Peter van Pels
by Sharon Dogar,
author of Annexed
What 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.
By carefully 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 and desires?
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.
It may 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 AnnexedSharon 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.
Review of Annexed
Listing for Annexed at Powell's Books
Listing for Annexed at Amazon.com
More about Annexed at www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com