that because of a law in the city of Philadelphia, no building can rise higher than the statue of its founder, William Penn, which sits atop City Hall. He is like a beacon, this bronze man, watching over all the smaller buildings, and in a certain way that makes me feel protected here. It is a false kind of protection, but still, I feel it nonetheless.
My apartment is on the first floor, not far from the main entrance to the building, which is just the way I like it. It is a small studio, containing only a blue couch, a wooden table with two chairs, a single bed, and the tiniest of kitchens. But it is my own small studio, and in the three years I’ve lived in this apartment, it has come to feel like home.
Friday, after I have left Shelby calling for me on Market Street, I sit on the couch for a little while, letting Katze, my overweight orange tabby, knead his claws into the threads of my blue sweater, then my plaid dress. He cannot settle himself, my Katze. He can never decide exactly where he wants to sit, nor can he bring himself to chase the mice I sometimes hear scurrying in the walls. But I do not hold this against him. I cannot seem to settle myself now either, and I tap my pointy blue pump in an uneasy rhythm against the dark hardwood floorboards.
Friday nights, I always light a candle at sundown and say a silent prayer. Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam . . .
Words repeat themselves in my brain, even though Margie Franklin, she is a Gentile. My Friday prayer, it is not religion, it’s ritual.
But now it is not quite dusk yet, and the words repeating themselves in my brain, just after 4 P.M., are Shelby’s: “The Diary of Anne Frank is much too sad for that,”she’d said.
I push Katze aside and begin pacing across the room. It is tiny enough that I take only ten steps before I have to turn around and start all over again. Back and forth and back and forth.
Much too sad. I am certain Shelby cannot even fathom that kind of sad. Shelby was born in the United States, a Christian, and during the war she and her sister lived with their parents in a two-bedroom apartment that she describes as small. “There were rations,” she told me once. “We didn’t always have enough to eat. My shoes wore through, straight to the soles.”
When she told me these things, I’d nodded, as if I were sympathetic to her plight. Then I bit my tongue to keep it from moving, from saying all the things I often think about my own time during the war, but never would dare utter out loud to Shelby.
You’ve at least read Anne Frank’s diary by now, haven’t you? She’d actually admonished me, standing there on Market Street.
I stop pacing for a moment by my bed, where my copy of the book sits atop the small shelf above my mattress. Its bright orange cover is tattered, the pages worn from too much use. No, I would tell Shelby, if she ever pressed me for an answer. I haven’t read it. I don’t want to.
And yet that, like so much else, would be a lie, as I know the words contained within the diary by heart.
I hold the book in my hand now, flipping through its dog-eared pages. My eyes skim through the mentions of Peter’s name.
When I first came to America, before I discovered the book, I would often call the operator and ask for Peter, but it has been a long while since I have done that now. Sometimes, though, I still dream of walking into him on the street, by chance. He will look different, with shorter hair, and he will be older, of course, his body thicker, more of a man’s, like Joshua’s. But I will recognize him all the same—his face, or his eyes, blue and clear as the sea.
We promised each other we’d come here, when the war ended, or if we escaped. Peter picked the city of Philadelphia out of his world atlas. The City of Brotherly Love, he told me. Surely, Jews cannot be in hiding there.
Peter is dead, I remind myself now.
But then, so am I.
I put the book back on the shelf, and I reach for the phone on my small kitchen counter. I turn the dial to 0, but I wait a moment, before letting my finger go.
“Operator,” a woman’s voice says on the other end.
I open my mouth to ask for him. Peter Pelt, I want to tell the operator. I need to talk toPeter Pelt.
There is a movie, Peter. A movie, for goodness’ sake!
But it has been so long since I have called and asked for him under the new name we agreed on, and now I cannot bring myself to make a sound.
I look out the small square window behind my couch; it is nearly dark now.
I hang up the phone and reach underneath my kitchen counter for my Shabbat candle.
THE LAW OFFICE OF ROSENSTEIN, GREENBERG AND MOSCOWITZ is on the seventh floor of a wide cement office building near the corners of Market and South Sixteenth streets in Center City, Philadelphia. It is close enough to walk to from my apartment, and also the courthouse, which makes it perfect both for the lawyers and for me.
Monday morning I am one of the first people to arrive at the office, at least according to the elevator attendant, a small brown-skinned man named Henry, who I find to have sympathetic brown eyes.
“Anyone else here yet?” I ask him, hopeful.
