Peter van Pels
By Sharon Dogar,
Author of Annexed
we know of Peter van Pels is almost entirely limited to Anne Frank's
diary, and her own personal view of him. He was, it seems, a shy boy,
helpful and good with his hands. Reading between the lines of Anne's
diary I've tried to imagine what Peter was "really" like. How do I do
that? Here's an example: on Peter's arrival in the Annex, Anne describes
him as a "hypochondriac" who "won't amount to much." She's fed up and
dismissive of his histrionics, as most clever, early adolescent girls
would probably be.
Anne describes a boy who sleeps all the time,
lacks any type of motivation, has strange physical symptoms and
believes he might be dying. If a child in my counseling room felt this
way, I'd suspect depression. In fact, from an occupational point of view
Peter's depression makes sense; it's a reasonable response to real
events. Having to go into hiding to save your life isn't merely
depressing, it's terrifying. Peter's "symptoms" and his fear that he's
"dying" reflect the reality of both his own situation and of those in
the attic. It's possible that this is partly what makes Anne so angry
and dismissive of Peter, she doesn't want to be reminded of how dire a
situation she is in (not at this stage). She wants to believe that she's
safe. Peter's constant 'whinging' (as she calls it) keeps on reminding
her that she's in danger.
We all have our own ways of managing
fear and difficulty. Anne creates a safe fantasy world for herself (as
many writers do) whilst Peter turns his distress into physical symptoms.
Looked at in this way, Peter's character takes on a potentially
different meaning from the one presented by Anne.
considering Anne's brilliantly vivid descriptions of Peter, and
analyzing what they might mean, I slowly created a picture of how I
thought Peter might be, and he came to feel very real to me. Most
writers have that feeling of "hearing" their characters voices. Peter's
voice (as I heard it) was quiet, thoughtful, questioning, full of
feeling and in the end, quite stubborn and determined to be his own
person. I can't, of course, know what the "real" Peter van Pels was
like, but then again, how well do any of us know each other? How well
did Anne know him, and how much was her view coloured by her own needs
I miss thinking and writing about Peter. I will
always feel heart-broken and horrified at the waste of his young,
promising life, and the lives of millions of others that the Nazis
judged worthless. When it came to researching, imagining and writing
about Peter's life in the camps I already felt very close to the
character I'd created. I no longer really wanted to take the novel (and
Peter) on into Auschwitz. I put off writing every day. I read survivor's
testimonies. I went for long walks. I had very bad dreams. I decided
that if I was going to go on, and imagine a life in the camps for Peter,
then I had to make sure that every part of the "story" of what happened
was rooted in reality. I studied the mechanics of life as a Jewish
inmate of Auschwitz. I also realized that in imagining an ending for one
person -- Peter van Pels -- I could try to describe the horror and
systematic destruction of human life that was a Nazi concentration camp.
And so I began to write the final section of the novel. It was written
very quickly, almost in one go, and the words came surprisingly easily.
Nonetheless, it's not something I would want to do again.
sound odd, but for me a part of the horror of human mass destruction is
the total disregard those who kill fellow human beings show for the
story that each and everyone of us holds within us; the story of our
life. So in the end I gave Peter a story. It's probably not the story he
would have told himself, but it tries to acknowledge that his story did
not end with his arrest on August 1st, 1944, and that there is a story
to be told. It may be horrific, it may not be something we want to think
about, but Peter, and millions like him had no choice, they had to live
it, and unlike the survivors who can give testimony, they died. In
their millions. That doesn't mean that they can't be thought about, or
that we don't have the right to imagine their story; for me it was the
opposite, I felt compelled to create a story.
© 2010 Sharon Dogar, author of Annexed
Sharon Dogar, author of Annexed,
is a children's psychotherapist who lives in Oxford, England, with her
family. She discovered Anne Frank's diary as a child and then again
recently when her daughter started reading it. While writing and
researching this book, she spent many hours soaking up the atmosphere of
the Annex. This is her third novel for young adults.