Forty-four years have passed, but for Jannie Brandes, that eerie, dreadful morning of Aug. 8, 1944, often seems like only yesterday. Even now she can see that train, that train waiting for her here at Amsterdam's Central Station.
"It was a very still summer morning," she says, "beautiful weather, the sun was shining, dew was still on the leaves, the night cold still hung over the city. We were taken to Amsterdam Central Station. Under guard, of course. We entered the station at the far end, via a path paved with small stones. . . . It was a very unreal sort of atmosphere. The stillness of the morning and all these people being herded into the train . . . ."
The train led to a Nazi transit camp, and the transit camp led to Auschwitz. On Sept. 3, 1944, Jannie Brandes and 1,018 other Dutch Jews in the transit camp at Westerbork, in eastern Holland, were again herded into a train. It was to be the last great train from Holland to the concentration camp at Auschwitz.
And on it with Jannie Brandes was a frail, cheerful, gifted young friend of hers named Anne Frank.
Jannie, Anne Frank, Anne's older sister Margot and all the others passed from the train straight into the eye of the Holocaust, into the Auschwitz death spiral of pain, humiliation, dehumanization and finally the gas chamber. Seven months later, Jannie Brandes was there in the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen when first Margot and then Anne died of typhoid, malnutrition and a broken spirit.
"During the final days, I saw Anne standing there, wrapped in a blanket, with no tears left to cry. Well, we hadn't had tears for some time," Jannie says. "And then, a few days later I went to look for the Frank girls and learned that Margot had fallen from her bunk. Just like that, onto the stone floor, dead. The next day, Anne died as well."
Jannie Brandes and six other Dutch women have set forth this and other eyewitness accounts in a stunning new documentary film, "Anne Frank, The Last Seven Months." The film, which will be shown next month as part of an American Film Institute festival, has earned rave reviews and stirred press stories in the Netherlands. It is certain to take its place in the Holocaust film literature beside the exhaustive documentary study "Shoah" and the American-made dramatic series, "Holocaust."
But in a more immediate way, this new Dutch documentary completes and illuminates the life story of Anne Frank, the German-born Jewish girl who has become a legend and a symbol the world over. Through the worldwide publication and popularity of "The Diary of Anne Frank," Anne has become the single, vivid face and voice that still speaks for the 6 million Jews who died in Nazi concentration camps like Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.
Anne's diary, discovered here at the end of World War II, brings to life the Nazi occupation of Holland and how the Frank family hid in a cramped, blacked-out attic to escape detection by the Gestapo. But Anne's diary ends with an entry from Aug. 1, 1914, just before the Frank family was betrayed by unknown Dutch collaborators and arrested by German police.
The new film picks up the Franks' story just where the diary left off. With calm, detailed, eyewitness accounts, the film follows Anne and her family from Amsterdam station to Westerbork and then through the long months of horror at Auschwitz. The film puts to rest years of conflicting stories of just how Anne endured seven months of Nazi horror and finally died at Bergen-Belsen at 15, just two months before the Allied liberation of Holland.
But these seven Dutch women also tell a story far larger than Anne's. By emerging from their self-imposed silences, by forgetting the camera, and by holding little or nothing back, Jannie Brandes and the others give a rare, detailed look into how it felt to be a condemned woman in Auschwitz, how they suffered and endured the multiple traumas of Women's Block 29.
The women tell of being forced to strip in front of Nazi officers. They tell of having their heads and bodies shaved. Of the humiliation of those young girls having their period. And Jannie Brandes tells of that gruesome mixture of panic and relief they all felt during the ritual "selections," when Dr. Josef Mengele would decide who survived that day and who went to the gas chamber.
The guiding hand behind this remarkable film testimony belongs to a sensitive, self-effacing Dutchman named Willy Lindwer. For years a producer for Dutch television, Lindwer took the risk of setting up his own production company, AVA, in order to have the freedom to do the Anne Frank film and other projects close to his heart.
