‘My Best-Friend Anne Frank’: The Precocious Adulting of a Jewish Girl

Anne Frank’s name might ring a bell to many, but have you ever heard of Hanneli, or Hannah Goslar? Childhood friend of the famous diarist, Hannah was one of the countless victims of the Shoah, and one of the few to walk out of it alive. Following International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 22, Netflix uploaded a Dutch movie narrating the life of two young girls whose childhood was broken by the monstrosity of one of the worst crimes mankind has ever orchestrated. The movie is called “My Best-Friend Anne Frank.”

The concentration camps took Anne Frank’s life away, yet Hannah survived to tell the tale. From that, “Memories of Anne Frank: Reflections of a Childhood Friend,” authored by Alison Leslie Gold, was written in the late nineties as a recollection of the friendship. A Dutch movie was then adapted by Oscar-winning director Ben Sombogaart to breathe life into the characters. The movie was first released in the Netherlands in September of 2021, prior to premiering on Netflix on Feb. 1. 

In “The Diary of Anne Frank,” the memoir that probably constitutes the most famous testimony of the WWII legacy, Hanneli’s name appears now and then (sometimes under her nickname “Lies,” pronounced ‘lease’). Described as “outspoken at home, but reserved around other people,” “My Best-Friend Anne Frank” captures just that. The friendship of Hannah and Anne is the essence of the movie. However, the movie doesn’t just provide viewers with a new perspective on Anne Frank’s life, but also one through the eyes of a girl who seems to deeply care for her.

Moeder Goslar (Lottie Hellingman) and Vader Goslar (Roeland Fernhout). Courtesy of FATT Productions and Talent United Film & TV.

Hannah seems to cherish Anne in a genuine and unconditional way. While Anne has her occasional mean moments, Hannah never stopped considering her as her best-friend. She often defends her blind devotion by arguing “She is my best-friend” as a way of justification when she engages in what can seem like an insensible endeavor. This was notably the case when Hannah told her father that they had to delay their liberation of the camp as exchanged prisoners because she’d promised Anne she would meet her to give her food. 

While both girls are the same age, the dynamics that the storyline seeks to manifest are different than the one of friendship per se. As a matter of fact, Hannah and Anne have a kind of older sister/younger sister relationship, in which Hannah is often looking up to Anne just as much as Anne seems to enjoy challenging Hannah to see the world in a more adventurous way. Come to think of it, that is probably why Hannah was so mesmerized by Anne; while Hannah is quiet and collected, Anne teaches her that life can also be lived through mischief and high-spirit. Every time Hannah needs strength, she follows her friend’s advice by putting her hands on her face, wondering “What would Anne do?.” Anne seems to empower Hannah in a way that she herself doesn’t quite grasp — seemingly because she did not get the chance to.  

The movie shuffles between the Nazi-occupied Amsterdam of 1942 and the concentration camp days of Hannah and Anne in 1945. In 1942, the lighting was bright when the most Hannah and Anne were dealing with were common tween troubles — such as boys, friends and family drama etc. Meanwhile, they begin to be exposed to the sometimes-censored brutality of the colonizers. This included “No Jews allowed” signs at the entrance of facilities, being secluded to only Jewish schools, forbidden to use the phone, humiliated in the streets and seeing others being dragged away from their home to be sent to what they are told to be “working camps.” Every day that passes by only seems to bring the characters closer to the oh-so-dreaded day when they themselves would be summoned to head for these infamous destinations no one had yet ever come back from.

When viewers are introduced to life in the camps, the sunny lighting of the younger days of Hannah and Anne’s friendship gave way to darker, dimmer tones. Hannah, first isolated from her best-friend, lovingly takes care of her toddler sister, Gabi, alone, after her pregnant mother died in labor along with the baby. Her father is in the infirmary, bed-ridden. In this context, Hannah evinces immense strength. She is maternal towards Gabi, while trying her best to raise her with good manners. Even when Gabi’s asking for food, Hannah holds on to her morals by refusing to steal their fellow inmate’s food. She risks her life to meet up with Anne and hurls her a makeshift food package from across the thatched fence that separates her from her friend (she would’ve been shot without warning, had she’d been caught). The first meetings don’t allow viewers to see Anne; only her voice is perceptible. This emphasizes the gravity of her situation. 

