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On 761 days, Anne Frank, and the circle of responsibility

Anne Frank in 1940
Anne Frank Foundation Amsterdam
Anne Frank in 1940

761: That’s the number of days that Anne Frank was in hiding in that attic in Amsterdam.

761 days from today, April 1, 2020, is May 2, 2022.

Note the year: 2022. I am typing this at my kitchen table in my first month of self-quarantining. I have already cleaned out the closets, baked cookies, made cakes, organized the freezer, dealt with the pile of mail on the kitchen counter, and balanced my checkbook. This was after putting in eight-hour days, Monday through Friday, working remotely.

I also have talked on the phone, texted friends, visited my family in Montana and Maryland via Zoom, communicated with literally hundreds of people online, and read the newspapers and the Economist every day. I have been in touch with my synagogue, my fellow members of the Minneapolis University Rotary Club, and colleagues on various boards that I serve on.

I have gone for walks almost every day. My husband and I decided that the weekends should be demarcated from weekdays, so one Sunday we drove to St. Paul and walked along the Mississippi River. And instead of watching our usual binge-worthy TV shows on Saturday evenings, we watch movies.

Anne Frank had almost nothing and nobody except the seven other people in the Secret Annex. No Google, no Zoom, no phone. No walks, no Lund’s grocery delivery, no New York Times in her email inbox at 3:20 every morning.

No fresh air for 761 days.

Nothing.

But the Franks did have something very special. They had six friends who kept them alive for those 761 days with food and visits and love, six people who endangered themselves and their entire circle of loved ones by sheltering Jews under the eyes of Nazis and their collaborators.

We all imagine that we would be like those six helpers, especially like Miep Gies.

After Anne and the others were discovered in the Annex and imprisoned, Miep went back to see what remained in their hiding place. She found Anne’s diary and she took it for safekeeping, planning to return it to Anne after the war.

But Anne died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at age 15. Her father, Otto Frank, was the only member of the family to survive the Holocaust. After the war and his liberation from Auschwitz, he returned to Amsterdam and lived with Miep and her husband Jan for seven years.

We know Anne’s story because Miep gave the diary to Otto Frank, who saw to its publication.

Why did Miep and Jan Gies, and the four other helpers, risk everything for 761 days to save people who weren’t even members of their own families?

It’s a matter of how we define our circles of responsibility and caring.

Carl Wilkens was the only American who remained in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, when 800,000 innocent people were slaughtered. At great risk to himself, he saved hundreds of lives. Christina Meyer, one of the alumnae from our Summer Institute for High School and College Students, met Carl at the Institute a few years ago. She said, “It was the first time I understood that our circle of caring can go beyond the people in our own family.”

photo of article author
Ellen Kennedy
That awareness changed her life. Christina has worked with Syrian refugees in New York and Jordan. Christina’s circle became global.

We need our circles to be wider. I want everyone to care about everyone else, to have the compassion and the heart and the soul of Miep and Jan Gies.

That doesn’t mean people have to be heroic, but it does mean I want them to care.

I have a very selfish view right now. My husband has Stage IV multiple myeloma, an incurable form of blood cancer. He was scheduled to have a stem cell transplant at the Mayo Clinic in a few weeks that might prolong his life for a few years. But that procedure has been postponed indefinitely because Mayo will be overwhelmed with critically ill COVID-19 patients. They will need blood transfusions, and there won’t be any blood left for my husband’s treatment. He is able to wait a while; they might die very soon.

We hear from the experts that those at greatest risk of death in this pandemic are people over 70 who have weakened immune systems. My husband is in the bull’s-eye for the virus.

My selfishness? I see people being careless, not listening to Dr. Michael Osterholm and others about what we must do to protect ourselves – and to protect those at gravest risk, like my husband and so many others who are already grievously ill. I see pictures every day of people throughout the country – partying at Florida beaches, gathering by thousands at New Orleans church services, even a group crowding together at my local park, all denying the contagion and the danger – and putting every one of us at risk. Consider this: China has four times more people than the U.S. yet there are now more COVID-19 cases in the US than in China, more cases here than anywhere else in the world.

Miep and Jan Gies did everything they could to save the most vulnerable in their midst. Kuno van der Horst, a 23-year-old student, refused to sign a declaration of loyalty to the Nazis, which meant death. He went into hiding – living with the Gies family from 1943 to the end of the war. Their circle of responsibility was indeed large.

Think about 761 days without fresh air and daylight.

Where will you be on May 2, 2022? What will you have done to help others stay alive until that day? Make your circle of responsibility a big one.

Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. April 1 begins Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Jim Bernstein on 04/01/2020 - 11:38 am.

    Thank you for the insight and inspiration. It grieves me to hear otherwise good and sensitive people suggest that “this happened so long ago . . . we need to move past it”.

  2. Submitted by Cynthia Ahlgren on 04/01/2020 - 03:43 pm.

    Thank you for this perspective. We all need to broaden our sense of responsibility rather than just “hunkering down” and narrowing our focus.

  3. Submitted by Lonni Skrentner on 04/01/2020 - 04:38 pm.

    Ellen, I can’t think of a powerful enough adjective to properly label this article! Certainly makes one think deeply. My thoughts are with all of us as we face this crisis, but today especially with you and your family.

  4. Submitted by Richard Adair on 04/07/2020 - 07:53 pm.

    “I still believe that people are good at heart.” Thank you, Anne.

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