by Jessica D. Ursell (Campania, Italy)
Let me say right at the beginning that as a granddaughter of survivors and a proud Jew, I am not afraid of fighting anti-Semites wherever they might be, but never in my wildest imagination did I think that in November 1994 I would be directly confronting an actual princess of a Southeast Asian country and her bodyguard in Anne Frank’s house.
I went to Paris for the month of November while I was waiting for the results of the bar exam. I told myself that it would either be an early celebration of passing such an extraordinarily difficult exam or as a way to recharge my batteries in case I needed to take it again. (As it turned out, I was successful on my first try.)
But before I found out I had passed, I was in Paris staying with my beloved grandmother Dora’s eldest sister Lodzia and her family. These family members (my great aunt Lodzia and her three daughters Rachelle, Monique, and Danielle) were hidden from the Nazis in the cellar of a courageous French farming couple, Madame and Monsieur Malais, during the war. Lodzia’s eldest daughter, Rachelle, would later marry Pierre Malais, their son.
And from Paris, after my visit with Lodzia’s middle daughter, Monique, I decided I had to go to Amsterdam.
Specifically, I felt a deep need to see Anne Frank‘s house where she spent 761 days hiding in a secret annex with her parents, sister, and four others before they were all exposed and taken to their deaths by the Nazis. Only her father, Otto Frank, survived.
Amsterdam was very private and personal for me. Going to Anne Frank‘s house at Prinsengracht 263 to see where she hid as a teenage girl was something I wanted to experience solo. So many of my own family members perished at the murderous hands of the Nazis. I wanted to be alone with my emotions and have time to process them without discussing my reactions on the spot.
Unattached and unencumbered except by the weight of my thoughts, I began this profoundly emotional journey.
Inside Anne Frank’s house, my recollections swirling, transported me backwards in time … wrapped in the warmth and closeness of our Passover Seders with the remnants of our family.
Our Seders were small but deeply meaningful with lots of discussion about the relevance of what our people experienced as oppressed slaves millennia ago in Egypt to our current world. The flavor of all our family discussions was clear: we have to bear witness to what happened to our people and above all we must never be bystanders to evil.
I saw the numbers 48696 branded into the arm of our treasured Chavcia with her sweetly chirping voice.
Dearest Chavcia, a cherished cousin of my beloved grandmother Dora, ladled mouthwatering, light, fluffy matzoh balls into her homemade chicken soup. Those numbers 48696 seared into her skin visible again and again as she brought out the roasted chicken, holding the large platter heavy in her arms. Chavcia’s gentle sweetness and diminutive frame contrasted starkly with the brutality and, as Hannah Arendt noted, the banality of evil that led to the Nazi vision of dehumanization and eradication of the Jewish people. Our people. My people.
Numbers 48696 on Chavcia’s arm…
More numbers 114057. Those belonged to David, Chavcia’s husband, whose steady voice gave me comfort as he led our Seders.
David … his numbers 114057 … survived the terrors of Sachsenhausen, Oranienburg, and Flossenbürg concentration camps in Germany and was liberated from the hell of Dachau on 29 April 1945.
Numbers 48696 and 114057
Indelible reminders of darkness, devastation, and loss.
Chavcia, a teenage girl in the Warsaw ghetto, carried a tiny tin pail of watery gruel all the way across the ghetto so that she could give her portion to my beloved great grandmother, Tsivya, to prolong her life. Hastening this watery substance across the ghetto to preserve it in its tepid state lest it get ice cold, the liquid splashing and sloshing against the pail, Chavcia knew her mission to save Tsivya was in vain but she didn’t stop.
Chavcia survived the terror and deprivation of Majdanek in 1943, although her own beloved mother Golda did not. Chavcia later survived the incomprehensible horrors of Auschwitz and lived to share her story, but her beloved father, Zalman Horowicz (brother of my own precious great grandmother Tsivya), perished in the hell that was Treblinka.
In February, 1945, Anne Frank and her elder sister, Margot, were put on a transport from the horrors of Auschwitz to the brutal conditions of the disease-ridden Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where starvation, disease, and death were rampant. It was there that they both succumbed to typhus just a few months before the war ended in Europe.
I’ve read that the average visit to Anne Frank‘s house takes about an hour but I was there for what felt like much longer. Maybe hours longer. I was transfixed, and walking through the house I felt like I was walking through thick tar.
