MONTREAL — Her poignant diary and tragic death have given Anne Frank an almost mythic status over the past six decades.
Israeli filmmaker Eyal Boers is the director of Classmates of Anne Frank, a documentary making its North American debut in Montreal on April 1.
But a new documentary film, chronicling a reunion of some of her classmates, is a reminder that Frank was a flesh-and-blood person, a teenager like any other, if more talented and perceptive than average.
Classmates of Anne Frank, an Israeli-Dutch co-production, is also a reminder that its absent heroine, who remains forever young in the imagination, would have been 80 years old in June. Seeing her grey-haired old school friends gathered in Holland to reminisce about her and the dark times they shared brings that home starkly.
Frank died in Bergen-Belsen in 1945 at age 15, about a month before the concentration camp was liberated. Watching her contemporaries talk about how they survived and where life led them after the war naturally makes the viewer wonder wistfully about what might have been for the ill-fated diarist.
Classmates of Anne Frank, directed by 33-year-old Israeli Eyal Boers, will have its North American premiere April 1 at the Gelber Conference Centre at 7:30 p.m. Co-sponsored by the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre and the Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University, the screening is free of charge, although reservations are requested.
Boers and one of the classmates from the Amsterdam Jewish Lyceum and the key character in the film, Theo Coster, will be present to answer questions afterward.
In the film, the ex-classmates talk about what type of person Frank was and their relationship with her. Coster remembers that he was sweet on her, but found her too formidable a character to approach for a date.
Coster, a well-known games creator in Israel, and his Israeli-born wife, Ora, were the main organizers of the reunion and are the executive producers of the film. He survived the Holocaust in hiding in a village and has lived in Tel Aviv since 1955. He has spoken many times in schools and elsewhere over the years about Frank and the experience of the Jews of Holland during the war.
“So much has been written about Anne Frank that we tend to forget she was not only an icon, but a real person who lived in a certain time and place and had friends,” said Boers in a telephone interview from his home in Hod-Hasharon in central Israel.
The Boers and Coster families were friends going back to 1872 in Amsterdam, where Boers’ father was born in 1948.
“About 80 per cent of my family on my father’s side were lost in the Holocaust. It’s a subject I’ve been exposed to since I was very little.
“It’s important to expose the fact that Holland had a Holocaust, and, without accusing anyone, that there are cracks in the myth of Dutch heroism,” said Boers, who is currently working on a doctoral thesis about the Holocaust in Dutch cinema at Tel Aviv University.
“Frank was caught because of Dutch informers, and a transit camp existed on Dutch soil because there was a lot of collaboration.”
Boers notes that because of Frank’s fame and the preservation of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, it’s not commonly realized that 80 per cent of Dutch Jewry perished, a proportion second only to Poland, he said.
Boers, who was born in Jerusalem, has dual Israeli-Dutch citizenship and speaks Dutch fluently.
Classmates of Anne Frank had its world premiere in, of all places, Bucharest, in November at an international documentary film festival, and was then screened at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival in December.
The reaction of the two audiences was very different. Many in Romania had not even heard of Frank and needed a lot of background explanation, Boers said.
This month, the film is showing at the European Independent Film Festival in Paris, the only Israeli film in competition, he said.
The idea of a reunion of Frank’s classmates took root in 2001 with the publication of Absent by Dienke Hondius, which documents what happened during the war to every child enrolled in the Lyceum, where the Nazis transferred all Jewish students in Amsterdam.
At the book’s launch in that city, Coster was reunited with another classmate, Nanette Konig, who now lives in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and is another key personality in the hour-long film. They are joined by four other former classmates – three who still live in Holland and one in Israel.
The film was shot in Amsterdam and the Dutch countryside, including the site of the Westerbork transit camp, where Dutch Jews being transported east were sequestered, as well as in Israel.
Boers emphasizes that Classmates of Anne Frank is not depressing or shocking, something that the Costers insisted upon, because they wanted it to be suitable for young children as well as adults. The film captures the ex-classmates talking with schoolchildren about Frank and the Holocaust.
For reservations, phone 932-2133 or 345-2605.