“Only Mr. Rosenstein,” he says. “The younger one.” I smile to myself as Henry ushers me through the elevator door. By Monday morning, both Shelby’s voice and my call to the operator have dimmed. So there is a movie, I told myself on the walk to work this morning. So what?It will be no different from the book. Then I reveled in the fact that today it is Monday, and that means I will get to see Joshua again. That thought now turns my cheeks warm as I step off the elevator and walk into the large open center room of the law office.
My metal desk sits face-to-face with Shelby’s in this center room, where all the lawyers’ secretaries have their desks. We are surrounded by the lawyers’ offices, which are behind closed doors all along the sides. Joshua’s office is just to the right of our desks, and Ezra’s office is the next one over. The other partners, Saul Greenberg and Jason Moscowitz, have offices on the other side of the room, closer to the elevator, but I suspect Ezra likes to be on this side so he can keep an eye on his son.
Joshua’s office, like the others, has a small rectangular window by the door, and I watch him for a moment now, through the glass. He is sitting at his desk, studying something carefully. His forehead creases when he does this, as if concentration is either an art or a science. I can’t decide. Joshua looks up from his desk, catches my eye, and smiles at me. I smile back before I walk to the break room and brew some coffee. I pour Joshua a cup with two sugars the way he likes it, and then I tread carefully back to his office and rap lightly on the door.
“Come in,” he says. His voice floats, in a way that told me, even the very first time I met him, that he has never known anything like I have. Joshua’s life in America has been charmed, I suspect, even when he was a teenager, during the war, with the rations. But I don’t hold this against him. “Good morning, Margie.” He smiles again. His smile is one of those warm American smiles where nothing is held back, where joy is uncontained. I hand him the coffee, and he thanks me. “How was your weekend?” he asks.
“It was fine, thank you,” I say, even though I spent most of it cooped up nervously in my apartment. Saturdays, I always still keep as a day of rest, though this particular one had not felt very restful. Sundays, I normally take my correspondence work to Fairmount Park to study by the banks of the Schuylkill River, though this Sunday I walked to the Reading Terminal Market and perused the fruit instead, knowing I would be unable to concentrate on my studies. Across the street I’d spotted the cinema I have gone to with Shelby before, and I saw it there, on the marquee, in hideously assaulting red letters: The Diary of Anne Frank. I stared at the picture of the unfamiliar woman on the movie poster out front. I watched her face, her deep brown eyes, as if she too could stare back at me. Look at you, my sister said, laughing, in my head. Living your American dream in a thick black sweater. When I returned home, I thought about dialing the operator again. But something stopped me. Now I shake the thought away. “How was your weekend?” I ask Joshua.
He shrugs. “I’ve had better.” Joshua and his father don’t always get along. I learned this on my third day of work, when I heard their raised voices coming through the paper-thin walls of Joshua’s office. Their disagreements have become, over the past three years, a fairly regular occurrence. Shelby says Ezra used to be nicer before his wife, Joshua’s mother, died the year before they hired me. But this is something I would never ask Joshua about, though I feel a hole in the pit of my stomach for him, thinking about the empty space where his mother used to be. I wonder if she was the one who loved him better, the way it was with my mother and me. My sister was Father’s. I was Mother’s.
But all I allow myself to say now is, “I’m sorry to hear that.”
He shrugs again. He is so casual about his family squabbles, the way all the Americans I’ve met seem to be. Once Shelby got into a fight with her mother, and they didn’t speak for three months. Then, one weekend, they went out to lunch, and Shelby told me it was “water under the bridge.” From the sound of her voice I understood that she was no longer angry, but I did not understand the reference to water and bridges, or how she could let go of her anger, just like that.
“Well.” I stand. “I should get to work.”
“Margie.” He taps his fountain pen gently against his desk. “How are your paralegal studies coming?”
“Good,” I say, feeling guilty now about having ignored them this weekend. Next weekend I will do double, I promise myself. “Two more correspondence classes left.”
“Great. I’ll talk to my father soon about finding a position for you when you’re done,” he says.
I smile at him, and I stop at the doorway for a moment.
He smiles back at me, his warm American smile again lighting up his face. “By the way, how’s Mr. Katz?” he asks.
I laugh, the way I always do when he turns Katze, the orange tabby, into a Jewish-sounding man, most definitely a lawyer. It is doubly funny because there is a Mr. Katz who works in the district attorney’s office, a portly man with a skinny black mustache who makes Joshua grimace whenever he has to go up against him in court.
