NEW YORK—For decades, Jacqueline van Maarsen told no one. She did not want people to know she was Anne Frank’s best friend. As much as Anne Frank’s diary was about a girl who was eager to live, to talk about Anne Frank was to remember that she was dead. And to remember that Anne Frank was dead, was to remember that van Maarsen’s aunts, uncles, cousins, and most of her classmates were dead.
After the second world war, van Maarsen salvaged what she could of her life and tried to move on. She married a childhood friend, had three children, and worked as a successful bookbinder in Amsterdam.
“I told my children not to tell their friends at school that their mother was Anne Frank’s friend,” she said. “If people knew they would always ask me questions.”
The mention of Anne Frank would unleash a deluge of disturbing images in her mind: A shivering, bald Anne dying of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp; van Maarsen’s favorite young cousins slowly writhing to death in a gas chamber in the Sobibór extermination camp.
“I did not want to think about these things all the time,” she said.
She knew she would not be able to handle the public’s questions about Anne Frank because she could barely handle the inquiries from Otto Frank, Anne Frank’s father.
To the grief-stricken father, van Maarsen was a conduit for Anne Frank’s psyche.
Around two months after the second world war ended, a rail-thin Otto Frank showed up at van Maarsen’s house in Amsterdam.
“It was so strange to see him after all that time, to see him without Anne,” she recalled.
Otto Frank would visit the 16-year-old van Maarsen frequently to talk about his dead daughter. He cried often and unabashedly during their talks.
It was a friendship between two little girls. An accident, almost.
“I did not want to talk to him. It was painful. But my mother told me to keep talking to him because he wanted to talk to me so much,” van Maarsen said. “I think to him, Anne Frank was still alive in my mind.”
For the rest of his life, Otto Frank would continue to ask van Maarsen questions about Anne.
What would Anne Frank be doing today if she were alive?
“Otto Frank always asked that,” van Maarsen said. “He always asked that. But the truth is, I don’t know.”
Van Maarsen didn’t believe that she was anyone special. It was a friendship between two little girls. An accident, almost.
Ever since her childhood friend’s diary gained international fame, van Maarsen has been struggling with her own identity.
Should she only be known as Anne Frank’s best friend for the rest of her life, or should she be her own individual? Having been Anne Frank’s last best friend, what responsibilities did that entail?
These were questions she struggled with for nearly a lifetime. She thought of their initial meeting often.
Van Maarsen, 86, can still remember the first time when she heard Anne Frank’s voice.
“Jacqueline!” a voice called from behind as van Maarsen was riding her bike along the Amstel dyke in Amsterdam.
Van Maarsen had just finished her first day at the segregated Jewish school and was biking home.
It was September 1941. Anti-Semitism had yet to reach its peak in the Netherlands.
At age 12, van Maarsen had not yet realized that everyone at her new school was Jewish. A new school only meant new friends.
Van Maarsen turned around. A skinny girl with voluminous black hair was pedaling wildly to catch up to her.
“Are you going that way also? the girl asked, pointing to the Berlage Bridge.
Van Maarsen nodded.
“Then the two of us will ride home together from now on. I live on Merwedeplein square,” the girl said assertively.
“My name is Anne,” the girl added. “Anne Frank.”
During that first ride home, Anne Frank told van Maarsen everything about herself. Who her friends were. Which girls she liked and which girls she didn’t.
Van Maarsen was painfully shy. She liked Anne Frank’s chutzpah.
Within the first week of their friendship, Anne Frank declared van Maarsen as her best friend.
“I don’t know what she saw in me,” van Maarsen said. “She was talking all the time and told me everything.”
Van Maarsen spent most of her afternoons and evenings at Anne Frank’s house. It helped her to avoid the tension at home between her Christian mother and Jewish father. Her mother wanted to remove their children from the Jewish registry in Amsterdam. Her father disapproved.
Her mother would later indeed do just that—which saved van Maarsen during the Holocaust.
To avoid the fighting at home, van Maarsen went to Anne Frank’s house for movie nights. Since Jews were banned from movie theaters, they’d create pretend movie tickets from Otto Frank’s typewriter.
“We had very similar ideas,” van Maarsen said. They both loved reading “Joop ter Heul,” a fiction series about a peppy teenage girl.
