Diary of a Young Girl

09.03.1310:00 AM ET

Searching For The Other Frank Girl

Jillian Cantor discusses the inspiration for her new novel, which imagines a different fate for Anne Frank's older sister, Margot.

I’ve spent most of my life avoiding the Holocaust. I grew up Jewish, but in the 1980s in a suburb of Philadelphia. Though my grandfather came from a deeply religious family, neither of my parents were very religious, and as a kid, being Jewish was something that became noticeable to me around holidays, or on Sundays, when my best friend went to church, and I, of course, did not. My fear of all things Holocaust related came about in eighth grade, when my English class read The Diary of A Young Girl. Reading Anne Frank’s story, I could see so much of myself in her. I was her age, a writer, a dreamer, Jewish. To think what had happened to her and so many other people, simply for being Jewish? It was so terrifying that I vowed I would avoid all Holocaust-related stories. And for a long time, I did.

Nearly 20 years later, I found myself having coffee with a friend on a brilliant blue-sky January morning in Tucson. We sat at a table, staring out a large window across a parking lot at a Safeway. We talked about our kids and schools and writing. Our first indication that something was horribly wrong were the many police cars that rapidly pulled up, just outside the window, officers jumping out, pulling rifles from their trunks. Then someone ran into the restaurant and yelled that there was a shooter, just across the parking lot, at the Safeway. By now, we all know what had happened. Gabrielle Giffords was shot that morning, and six people were murdered, including a little girl.

I was lucky. I didn’t see the shooting, though I was only feet away from it when it happened. I was lucky. A bullet didn’t cross the parking lot and come through the window by which I was sitting. I was lucky. My own children, just a little younger than the little girl who was murdered, were safely at home with my husband. I was lucky.

And yet, in the weeks that followed the shooting, I found myself paralyzed by sadness for the people whose lives had been ended or altered forever, and also paralyzed by fear. Every time I left the house or went to a store, picked up a shopping cart in front of a wide open parking lot, I thought about how vulnerable I was—we all are—standing there, just like that. Anything could happen, at any moment.

For a while after the shooting, I couldn’t write. I’m a fiction writer, and I am always writing something. But no matter what I tried to write, I just couldn’t do it. So I spent my precious writing hours while my kids were at school reading news articles online, at first about the shooting and its aftermath, and then about anything I could find, simply to avoid writing. One morning, I came across an article about Anne Frank. I remembered her diary, that fear I had felt the first time I read it in eighth grade, and I decided it was time to pick it up and read it again. I thought rereading it would give me some kind of answers, or would remind me how to write again, and as it turned out, it would. Only not the way I thought.

As I began re-reading, I immediately noticed Margot Frank, Anne’s older sister. I barely remembered her from my earlier teenage reading, but I grew up the older of two sisters too, so I was curious to know more about her. I did a little research, and I learned that she had died with Anne in Bergen-Belsen. I also learned that she, too, had kept a diary in the annex while the family was in hiding. But Margot’s diary was never recovered after the war, and today very little is known about her.

As a teen I remembered reading the diary and thinking that I was so much like Anne. But I grew up the older, quieter sister, just like Margot. I realized that if I’d been there in that annex, I would not have been Anne at all, I would’ve been Margot. Margot, whose diary was lost. Margot, who in the aftermath of the Holocaust, has all but been forgotten, while Anne has become an icon of an entire generation. I asked myself, what if Margot Frank had survived the Holocaust and had come to America, only to find herself still hiding in the shadow of her sister’s famous published diary? And this was where my novel, Margot, began.

After all those years of avoiding Holocaust stories, I suddenly found myself knee-deep in research. At first about Margot and Anne and the Frank family, but then about the concentration camps, about the many people who’d died, but also, about the many people who’d survived. Though the stories were terrifying, as I’d always imagined, I also found so much hope. I wanted to understand how the survivors had done it, how they’d lived. And that’s when I realized that the story I needed to write was a story of survival.

I was lucky. I didn’t live when and where Margot and Anne did. But anything could happen, at any moment, no matter where we are, who we are, or what we’re doing. I couldn’t change that, but I could finally write again. So I wrote to give Margot Frank a different, happier ending. And somehow, in finding Margot’s fictional voice, I began to find my own again, too.