- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 7, 2004

AMSTERDAM — It was the autumn of 1941. Jacqueline van Maarsen, 12, had just finished her first day at a new school in Amsterdam, the Jewish Lycee, which she had been ordered to attend by the occupying Nazis in compliance with their anti-Jewish laws.

As she cycled home, she found herself being overtaken by one of her new classmates, a skinny girl with thick black hair and braces on her teeth.

“Are you going that way too?” the girl asked, pointing to a bridge. “Great! Then we can bicycle home together from now on.”

The girl’s name was Anne Frank; that evening she invited Jacqueline to supper with her parents, Otto and Edith, and her older sister, Margot. From then on, the girls were best friends. They played board games and table tennis together, admired each other’s collections of film-star postcards and giggled about boys.

On July 5, 1942, less than a year after the girls first met, the Franks went into hiding. Jacqueline thought that they had fled to Switzerland. She only discovered the truth when Anne’s father, the sole member of the family to survive following their capture and removal to the concentration camps, returned to Amsterdam in 1945 and tracked her down. In Otto Frank’s hands was his daughter’s diary.

“He was determined to see it published,” Mrs. van Maarsen recalls. “I couldn’t understand it. I thought, who would want to read a book by such a young child? Also, I couldn’t believe anyone would want to read about the dreadful times we had gone through.”

At first, it seemed she was right. Mr. Frank struggled to find a publisher, and had to contribute to the costs of publication.

Today, “The Diary of Anne Frank” has been published in 54 languages and has sold more than 25 million copies. The little girl who giggled with Jacqueline has become the face of the 6 million victims of the Holocaust and, to many, a Jewish martyr.

For Mrs. van Maarsen, who remembers a real child, a “naughty child,” the worship of Anne’s memory has been difficult.

“For a long time I didn’t want to have anything to do with the Anne Frank cult,” she says.

“On the one hand, I knew that using Anne as a symbol was good, but I also felt: don’t overdo it. Of course Anne was intelligent, but not in the way some people want her to have been. She was cheerful, but she was just a little girl. And suddenly the president of the United States knows who she is and tourists are asking me where her house is. It’s been very strange.”

Sitting in the living room of her light-flooded apartment in Amsterdam, Mrs. van Maarsen, now 75, is giving her first interview to the British press. She is explaining why, after years of staying silent, she finally felt compelled to write about her friendship with Anne.

(Her account has just been published for the first time in Britain, in a version retold for children.)

She features frequently in Anne’s diary under the name Jopie de Waal (“my best girlfriend,” Anne writes), but had refused to reveal that she was the real Jopie.

“Anne was very extrovert and would have loved all the attention, but I’m the opposite,” she explains. “Besides, talking about Anne was so painful — it brought back memories not just about her, but many other friends and family who were murdered.

“But people who barely knew Anne kept claiming to be her best friend. They were making money out of her, and that made me very angry, so finally I realized I had to speak out.”

When investigations to prove the diary’s authenticity began in the 1980s, she decided to let her identity be known.

Smartly dressed and charming, Mrs. van Maarsen, a bookbinder by profession, is surrounded by photos of her three children and seven grandchildren. It’s poignant to think that, if Anne had survived, she might be here today with her childhood friend, passing on news of her own family.

Of 145,000 Jews in the Netherlands, 112,000 were murdered during the war. Of those who survived, most were in hiding — including Jacqueline’s later husband, Ruud, who was sheltered by a family under the pretence that he was their nephew.

“During the war, I was disturbed by the Dutch people’s indifference to the Jews. Now I realize most of them were just scared, although some betrayed people like the Franks for money. I try to concentrate on the good Dutch people, like the ones who helped my husband. They had two small children, but they risked everything for him,” Mrs. van Maarsen says.

She survived because her mother was a French-born Catholic.

“My father was Jewish, so my elder sister, Christiane, and I had to wear the six-pointed star,” she says.

Otto Frank was convinced that their mother’s origins would save the sisters.

