By Joseph L. Garcia, Reporter

#AnneFrank — Parallel Lives
Directed by Sabina Fedeli, Anna Migotto

It was once easy to take one’s freedom for granted, thanks in part to the relative peace we’ve had — thanks to people who fight for it. However, viruses that have been mutating society faster than they mutate themselves, as well as other forces hard at work, are forcing us all to hide.

It is of course unfair to compare the hiding we do to the hiding that Anne Frank had to go through. Recorded in her world famous diary are the two years she spent as a middle-class, teenage Jewish girl hiding from the wrath of the Nazis in the Second World War, before finally having to face them through her arrest, deportation, and death in 1945. A documentary called #AnneFrank — Parallel Stories released earlier this year (and out on Netflix earlier this month) doesn’t seek to align our lives with hers. Rather, the story is presented as a connecting web, to show that Anne was one of millions of others who suffered just like her.

An icon serves to put a face for people who become just a number — in this case, a very large number: six million deaths for the Jewish people alone, but an estimate from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum reflecting other groups persecuted at the time places the death toll as nearing 11 million. Having an icon is a double-edged sword, as an icon becomes an isolate, and then the stories of others become easy to ignore. The documentary interviews women, all near Anne’s age had she been alive, who were placed in situations similar to hers. Anne’s plot is interwoven with those of Arianna Szörényi, Sarah Lichtstejn-Montard (who could even recall seeing Anne from a distance in the concentration camp they were at), Helga Weiss, and sisters Andra and Tatiana Bucci, along with other persecuted women who survived the Holocaust. The documentary also talks to their families, historians, and psychologists.

The women’s testimonies are a disguised warning of what we risk facing if we take our freedoms for granted. I say disguised, because of course age has transformed them already into soft, mellow women. One of my favorite segments were the interviews with Sarah Lichtstejn-Montard, an animated Frenchwoman dressed in a pink cardigan and a creamy pearl necklace. In one part, she lifts the cardigan, a garment associated with politeness and coziness, and shows the number the Nazis stamped on her, faded but very much still there. “Once in my grave, the worms will eat it off me, but for the time being, this is my mark of life, and I’ll keep it.”

Doris Grozdanovičová, who died last year, was a survivor from the ghetto of Terezin who is famous around the world for a photograph of her tending to sheep while incarcerated. She was interviewed during one of her weekly pilgrimages to the site of her suffering. In a voice shaky with age, she says, “I was there for almost three and a half years, and I celebrated four birthdays there… and I was unable to experience what living free meant.”

The documentary is narrated by Dame Helen Mirren, reading from Anne’s diary in a reconstruction of the small room Anne and her family occupied between 1942-1944. Several elements in the documentary make one see the idiom “gilding the lily” in action. For example, a framing device of a teen tracking Anne’s final progress in reverse (beginning from her grave and ending in her home) becomes inane when she posts very brief, pale insights about Anne’s life through an imagined social media account. As for the awesome acting powers of Helen Mirren, channeled through dramatic readings of a 15-year-old’s thoughts, they pale in comparison to the real tragedy of the women’s testimonies, making even one of the greatest actresses of our time unnecessary. I at least had to respect Helen Mirren by not skipping her readings, as opposed to fast-forwarding through the teen’s hashtags of #diary, and the like.

For those who might think that the horrors of the Holocaust are but a distant memory, one that dies with its survivors, one has to listen to the testimonies of the survivors’ families. The Nazis, seeking to systematically eliminate the Jewish population, find an enemy in Ms. Montard, who gets the last laugh. “My children are my revenge against the Nazis,” she says. But the Nazi shadow is a long one. A study by the team of researcher Rachel Yehuda in the 2010s at the Mount Sinai hospital found that epigenetic factors influence even the children of survivors: “The researchers focused on FKBP5, a str’ess gene linked to PTSD, depression, and mood and anxiety disorders. The results suggest that Holocaust exposure had an effect on FKBP5 methylation — a mechanism that controls the gene’s expression — that was observed in parents exposed to the horrors of the concentration camps, as well as their offspring, many of whom showed signs of depression and anxiety,” said an article about the study from the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

The inherited pain doesn’t even have to be genetic. Italian survivor Arianna Szörényi’s daughter bears her mother’s pain still: “A son or a daughter is there on the front row. A baby born from a survivor, and without a specific job aimed at clearing up history, his or her mission is to fill up what can never be filled,” she said in an interview, recalling that her mother entered the concentration camp with her family, only to leave it alone. “There is a part of her that remained in the camps.”

Ethno-psychologist Nathalie Zajde, interviewed in the film, observes an element common in families of Holocaust survivors, even up to the fourth generation. “The dead of Shoah ask for revenge. It is a burden for their descendants. It is a mission. The dead of the Shoah say, ‘Avenge us even though we are dead… destroy what the Nazis did to us.’”

The Bucci sisters make it a point to talk to young people about the Holocaust and their own experiences (they very narrowly escaped being one of Josef Mengele’s medical experiments), to make sure that the memory will always be there to serve as a warning. “But today, this is beginning to feel like a duty… there are too many people who do not accept those who are different and are looking for a better life here, and end up drowning in our seas.”

We’ll let Anne’s words end this review, for an acknowledgement of our uncertainty, but also looking at a glimmer of hope, no matter how faint: “It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering, and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness. I hear the approaching thunder that one day, will destroy us too. I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, and peace and tranquility will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals.”