Overcome with sensation, strangely throughout my body I felt the emptiness.
The realization kept hitting me over and over again, but it wasn’t so much about what was there–the infographics–but what was not.
All that was lost.
I was experiencing the void, the colossal emptiness, and sense of betrayal as I moved slowly through the house at Prinsengracht 263.
Companionless, I took my time going through the space barely conscious of the other people there.
Anne Frank, a girl but not just a girl. Anne Frank is the girl standing in for all the girls, for all the children, like my grandmother Dora’s and my great aunt Lodzia’s little sisters, Bronia, Reinusha, Helcia, and Romcia, who were persecuted and murdered simply because they were Jewish.
Overwhelmed by my cascading thoughts, I thought about my four murdered great aunts, little girls that I only knew from a single precious black-and-white photo, and wondered what I could do to ensure that their memory and the collective memory of the 6 million of our people would not be lost.
Standing in Anne Frank’s house, I stopped, feeling the emptiness all around me, and suddenly loud and prolonged laughter cracked the silence and the hushed murmurings of the other visitors.
Puncturing the still air, the harsh staccato laughter was so forceful, so immediate, I whirled around, jarred and disoriented, not knowing what was happening.
Directly behind me, only a foot away, stood an attractive woman who looked to be in her late 20s wearing aviator type sunglasses with long, lush dark hair, skin-tight leather pants that I remember being a tawny brown hugging her trimly curved body, and high-heeled boots. She was accompanied by a very muscular, determined-looking young man from a Southeast Asian country in a well-cut suit, the outline of his bulging physique clearly apparent beneath the elegant fabric.
Everything welled and rose inside of me … the silenced voices of the 6 million pounding in my chest.
“How dare you laugh in this sacred space! Don’t you know where you are?”
My voice rang in my ears and ricocheted against the walls.
He strode between us, his bulk filling the space.
“Careful, this is the Princess … you’re talking to!” he threatened, his grim face inches from my own.
Paying no heed to his threat, my voice rang out even louder. “I don’t care who she is! She has no right to behave that way–laughing in this house, in this sacred place!”
I don’t remember anyone else in the immediate area. All I could see was her mocking mouth and her brute in bespoke clothes breathing his threats into my face.
I stood right where I was.
I did not flinch.
I did not move.
Not an inch.
Not a millimeter.
He took his Princess by the arm and ushered her out.
They were gone. And as I stood in Anne Frank’s house, still shaking with shock and anger, I knew I would never be a bystander to bigotry and hatred.
Bronia, Reinusha, Helcia, and Romcia, my great aunts who were murdered as little girls, were silenced by the Nazis. My beloved cousin Chavcia and her husband David lived the remainder of their lives with numbers intended to strip them of their humanity seared into their flesh and with unfathomable pain seared into their psyches. The generational trauma inflicted by the Holocaust has not abated. It is ever present and palpable in my own life and in that of so many first- and second-generation families.
Using my voice to speak out and challenge hatred and intolerance whenever and wherever it occurs is my way of honoring their memory and the collective memory of the six million Jews who were singled out for extermination by the Nazis simply because they were Jewish.
I take heart and heed the words of noted Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer and will not be a victim, never a perpetrator, but above all, I will never be a bystander.
Daughter of an immigrant Jewish mother from the foothills of the Himalayas and a South Bronx born Puerto Rican Jewish father, Jessica Ursell is a veteran officer of the United States Air Force, poet, attorney, and progressive political activist. The granddaughter of survivors of the Holocaust, Soviet gulags, and a descendant of a Taíno great-grandma, she understands in her bones what happens when intolerance, indifference, and ignorance take root in society. Jessica lives with her husband in Southern Italy where she writes poetry addressing the complex interplay between trauma, power, love, loss, and madness. Her essay, At the Country Club with Superman, was published by The Jewish Writing Project in July 2022.
47 responses to “Standing Up for the Voiceless: My Fight with Royalty in Anne Frank’s House”
First of all, tears are forming. There are mixed emotions. Anger, compassion, pain, pride, a little sickness in the pit of my stomach. For what you lost. For what I also lost. If you can make us feel all these things, you are a gifted writer. You can make us understand what you felt, and why you felt them. And what I felt too.
