In the Shadow of the Steeple


“Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.” ~ Anne Frank

The Diary of Anne Frank. I read it every year as a teen. I was a post-war child, born of a father who fought against the atrocities of Adolph Hitler in Europe, ended up at the base of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, and spent a year in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, two hours from Hitler’s mountaintop retreat in the Bavarian Alps.

From my scrapbook

I was fascinated by the genre, by the first-person voice of a girl my age recording real-life experiences. As a college student, I went to Amsterdam and took a tour of Anne Frank’s house with its secret annex and hidden staircase. I remember the swinging bookcase and the stairs up to the secret room—narrow, steep, and dark. I remember walking around in the large room that hid Anne and her family. It was filled with windows letting in sunlight when I was there. It was hard to picture that once, the windows were blacked out for secrecy and protection. I stood at one window and looked out at the city teeming with people and life. The most meaningful image was that of a church steeple.

If Anne could’ve looked out that window, she would’ve seen hope and help.

The steeple image has stuck in my mind for almost five decades. I’m now trying to make meaning of it.

It’s the Westerkerk, the West Church. Rembrandt was buried there in 1669. It’s old. It’s a church with a steeple that towers above the city, marking its location so people can find it, pointing upward, and portraying its purpose as a place of God, of believers, of love, of hope and help.

The steeple serves as a visual testimony to all who walk in its shadow.

What happened in the shadow of the steeple seven decades ago when Anne Frank was a twelve-year-old?

There were surely good and God-loving people in the church. As they sat under their steeple, surely, they sang, prayed, took of the Body and the Blood. And then what? When they walked out the front doors, on the sidewalks by the canals, to their homes in the shadow of the steeple, did they live out the church’s mission, their mission?

When I read Anne’s diary as a young girl, my underlying thought was of the people, the good people, who let this happen to her. I mean, how could they? Why didn’t they do something? I realize some did help—provided protection and a path to fleeing the insanity that was. But many did nothing.

Were they unaware? Were they afraid? Of taking a stand? Of carrying out the church’s mission? Did they hide in the shadows?

Ultimately, young strong men—soldiers, like my dad—from other countries were called in to save them from the madness they’d allowed.

Life experience has taught me that good people are mostly silent. It’s easy, better that way, more acceptable to stay quiet in the darkness, to align with similar others, to hold inward vigils, and to excise those who stand out of the shadows.

Anne’s is a tragic story, because hope and help never came.

Rachel Sarai’s Vineyard

I was one of those girls who read The Diary of Anne Frank every year in junior high and early high school. When I was 18 and went to Amsterdam, I made a point to go visit the Anne Frank Huis, a four-story canal house, even though it wasn’t on my tour schedule. I’ll never forget the narrow, steep stairway behind a book shelf and the hiding place where Anne Frank’s family and other Jews hid, and the tall steeple of a church visible from a window. Anne went into hiding in July of 1942, shortly after her 13th birthday. After 25 months she and her family were discovered and sent to a concentration camp, and she died a few weeks before her camp was liberated.

The idea of a hiding place and heroism — people brave enough to rescue and hide and save others from almost certain death in concentration camps because to them it is the right thing to do — impressed me.

Thus I was delighted to get a signed, advanced copy of Deborah Rey‘s new book, Rachel Sarai’s Vineyard. It’s a memoir.

Deborah Rey’s Book

Rachel Sarai’s Vineyard and Anne Frank’s Diary have many things in common: The Netherlands, World War Two, the Nazis, the Holocaust, and the wish to survive. Yet, where Anne was forced to passively hide and depended on righteous people to survive, young Rachel Sarai [the author] was actively involved as a ‘baby-courier’ in the work of the Underground Resistance. Equally important, she was responsible for guarding the hiding place in her parents’ house, which sheltered many people in peril during the last years of war. Jewish, but very blond and thus inconspicuous, Rachel Sarai was nearly five when she began to distribute messages, and — during nightly curfew hours — smuggle people across the moors to a safe address. She learned to lie, steal and murder, and face up to the Germans, especially the Gestapo. She was seven when the British and Canadians liberated the country.” [Deborah Rey’s Web site]

The book is layered with another story, as well — the author’s private war in her own home. Deborah’s writing is honest, and she tells it raw, as it really was.

Deborah was born in Amsterdam and lived in the same neighborhood as Anne Frank, she knew the Frank family, her half brother was in the same class at school as Anne. My path crossed Deborah’s through poet L. Ward Abel, and I read her manuscript when it was just a stack of papers. Now it’s a hardback book that I can hold in my hands and open and breathe in that characteristic new-book smell.

Signed Copy

The book will officially be released in April, in time for Deborah’s 70th birthday. My best to Deborah on both milestones!

(And of course, there’s a secret hiding place in the Great American Southern novel I am/was working on before I put it aside to embark on a creative nonfiction project.)