Last weekend, my husband and I saw "The Diary of Anne Frank" at The Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. Like many people, I know the story well. I read the book several times and, when I was in high school, I auditioned for the play. Over the years, I experienced a number of productions, each slightly different in presentation - but this was the first I viewed with a tangible Jewish connection.
The set, built as close to scale as possible, gave me a realistic sense of how challenging it would have been for eight people—and a cat! —share that tiny space, their movements and emotions judiciously choreographed through a path of least resistance. I'm sure there were hoarsely whispered arguments when someone's feelings were hurt; that hot, silent tears fell from a frustrated teenager's eyes when she felt trapped and misunderstood by parental expectations and a society of hatred; that in the dark, two mothers lay awake wondering if the strident thoughts blistering through their minds would burst through flesh and then walls, waking unsympathetic neighbors with a cacophony of sound.
Even now, I think of Anne's father walking through that dusty attic when the nightmare of the camps was over and his family was lost, of how he felt when he found his daughter's diary and read her words—hearing her voice clearly, as though she were next to him, emanating her adolescent curiosity and energy. I wonder what prompted him to share her diary with the rest of the world. I'm sure my response would be to lay down forever, tucking the diary's pages around my haunted soul in hopes that somehow, my lost daughter's warmth will come through, bringing her to life again.
I consider how I, a non-Jew, would have fit into the picture then. I quickly say, "Of course I would rescue my neighbors as Miep Gies and Victor Kubler—known as 'Mr. Kraler'—did." They, and others like them, risked their lives and the lives of their families to do what was morally right. My indignant righteousness makes it impossible to consider any other option. But then—what if I faced the barrel of a Nazi rifle? It is easy to write of my wrath now, in the safety of my office. What if the rifle is pointing at my child and the only thing that may save his or her life would be turning in my Jewish neighbor?
The scene is beyond horrific and moves in slow motion within my mind. I quickly shut that door, realizing that no matter what, there is no option. I choose the honorable path: speaking up, hiding and helping persecuted people, doing whatever is necessary to prevent reprehensible abuse. I worry about the personal price later. Even today, as people cast messages of hatred across the Internet and into the hearts and minds of the ignorant, I will stand, alone if necessary, a voice of passion, protection and reason.
These are big thoughts to wrestle as the play ends, the audience applauds, and everyone leaves the theater. Wiping tears that inevitably fall (those who know me are familiar with my freely flowing faucet of emotions), I gaze at the empty attic on the stage. Beyond its walls, I see lives, hopes and dreams of so many people, long gone. I repeat a familiar refrain, letting its meaning flood me with the fury that fuels my passion: Never again.
What would I do? Everything possible, if only to save one life.