Is the Swedish poet and author, Barbro Karlen really the reincarnation of Anne Frank?
I first heard about this case in April 1997, while attending a conference on reincarnation in Berlin. Admittedly, I was skeptical. I had already been contacted by four other people who also claimed to be Anne Frank, along with a plethora of Hitlers, Mengeles, and other characters from the Second World War. Although I have written two books about cases of reincarnation from the Holocaust, (footnote 1) I am cautious about individuals who claim to be the return of famous people. Because the biographies of historical figures are so well-known, it is very difficult to sort fact from fiction.
In the case of Anne Frank, the story has been widely publicized in the form of her diary, a Broadway play and a Hollywood movie, plus countless books, documentaries and museum displays. Anne's diary has been called "the most famous diary in all of human history." It is now translated into dozens of languages, and read by students throughout the world. Her very name has become synonymous with the injustice of the Holocaust. Is it possible, then, to ever sort fact from fiction when somebody claims to be Anne Frank returned?
Karlen first publicly claimed to be Anne during a television interview, broadcast from Amsterdam in 1995. This startling news, coming out of the very city where the Franks had once lived, left Dutch viewers both amazed and shocked. With the publication of her autobiographical book, Und die Wolfe heulten (And the Wolves howled) in November 1997 (footnote 2), the story has become even more widely-publicized, stirring up intense controversy in both Jewish and non-Jewish circles.
And the Wolves howled first appeared in German, published by Perseus Verlag, an Anthroposophist press in Basel, Switzerland. The book is now available in Swedish, Norwegian and Dutch but, as of this writing, there is no English translation. [Update: There is now an English edition now. You can order copy now from Amazon.com (USA) or from Amazon.co.uk (Britain).] Therefore, although the Karlen-Frank case is being hotly debated in the Continental press and on the Internet, virtually nothing has been written about it in English -- until now.
Barbro Karlen was born in 1954 in Goetenborg, Sweden, to non-Jewish parents who did not believe in reincarnation. She is best-known as a child prodigy who wrote and published ten volumes of philosophical prose and poetry, beginning in 1966 at the tender age of 12. This resulted in a media blitz in Sweden at the time. In turn, little Barbro found herself rejected by her former friends and classmates, who mercilessly teased her because she was different. As a result, Barbro Karlen ended up as a talented but very lonely woman, who sought solace in nature and horseback riding. After a failed marriage and the loss of her farm, she was forced, out of economic necessity, to seek another occupation. Because she loved working with horses, she eventually joined the mounted police, and also won many prizes for her horsemanship.
All of this is well-known in the annals of Swedish literature. What is not so well-known is that, from a very early age, Barbro Karlen also had recurring nightmares with Holocaust themes:
The darkness closes ever more tightly around her. She cries and is paralyzed with terror. Her little body shakes and is bathed in sweat. She hears how they are running in the canal house, with its many stairways. The commands cut her like a knife in the flesh. Dogs bark. With a loud crash the door is breached...
She wakes up, and it is already light outside. Birds are singing, and it is very still. As always, just like in the dream, she wipes the tears from her face. (Footnote 3)
Thus begins And the Wolves howled. In order to present her story in a more detached, objective manner, she wrote it in the form of a third-person novel, with "Sara Carpenter" playing the role of the main character. Yet the book cover clearly states that And the wolves howled is an autobiography. In fact, the events described in "Sara Carpenter's" life are taken directly from Karlen's own life.
In a lengthy appendix [in the German edition], Thomas Meyer, her editor and publisher, offers this explanation for the fictional format:
It is clear beyond a doubt: Sara's experiences are in reality details from the experiences of the author herself. This can be deduced from the fact that texts attributed to Sara in this book are quoted verbatim from previously-published works by Barbro Karlen... Why, then, does the author place "Sara Carpenter" between herself and the reader?
One obvious reason is that, through this fictional element, there is a certain protection from new attacks on her in Sweden. (Footnote 4) It also goes without saying, that all the names of characters in the book are fictional -- for the same reason. On a deeper level, the author may also be saying to her readers: One cannot identify me only with my previous life on earth, nor with my present one now. In this book, I am presenting the life picture of a person with past-life karma as a Jew, and I view that life from the outside. Yet a third aspect of the fictional name: Perhaps it leaves the reader more free to deal with the connection between Sara and Anna [Frank]. One can then leave the question open and/or take it as fiction. (Footnote 5)
Whether the claim to be Anne Frank is fact or fiction is difficult to determine from the book itself. Although Karlen does give us descriptions of Sara [Barbro]'s past-life flashbacks and makes karmic connections with events in her present life, in only one place does she clearly tie these memories to those of Anne Frank. When Sara was only ten years old, her parents took her with them on a trip to Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam. Paris and Brussels seemed forbiddingly foreign, but when they got to Amsterdam, Sara felt as if she had been there before.
