A New Look At Anne Frank, Through The Eyes Of A Long-Ago Friend

Hannah Pick-Goslar’s memoir, ‘My Friend Anne Frank,’ offers another valuable perspective on the little girl who became a symbol of the Holocaust


Twice in my life I’ve wanted to find out everything I could about Anne Frank. The first time was when, as an early teenager, I read her diary. This was in the 1950s, not long after the book was published in this country and when — though the Broadway and film versions were about to become hits — there were only a very few supplemental texts. Forty years later, I wrote “Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife” in an effort to replace the idea of Anne as an ordinary girl in extraordinary circumstances with that of a literary prodigy — a natural writer who revised and recast her diary in the hopes of seeing it published. By then, I was able to fill a small bookcase with volumes about Anne and her diary, so many that — partly out of generosity and partly to create more space in my crowded library — I donated a stack of them to the biographer Ruth Franklin, who is at work on a book about the brief life of the Holocaust’s most famous victim.

Now there is yet another book about the gifted young writer. “My Friend Anne Frank,” by Hannah Pick-Goslar — who died in Jerusalem in 2022 at the age of 93 — is being published posthumously.

The book’s subtitle, “The Inspiring and Heartbreaking True Story of Best Friends Torn Apart and Reunited Against All Odds,” is only a partial description of what the memoir contains. In fact the girls’ lives intersected only twice. They were friends during the critical and uncertain period between their families’ arrival in Amsterdam, in flight from Nazi Germany, and the day, in July 1942, when Anne and her family went into hiding in the attic above her father’s spice warehouse on Prinsengracht.

The girls had met in an Amsterdam grocery store, where Hannah and her mother, who had not yet learned to speak Dutch, were excited to overhear Anne and Mrs. Frank speaking German. Near neighbors, Hannah and Anne were classmates at the local Montessori nursery school. Hannah was a guest at Anne’s 12th birthday party — the birthday for which she received the diary with the checked cloth cover. “Everyone likes their birthday,” Pick-Goslar writes, “but Anne was one of those people who really loved it; she would tell anyone who would listen that it was coming up.”

They would meet again, truly against all odds, in February 1945, when both were imprisoned at Bergen-Belsen. Hearing of Anne’s arrival at the concentration camp, Hannah was able to speak to her — and throw her packets of food — from the opposite side of a high fence.

Beyond this account of their tragically curtailed friendship and their brief, painful reunion, “My Friend Anne Frank,” written with Dina Kraft, is as much Hannah’s story as it is Anne Frank’s. And why not? In “The Lost,” Daniel Mendelsohn’s beautiful book about trying to learn the fate of six family members killed in the Holocaust, he tells the novelist Louis Begley’s elderly mother that her account of having escaped the Nazis is quite a story. If you didn’t have a story, she replies, you didn’t survive.

Pick-Goslar certainly has a story, and she tells it here with great clarity and conviction. In many ways her experience parallels Anne Frank’s. Both fled their comfortable, upper-middle-class lives in Germany for the Netherlands, where their daily routines — playing Ping-Pong, meeting friends at the local ice cream parlor, forging and breaking schoolgirl alliances — were like those of other girls their age until the German invasion of their adopted homeland forced them to cope with the increasingly repressive and capriciously punitive measures imposed on Jews. They were ordered to wear a yellow star on their clothing, and were forbidden to own bicycles and radios, or to travel by streetcar or go to movie theaters, a particularly harsh privation for Hannah, Anne and their friends.

Eventually, they were prohibited from attending any school except the Jewish Lyceum, from which their fellow students kept disappearing when they went into hiding or were deported. An increasing number of Jewish teenagers and their parents were called up to work in German labor camps. At last, in the summer of 1942, when Hannah went to look for her friend and found the Franks’ apartment empty, she was told — as was everyone in the community — that the family had escaped to Switzerland. During this perilous time, Hannah’s mother died giving birth to a stillborn child.