“Mr. Katz is well,” I tell Joshua. “Getting fatter by the day.”
Joshua was the one who found him, right after I started work here. Katze was gaunt, crying in the back alley near the lot where Joshua parks his car. Joshua kept him for a month until he felt bad about leaving him all the time to go back and forth to Margate, and that was when I volunteered to take him home.
“I’ll have to stop by to visit him sometime,” Joshua says now.
I nod. He is always saying that, though he has never once actually stopped by to visit.
I am still feeling warm from my conversation with Joshua when Shelby breezes in at five past nine, plunking her satchel down on her desk with a thud. “Well,” she says, without even taking a breath. “The movie was fabulous. Of course. Millie Perkins was to die for. Absolutely perfect for the role, if you ask me.”
“Who?” I ask, looking up from my typing. But the warmth, it is already gone, and for a moment I am chilled, even in my sweater.
“You do know who I’m talking about, don’t you, Margie?” I shake my head. “All work and no play. Very dull.”
“Who did she play?” I ask, my curiosity suddenly getting the better of me. Though as soon as the words are out of my mouth, I want to take them back.
“Who did she play?” Shelby laughs. “Anne Frank herself, of course. I read an interview with her in McCall’s last month, and the darling girl—she was a model, didn’t even want to be an actress, but she was so touched by Anne’s story she took it on. And she was just fabulous. To see her and Peter . . . I nearly died I was crying so hard.”
My stomach clenches at the sound of his name, in her voice. She is saying it wrong, of course. Not Peeter, Payter.
“I’m telling you, Margie, you really missed out.”
“I’m sure,” I murmur. And Shelby looks at me and frowns as if she’s caught on to something.
My lying is a second skin by now, so easy to forget it’s there, so I don’t always remember that lying is actually an art, and those who aren’t meticulous about it are easily exposed.
I look up and Shelby is still frowning. “It’s way too hot in here for that sweater, Margie.” Today I am in a black sweater over a pale pink top and a high-waisted gray skirt.
“I’m rather comfortable,” I say, but when she finally sits down at her desk and begins her typing, I lower my head and wipe carefully at the beads of sweat on my brow with a handkerchief.
THE REST OF THE DAY PASSES WITHOUT INCIDENT, AND THE second the clock by the elevator chimes 5 P.M., Shelby stops her typing—maybe midsentence—turns to me, and says, “I’m meeting Peggy for dinner. Want to come?”
Peggy is Shelby’s sister, and not just her sister, but her twin. They are fraternal twins, though, so they look surprisingly different. Peggy is tall and brown-haired, while Shelby is petite and blond. Peggy works as a nurse at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital, and mostly she must work odd hours and is not free to meet Shelby for dinner.
“I don’t want to intrude,” I say, though I have been to dinner with Shelby and Peggy many times in the last three years. Peggy is calmer than Shelby, and I imagine if I’d known them both together, Peggy and I would be more natural friends.
I glance through the glass window by Joshua’s office, and I see he is still working hard, his head bent over at his desk. Lately, I have been staying late, just in case Joshua might walk out of his office after everyone else has left and ask me if I would like to catch dinner, or a drink, as he did once before, in January, on the day Alaska became the forty-ninth state. “Do you know what we should celebrate tonight?” he’d said to me with a smile that nearly tumbled me out of my secretary’s chair when he walked out of his office after six that night.
“I don’t know. What should we celebrate?” I’d murmured, feeling warm and stunned, and thus completely missing the joke.
“Juneau,” he said, laughing. “The capital of Alaska.”
“Oh.” I’d felt my cheeks turning red at my stupidity.
“I bet Ike’s already back in Gettysburg toasting his new state. Or Mamie probably is anyway.” He laughed again, and this time I got the joke, as Shelby was always telling me things she read about Mamie Eisenhower having a problem with drinking.
I laughed, and he turned his head to the side and looked at me. I am medium height and too thin. My dark brown hair tumbles past my pale cheeks, nearly to my shoulders, and I wear round glasses that hide my leather-colored eyes. I dress plainly, in conservative dresses and sweaters, the way any good secretary would. But the way Joshua was looking at me then, it made me wonder if he was seeing something else in me, something more than a secretary. It was just a moment, and then Ezra stormed out of his office, yelling at Joshua about something. Still, it is a moment I want to get back to, and so I often try to wait him out.