"I had read a lot about Anne Frank, and those last seven months fascinated me," Lindwer said at his home on the Amstel River just outside Amsterdam. "Anne Frank was a symbol, and that's fine. But I was thinking about the other 6 million people. I had aunts and uncles who also died in Auschwitz."
Lindwer was born to a Jewish family that fled Poland in 1933, during the rise of Fascism and anti-Semitism in Germany and Poland. Like the Frank family, which had fled Frankfurt, Lindwer's parents thought they would be safe in Holland, but during the Nazi Occupation they were forced into hiding with Dutch farmers. Willy was born just after the liberation.
Against this backdrop, Lindwer had several compelling reasons to complete the Anne Frank story. First, he wanted to establish the truth once and for all about how Anne died. Lindwer was also annoyed by continuing attempts by a tiny handful of revisionist historians, those who still deny the concentration camps even existed, to brand her diary as a fake. Finally, he wanted to make sure that the ordeals of Anne and the other women condemned to Auschwitz would be properly preserved for future generations to witness.
"In a few years, these women won't be here. And for young people, this testimony comes straight from the mouths of their grandmothers," he said.
Coming forth from their years of silence was also an extreme personal shock for the seven Dutch women involved. Through the Netherlands' State Institute for War Documentation and through ads he placed in the Jewish press, Lindwer managed to locate a number of women who were with Anne Frank during her last seven months. But it took him some 18 months to win their trust and confidence.
"The fact that I am Jewish helped a lot," he said. "There were many things I didn't have to explain. Finally, after months of earning their trust, when I came with my camera they were ready to speak in detail. Sometimes they spoke about things they had never ever spoken of before. And I knew that some of them suffered terrible nightmares for a long time afterward. At a certain moment I thought, 'What have I started?' "
But for Rachel van Amerongen Frankfoorder, a member of the Dutch Underground and an Auschwitz survivor, Lindwer and his camera triggered unexpected reactions. From her home in Israel, she said that when Lindwer first telephoned her about being in a film about Anne Frank, her immediate reaction to the idea of talking about Auschwitz was no way. Never.
"I was surprised," she says now. "But all of a sudden I said, 'Yes.' Why was I surprised? Because I had never spoken about it. When I returned to Holland, we were a miserable lot of women. And no one was very interested in what we went through. We were dead. Written off. So I decided never to talk about it. Even to my children."
As an Auschwitz survivor, Van Amerongen has a number tattooed on her arm, but she always made sure she wore long sleeves to cover it. And once she took her daughter to the Anne Frank House in central Amsterdam, and the girl asked her, "Why don't you tell people you were there too?"
"I just couldn't," she said. "I could tell her anything. But not what I went through.
"But when Willy phoned me, I was 73, and I realized this was my only chance to speak out. I felt I had to, as a witness."
Bearing witness, telling what she had never told before, proved for her a catharsis, a totally unexpected liberation.
"It was less difficult than I thought. In fact, it was much more difficult to remain silent. Because it always comes back, the memory. Now I'm telling you things from the depth of my soul. I don't want to make it a big drama. But it is."
Lindwer, who is also a Jewish scholar and a collector of Jewish art, expects the film to be on American TV later this year. But no matter how large an audience the film eventually reaches, he and his wife, Hanna, believe that bringing new light to bear on Anne Frank and the Dutch experience has already changed their lives permanently.
"It has changed me a lot," Lindwer says. "I was born after the war. My parents were survivors. So I knew what happened. I had read about it. But it was only when I started this project that I really started to understand what they did to the Jewish nation."
Now Lindwer savors one vivid, overpowering memory: The day he gathered the seven Dutch women and their husbands to see the film for the first time. He particularly remembers Van Amerongen. For her, seeing the completed film, seeing the other Dutch women come forward with their own tortured memories of Women's Block 29, all this combined to suddenly snap 44 years of battling back her feelings.
"When I saw it, I was terribly shocked," she says. "And after seeing it, I cried for the first time. I didn't know I could do that--cry."