In the Holocaust museum in Washington DC, I experienced something similar, I had to leave. Pain, nausea. An overwhelming sadness, anger, at what was done to my forbears.. whether I knew their names ( as you do) or not. Their DNA is in my veins. I will not forget! And I will not stand for injustice. I will stand up, and speak out as you did. Yes, your writing redoubled my resolve. I will not, I cannot be silent! To do so would betray their sacrifice and let this be swept under the rug. Not on my watch!! Write more, amazing Jessica. Let those fools go to a night club, not a sacred place. Their brains are too shallow to comprehend the profound importance of where they were standing. In fact, they were haughty, thinking they were so important! Maddening. But you put them in their place. Rightfully so. Great writing.
Thank you for sharing this very moving piece. “The realization kept hitting me over and over again, but it wasn’t so much about what was there–the infographics–but what was not.” I very much appreciated your description of the void that is the Anne Frank House, an emptiness that is unfathomable, inadequately filled with the rare photograph and tattooed numbers.
I have had similar experiences to the one you describe, the most recent that comes to mind is the macabre “Disneyland” atmosphere I encountered at the entrance to Auschwitz. School children and tourists, talking loudly and laughing about who knows what, jostling each other on their way to where they had not a clue.
I am not sure how to think about this type of experience. I don’t know whether it is indifference or bigotry, shallowness or boorishness, which prompts people to act this way at times. I suspect it is because they have been spared significant trauma (thankfully), or, if not, the trauma is too painful to experience or re-experience. I also suspect education about such horrors is inadequate. We seem very concerned about traumatizing our youth with facts that are difficult to digest. In part, we are reaping the results of our relentless attempts to whitewash and dilute. We can (and often do) just believe these things never happened.
Thank you for reminding us that the kind of behavior you experienced at the Anne Frank House is not just annoying. It is dangerous.
This is amazing, so well written, and well done! It made me cry.
Wow you were so brave to stand up to these people. Very moving essay.
If there were only more such brave and passionate second, and third generation responses as Jessica’s! Bearing witness was the job of survivors. Young people must now pick up the mantle of remembrance and of passing on the history. Jessica’s words should resonate with all who want a world free of ignorance and antisemitism. Never be a bystander to hate in any manifestation, be it subtle or overt.
Oh wow! It’s an amazing article. Jessica told her story and her family story with truth and passion.
I am not Jewish but I do feel very connected to the Jewish people. I love and respect all y’all. There is no nation or people like Israel!
The absence you describe, Anne Frank standing in for all the disappeared little girls, and your personal connection to those murdered, make this a very powerful piece. Your family’s losses, your memory of numbers on the arms of those who fed you as a child…this gives you the authority to tell a princess to shut her disrespectful mouth.
As always, beautifully expressed, inspirational and so Insightful!
Jessica, your strong voice stands for all those silenced voices, telling the stories that must never be forgotten. Brutality, oppression and ignorance are still rife in this world of ours. We need voices like yours.
Having visited the Anne Frank house, the feelings I experienced were brought back to me by reading Jessica’s excellent article. There were other tourists there as well. No one spoke as they moved from room to room. Afterwards, a tour the Keukenhof Garden with its vast display of multicolored tulips, could not dispel one iota of the devastation felt. The “princess” had no real connection to the history of where she was. That you spoke up when you did was understandable and necessary.
Jessica’s commitment to keep the memory of those murdered in the shoah is alive not only in this writing but all many of her other writings.
Jessica, this is so beautifully and powerfully written. Thank you for standing up to hate, at any level and no matter the title of the people who spread it. If everyone could use their voices more like you we may feel a little safer in the future. Hopefully one day. Thank you again for sharing this personal and powerful piece.
Sadly, there seems to be a worldwide trend to treat sites of tragedy as tourist attractions.
I’m glad you were there to speak for those who couldn’t.
And thanks for sharing a glimpse of your family’s history. Both sad and triumphant.
Very, well written, powerful and poignant. Chavcia and David would be very proud.
Jessica, as you walked through Anne Frank’s house and “thought about [your] four murdered great aunts” you wondered what you could do “to ensure their memory and the collective memory of the 6 million of our people.” Well, you have done just that. You and I are distant cousins. I looked up the names of all of the relatives that you mentioned in your article. Most of them are my relatives, too. Chavcia, for instance, is my 10th cousin, twice removed and your great-grandmother, Tsivya is my 10th cousin once removed. What you mentioned about them brought them to life for me — the sound of their voices, tattoos on their arms, gentle, sweet Chavcia hurrying through the Warsaw ghetto trying to bring some food to Tsivya, which ones lived and which ones died in the concentration camps. I will not forget them. And I will not forget or forgive the suffering and the loss any more than you do. Anne Frank was gifted with the talent and enough time to speak across the decades to millions of people about what happened. You were fortunate to have enough time and solitude to connect with her in her house before you were confronted with mocking laughter. Anne Frank was your cousin, too — your 12th cousin once removed. I like to think that she knew you were there to speak for her and to defend her.