With their options for escape closed off, the Goslars hoped they might evade the most dire outcomes because they had exemption certificates entitling them to be exchanged for German prisoners of war. But in June 1943, Hannah and her family — her father, her grandmother and her younger sister, Gabi — were sent to Westerbork, the inhospitable Dutch detention camp where Jewish prisoners were held en route to the concentration camps. One of the few notes of bitterness creeps into the memoir when Pick-Goslar describes the unfeeling way in which her non-Jewish neighbors (with one exception) responded to her family’s arrest, how she saw people drinking their morning coffee and watching through binoculars as Jews were rounded up.

Pick-Goslar braved the suffering — cold, hunger, lice, disease, exhaustion and terror — of Bergen-Belsen, where her father and grandmother died, and where her account of the effort required to keep one’s body and spirit alive echoes Primo Levi’s. “It wasn’t a struggle just for physical survival but for the survival of the soul, too. To remain human in these terrible, inhuman conditions.” It’s heartening to read about the humanity that did remain among the prisoners, whose small but important kindnesses enabled Hannah to nurture and protect her younger sister, whose life was saved by the extra rations of milk that other inmates procured for her.

In the winter of 1945, Hannah learned that a group of Dutch Jews had arrived at the camp and that Anne Frank was among them. She found a way to speak to Anne, who was cold, ill and hungry. “We were both sobbing now,” Pick-Goslar writes of when she reunited with her friend. “Two terrified girls under a rain-soaked night sky, separated by this barrier of straw and barbed wire.” Anne told Hannah that she was “absolutely starving” and asked her to bring her something to eat. “‘Yes, I’ll try,’ I said, wondering as the words came out how I possibly could.” Despite the hope that this brief reunion may have offered, Anne and her sister, Margot, died of disease and malnutrition.

After being forced onto a torturous train ride by the Germans from Bergen-Belsen that departed just days before the camp was liberated by the British, the train stopping and starting through Berlin and the German heartland, Hannah and Gabi awoke from a deep sleep, wandered off the now-empty train and discovered that they were free. While recovering in a Dutch hospital, Hannah was reunited with Otto Frank, whom she encouraged and helped in his untiring (and initially unsuccessful) efforts to find publishers for her friend’s diary. Finally, Hannah was able to make her way to Palestine, just before the state of Israel was established. After a brief sojourn on a kibbutz in the countryside, she moved to Jerusalem, where she became a nurse, married, had children and lived out the rest of her life.

Much of Pick-Goslar’s account may seem familiar to those who have read widely about Frank. So, I suppose the question arises: Do we really need another Anne Frank book? To which I would offer an unequivocal yes. “My Friend Anne Frank” isn’t “The Diary of a Young Girl.” Hannah Pick-Goslar isn’t Primo Levi. But to paraphrase Mrs. Begley, she has a story, a piece of history, and she tells it straightforwardly and well. She describes, touchingly, and as very people few could, what it was like to read Anne’s diary after having known its author: “Her diary made me realize just how special and unlike anyone else Anne was. This was a deeper, multilayered Anne, both familiar to me and, in some ways, entirely new. I was reading Anne frozen in time at 13, 14, 15 years old. I was aware that as I grew older, I could only get further away from her, a girl whose flickering shadow I felt I could still catch a glimpse of out of the corner of my eye. … It was a strange feeling.”

Pick-Goslar’s story seems more important than ever now, when the incidence of casual, public and criminal antisemitism is rising at home and abroad. We need to be reminded that these things happened, that millions of innocent human beings were methodically slaughtered while much of the world watched or feigned ignorance, and that — again, against all odds — people like Pick-Goslar survived to tell us what it was like. We need the widest range of books for the reader, like myself as a young teenager, who discovers Frank’s diary — and who wants to know more.

Francine Prose, a distinguished writer in residence at Bard, is the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, including “Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife” and, most recently, “Cleopatra: Her History, Her Myth.”