Holocaust Girls/Closet [Short Story]
This short story by fiction writer, S.L. Wisenberg, sheds light on the influence of Anne Frank on the imagination and identity of Jewish girls growing up in postwar America. Written from a child's point of view and in the language of children, Wisenberg describes a fantasy game she played with her sister after reading the diary, seeing the popular movie on television, and viewing documentary footage of concentration camps in Hebrew school. From the safety of their walk-in closets in their middle-class suburban Texas home, the empathic pair anxiously imagined that they too were hiding from the Nazis in a secret annex. That Wisenberg saw herself through the eyes of the persecuted as well as persecutors illuminates the complexity of a developing sense of self that alloyed self-blame and survivor's guilt, with historical agency. Manifest in their girls' play is a tension between vigor and stealth. The tension between protecting children from the horrors of the Holocaust and the value placed on knowledge of the past is reflected in their parents' mixed messages about how much their daughters should know. That the sisters played in their pink-infused bedrooms (pink rug and shelf paper) where they also imagined themselves in feminized careers alludes to the gendered limitations they faced being female in the early 1960s.
Stories like this and other types of documentary sources (e.g., diaries, letters, oral histories, etc.) can provide researchers with insight into the meanings and nature of children's play, fantasy lives, and developing sense of self. Questions that might be fruitful for further study are: How has children's play been shaped by historical circumstances? In what ways is children's play natural and universal? How have gender, race, ethnicity, class, etc. influenced children's play?
S. L. Wisenberg, Holocaust Girls: History, Memory, and Other Obsessions. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press. 2002, 14–17. Annotated by Miriam Forman-Brunell.
Primary Source Text
Nazis came to Texas in the 1960s. We could hear them just around the corner. My older sister Rosi would make the sound of their footsteps—would tap her hands on the pink carpet of the walk-in closet in her room (just like the one in mine). She would look up and say, "Listen, do you hear them?" I would hold my breath. We were in the woods with the partisans. Though we didn't know the exact meaning of the word. We sat around our (invisible) campfire. We were hiding from the Nazis. They would take us away. We had saltines and olives to live on.
Sometimes I would be the one to tap tap tap slap my palms against the pink carpet: "Listen, do you hear them?" Nazis coming through the woods. They had been tipped off, perhaps by paid informers, like the ones who had turned in Anne Frank.
I had read her diary. We had seen the end of the movie on TV though my mother had said, "Don't you think they should go to bed?" My father had said, "They have to learn." What we had to learn about was life. What had happened to the Jews crouched in silence.
On TV we heard the big Nazi boot against the door of the Secret Annex where the Franks had hidden. The Nazis bashed in the door the way ours had never been bashed, or my father's or my mother's. My father had fought the Nazis in the ocean. My mother had stayed home. She'd been a schoolgirl.
Once I asked her, "Have you ever had a raw potato?" I imagined her digging them from a field, getting through the war. She'd grown up in Dallas. She said, "Maybe once" — when her brother's barbecue project in the back yard hadn't turned out. Potato half-raw, half-burned. There was no starvation, no SS in Texas. No hiding with partisans. Nothing but two daughters in the 1960s with saltines and green olives stuffed with pimientos, and sometimes a strand or two of raw spaghetti to munch on.
For years I kept a getaway bag in my closet — saltines and a notebook, a change of clothes. An alarm clock, so I would know the time. I liked the big, friendly white and gold face of that alarm clock. One summer night the air conditioning didn't work and we opened the widows and I heard Nazis, scratching to get in to take me away and steal my glasses. In the morning my father claimed the noise had been mosquitoes, other night insects. June bugs. The same June bugs I would watch at night on the porch. I would turn over the June bugs that had landed on their backs, skittering. I wanted to right all the June bugs.
We liked playing in the closet. We liked the thrill of hiding. We were victims but we were never caught. Sometimes we played secretary instead. Sometimes we played that we were lizards on a ship hiding from the Nazis. The Nazis would take us to a concentration camp. They would take my glasses and asthma drugs and let death just come up and kill me, like that. At Hebrew school the teachers talked about Nazis. They showed us a film on a small screen. They showed us the small bodies and the striped prison outfits. But we didn't think of it as prison. It was a death camp and the Nazis took people there. Jews.