After checking into the hotel, her parents decided to see the Anne Frank House. Although Sara had heard the story of the young Jewish girl and her family, she had not yet read the diary. ""She wanted to leave her [past-life] memories in peace," writes Karlen in the novel. "She also wanted to be sure that she was not simply 'remembering' something that she had read in this life." (footnote 6)
Sara's parents wanted to take a cab from the hotel, because the Anne Frank House is difficult to find in the confusing maze of Amsterdam's streets, bridges, and canals. (This I can personally attest to, having been there myself.) But Sara said that they didn't need a taxi, because she knew exactly where the Frank House was. And she did. Little Sara was not at all surprised that she knew the way, but her parents were both struck speechless.
They arrived at their destination. Sara, who had boldly led them there, now became filled with unexplained anxiety. She shuddered as the family prepared to enter the narrow, three-story building that was once a factory and is now the Anne Frank museum:
"Strange, "said Sara, as they stood before the steps at the entrance to the Anne Frank House. "The steps did not look like that at all." Then she became aware that her parents were looking at her, not understanding what she meant. They went into the house and up the narrow, steep steps.
Sara, who had fearlessly led the way before, now suddenly paled with fear. She took her mother's hand. Her mother was horrified to discover that Sara's hand was ice cold. The mother stopped and took Sara in her arms. "What is wrong, my child? Don't you want to go in? Shall we turn back?" Sara only shook her head in silence and climbed, hand in hand, up the stairs with her mother.
When they entered the hiding place, she was seized by the same fear that she had already experienced so often in her dreams. It suddenly became difficult for her to breathe, and she cried out in panic. It took all of her strength not to turn and run outside. Although it was the middle of the summer, she was so cold that she shivered, and did not let go of her mother's hand for even a second.
As they entered one small room, Sara stood stock still, looking at one of the walls. "Oh look -- the movie star pictures are still there!"
Her mother saw only an empty wall, and did not understand at all. "What pictures? The wall is empty!" As Sara looked at the wall again, she saw that her mother was right. Now she was confused. She knew for sure that pictures had hung there. She had even seen them a second ago. Why, now, was there suddenly nothing there to see? (Footnote 7)
Sara's mother asked one of the museum guards about the wall. It was located in what had been Anne Frank's bedroom and yes, there had been pictures of movie stars there. The museum staff had removed them for protection, and they were now displayed under glass. (In addition, the museum literature confirms that some remodeling of the steps was done, for the sake of safety.)
At first glance, this story appears similar to many cases that I myself have reported, regarding flashbacks of Holocaust scenes from another life. And it could very well be such. However, one could also argue that what Sara [Barbro] saw on the wall was not a scene from her own past life, but, rather, a psychic impression left on the "aether" of the house itself.
Anne Frank spent over two years living in the secret apartment and, as she tells us in her diary, much of that time was passed in motionless silence. She literally spent hours alone in her room, writing in her diary and dreaming of her beloved movie stars, in order to relieve the boredom. Is it possible that the mind-energy which she invested in that wall of photos has left a lasting impression, which Sara [Barbro] "saw" when she entered the room?
In April 1997, before And the Wolves howled was published, I met with Thomas Meyer of Perseus Verlag, Karlen's publisher. He told me essentially the same story as that of "Sara" above, about how ten- year-old Barbro had accurately described the pictures that used to be on the wall in Anne Frank's room. Meyer himself was convinced that she was, indeed, Anne Frank returned. He also said that there were surviving members of the Frank family who supported Barbro Karlen's claim. In addition, Meyer reported that Cara Wilson, who recently published her long exchange of letters with Otto Frank (Anne's father), had confirmed that Barbro Karlen knew things about the Frank family which were not public knowledge. [Update: Mr. Meyer says I misquoted him here. What he claims he said was, that Cara Wilson said of Barbro, "She is Anne Frank." I have no direct statement from Ms. Wilson confirming this one way or the other.]