If we don’t stand up to lesser evils, we will never stand up to greater ones. Refusing to be a bystander takes courage and practice. Using your voice as an advocate and a writer is your gift to the world!
I could hear all of the silenced voices echo throughout the room in that powerful moment. Brilliant!
What a powerful and vividly told story. Jessica so deftly interweaves the tremendous weight of painfully lost souls to devastating cruelty with her continual efforts to stand up for what is right. I hear you, Jessica, and will also work hard to keep these tough memories alive in hopes of raising awareness and encouraging all acts of kindness.
Wow. I just finished this essay and was as amazed at Jessica’s writing as I was with Superman (an essay I still think about !). The description of the juxtaposition of the numbers tattooed on her cousin’s arm as she ladles out chicken soup with matzoh balls is seared in my brain . Most of all I love that Jessica is not afraid to stand up and stand out in order to point out anti-Semitism. It’s a great lesson to everyone not to back down no matter where you are or who you’re with . We owe it to Anne Frank and we owe it to Lodzia , Jessica’s relatives who are survivors . And how interesting that you found out Anne Frank is a distant relative . It makes this essay even more important !Thank you Jessica for your important words.
As always, Jessica’s writing is so tender, insightful, and impactful. The numbers. As a child, seeing these hideous numbers tattooed on my elder neighbors’ arms on a daily basis was a shocking daily reminder of what our ancestors endured only a few decades earlier. I’m grateful that you are a brave advocate and voice for the voiceless. We’ll done. Yasher Koach!
Terrible about your close relatives, my cousins and all the loss to so many families as a result of the holocaust the evil that orchestrated it and those who didn’t speak up and fight back. I often consider how fortunate I am that my great great grandparents left Austria & Russia in 1880’s for a new life in America & consider that I may not have been born if they had not. Never forgotten and sorrow for the many who still suffer from the extraordinary loss of so many loved ones and family and descendants we will never know. I too will always stand up to hate. Very good essay Jessica.
When visiting a sacred place such as Anne Frank’s house it might be triggering, so as the writer did, you might prepare yourself mentally and that might involve going alone as did the writer. Once in that prepared head space, having that insensitive disruption is not something that any of us are prepared for. It’s cause for angry feelings especially given that you prepared yourself to experience this. It actually took me a few days to comment on this well written article as I felt triggered and personally offended by simply her experience and I only experienced it second hand as the reader.
Again, you have outdone yourself. Your story is moving and compelling. I felt like I was there with you at your family’s Passover Seder and at Anne Frank’s house.
I am taking / adopting the sentence in your last paragraph: I will not be a victim, never a perpetrator, but above all, I will never be a bystander.
I stand together with you as the voice of the 6 million voiceless and the survivors of the horrors of anti-Semitism.
Keep sharing these beautiful stories.
Beautifully written. And sad. We have all had these experiences and we know how lightly violence against Jews can be at the highest levels. Thank you for sharing.
This nostalgic and thoughtful essay brought me back to my youth. I also cannot recall the outcome of a time in the 1950’s when I was reaching for a right denied to a girl, but given to a boy. This is a wonderful piece because it is universal, touching any of us so long ago, and now, looking back with adult experiences and wisdom.
Your writings always transport me to the moment. I truly enjoyed your story and the satisfaction I felt when you stood up to the entitled woman who needed a good reminder of where she was and how not to behave.
The incident might have been at Anne Frank’s house, but all the names of your mentioned relatives made me feel like they were guests at the Frank’s house to, demanding honor and respect through your voice. Well done!
Such a powerful and deeply moving message–as important now as ever. Thank you for sharing this, Jessica!
Your piece was very moving. It highlights the community we are all a part of and the tragedies that we have to remember and comprehend.
I read your essay. I’m speechless and heart broken. Speechless that in this day and age there are those that don’t understand the sacrifices and agony that were made by these Jewish people.
