Sharon Dogar undertook a huge project and I respect her for that. In Annexed, she attempts to add more perspective to a Holocaust story many people already know. The Diary of Anne Frank is studied in schools across the world and has been turned into a movie multiple times. There are generations of fans who know the intricate workings of the Secret Annex during World War II.
The catch is that those details are mainly from the Franks’s perspective. When I taught it in my 8th grade Language Arts class, my students routinely didn’t like the van Daans (the van Pels in real life). They thought that Hermann van Pels was a villain that should be kicked out on the street, thrown to the mercy (or lack thereof) of the Gestapo.That right there illustrates that we see the characters of the play as merely characters and not real people. (That assumption is on a spectrum of maturity and worldview.)
Annexed is from Peter van Pels’s point of view. Anne is seen as annoying at first and Hermann is a caring, sacrificing father. Many times Peter will say to Anne, “Don’t put this in your diary” to account for why Anne didn’t record it. That gives Dogar some liberty with the dialogue, but one of my complaints is the addition of Liese, a made-up girlfriend for Peter that the author felt was needed to represent the loss Jews felt. It’s realistic to have a girlfriend be called-up, but bugged me that she couldn’t demonstrate the call-ups in another way.
What I was thankful for was that the tension between Margot and Anne, which one Peter would fall in love with, didn’t sink to an Edward/Jacob, Gale/Peeta cliche. The love grows through their times sneaking off to the only places not occupied by the other six people in the Annex and it is helpful to think through what Peter would be feeling. It’s an abstraction and not always fact, but it does add depth to the situation.
The book is told through flashback as Peter is in the sick bay at Mauthausen. From time to time, the narrative breaks to have italicized thoughts from Peter drifting in and out of consciousness.
It’s almost like the book is two books. Up to the point when they are discovered (that shouldn’t be a spoiler), it’s all stuff I knew. (I taught the play at least 15 times and I know there are others who have done it even more than that.) It is a novel, so you expect tension and conflict, but it’s pretty predictable. Where the book did grab me, though, was right when the Gestapo is taking the families to the concentration camps. That’s where Dogar’s research really shines through and makes for an engaging read.
This week we had a World War II veteran speak and his experience liberating Dachau made Peter and Otto’s stay at Mauthausen very relevant.
Like I said at the start, I applaud Sharon Dogar for tackling such a big project. Not only is it a story we know, but it’s of a subject matter that requires precision in writing and respect for the dead. If Annexed ended at the Annex, it would have been a so-so novel. Shining light on the horror of the death camps turned it into a book that I will remember.