Unfortunately, none of these tantalizing details are included in the book itself. Although Meyer gives us his own analysis of the Karlen story in the appendix, there is no mention of any outside corroboration by anyone connected to Anne Frank. The book does include a photo of Barbro Karlen and Cara Wilson seated together, but no explanation is given for it being there.
This lack of scholarship was a big disappointment to me, because, after talking with Meyer, I had expected to see some solid documentation. Instead, it appears that Barbro Karlen decided to publish the story as fiction, then clarify her own claims through media interviews (and a second book later?) In my opinion, this was a poor choice of tactics, which left her wide open for attacks on her credibility.
Although I can understand Barbro Karlen's initial reluctance to clearly state that she was Anne Frank, once you make the claim, it's a given that the reader is going to want further proof. To be honest, I don't really understand why she was so vague about it in the book, because the story was already out from the TV interview, two years before. It would have greatly improved her case if she had presented the reader with something more than a single childhood incident -- already cited above -- at the Anne Frank House. The rest of her dreams and flashbacks, at least as far as her book describes them, might well be about Anne Frank, but they are also archetypal enough to belong to any number of Jewish Holocaust victims.
In addition, there are some things in the book which strike me more as a psychological identification with the imagery of the Holocaust. For example, much of the story centers on how Sara [Barbro] was harassed and maligned in this life, first by her schoolmates because she was a child prodigy, and later by her colleagues on the police force, because she was among the first mounted policewomen in Sweden. In the end, what began as sexist hazing soon developed into a full-blown vendetta, with ugly rumors, false accusations, sabotage, vicious attacks in the press, and attempts on her life. The very title of the book, And the Wolves howled, is a reference to this senseless hate campaign:
It is like a pack of wolves, thought Sara. One begins to howl and chase after the prey, and the others follow, without really knowing what they are chasing after. Eventually the entire pack howls after the prey, which only the lead wolf has actually chosen. When they finally overtake their victim, they tear it to pieces in a frenzy, without even considering what it is that they are falling upon with such greed. (Footnote 8)
During the height of all this controversy, a woman named "Mary, " who supports Sara in the book, has the following reaction upon hearing the ugly rumors about her:
As Mary listened to Veronica [a gossip at the riding club], she felt more and more uncomfortable. This went beyond the usual "idle gossip." This was propaganda and wicked slander. Mary found herself unvoluntarily thinking about the course of human history. That was how it happened when they persecuted the Jews [Karlen's emphasis], thought Mary. People constantly claimed that they had seen such-and-such, and in the end, everyone believed it, even though it had absolutely no basis... (Footnote 9)
Upon reading this paragraph, I found myself wondering if there was a real-life "Mary" who had also compared the persecution of Barbro Karlen to that of the Jews. Did this remark, in turn, cause Barbro to identify her own suffering with the Holocaust archetype? Or was "Mary's" remark simply a door that opened Barbro's mind to the past-life answer that was always there?
Ten pages later, we find that Sara has another Holocaust nightmare, in which she recognizes a Nazi officer who arrested her in the other life as one of her current persecutors in the police department:
He [the Nazi] grabbed her by the hair and dragged her out into the street, then shoved her into a black automobile. She cried out as she recognized his face. (Footnote 10)
Here is a place where it would be helpful to know -- perhaps through a footnote -- whether or not such an incident actually occurred during the arrest of Anne Frank. But we are not given that information. Also puzzling is the fact that the dream scene at the beginning of the book -- where the Gestapo first break into the house -- says "her little body (kleiner Koerper) shook with fear -- as if she were a small child. Yet Anne Frank was already a teenager when she was arrested. If Barbro was remembering her former life as Anne, why doesn't she see herself as older? In similar cases where young children remember previous lives, they often see themselves as having been bigger then. [[Update: Or it could be an editing problem, i.e., she might be referring to herself as a child who woke up shaking in this life after the dreams of the past life.]
The dream continues, revealing a scene in the concentration camp, where a German woman, who was herself about to be shot for killing a Nazi officer, blames Anna and curses her:
"You can't treat me like this! Everything is the fault of that damned Jewish whore!" But nobody listened to her. One of the men drew his pistol and pointed it at her head. Before the shot went off, the woman swore a 'holy' oath: she would never rest, until she had put out the light in the eyes of that Jewish tramp. She screamed her curse, which was finally silenced by the bullet. (Footnote 11)
In the book, Sara recognizes this woman from her past life as "Frau Pester," a journalist who wrote slanderous articles about her in this life, falsely accusing her of animal cruelty. Because the reincarnated soul of the condemned woman could not "put out the light in those eyes" by literally killing Sara, she did it symbolically, attempting to destroy her reputation and break her spirit.