“Come on,” Shelby is saying now. She pokes my forearm with her finger, hard enough so it hurts a little, even through the sweater. “It’ll be fun. I promise. And Peggy thinks you’re swell. She’d rather have dinner with you than me anyway.” She laughs. And this time her laugh falls over me, like a stream.
I think about it for a moment, and I wonder if Shelby is finished talking about the movie. I’ve noticed Americans, Shelby included, have the ability to focus on something for only a little while, and then they move on to something else, so I am hopeful that the time has already passed for this. To Shelby, it is just a movie, after all. It is not real life.
I glance again through the window in Joshua’s office. But I want to go eat with Shelby and Peggy. So I stand up and gather my things and follow Shelby to the elevator.
Shelby and I walk down the city block, arms linked, our shadows stretching against the reflection of the office buildings and the soon-setting sun. We head toward Casteel’s Diner, a short silvery building with wide square windows and a neon red sign, just down South Seventeenth Street. We walk inside, and it is loud and smells of grilled hamburger. It is crowded at this hour with men in suits and women in their work dresses, and the sound of something fast that I don’t recognize pours from the jukebox. I spot Peggy still dressed in her starched white uniform, sitting in a red leather booth by one of the large windows, sipping on what looks like a tall chocolate malt. When she sees us, she stands up, waves, and then reaches for her sister.
She and Shelby, they hug, and then they kiss each other quickly on the cheek. I stand back, and suddenly my heart feels like it’s bleeding out in my chest. When I see them together, the way they look when they hold on to each other, I remember again that something is missing from me, something that feels like the phantom weight of a stolen limb or internal organ, something so grossly essential that I’m not quite sure how I remember to keep breathing all the time without it.
I close my eyes, and I can still remember the feel of my sister’s hip, resting against mine as we lay next to each other on her small bed, both writing in our diaries, our pens scrawling across the pages, nearly in unison.
My sister would sometimes put her diary down on her chest, put her head on my shoulder, and close her eyes. “You’ll wake me, if anything exciting happens?” she’d whisper in my ear. Then she’d fall asleep, and I’d lie there, wide-awake, listening to the soft sounds of her breathing, her chest humming slowly as it moved up and down. She seemed so peaceful asleep, as if she was just back in her bed at home on the Merwedeplein, off in some distant dreamland where she forgot where and who we were. I always watched the door when she was sleeping, listening closely for even the softest of movements. I did not want her to be pulled out of her dreamland by the Green Police. I wanted to protect her. Which makes what happened, what I did, at the very end, feel even worse.
“Margie.” I look up at the sound of Shelby’s light voice. Shelby and Peggy are both sitting there, next to each other now in the red booth, shoulders touching, staring at me. Two different sets of eyes, but really they could be one. Everything else about Shelby and Peggy is so different except for their eyes, rich brown, the color of milk chocolate.
“Come on,” Peggy says to me. “Have a seat.”
I slide across from them and pick up a thick plastic menu, but I do not actually read it. Instead, I listen to the sounds of their voices: back and forth and back and forth, like Ping-Pong. Are they arguing or are they chatting? It’s hard to tell. Their words move so fast, thick with much emotion. I want to reach my hand out and capture them, to hold on to them and take them home with me to my apartment, to keep them there with me at night, when it is hard to find sleep. But Shelby and her sister, their words are like bubbles. Even if I could grab on to them, just for a moment, they would pop and disappear.
Can I read your diary? I hear my sister’s voice in my head. She asked me that once, as we lay there together, hip to hip. Her voice was still light then, much the way Shelby’s is now.
If I can read yours, I told her, and then we switched books. Because why not? There was no privacy anymore. And besides, maybe I’d wanted her to know exactly how I felt about Peter, so I could claim him for my own. Not that that was the way things ever worked between us.
“Peg,” I hear Margie saying now. “You must go see the movie. Peeter is so dreamy.”
Oh, the movie. Clearly, I have underestimated her; Shelby is not done talking about it.
Peggy laughs and shakes her head. “Only you would see that movie as a romance, Shel.”
“That’s not true,” Shelby says, picking up her own thick plastic menu and hiding behind it with mock offense. “He’s dreamy. That’s a bona fide fact.” She lowers her menu and stares pointedly at me. “See,” she says, wagging her forefinger at me. “You should’ve come with me, Margie, so you could back me up on this.”
