Author Archives: John Robson

It happened today – August 4, 2015

Anne Frank
On August 4, 1944, Anne Frank and her family were captured by the Gestapo. Somebody ratted them out and they, the family of Otto Frank’s business partner Hermann van Pelz, and Fritz Pfeffer, a friend of the Franks who was hiding with them, were sent to concentration camps; only Otto Frank survived. Which you knew.

Anne Frank is famous, and justly so, because of the diary the Gestapo did not find. She began it shortly before the family went into hiding and made its last entry just three days before they were captured. It was recovered by one of the brave Dutch gentiles who had sheltered the Franks and the others, and given to Otto Frank after the war. Amazingly, given the cramped quarter eight people shared for over two years, he was not aware that his daughter was keeping such a detailed chronicle of their lives.

The diary puts a very human face on the Holocaust, and speaks for the millions of whom we have not even a name let alone a story (despite the best efforts of the Names Recovery Project at Yad Vashem). And it forces each of us to ask how we would have handled such difficult circumstances for over two years, unable to get away even briefly from people who would not under other conditions even have socialized occasionally. And to ask whether we would have had the courage to help them if we’d been in the position of non-Jewish Netherlanders in those terrible years.

By the way, I said somebody “ratted them out” and I use the phrase advisedly. Technically a rat, as G. Gordon Liddy says, is one who had been part of a group and then betrays it. And the person who betrayed the Franks, van Pelzes and Pfeffer may never have agreed to help shelter them. But I think our fundamental duty to assist one another against life’s greatest horrors makes whoever turned them a “rat” who betrayed all mankind and their own humanity as well as the eight people in the secret “annex”. I only hope after the war they read the diary and repented (though if they did, I note unhappily, they did not find the courage or clarity to make a public confession).

The diary is a very powerful book. Anne was a remarkable girl, kind and thoughtful, at one point repenting of an earlier harsh judgement about her mother and recognizing how their claustrophobic as well as generally terrifying situation naturally made everyone edgy. And because of her sensitivity the diary is almost a wonderful insight into the blossoming of a shy girl into an exceptional woman.

I say almost, because almost everyone knows how it ends before they start reading it. And we all know before we reread it. I wonder sometimes if it would be better to give it to a young person without revealing the ultimate fate of the participants, which obviously Anne Frank herself did not know as she wrote. But I think not.

Somehow having the whole story unfold not just under the general shadow of Nazism, but the specific knowledge that the darkness would take Anne, swallowing her petty thoughts and her profound ones, her small frustrations and her unexpected joys, makes it that much more poignant and moving, a bright light still shining through the dreadful murk.

It happened today – August 3, 2015

On August 3 of 1948 Whittaker Chambers accused Alger Hiss of being a Soviet spy and a Communist. And he was.

The case rapidly became not just a cause celebre but a political litmus test. All right-thinking persons despised the House Un-American Affairs Committee before which Chambers made his accusation. They also despised Richard Nixon, whose determined investigation into Chambers’ accusations helped his meteoric political rise from House freshman to California senator to Vice-President and then eventually President. Nixon was, it must be said, a dishonest man even by the standards of politics, and liberals cherished the notion that this key stepping stone of his career had been his first big lie.

The problem is, Hiss was guilty. Chambers had all sorts of evidence that could not be ignored or explained away including, with implausible spy-thriller melodrama, key microfilm hidden in pumpkins on his Maryland farm. Hiss was ultimately convicted of perjury in 1950, the statute of limitations having run out on espionage, spent three and a half years in jail, and protested his innocence to his dying day. As do some liberals even now, though many have reluctantly accepted long after it stopped mattering that even if it helped Nixon rise to power, Hiss was guilty.

Once again I am dismayed at the way in which people can be consistently, vocally, bitterly wrong on an important issue with no harm to their reputation or credibility. Particularly as their reaction was compounded of ideological partisanship and sheer snobbery.

Hiss was to the manner born, a child of privilege, Harvard law graduate, protégé of a future Supreme Court justice, a striped-pants diplomat who was with Roosevelt at Yalta and with Truman when he addressed the UN in June 1945. Chambers was a loser with bad teeth and a shabby suit, and Nixon was a vulgar parvenu. It was us against them and the elite rallied around “us,” treason be hanged.

Actually Chambers was not a loser. He did have bad teeth and he did not have Alger Hiss’s wardrobe. But he was a remarkable man, a profound and compassionate soul whose book Witness is a must-read autobiography. It is not primarily about his being a witness against Alger Hiss, though of course he discusses that affair in detail. It is the compelling story of his weird, difficult life and a witness to his spiritual odyssey that included initially perjuring himself by denying Hiss’s espionage to try to spare a former friend pain and trouble. Having himself wandered so long in the dark, he would later write, he was determined to do nothing that would hinder another in his struggle to get back to the light. By the time he died, quite young, in 1961, Chambers was thoroughly vindicated. Not so Hiss.

Alger Hiss was a communist, a spy and a traitor. But not just to his nation. He was in his shallow, supercilious, frivolous life of privilege and deceit, a traitor to life itself. Chambers was the opposite, a reluctant accuser whose “central mood”, he wrote in the “Letter to my children” at the beginning of my copy of Witness, was of “absolving pity”. His story and his ideas remain vitally important long after Hiss and his supporters have become an annoying footnote to history.