They didn't take us because we were quiet in the woods, we sprinkled sand and dirt over our fire in the closet in the woods before they were close enough to smell the smoke. The Nazis were stupid. They were thick and dumb like animals and wore big heavy boots up to their hips. We were good so the Nazis would never find us. We were smarter and darker than the Nazis. But we were bad, something bad about us or the Nazis wouldn't be after us in the first place.
When we played secretary, our office was out in the hall and we would hold papers up to the air vents that would suck them so they stuck. When we played school, the air vents held up the pretend tests we gave each other. Sometimes we would just play without having a name to it and slide across the terrazzo floor in our stocking feet. We didn't wear shoes when we hid from the Nazis. They would find us; shoes would make too much noise.
Sometimes at dusk we played capture-the-flag with the neighbor kids in the Shelbys' front yard. After a rain we'd play stand-in-old-shoes-in-the-mud-in-the-side-yard. Sometimes we'd go to the houses still being built and stand on the extra lumber and play island-in-the-ocean. There were brown rabbits in the "empty" lot behind the house and once policemen came with horses back there on a search for someone — a criminal hiding in the overgrown weeds.
At some point we stopped playing Nazi. It wasn't my idea to start or stop. Maybe Rosi stopped playing with me, started playing with her own friends, and no more Nazis. We outgrew Nazis. When I was twenty-one I went to Amsterdam and went, alone, to the Secret Annex. It was on the tourist map. Each room was small and there was a guest book to sign with a fancy gold pen, unattached to anything, no string or chain. There were the books Anne Frank had read while she was in hiding and her movie star pictures pinned to the wall. The place was small, it had no power, too many people walking through.
Ten years after that, on a layover in the Amsterdam airport, a Greek man saw me borrow someone's tour book of the Anne Frank house. The Greek man said to his American wife: "Of course she's interested in Anne Frank — she's Jewish." The man who'd bought the book wasn't Jewish. I said nothing. The Greek had been able to tell that I was Jewish.
There is a statue of Anne Frank in front of a church in Amsterdam. In the walk-in closets in Houston now are full-length mirrors and the shelves that Rosi and I covered in our favorite pink contact paper, ruffles that we tacked along the edges. The closets are shrines, and storage. In Rosi's closet are my mother's mink coat and the large bride doll too big to play with and the felt board with felt numbers.
Where I live now I don't sit in closets. The closets are full. I'm on the third floor. No Nazis bang against my screens at night. Around the world people are defacing Jewish graves, threatening pogroms. In my neighborhood Jewish Community Center I watched a slide show of someone's trip to Europe — pictures of Auschwitz-Birkenau, rust-colored gas chamber. "It was cold," the traveler told us, "so very very cold. Everyone told us to bring our sweaters, even though it was a warm day." Ghosts breathing out cold air, having absorbed the force of someone's bare hatred. About 175 miles from the camp, the traveler had seen two young boys spray-paint on a memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto. She said, "There is hatred for Jews where there are not even Jews any more."
Anne Frank was shipped from Auschwitz-Birkenau to Bergen-Belsen. I read about her all through my childhood. She never seemed like a child to me. At parties I eat olives and crackers. Alone at night, shadows brush against my face. At the JCC, one of the slides showed words in a foreign language carved into a wall at the concentration camp. The traveler thought it said to never forget. In my late twenties when I felt sad I would go to the public library and read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. It was warm and familiar. It would sooth me.
Reproduced from Holocaust Girls: History, Memory, and Other Obsessions by S. L. Wisenberg by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. © 2002 by the University of Nebraska Press.
How to Cite This Source
"Holocaust Girls/Closet [Short Story]," in Children and Youth in History, Item #331, https://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/primary-sources/331 (accessed March 9, 2014). Annotated by Miriam Forman-Brunell