Who really was Peter van Pels — artist, adventurer, dreamer, rebel or just a fifteen- year-old boy who wants to experience life to the fullest, from having a girlfriend to sharing his artistic talent with the rest of the world? This bold and ambitious sweeping saga, considered to be a companion piece to The Diary of a Young Girl, is emotionally raw and gripping as it fleshes out the story of Anne Frank and her companions in the Annex from Peter’s perspective.
Told in diary format, this title traces the heart wrenching fate of Peter and his parents, who join the Frank family in hiding in an Amsterdam attic on July 13, 1942, and were forced to stay there for two years. Peter feels helpless that he is confined to such cramped corridors, especially with know-it-all Anne, and longs to be on the outside fighting the Nazis. Author Dogar skillfully “reimagines” the relationships between the two families, and here is where her creativity takes full force; while staying true to the well known historical facts highlighted in Anne’s famous diary, she retells the account of the Annex through Peter’s eyes.
Although the writing is powerful and at times poetic, the style is simple and straightforward, much like how a boy of sixteen would express himself. Peter contemplates issues of adolescence and the passage to manhood that most teens, especially boys, will easily identify with, such as lack of privacy, frustration with his parents snooping and his budding sexuality. While at first Peter finds Anne annoying, chatty, and insulting, over time he finds solace in her company that grows into a tentative romance; their conversations are combative, poignant and compelling. At one point Anne accuses Peter of deserting his people and he desperately laments, “I want so many things, but what I need is to know who I am. Because if I don’t know that, I can only ever be what they say I am. A Jew.”
Through Peter, the reader experiences a different perspective of Anne as well as revealing truths about himself. An intriguing framing device that moves the story forward is Peter’s fate after his time in hiding; the Annex family is betrayed in 1945 and Peter is taken away to Mauthausen, a concentration camp in Austria where it is almost impossible to survive on the meager diet and difficult labor. In a stream of conscious manner and written in italics, are horrific reports of Peter’s last days as he fights for his life.
The story actually begins in the future and goes back in time, interspersing moments in the camp with Peter’s diary account, until past becomes present and Peter is left with Mr. Frank to hopefully wait for liberation of the camps. Each short chapter of the diary entries begins with a headline that includes the date and place in bold, capital letters that help give order to the non-linear telling of the annexed years. A thought provoking epilogue provides the reader with historical, intimate facts of the fate of the other members in hiding and is well rounded out by a bibliography of books and websites that will satiate further investigation of the Holocaust and Anne Frank’s legacy.
This exceptional multi-layered title is a tour de force and a superb addition to any Holocaust collection. While some of the details of Peter’s time in Auschwitz are a bit grueling, this powerful retelling of the Annex should not be missed. For ages 14 and up.