Looking through the barbed wire of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, 14-year-old Nanette Konig could barely recognise her friend and classmate from Amsterdam, Anne Frank.
Both girls had been caught by the Nazis in the Dutch capital and were sent to starve to death in a place Konig describes today as “hell on Earth.” Both were emaciated when they saw each other again in different sections of the same German camp in 1944.
“She looked like a walking skeleton, just like me,” Konig, one of the few living friends of the teenage diarist, told JTA in a video interview from her home in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on April 6, which was her 88th birthday.
As more and more Holocaust survivors die each year, Konig was compelled a decade ago to break her long silence and join a diminishing group of witnesses who now tell their story in the media and at schools. Her lectures, which Konig says she has delivered to thousands of students on three continents, are something that “survivors owe to the victims.”
But it’s also her way of repaying Anne Frank’s father, Otto, who comforted Konig in the aftermath of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, even as he was grieving for his own two daughters and wife.
Otto Frank, who edited the diaries his daughter wrote while the family was in hiding into the best-selling “The Diary of a Young Girl,” met Konig in 1945 at a rehabilitation centre in eastern Holland. Konig, who was 16 and weighed only 60 pounds, was brought there following the Allies’ liberation of Bergen-Belsen — “a hell where people were not exterminated immediately, but died from hunger, dysentery, typhus, cold, exhaustion, beatings, torture and exposure,” she says.
Yet Konig was one of the lucky ones to survive. Anne Frank and her older sister, Margot, were among the estimated 50,000 who perished at Bergen-Belsen in 1945 after arriving there from Auschwitz. Their mother, Edith, died at Auschwitz a month before her daughters, just three weeks before the Red Army liberated the death camp.
Otto Frank, the sole survivor from his family, already knew his daughters and wife were dead when he came to the rehabilitation centre to visit Konig, who is also the only survivor from her family. Konig said he wanted to know as much as possible about his family’s last weeks.
Listening to her stories and seeing her emaciated physique “visibly caused Otto Frank a lot of pain,” Konig recalled.
But despite his grief Frank, who died in 1980, “gave me support, encouraged me at a point in my life when I had no one,” she said. “He was a very special man and I will always be grateful for the consolation he offered me.”
Like many of Anne Frank’s schoolmates and friends, Konig recalled the diarist as a “sunny, smiley child.”
But unlike most of them, Konig also witnessed Anne “change into an adult” in a matter of weeks at Bergen-Belsen, she said.
“We had a childhood and then we had no adolescence,” she said. “We simply became grown-ups overnight. It was the only way to survive.”
During their meeting, Otto Frank told Konig that he intended to edit his daughter’s diaries — there were three of them — into a book. During their conversation, he said he was still thinking of omitting some of the personal details that Anne included in the diaries, including her tense relationship with her mother and her account of getting her first period.
Ultimately, though, he included these details — countless readers of Anne Frank’s book regard them as crucial to achieving the personal connection many of them feel to her.
“The Diary of a Young Girl” is perhaps the world’s most-read manuscript about the Holocaust; it has been translated into 70 languages in dozens of countries.
After the war, Konig worked as a bilingual (English-Dutch) secretary in England. She married a British man and moved to Brazil in the 1950s. She and her husband have three children and five grandchildren, as well as several great-grandchildren.
But it wasn’t until a decade ago that Konig felt the drive to bear testimony — similar to what Otto Frank felt when he published Anne’s diary and set up the educational Anne Frank Foundation in Basel, Switzerland.
“I saw he was the exception,” Konig said of Otto Frank. “Most Holocaust survivors decided not to talk about it, maybe it was too painful. Maybe it was too complicated. In the Netherlands there was a sense that Jews shouldn’t make too much of a fuss about their own tragedy when everyone suffered.”
Gradually, Konig began speaking at schools – first the ones her grandchildren attended. Then she was invited to speak about the Holocaust on Brazilian television and other media. She went on to speak at schools in the United States and Europe, and give interviews to leading media in her native Netherlands.
In 2015, Konig published a book in Brazil titled “I Survived the Holocaust.” It has since been published in Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish. She said she is looking to have it published in English as well.
“It became clear to me that we, the survivors, have a duty to the victims, even when it’s an unpleasant one,” Konig said.
The Jews, she said, “are not so vulnerable anymore in a world that has a strong Israel and its robust voice.”
But other minorities, she adds, “are as vulnerable as we were.”
In her talks at high schools, Konig tries to impress upon her listeners how the Holocaust was the result of a democratic transition of power.
“Two weeks after he took office,” she said of Adolf Hitler, “he revoked the constitution, closed parliament and declared himself a dictator. When your time comes to vote, be sure to exercise it wisely.”
When she speaks in the Netherlands, Konig said part of what she regards as her duty is to talk about the checkered history of the population of that country, where both Nazi collaboration and heroism were prevalent.
The Netherlands has an outsize number of Righteous among the Nations — non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. More than a fifth of all the 26,513 Righteous recognised by Israel are from the Netherlands, a nation of 17 million people. Its tally of 5,595 Righteous is the second-largest in the world after Poland’s 6,706.
But the Netherlands also has the highest death rate of Jews in Nazi-occupied Western Europe. The genocide, which resulted in the murder of 75 percent of the country’s pre-Holocaust Jewish population of 140,000, was facilitated by Dutch police, collaborators and headhunters, and was followed by callous treatment of those who survived. Thousands were required to pay taxes on properties while they were in camps or in hiding, and fined for missing payments because of this reason.
Konig herself had to pay the equivalent of thousands of dollars in medical bills for her own rehabilitation after returning from Bergen-Belsen, she said.
This appears to have left her bitter toward the Dutch state.
“I never went back and I never considered going back to that country, where most of the Jews were killed,” she said. “In fact, I left as soon as I could.”
Yet Konig draws a distinction between the country and its people.
“I don’t think the Dutch wanted to kill us. They were acting out of fear,” she said. “And people will do most everything when they are afraid.