A plausible karmic scenario -- but we are give no clue as to whether or not such a gallows curse was ever directed at Anne Frank.
Yet another puzzle is the fact that, although Barbro Karlen claims to be the reincarnation of a Dutch Jew, nowhere does Karlen indicate any discomfort with Christianity during her childhood. In fact, her early works contain several sentimental references to Christmas, Easter, and Jesus. I mention this because, in a high percentage of the Holocaust cases that I have seen, the non-Jewish clients who were Jews in their previous lives report a strong discomfort with Christian symbols and doctrines. This is because, inm the Nazi period, the Christians were often the oppressors of the Jews, in many cases even helping to round them up. Therefore, even the most secularized Jews had a general aversion to anything Christian, which often carries over into the present life.
Yet we see none of this in Karlen's story. Although she describes being personally alienated from her new parents as a toddler, and thought of herself as "Anne" and not Barbro, she seems to have been perfectly at home with the Swedish-Christian culture.
To be fair, I should point out that the Franks were very Westernized, assimilated Jews. Anne's diary makes no mention of celebrating the Sabbath together around the family table, nor is there any lament over being unable to obtain the special foods for Passover -- things which would be of concern to a religious Jewish family. Apparently the Franks did not even fast on Yom Kippur, which would have required no special provisions in the hiding place. The only Jewish holiday mentioned in the diary at all is Hanukkah, a minor festival which comes in December.
On the other hand, Anna does report celebrating Christmas in the hiding place, because Miep (who was hiding them) brought Christmas presents to the Franks. So it is entirely possible that young Anna's mind, although technically Jewish, was filled with "dominant culture" Christian imagery, which, in turn, has carried over into Barbro Karlen's consciousness. At the same time, Anne's diary does indicate a strong identification with her Jewishness and the history of her people -- yet we find no mention of this in Karlen's book.
Today, Barbro Karlen regards herself as a combination of both lives. Her struggles in this life, she claims, have somehow retroactively freed the soul of Anna from its suffering. At the end of the book, Sara has a series of dreams, in which she watches Anna Frank writing in her diary. But the words she writes are those of Karlen's story. As Anna finishes the book (which Karlen is to publish), she stands up, smiles, then goes down the steps and out of the door of the canal house where she and her family had hidden. She breathes the fresh air and sees the sun shining, rejoicing in her freedom. "Not as Anna and not as Sara," Karlen writes, "And the wolves finally stopped howling."
So we are left with my original question: Is Barbro Karlen really the reincarnation of Anne Frank? On the one hand, we have an impressive childhood incident, where she recognizes things in the Frank house. On the other hand, the story itself seems to be more of an archetypal identification with Anne's suffering and persecution.
For my part, I do not doubt Karlen's sincerity. I am even willing to believe she was killed by the Nazis in another life. But was she really Anne Frank? The jury is still out.
©1999 by Yonassan Gershom. First published in Life & Soul magazine (formerly Reincarnation International) Issue #16, spring 1999. Reprinted in Venture Inward, the magazine of the Association for Enlightenment, Inc. (A.R.E.) in Jan-Feb., 2000. Reprinted here with permission of the author. All other rights reserved.
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The British edition of the English translation contains a different Appendix from the German edition, with material not in the original, responding to various reviews and criticisms of the book. For my comments on that material, see my Reincarnation and the Holocaust FAQ, Question #6.]
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2. Karlen, Barbro, Und die Woelfe Heulten, Perseus Verlag, Basel, Switzerland, 1997. All translations from the German in this article are by Yonassan Gershom.
3. Ibid., p. 7.
4. As explained in her book, Barbro Karlen was the victim of false charges concerning animal cruelty and her alleged mistreatment of a horse. This resulted in a widely-publicized lawsuit which, she believes, stemmed from past-life animosities directed against her by her accusers. More on that below.
5. Op. cit., Karlen, pp. 321-32.
6. Ibid., p. 11
8. Wilson, Cara, Alles Liebe, Otto, Perseus Verlag, Basel, Switzerland.
9. Op. cit., Karlen, p. 190.
10. Ibid., p. 122
11.Ibid., p. 134.
12.Ibid., p. 164