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.