Monday, 13 January 2020

Remembering Anne Frank
75 years after the Holocaust

Anne Frank depicted in a mural in Berlin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

1, I am not going to be here next Monday, sorry. I am going to a reception in the House of Lords [in London organised by the Council of Christians and Jews] to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, to reflect on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and to launch a prayer for Christians for Holocaust Memorial Day.

2, The concentration camp at Auschwitz in Poland was liberated 75 years ago this month, on 27 January 1945.

3, I visited Auschwitz a few years ago. One of the best-known children in Auschwitz was a girl called Ann Frank. I have visited her house in Amsterdam, and more recently I visited the Anne Frank Centre in Berlin. Has anyone been to Amsterdam? Has anyone been to Berlin?

4, When I was a boy, I read Anne Frank’s diary. Does anyone keep a diary? When I first read this book, I was 14, about the same age as Anne Frank was when she died. Some of my friends at the time thought I was a bit of a sissy for reading a book by a girl. But this is one of the best-known books in the world.

5, Anne Frank was a girl of 10 when World War II began … the same age as some of you, a little older than some of you. She was born in Frankfurt in Germany over 90 years ago, in 1929. When she was 4½, the Nazis seized power in Germany, and her family moved to Holland, to Amsterdam. They were Jews, and they thought they would be safer.

6, In her book, The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne tells of how she lived in hiding, in a secret room, at the top of the house. She went into hiding in 1942, when she was 13. She lived in a secret room, hidden behind a bookcase at the top of the house.

7, But the Frank family was betrayed and arrested two years later in August 1944, and sent to concentration camps. Anne and her sister Margot were moved from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen, where they died of typhus 75 years ago, in February or March 1945.

8, Her father, Otto Frank, survived Auschwitz and returned to Amsterdam in June 1945. Her diary was first published in English in 1952, seven years after she died.

9, Over 6 million Jews were killed in the concentration camps. I will be remembering them, and the survivors, and Anne Frank, in London next Monday.

10, We remember people who died in the Holocaust not only to honour them, or to read about them, but so that this should never happen again.

These notes were prepared for a reflection at a school assembly in Rathkeale this morning

Anne Frank: Parallel Stories, a retelling of Anne Frank’s life guided by the Academy-Award winning actress Helen Mirren, is in cinemas for a limited time only, starting on 27 January, Holocaust Memorial Day.

‘Arbeit macht frei’ … the gate at Auschwitz (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

How I wish I had
heard my grandfather’s
tales of World War I


Patrick Comerford

My grandfather was sent on to Thessaloniki after the Gallipoli landmarks during World War I. I have no doubt that had he not been infected with malaria in Thessaloniki then instead of being sent home in 1916 he would have been moved on to France or Belgium at the height of World War I, and ended up in the trenches on the Western Front in 1917.

All of this was in my mind on Saturday afternoon as I sat in the Omniplex in Limerick, watching 1917, the new epic war film directed, co-written and produced by Sam Mendes.

I rarely go to see ‘war movies.’ It is a genre I tend avoid, and I have been a pacifist all my adult life. But this move is different from all other movies.

The film is based in part on stories told to Sam Mendes by his paternal grandfather, Alfred Mendes. It tells the story of two young soldiers during World War I in the spring of 1917 who are given a mission to deliver a message. This message warns of an ambush during a skirmish soon after the Germans have retreated to the Hindenburg Line during Operation Alberich.

The film stars George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch.

The film 1917 was released in the US on Christmas Day and in Britain and Ireland on Friday [10 January 2020]. It has already received positive reviews along with early awards and nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director at the Golden Globes.

In northern France at the height of the World War I in April 1917, two young soldiers, lance-corporals Will Schofield (MacKay) and Tom Blake (Chapman), have to hand-deliver a message to the Devonshire Regiment, with orders to call off a planned attack on the German forces. The Germans have feigned their retreat to the Hindenburg Line and are prepared to ambush the battalion of 1,600 men, Blake’s brother Joseph among them.

As they set off, they almost receive absolution and a blessing from a priest-like Lieutenant Leslie, played by Dublin-born Adam Scott, who was the Irish priest in the second series of the BBC drama Fleabag last year.

Schofield and Blake cross ‘No Man’s Land’ and reach the original German front, with its abandoned but booby-trapped trenches. The two survive and reach an abandoned farmhouse, where Blake is fatally wounded by a downed German pilot they have tried to rescue.

But Schofield finds courage, reassurance and support from the moral and upright Captain Smith (Mark Strong). Scofield, now on his own, is a war-time Odysseus on his Odyssey, battling a 1917 version of Cyclops, tempted by the Sirens, avoiding the Lotus Eaters, guided lovingly by a Circe, having a close escape from Scylla and Charybdis.

He stays on course, survives a sniper attack at the bombed-out village of Écoust-Saint-Mein, is over-awed by the burning cathedral, and escapes down the river, reaching the Devons in the morning only to find the attack has already begun. He eventually reaches Colonel Mackenzie and convinces him to call off the attack. The day is saved, if not all 1,600 soldiers.

But is this 20th century Odysseus ever going to reach his Ithaka? We do not know, but we are allowed to know his Penelope is waiting for him back home, as Schofield sits alone with a photograph of his young wife and their daughter.

World War I created a particular culture of anti-war movies, most noticeably Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Of course, I am in no position to argue how 1917 compares with other moves about World War I and how many liberties have been taken with the storyline. But it does tell a story of how soldiers fight not only against one another but also for one other, and it honours the dignity and humanity of those who are caught up in war as well as telling of the horrors of war: apocalyptic landscapes, the trenches and the barbed wire, the bombed-out homes, the burning towns, the rivers filled with floating corpses, the craters filled with dead horses, the trenches filled with gnawing rats, the shell shock and the barbed wire.

Few of the men who survived the trenches and returned home told their stories. The horror was too great to share, there was nothing to gloat about or glory in. Sam Mendes listened to his grandfather, Lance Corporal Alfred H Mendes, and his stories.

I wished my grandfather’s stories had been told and passed on to successive generations. Like Penelope, my grandmother had waited at home, in Portrane and Rathmines, waiting patiently but pining for his return. He was sent back to Dublin in May 1916, when the political climate was changing, the war heroes and the shell-shocked alike were treated with disdain and contempt.

In 1917, Schofield tells how he exchanged his medals with a French captain for a bottle of wine when he was thirsty. In my grandfather’s case, even his medals were lost between house moves from Ranelagh and Rathmines to Rathgar, to Terenure and Rathfarnham. Malaria eventually brought about a sad and lonely death, without dignity, in 1921.

But had my grandfather been sent from Thessalonikito the trenches in 1917 instead of being sent home, I doubt that I would be here today.