“What makes him so dreamy?” I ask, and the sound of my own voice startles me, as if the question has popped out of my mouth, without my permission. Immediately, I want to take it back.
“The way he hangs on to Anne and kisses her, just as they’re about to be ripped out of the annex . . .” She shakes her head. “You have to see it.”
“That didn’t happen,” I say softly.
“How do you know?” Shelby asks, and I realize I have said too much. I feel my brow breaking into a sweat, and I am ready to stand and run. The way he hangs on to Anne and kisses her . . .
“Of course, Margie’s right, Shel,” I hear Peggy saying, though her voice sounds very far away. “It was just a movie. Do you really think hiding from the Nazis was romantic?”
“I don’t know,” Shelby says. “Maybe. All cooped up like that, with nowhere to go.”
Peggy rolls her eyes in my direction, but I cast my gaze down, toward the table. My stomach turns, and I stare at the menu, as if I am trying very hard to decide what I should eat, though now I am no longer hungry in the least. I breathe deeply, fighting the urge to stand up and run out of the diner. For a few moments I concentrate on my breath, in and out and in and out, until I hear the conversation turn, and Peggy and Shelby start bickering over which sandwich to share for dinner.
“Fine,” Shelby is saying now. “If you don’t want hot turkey then Margie will split with me instead, won’t you, Margie?” I look up and nod slowly, carefully.
Peggy rolls her eyes again. “Everything is always so difficult with you, Shel.” But she says it lightly and with a smile, so I know she is teasing.
Shelby elbows her sister and laughs. The sound of it now, once again, falling over me like a stream.
BACK IN MY APARTMENT, LATER THAT EVENING, I LIE ON THE blue couch with Katze and think about what Shelby said. The way he hangs on to Anne and kisses her . . .
That is ridiculous, not at all what happened. Not even close.
I stare at the phone. I have not called to look for him for so long. But now I wonder again, for maybe the millionth time: what is true and what is not? If the movie is filled with such outrageous stories like the one Shelby spoke of, well . . .
I kept a diary before my sister even started hers, before the annex even. In 1941, I wrote about a boy named Johann, who had straw-colored hair and pale blue eyes and who lived around the block from us on the Merwedeplein. I wanted him to notice me so badly it made my stomach hurt.
Once, before the annex, my sister had picked the diary up off my dressing stand and read it without asking me.
“Who’s Johann?” she asked me.
“That’s private,” I told her.
“You tell Maria, but you won’t tell me.” She put her hands on her hips, honestly offended, as if Maria were a real person whom I loved more than I loved her. Maria was just the name I called my diary, only further evidence of her snooping.
“Johann is not a real person. He’s just a character,” I lied.
“Oh.” Her eyes lit up then. “You’re telling stories.”
I remind myself of this moment so often, every time I look through the book. Every time I read the words she has written about Peter. And again now, having heard Shelby’s description of the movie.
You’re telling stories.
I stand up and reach for the phone on my kitchen counter; I pull the dial to 0 again, and this time, I quickly let it go before I lose my nerve.
“Operator,” the woman’s voice says.
“I need the address and number for a Peter Pelt, Philadelphia,” I tell her. The words shake in my throat. Peter Pelt. That was the name he told me he would go by, in Philadelphia. I will no longer be a Jew, he’d whispered to me as we were lying on the divan in his room, more than once. I will leave everything behind. Hiding who you are, it’ll be so much easier than hiding where you are. He would be Peter Pelt, and I would be Margie Franklin. We would come to Philadelphia, and we would be Gentiles together, safe together.
“Just a moment,” the operator says now.
I hold my breath and close my eyes. According to the Red Cross,Peter died in 1945, after a death march to Mauthausen. But also, my sister and I both died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen.
“Miss.” The operator comes back, and I am waiting for her to say it again: that he doesn’t exist. Peter van Pels died, near Mauthausen, fifteen years ago, almost. “Here you go,” she says instead. “I’ve got a P. Pelt, at 2217 Olney Avenue, Apartment 4A . . .” She is still talking, but my ears buzz so loud, I almost cannot understand what she is saying.
I have not called to ask for him for so long. How long has this listing been there? Peter died, near Mauthausen.
After the war, we will go to Philadelphia, he told me, so many times. We will find each other in the City of Brotherly Love.
But Peter is dead.
Or he isn’t.
I can never be entirely sure what is real and what is not.