“He said he wanted to talk to my parents about it,” Mrs. van Maarsen says. “I don’t know for sure, but I think he may have warned them about the concentration camps. He was originally from Germany and knew what was going on. My father wouldn’t believe him about the gassing — it did seem unbelievable then. But my mother wouldn’t allow herself false hopes.”

With help from her French family, Mrs. van Maarsen’s mother obtained her grandparents’ baptism certificates and showed them to the Gestapo, who took the girls off the Jewish register.

“My father wasn’t happy, because she went behind his back, but later he understood that it saved our lives. Then a good Dutch doctor gave him a false certificate saying he could no longer have children, so he was no longer at risk either,” Mrs. van Maarsen says.

It had been a narrow escape, but both Jacqueline and Anne were oblivious to the threat.

“We thought being Jewish meant you couldn’t go swimming or to the cinema, couldn’t sit on benches. When you’re 12, you can’t imagine anything worse. We promised that if anything did happen to us, we would write farewell letters to each other, but we didn’t know what that actually meant. Our parents protected us, thank goodness.”

Despite the closeness between the girls, there were tensions in the friendship, mainly caused by Anne’s possessiveness.

“I liked very much to be with her, but she wanted to have me all to herself,” Mrs. van Maarsen says. “I liked to be alone, but she just got bored by herself. And sometimes I wanted to be with other friends.”

Things came to a head when Anne, fascinated by Jacqueline’s developing body, asked if she could touch her breasts — an incident recorded in the diary.

“I said no, and after that she understood there had to be more space between us. But when I read it in the diary I was very embarrassed, and relieved that no one knew my real name.”

In the months leading up to the Franks’ disappearance, Jacqueline noticed that pieces of furniture were vanishing from their house, and was puzzled when Otto Frank told her they were being refurbished. On the day the Franks went into hiding, she telephoned Anne for a chat.

“She sounded nervous and said she couldn’t talk, but that she’d call me back. She didn’t, but I thought nothing of it. Then the next day another friend of Anne’s knocked on my door and said the Franks had escaped to Switzerland.

“We went to the house to look for a farewell letter, but I couldn’t find one. I was surprised how messy the house was, with beds unmade and washing-up in the sink. It gave me a strange feeling — normally it was so neat.

“But for the next three years, although I missed Anne dreadfully, I assumed they were safe in Switzerland. It was only when Otto came to see me on his release from Auschwitz that I learned the truth.”

Otto Frank produced a farewell letter, which Anne, as she had promised, had written to Jacqueline while in hiding. Now reproduced in Anne’s diary, it begins: “Dear Jacqueline, I am writing this letter in order to bid you goodbye,” and goes on to say, “I hope we will meet again soon, but it probably won’t be before the end of the war.”

“Reading it was very emotional,” Mrs. van Maarsen recalls, “which was difficult, because I didn’t want to show feelings in front of Otto. He was so sad already. He told me that when they were in the camp awaiting deportation, Anne was actually happier than she had been for a long time — for the first time in years, she could feel the sun on her face and make friends. She was so sociable, she must have been so lonely in the annex.”

For years after the war, Otto Frank relied heavily on Mrs. van Maarsen for support.

“It was a comfort to him to know that Anne continued living in my memory, and he wanted to know everything about our friendship — he was just like his daughter in that way. It was hard, because I didn’t want to tell him our little secrets. I didn’t want to talk about sexual things, or the times when Anne and I quarrelled.”

Over the years, Mrs. van Maarsen has begun to appreciate the diary’s importance.

“I can never be objective about it, but now I admire how honest Anne was, how much she wanted to improve herself. I’ve never known anyone enjoy life like she did. She’d go anywhere and talk to anyone. She was pretty, too — she’d hate the most commonly used picture of her because she’s wearing a brace that spoiled her lovely expression, and now that’s how the world sees her.”

After Otto Frank’s death in Switzerland in 1980, Mrs. van Maarsen gradually took over as keeper of the flame, travelling the world to talk about her friendship with Anne.

“Otto loved all that, but I can honestly say I don’t enjoy any of it. I do it because I feel it’s my duty to tell children about my experiences. But finding satisfaction in such a tragedy — no, that’s impossible.”

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