I’m heart broken for all of your ancestors, and even now for all the heartaches Jewish people have endure and are still experiencing.
I’m proud of you for speaking your truth, and I would have proudly stood with you in Anne Frank’s home and shown the “Princess” the door.
What a beautiful insightful piece! I found myself almost breathing in harmony with you, as the recollection of this astonishing recount unfolded! I felt the melancholy in my heart
and the anger in pit of my stomach! Indeed you represent your history, your story, your passion. Your bravery to stand up, to never be a bystander, is a reminder that we all share a collective responsibility for the world we live in….not using our voice is still saying something, and inaction is an action!
Oh my goodness Jessica, I can’t even imagine someone being so disrespectful but I can imagine you standing up, not only for yourself but, for your people! I love how your writing takes me to the place you are describing and makes me feel those emotions you convey so well! Standing up and standing firm for what is right ~ if only everyone had so much integrity and fortitude!
You have an amazing gift in your writing! Very vivid and powerful words.
I have listened to this event many times over the years but nothing prepared me for the experience of reading about it. While the spoken words were very powerful, the written words take the experience to the next level. While I am sad that such disrespect was shown inside this place of remembrance, I am very happy that someone was there to right a wrong and to possibly educate an isolated member of royalty.
As I was reading the essay I felt I was standing in Anne Frank’s house. The descriptions were so vivid I could feel the pain of the survivors and grieve for the loss of life. I was so moved by the essay I researched Yehuda Bauer on the internet. Yehuda Bauer quote, noted in the essay, “Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all thou shalt not be a bystander.” is so true. Many of us, including myself, live our lives as bystanders. I will no longer permit myself to live my life as a bystander.
Jessica, what a beautiful experience you just shared. My eyes also filled with tears as I remember reading Anne Frank’s diary when I was a young girl. You may have been alone, but I feel as if I was standing next to you in the house. The way in which you wrote had such detail.
Not only was the princess loud and rude she was disrespectful to anyone else who may have been inside the home. As if the world only revolved around her. I experience this more in the United States that most other places and I usually bite my tongue. No longer a “bystander” are the words you wrote. I loved that!!!
Like a dream where you can’t scream out or speak but not you and no more. So beautiful just like you.
What a beautiful story! I love how descriptive Jessica’s words are. I really felt like I was there watching it happen myself. So inspiring for all people, Jewish or not. We all need to stand up to anti-semitism, and take pride in our identities.
Once again you have graced us with your gift for storytelling; thank you for sharing this memory. Thank you for continuing to remind us of what happened.
This story particularly resonates with me in two ways. I visited Dachau several years ago and that experience better helps me understand what it may have been like for you, contemplating Anne Frank’s house, to have been assaulted by that laughter. I can also better relate to your response to the “princess” because I have had similar experiences, albeit in every day settings, not such a sacred space (think high school basketball games, and pizza parlors). In those moments I confronted antisemitic hate speech, and will continue to do it again and again. Your writing only fuels my determination to confront hate in the moment, and for that I am grateful.
Jessica Ursell has written a very moving account of a personal experience that was disturbingly memorable for her. I am not Jewish, nor did I have relatives murdered during the Holocaust. But as a human, we must never “be a bystander to bigotry and hatred.” Good on ya, Jessica, for having the guts to call out that insensitive person!
We must always stand up against the ignorance of bigotry. Well written article
Wow, what a well written piece. So relevant in such a dark and polarizing time. We must always stick together and denounce the hate and disrespect.
Brava! Love you very much Jessica…
Jessica has a way of writing that cuts right to the emotion of her story, in few words she has been able to set the stage as well as display the deep disrespect that this “ princess “ and her companion were displaying. Thank you Jessica for bearing witness, for honoring the horrors and for defending the sacred space. We must always speak up so as not to allow anything but the extremity of what the Holocaust was to be remembered. I am so sorry for the treasures of family members you lost and so thankful for your remembrance
Jessica you made me so proud by writing on this important subject in a way that educates and inspires others to speak up about injustice.
What a wonderful albeit sad story! Although clearly disrespectful and disgraceful, at least this princess made it to the museum. More than can be said for many tourists. We can only hope she learned something not only from the power of being in that physical space and the story of Anne frank, but also your forceful reaction to her ignorance.
Anne Frank was an outstanding inspirational figure in Jewish History. Thank you for standing up for her in the face of ignorance. Wonderfully written.