THE NEXT MORNING AT WORK, I SIT AT MY DESK AND HOLD tight to the yellow piece of paper on which I wrote down P. Pelt’s information. I stare at it so hard that the letters swim before my eyes, becoming something unreal. I force my eyes away, and then they catch on something else. There, through the glass, working at his desk, is Joshua. He concentrates hard, reading something carefully, so from this angle I can see only the arch of his broad shoulders and the top of his chestnut curls. I wonder how late he stayed last night, and if I had stayed too, if he would’ve walked out of his office and invited me for a drink again. But it feels wrong to imagine that now, and I quickly look away. I finger the yellow paper between my hands until it starts to crumble. P could mean a lot of things, I tell myself: Paul, Patrick, Peter. Peter Pelt.
Shelby steps off the elevator, and I hastily fold the yellow paper up into the smallest of squares and tuck it in the bottom of my satchel before she can ask me about it.
But when she reaches her desk, I see her eyes are red and puffy, and she does not seem to notice what I am or am not doing in the least, which is not at all like her.
“Everything okay?” I whisper across the desks. She nods, then shakes her head. “Do you want to talk about it?” She opens her mouth, then closes it again, and I guess that whatever happened has something to do with Ron, as he seems to be the only thing that can shake Shelby’s normally happy disposition. It occurs to me that whatever it is, it might have taken her mind off her new favorite topic, the movie, and I feel a little guilty for feeling relieved. Though Shelby sometimes pesters me, I don’t ever want her to get hurt.
“Margie.” Joshua buzzes me through the intercom, and Shelby sits down at her desk and pulls the beige cover off her typewriter.
“Yes, Mr. Rosenstein,” I say.
“I’m leaving for court in five minutes. Can you get my Zimmerman files ready?”
“Of course,” I say. I look to Shelby, who shrugs, and then Joshua bursts out of his office, dressed to the nines in a navy-blue three-piece suit. His body hums with nervous energy, the way it always seems to before court, and I notice, as he straightens his striped tie and reaches for his hat off the rack, that his hands shake just a little bit.
“Good luck,” I say, handing him the stack of files he’d asked for. Zimmerman, I remember, is a man who’d embezzled money from the Franklin, a Jewish social organization where he’d once been treasurer.
Joshua nods and smiles at me, a smile tinged with nervousness, but still, a Joshua smile nonetheless, so I cannot help but smile back, even as I now think guiltily of the yellow square tucked in my satchel.
I watch Joshua walk to the elevator, and then I turn back to Shelby. Her face is pale and small, her blond hair a little mussed. She is listening carefully to instructions from Ezra now, through her intercom.
“Yes,” she is saying. “Yes, of course. Right away, Mr. Rosenstein.”
In a way, I think, looking at her now, thinking about the way her voice sounded last night as she insisted the annex was romantic, Shelby reminds me of my sister. She is alive and stubborn and kind and terribly emotional. If it had been her and Peggy in the annex, I am sure, she would be the one the world is in love with now, while most everyone else wouldn’t even remember that Peggy had ever existed or, for that matter, kept a diary. And Peggy, like me, she would probably be happy about that.
For the longest time, I have lived in fear of walking by Robin’s Books and seeing my own face staring back at me as well as my sister’s. I have been full of fear, wondering what would happen if everyone knew, if my father knew, that I am still here. At first, I became Margie Franklin, the Gentile, because it was Peter’s plan, but then it became about survival, all over again. I did not want people to know that in so many ways I was that girl too: that Jew trapped like a rat, deeply in love, stolen away by the Green Police. That I am that girl. That Jew.
About a year into my life in Philadelphia, I began to notice articles in the Inquirer about terrible things that had been done to Jews. A gang of hoodlums went after Jewish children in a very “Jewish section of the city,” my sponsor, Ilsa, informed me. Then a few weeks later, a flaming flare was nailed to a house nearby, just because a Jewish woman was thought to live there. With the flare, the Nazis left a message that said der Jude, the German word for Jew, and Deutschland über alles.
Ilsa looked over my shoulder as I read the articles and clucked her tongue. “It is terrible,” she said to me. “And with the firebomb thrown into that synagogue last fall.”
“Firebomb in the synagogue?” I asked, the words feeling like rubber on my tongue. Synagogues being bombed, in the city of Philadelphia? Jewish children being attacked?
It was late spring 1954. The air had just begun to grow warm and heavy. I put my sweater on. And I have worn it, tightly, ever since.
