Vis our quarantine: I wrote the following short essay for Notting Hill Edition‘s newsletter as an introduction to a reprinted extract from FOUND AND LOST: Mittens, Miep and Shovelsful of Dirt:
‘Whilst quarantined with the symptoms of Coronavirus, I spend my days dozing, reading, streaming infotainment, writing, drinking coffee and savouring a single wedge of Panettone at four. I haven’t left this apartment in three weeks and white and pink blossoms have just begun to appear on the Ailanthus trees along the street below. At night, the lights of the Empire State Building blink like a red siren. Against the backdrop of this eerie lazaretto, I conjure dear Miep casting her net for vegetables, potatoes, whatever food she could cadge day after day, then hauling it up the steep wooden stairway to the eight people barricaded inside. I recall her description of the eyes of those pale people swallowing her thirstily when she’d appear on the landing and Anne’s – always Anne’s – rapid-fire barrage of questions – “What’s in the bag? What’s the news?”
Miep told me that she would never forget the night she and Jan, at Anne’s request, slept overnight in the hiding place: “All through the night I heard each ringing of the Westertoren clock. I never slept, I couldn’t close my eyes . . . For the first time I knew what it was like to be a Jew in hiding.”
Miep and the other helpers brought daily solace with face-to-face visits, library books, even a cake one day out of the more than seven hundred and fifty days that her friends remained (silent all day) in four small rooms whose windows were always covered. All the while Anne Frank was writing and rewriting her private diary on the backs of the old account books that Miep had scavenged for her.
I once proudly gave the Hebrew edition of Anne Frank Remembered to a cousin living in Tel Aviv whilst I was staying with her. Esther had survived World War II in the forests of Romania, freezing and eating roots and grass with partisans. She had seen her own father murdered by someone who wanted his boots; was barely in her teens when she sailed to Israel on an Exodus ship. A few days after receiving my book, Esther came into the small guest room holding it. She sat on the end of my cot and, in a cavalier tone, stated: “I hope you’ll forgive me, Alison. But the life of these people in your book was like living at the Hilton Hotel, compared to the rest of us.” Compared to Anne and the others Miep was hiding, I’m at the Hilton now.
Finally, my cough and chills are abating. My sense of smell hasn’t returned. Oh, how I worry that it won’t. That Miep and Anne’s enemy was a boot-wearing Nazi scourge rather than a mindless submicroscopic pathogen makes me ashamed of my grumblings, though in both cases a myriad of people are suffering and dying daily. Alike and not alike. One commonality strikes me, though: just as Amsterdam’s Westertoren bells rang day and night, chimes from St. Columba’s Catholic church on the street below peal as well, punctuating my seamless, odorless, run-on days. Anne wrote: “Father, Mother and Margot can’t get used to the chiming of the Westertoren clock. Not me, I liked it from the start. It sounds so reassuring, especially at night.” I think so too.’