SÃO PAULO - “I still wonder today how us two skeletons were able to recognize each other...”
Nanette Blitz Konig, 83, is talking about the last time she ever saw her classmate, Anne Frank, in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. It was March 12, 1945, and young Anne would die a little more than two weeks later.
It’s enough to look into Nanette’s bright eyes to understand the horror that the memory has now become. Still, she’s able to soften the painful edges into a lucid testimony. At her home in São Paolo, where she's lived since the 1950s, Nanette shares her private archives and personal history.
The daughter of a wealthy executive at the Amsterdam Bank, Nanette attended the Jewish Lyceum in the same class as Anne, whose famous diary has been published in 67 languages, poignantly sharing with the world the plight of millions of Jews during the Holocaust through the eyes of a young teenager.
“Anne was a girl who was full of life, she loved to talk and liked the boys!" Blitz Konig says with a wink. "If she was still alive, I am convinced that she would have become an excellent writer.”
[Photo: Uma História para Hoje]
Nanette knew about the famous diary while it was being written. It was published by Anne’s father, Otto, after the end of the war. Anne received the diary on June 12, 1942, for her 13th birthday, and Nanette was at the party.
“All of our classmates were there. I remember some films were projected onto the walls – for us it was such a novelty. First there was an advertisement for some jam and then ‘Rintintin.’ We didn’t understand how the two things were linked.” The jam in the ad was made by Opekta, Otto Frank’s company, and the woman who filmed it was Miep Gies – the employee who helped the Frank family hide from the SS Nazi police.
Soon after the party, a twist of fate brutally separated the two girls – Anne hid with her family in the back of her father’s Opekta office while Nanette was arrested along with her family. They only saw each other again in 1944 in Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp 300 kilometers from Berlin, Germany.
“On the various occasions that I was able to see her in the camp, Anne told me about the diary. She said that she wanted to use it only as a starting point for the book she wanted to write about what she experienced.”
Both girls caught the typhoid that was rampant at Bergen-Belsen in March 1945. Nanette managed to survive until the liberation – Anne did not. “When I saw her the last time,” she says, “she was very weak, scrawny and she had a blanket over her because she couldn’t bear the clothes that were full of lice. She was barely able to recognize me, or to talk.”
Of all her experiences in the concentration camp, Blitz Konig says that she remembers that “people hoped... Everybody hoped to survive and they were all fighting to do so. We lived in the terror of not knowing what could happen at any single moment.”
She remembers the roll calls. “They made us stand for 36 hours. During these roll calls the Nazis could take anyone out of line, they always had dogs with them so I've been scared of the animals for years. They pulled me out and when they did I began to shake because I did not know what would happen. I was really lucky because the officer fired into the air and sent me back into the row without torturing or killing me. I survived by pure chance.”
Nanette never went back to the field where the camp had stood, but the day of liberation has been crystal clear in her mind ever since. “It was April 13, 1945,” she remembers, “the Nazis who were guarding the camp fled. The British came on the 15th. For two days we prisoners lived in limbo, and if the British had not arrived we wouldn’t have been able to go anywhere by ourselves. When we were finally freed, someone said to me — you survived. I was completely lost because I didn’t know what would happen.”
Nanette was the only member in her family to make it out alive. She weighed just 32 kilograms (70lbs). Her mother, father, grandparents and brother all died in different concentration camps.
As for Anne’s father, Otto, Nanette was able to meet up with him later. He visited after the war, in the sanatorium where she was recovering. “But then,” she explains, “I never had the courage to go and visit him later with my own three children. All alive. It was a comparison I found inhuman for him.”
Almost 70 years later, Nanette has opened her past for successive generations to study. She regularly visits schools in São Paolo and tells them, with the detachment of survivors, about what happened to her during the Holocaust. “The fact that I survived requires me to bear witness so that young people become informed citizens. But above all, so that a thing like the Holocaust never happens again.”