More than 60 years after World War II, Theo Coster, a Dutch toymaker, sets about finding the students with whom he attended the Amsterdam Jewish Lyceum in 1941. One of them was Anne Frank.
Today Anne Frank’s Diary Of A Young Girl stands as one of the most important and heartbreaking documents to rise from the ashes of the Holocaust. To escape Nazi persecution, the Frank family famously went into hiding in a “Secret Annex” in Amsterdam, where they lived for two years until they were betrayed to the German Gestapo. Anne used her diary to detail her isolation and loneliness, her hopes and dreams, the boredom of living in confinement — and, of course, the constant fear of discovery.
But We All Wore Stars isn’t just Anne’s story. Author Theo Coster was a young classmate of Anne’s, a fellow 13-year-old without any ability to predict the horrors that were to come. Having survived the war in hiding, Coster fled to Israel and went on to create the popular board game “Guess Who?” Now in his 80s, Coster has been slowly sifting through his memories of the Holocaust and attempting to reconcile his survival against the millions who perished. Tracking down his former schoolmates, including Jacqueline van Maarsen, was part of a process of healing — and creating a voice with which to argue with dissenters who claim the Holocaust’s atrocities never happened.
The Holocaust is a tragedy I’ve spent many years studying. As a history minor in college, I took countless classes on American and World History — for fun. Among them was a Jewish Studies class focusing exclusively on the where, when, how and why of the Holocaust. Students openly cried during lectures, myself included, and our professor actually had to leave the room once to regain her composure. Some of the images we saw and stories we read will be sealed in my heart forever. It’s impossible to discuss the horrible scale of the Holocaust — or to even begin to comprehend the logistics required to execute the genocide of six million people.
And Coster doesn’t try. This isn’t a history lesson — in fact, considering how slim the memoir is, Coster assumes you understand the basics of the war and are familiar with Anne herself. We All Wore Stars is an exploration of how five of Anne’s former classmates survived, all going “underground” to avoid being shipped off to concentration or extermination camps, and Coster meets up with them again to discuss Anne and her short — but extraordinary — life.
No major revelations about Anne are revealed, but it’s fascinating to hear others’ take on her personality during their school years. Of the five featured, Jacqueline was probably closest to Anne. She survived the war believing, as many did, that the Frank family had successfully escaped to Switzerland. Anne’s father, the sole survivor of their family of four, had the heartbreaking task of delivering news of Anne’s death to Jacque. And Jacque was one of the first people to actually see The Diary after the war.
We All Wore Stars really humanizes Anne, smoothing away her fame to create a portrait of a girl who was just that: a girl. A 13-year-old girl on the cusp of adulthood, ruined and robbed of her childhood as so many were. Described as clever and silly, confident and outspoken, none of Anne’s classmates had an inkling she was destined to become a writer. No one could have known that her singular voice would rise from the Holocaust as bright and clear as any — or that Diary Of A Young Girl would go on to be published in more than 60 languages, and remains the second most-read non-fiction book ever. Behind, you know, The Bible.
Coster describes his own feelings regarding how he is portrayed in Anne’s diary, noting with some bemusement that Anne calls him “a rather boring kid.” Called Maurice at birth, Coster adopted the name “Theo” as a less “Jewish-sounding” alternative as he tried to pass as a non-Jewish friend’s nephew during his time in hiding. The name stuck and has been legally changed, and Coster seems to view this as a way of shedding his pre-Holocaust identity. I can’t say I blame him.
We All Wore Stars works best as another glimpse at innocent people torn apart by Adolf Hitler’s regime. Though Anne Frank is the one to bring the classmates together again, the book is as much about their personal journeys as Anne’s life and death. Both a tribute to their famous classmate and everyone murdered by the Nazi Germany, We All Wore Stars is a moving look at life, humanity and friendship. Readers fascinated by Anne and interested in the personal voices of Holocaust survivors will find plenty to ponder here.
4 out of 5!