“I THINK RON HAS ANOTHER GIRL ON THE SIDE.” SHELBY whispers this to me, across the desks. It is Friday again, and by now, I have almost forgotten about both her teary entrance on Tuesday and her talk of the movie, which she has dropped in favor of a new concern over Rock Hudson and Doris Day: are they an item or no? Shelby believes they are, especially because she saw the poster for their new movie, Pillow Talk, coming out in the fall, and she thinks they just look like an item.
“A girl can always tell these things,” she told me as I’d nodded and half listened, thinking instead about the tiniest square of paper still folded inside my satchel. It was one thing to know Peter might be here, but another thing altogether, to actually call the number. After all this time.
Now Shelby’s voice has taken on an unusually serious tone, and her normal smile is gone from her face as she mentions that she thinks Ron is not being faithful to her.
“Why do you think that?” I ask her, looking up from my typing.
“He’s been lying to me. Telling me he’s working late, when really he’s not,” Shelby says.
Excerpted from "Margot: a Novel"
Copyright © 2013 Jillian Cantor.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Margot by Jillian Cantor
“Inventive… Cantor’s ‘what-if’ story combines historical fiction with mounting suspense and romance, but above all, it is an ode to the adoration and competition between sisters.” — O, the Oprah Magazine
"A convincing, engaging might-have-been. Frankophiles will want to dig in." — People, 3 1/2 stars
“A marvelously wrought ‘what-if’ story of the survival of Anne Frank’s sister and her hidden identity in a new country. Psychologically subtle, satisfyingly suspenseful, and sensitively written.” – Margaret George, New York Times bestselling author of Elizabeth I: A Novel
“In this novel, a compassionate imagining of what might have happened had Margot Frank survived, Jillian Cantor provides more than a wistful what-if. She gives us a tour of the emotional nether land so often occupied by those who have survived the unimaginable and an example of extreme sibling competition—and love.” — Jenna Blum, New York Times bestselling author of Those Who Save Us and The Stormchasers
“This beautifully told sister narrative is more than an intriguing what-if? It's a meditation on the nature of survivor guilt and the legacy of invisible wounds. Margot takes on big questions in an intimate story, and carefully considers whether it is possible to survive--and thrive-- after unspeakable horror. A moving, affecting novel.” — Diana Abu-Jaber, author of Crescent and Birds of Paradise
“Cantor brilliantly channels Anne Frank’s sister Margot, who survives the Holocaust horrors to hide yet again, in America, trying to forget the terrible secret that brought her here. A haunting meditation on who we really are versus who we wish we had been, regret, loss and how we love in the face of sorrow. Glowing as a rare jewel, Margot is about discovering the truths of our lives, no matter what the cost.” — Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow
“Using historical facts and people we know and love, Cantor fills in the lost details of their lives with her imagination, and reaps a beautiful and redeeming new conclusion for a terrible chapter in history. Immediate and realistic, Margot brings Anne Frank and her sister to new life, while giving one of them a chance at a better future. The novel not only feels like a prayer for Margot and Anne, but for the many voiceless men and women whose memory deserves recognition.” — Erika Robuck, author of Call Me Zelda and Hemingway’s Girl
“This is a haunting book—emotionally raw, beautifully written, and so close to the bone that it’s jarring to remember, when you come to the end, that Margot Frank isn’t really alive and well and waiting somewhere in Philadelphia to answer all your questions. Even knowing this was a work of fiction, I was still moved to tears at seeing Margot finally get the happy ending we all wish she’d had.” — Gwen Cooper, New York Times bestselling author of Homer’s Odyssey and Love Saves the Day
“The kind of story that will leave you breathless, both because of its ambitious subject matter and its deeply arresting storytelling. Cantor has created a stunning reimagining of Anne Frank’s sister, her journey to America and the complex terrain that became her womanhood. Part love story, part family mystery, this singular, bold, and elegantly paced story is rich with historical imagery, but the ingenious plot is all Cantor’s. Margot is the sort of book that remains with you long after the final page.” — Ilie Ruby, author of The Salt God's Daughter and The Language of Trees
“Breathes life into a character we know only from her sister's famous diary. Margot offers us the other teenaged girl who lived in hiding for two years in that annex. It honors the memory of a shadow, of a ghost and boldly explores how icons are made and what is lost in this process. Margot examines history vs. story and how we cling to the fictions we tell ourselves.” —T. Greenwood, author of Two Rivers, Grace and Bodies of Water