Third-generation survivor finds healing in Anne Frank role

As Sigi Gradwohl prepared to play the eponymous role in “The Diary of Anne Frank,” at the Cupcake Theater in Hollywood through March 9, she turned to her grandfather, Peter Neuhaus, who had been in Anne’s class at a Montessori school in Amsterdam before the Nazi threat loomed and the Franks went into hiding in a secret annex in 1942.

“I Skyped him in Zurich, and, for the 100th time, he told me that Anne was just a regular girl in his class,” Gradwohl, who is 4-foot-11 and at 28 still looks like a teenager, said in her Hollywood apartment recently. Neuhaus had always been taciturn about the years of the Holocaust; it was only from a newspaper article that she learned he had also regarded the chatty Anne as a student “who was bad at math, who misbehaved and talked too much,” Gradwohl said.

Researching the play gave her a kind of permission to ask her grandfather, for the first time, about his own experience of fleeing Amsterdam for Switzerland when he was 11. “He said it was distressing to leave everything and everyone he knew,” she recalled. But the conversation more or less ended there. 

The Holocaust was a taboo subject in Gradwohl’s family as she was growing up in Israel and, later, in Scarsdale, N.Y. Her grandfather declined to speak of his memories, and so did her grandmother, Esther Gradwohl, who at the age of 7 had said goodbye to her parents and older sister on a train platform in Frankfurt before she was whisked off to a London orphanage on the Kindertransport child rescue effort, never to see her family again.

And yet, as a third-generation survivor of the Holocaust, Gradwohl somehow absorbed her grandparents’ trauma. Saying goodbye to relatives proved an agonizing process, “which obviously came from the fear that I would never see them again,” she said. Gradwohl also placed great importance on her fluency in Hebrew, German and English and on her three passports — Israeli, Swiss and American — in case times turned bad for the Jews and she needed to flee to a safer country.

“I always felt I had to act happy, happy, happy, and I spent many years with that outward cover, Gradwohl added. “That’s why I really related to Anne, because she did the same.” 

Gradwohl finally broke down, during a year in Israel after high school, when she began struggling with anorexia. She saw a therapist for the next four years and found a kind of healing on the stage: “My entire life had been an act, so theater came naturally to me,” she said. “And I felt that it was safer to feel whatever emotions I had through the [veneer] of a character.”

Also healing was reading a 2012 book her sister, the psychologist Nirit Gradwohl Pisano, had written titled “Granddaughters of the Holocaust: Never Forgetting What They Didn’t Experience.” “Choosing to play Anne Frank was how I was going to explore those issues,” she said.  

She eagerly auditioned for a production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” in North Hollywood last year, only to be devastated when, at the last minute, the role went to another actress. “All summer long, I mourned the loss of Anne, as if it were my last chance to play her, because soon I would be too old,” she said.

And so Gradwohl decided to stage her own production, turning to one friend to direct and another to help her produce and raise the more than $3,600 required to mount the play. As research, she visited the “Anne” exhibition at the Museum of Tolerance, but chose to read the diary — for the first time — only during the rehearsal process, in order “to discover the journey along with Anne.” 

Her resolve to share Anne’s experience deepened when she learned of the recent vandalism of the diaries in libraries throughout Japan: The events “give me even more confidence in our project,” Gradwohl said, “and I will approach the remainder of our shows with a greater strength and drive, regardless of the hate that persists.”

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