The fact that Hannah is behind the resolution to dig a hole in the thatch-covered fence that cuts her off from Anne comes as quite unusual of her. Anne used to be the bold one, but here, the roles are reversed; Hannah is confident, daring and doesn’t let the machinations of the Nazis keep her from Anne. Anne, on the other hand, is being starved, is emotionally wrecked and every time viewers hear her sobbing from across the fence, it makes it all the more heart-rending. 

Subsequently to losing her dad, Hannah, in her unwavering dedication and generosity, finds it in her to give the ring he offered her back in Amsterdam, the last material thing left from him, to Anne. More than a symbol of hope, the ring also embodies the “great love” Hannah was alluding to when she explained to Anne why the ring was off-limits. This story of friendship then takes a pivotal point to a great, undying love, which is stressed by real-life Hannah, who, to this day, celebrates her friend’s memory.

Hannah (Josephine Arendsen) and Eva (Tünde Szalontay). Courtesy of FATT Productions and Talent United Film & TV.

The Goslars were put in Bergen-Belsen, which was a “privileged” camp. There, prisoners were not stripped of their clothes and belongings, they got to keep their hair and weren’t set apart from their families nor were they reduced to identification numbers tattooed on their arms. Across the fence that kept Hannah from Anne, things weren’t as “merciful.” The first (and last) time Anne is caught on camera, her hair is shaved and her frame looks truly alarming. She was sick and did not have anything to eat or drink for days. That was when Hannah took it upon herself to collect food for her because “Anne is the weakest of all.”

“My Best-Friend Anne Frank” might come off rather sugar-coated. Despite the scenes revealing some of the brutality imposed on the Jews, the movie didn’t go as deep into the barbarity as it could have gone. The answer might lie in the fact that the movie was shot from the eyes of Hannah, who might have had it “less bad” than her fellow community. Her father used to hold a high position in the German government before the family migrated to the Netherlands once Hitler came to power. That position allowed the family to be on the list of prisoners that were to be exchanged for German prisoners, and so, they had to be treated “better” than the other Jewish prisoners.

Hannah finds support in her fellow female inmates, from whom she received help numerous times. They assist her in meeting Anne, properly lecture her when she’s out of line and undertake the customary Jewish mourning when Hannah loses her father to sickness. Speaking of which, viewers become immersed in the Jewish customs from the start of the film through the experiences of clothes being torn when the characters mourn, touching mezuzahs affixed to the doorposts and reciting Hebrew prayers. This is a very faithful aspect of the movie, as real-life Hannah’s family was very practicing.  

All this being said, “My Best-Friend Anne Frank,” choosing not to dive as much as it could have, and instead tempering violence, ingeniously manages to depict cruelty. With characters who speak several languages — including Dutch, German and Hebrew — the movie masterfully speaks to anyone who is human. 

Harsh scenes that leave viewers with a cold sweat followed by shaking outrage, “My Best-Friend Anne Frank” is a poignant narrative of a young girl who was forced to grow up faster because of the most atrocious monstrosities. Too broken to cry, too indignant to smile, the movie closes on an expression-less Hannah, walking out of the camp, carrying her sister in her arms. The weight of the losses and the abomination she and her people were put through will forever be with her, and she knows it. One month after the release of new information as to who may have been responsible for turning Anne Frank and her family over to the Nazis, “My Best Friend Anne Frank” seemed to come out at the most fitting time. It serves as a reminder of the unhealable scars that mankind is capable of inflicting if lessons of the past don’t prevent mistakes of the future. 

“My Best-Friend Anne Frank” is now playing on Netflix.

By Sourour Elfourti

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