Annelies by David Gillham: “One Beautiful Thing”
David Gillham’s ambitious new novel, Annelies (Viking, 2019), poses the question: what if Anne Frank survived the Holocaust? Set in the chaotic world of postwar Amsterdam, sixteen-year old Anne, haunted by the deaths of her mother and sister and carrying the guilt of the survivor, struggles to put the pieces of her life back together. Inspired by a passage in Anne’s diary about her belief in the basic goodness of people, Gillham says he wanted to explore whether Anne would ‘still have believed this after experiencing the horrors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. It is a challenging question, and one, which I wanted to try at least to answer. This novel is my attempt to do so.’
Drawing on an abundance of primary and secondary sources, Gillham’s research brings to the fore the many questions Anne has about how her family and their way of life could have been destroyed in the way that it was. ‘In writing the novel I drew on Anne’s diary, biographies and published recollections of Anne by those who knew her, histories of the Holocaust, films, documentaries, testimonies recorded by survivors, visiting the landmarks of her life in Amsterdam, Germany and Poland — not just the Anne Frank House, but the family flat where the Franks lived before going into hiding, the book shop where it’s likely she picked out her diary, and, most painfully, the camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen where she and her sister Margot perished.’
One part of the research that surprised him was how hard life in postwar Europe was for camp survivors. ‘Not only did they have to face their own losses, but often were forced to deal with war-weary populations that considered themselves to be the survivors. Sympathy was in small supply. The map of Europe was being redrawn. It led to political adventurism and the chaos of shifting populations, which always generates friction. In some spots, Jewish survivors were even met with violence.’
Anne experiences this lack of sympathy when she comes back to live in Amsterdam after the war, one of only five thousand Jews returning to a city that had sixty thousand in 1940. At the back of her mind is always the question of who denounced her family to the Nazis. When she discovers it was a Dutch collaborator and confronts him, Anne is struck by his inability to apologize or take responsibility for his actions. ‘Money’s money. You said so. Who cares how you get it? Jews were worth forty guilders a head.’ And a few lines later, he either won’t or can’t face the truth. ‘I would never do anything to hurt people. Not on purpose. You gotta believe me.’ It is against this backdrop that Anne must come to terms with the past and find a way forward.
Gillham finds that the Second World War, where he also set his first novel, City of Women, provides rich material for historical fiction. ‘The sheer scope and tragedy of that war continues to exceed our ability to understand it. Certainly, there have been other brutal and scarring calamities in the length of human history, but few if any have so irrevocably changed the face of the world, and still resonate so widely and deeply. We are living today with the consequences of that war.’
Though there is plenty of trauma and pain in Anne’s story, the power of Gillham’s novel comes from his deep understanding of the human spirit’s ability to find hope and resilience even in the darkest of times. A beautiful rendering of this is when Anne’s mother Edith tells her daughters to find ‘one beautiful thing’ every day while they are in the camps. Gillham says he read ‘survivors’ accounts telling the story of how the real Edith and her two girls were inseparable at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and how utterly Edith devoted herself to their care, and decided to develop ‘one beautiful thing’ into a major theme in the book along with the idea of ‘repairing the world.’’ It is through her mother’s love that Anne finds a way to anchor herself in a postwar Europe where all she has ever known or loved is gone.
For his next book, Gillham will shift from the Second World War to the American Civil War. ‘It’s about a young woman who cuts her hair and takes her twin brother’s place in the Union army after he’s drafted. It’s a fascinating subject. There are over four hundred documented cases of women disguising themselves as men to fight on both sides of the war.’ To learn more about David Gillham’s writing, please visit his website.
About the contributor: Cynthia Anderson is writing a novel, Beyond the Steppes, set in 17th-century China, about the journey of a Mongolian girl from nomadic herder to the Empress who helped shape modern China. You can find out more about her here.