They had told each other everything.
When van Maarsen later read Anne Frank’s diary manuscripts, she realized that it had been written in the style of Joop ter Heul. And that Jopie, the heroine in the series, was van Maarsen’s pseudonym in Anne Frank’s diary.
The girls were 12 and they were inseparable. They liked boys and they liked Shirley Temple. They’d act out a marriage proposal scene from their favorite book. They formed their identities around each other.
There are times when van Maarsen could not tell whether a memory was from her own recollection or from Anne Frank’s diary. They had told each other everything. There were things that she’d forgotten but remembered by reading the diary.
Anne Frank told her everything, except that she was going into hiding in 1942.
She simply asked van Maarsen for a photo of herself. But van Maarsen did not have one and did not think she was asking because they would never see each other again.
Anne Frank’s sudden disappearance created a void. “When she left I felt so lonely because we were so close,” van Maarsen said.
Anne Frank wrote her a goodbye letter, which never got delivered to van Maarsen because it was too dangerous to mail letters while in hiding.
“I hope that we will always be best friends, until we meet again,” the letter said. Anne Frank copied the letter in her diary.
Anne Frank pretended that van Maarsen responded and wrote a second letter in her diary, saying she was happy to hear from van Maarsen and asked her to pick up her books, notebooks, and games from her old house and keep it safe for her.
Van Maarsen didn’t know about these letters until after the war, when Otto Frank showed her the diary.
The diary was too painful to read more than once. But she memorized her best friend’s letters to her.
In the late ’80s, four decades after Anne Frank’s death, van Maarsen began to regret her reticence.
As much as van Maarsen did not want her identity to be as the best friend of a Holocaust victim, that was who she was.
If keeping Anne Frank’s memory alive could play some small role in preventing future genocides, then it was her duty to do so. She felt that Anne Frank, somewhere up in the ethers, would want her to talk.
In the 21st century, when ethnic cleansing and religious persecution continue to occur in places such as China, Syria, and the Central African Republic, van Maarsen feels it is even more relevant for people to care about Anne Frank’s story.
She felt that Anne Frank, somewhere up in the ethers, would want her to talk.
Although the Holocaust ended in 1945, the Cambodian genocide still occurred in 1975, and the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and the Sudanese genocide in 2003, and the ongoing persecution of Falun Gong in present-day China, just to name a few mass killings.
“I hear stories about what happens around the world and it depresses me,” she said.
Since 1987, van Maarsen has been traveling to give speeches about Anne Frank in different schools in Germany and the United States. She has written four books about their friendship, and appeared in a 2008 documentary about Anne Frank.
As sprightly tunes from the Roaring Twenties played in the clubroom of a boutique hotel in Manhattan, van Maarsen, 86, tried hard to stay awake in spite of the jet lag.
In late May, van Maarsen flew from Amsterdam to New York City to speak at the Champion of Jewish Values International Awards Gala.
Traveling is onerous these days. Van Maarsen had a stroke last year. It was difficult to walk.
She pushed both hands slowly against her walker and lifted herself, standing a little straighter.
Her husband, who survived the Holocaust by separating from his parents at age 12 to go into hiding with a Christian family in the eastern Netherlands, held her arm to support her as they made their way through their hotel.
Despite physical pains, van Maarsen was still traveling and giving as many interviews as she could to make up for lost time. She’s attended just about every public event she was invited to speak at.
“I’m amazed,” Sanders said. “I tell her all the time she is working too hard. She should rest more.”
She arrived 15 minutes late to the interview because she accidentally dozed off in her hotel room.
But sometimes she and her husband wondered if there was a purpose to their endeavors.
“People could learn from Anne Frank. About peace, how important it is,” Sanders said. “But I don’t know if they do.”
“That is something that strikes me a lot,” he said. “Mankind has done awful things for thousands of years. Every new generation hopes and strives to not have that happen. Unfortunately we see time and again, humankind does not change.”
Even though van Maarsen knew her efforts were not likely going to bring world peace, she kept going anyway.
Each time she was asked to speak at an event or do an interview, she’d ask herself if Anne Frank would want her to do this. The answer was always yes.
After all, Anne Frank had written in her diary: “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”