Friday, January 27, 2012

A Moving Memoir

Since our trip to Amsterdam last weekend, I have been a bit obsessed with reading my copy of Anne Frank's moving memoir, The Diary of a Young Girl (The Definitive Edition), as well as going on-line to learn more about the life and times of not only Anne, but her family and the people who helped them out while they were in hiding. I cannot tell you how much seeing the actual "Secret Annex" she describes in her diary, walking through its small rooms and trying to imagine eight people living there together (in mortal fear of being discovered) for more than two years, affected me. I have been profoundly moved by the experience and will always be glad that, although we only had one day to do any sightseeing when I accompanied my husband on that trip, we were able to fit in a tour of the Anne Frank House. In my copy of the book, above, the top left-hand picture shows what the building looked like back in the 40's. As you can see from the picture I took from the boat on our canal tour, it has changed very little since then (it's the one with the black doors). In her July 11, 1942 entry, here is how Anne describes the Franks' new hiding place: "I don't think I'll ever feel at home in this house, but that doesn't mean I hate it. It's more like being on vacation in some strange pension. Kind of an odd way to look at life in hiding, but that's how things are. The Annex is an ideal place to hide in. It may be damp and lopsided, but there's probably not a more comfortable hiding place in all of Amsterdam. No, in all of Holland...Up to now our bedroom, with its blank walls, was very bare. Thanks to Father--who brought my entire postcard and movie star collection here beforehand--and to a brush and a pot of glue, I was able to plaster the walls with pictures. It looks much more cheerful."

One of the most moving sights in the Anne Frank House, to me, is seeing all those pictures she pasted up on the walls of her bedroom (which she shared first with her sister Margot and then with a middle-aged dentist she calls "Mr. Dussel," a man who joins the original seven residents of the Annex). Among the many things Anne chose to adorn her room were photos of movie stars cut out of her beloved "Cinema & Theater" magazine (Ray Milland, Ginger Rogers, and Marlena Deitrich, to name a few), a self-portrait sketch by Leonardo da Vinci, advertisement posters from her father's business, and a postcard picture of chimpanzees sitting around a table, with the caption "Chimpanzee Tea Party" printed across the bottom. That last item really got to me, because it was a reminder that, although the circumstances of her short life were tragic, Anne Frank was not only a senstive deep-thinker; she was also a normal, fun young girl with a sense of humor, a young girl who liked to laugh--and one who had dreams and aspirations and lived in hope for the future.

In so many of her diary entries, Anne expressed optimism as well as a keen awareness of the gravity of their situation. On January 13, 1943, she writes, "As for us, we're quite fortunate. Luckier than millions of people. It's quiet and safe here...I could spend hours telling you about the suffering the war has brought, but I'd only make myself more miserable. All we can do is wait, as calmly as possible, for it to end. Jews and Christians alike are waiting, the whole world is waiting, and many are waiting to die."

Anne Frank's diary is heartbreaking when it reveals just how terrible life was for the Jews during that time period. In July of 1943, Anne had become nearsighted and her Mother wanted her to see an ophthalmologist, accompanied by Mrs. Kleiman, the wife of one of their helpers. Anne describes how she feels about leaving the safety of the Annex: "Just hearing that made my knees weak, since it's no small matter. Going outside! Just think of it, walking down the street! I can't imagine it. I was petrified at first..." Imagine being terrified of simply walking down the street!

As time went on, it got harder and harder to be cooped up. On October 29, 1943, Anne writes: "I wander from room to room, climb up and down the stairs and feel like a songbird whose wings have been ripped off and who keeps hurling itself against the bars of its dark cage. 'Let me out, where there's fresh air and laughter!' a voice within me cries."

On November 8, 1943, she gives a vivid description of how it feels to live in constant fear that the Nazis will discover the Annex: "I see the eight of us in the Annex as if we were a patch of blue sky surrounded by menacing black clouds. The perfectly round spot on which we're standing is still safe, but the clouds are moving in on us, and the ring between us and the approaching danger is being pulled tighter and tighter. We're surrounded by darkness and danger, and in our desperate search for a way out we keep bumping into each other. We look at the fighting down below and the peace and beauty above. In the meantime, we've been cut off by the dark mass of clouds, so that we can go neither up nor down. It looms before us like an impenetrable wall, trying to crush us, but not yet able to. I can only cry out and implore, 'Oh ring, ring, open wide and let us out!'"

Anne's emotions were like a roller coaster. On December 24, 1943 she writes: "I'm 'on top of the world' when I think of how fortunate we are and compare myself to other Jewish children, and 'in the depths of despair' when, for example, Mrs. Kleiman comes by and talks about [her daughter's] hockey club, canoe trips, school plays, and afternoon teas with friends." It's heart-rending to realize that because she was a Jew, Anne had to feel fortunate just to be alive; yet all the same, she couldn't help but long for a normal life, for the chance to participate in all the everyday activities enjoyed by young girls her age.

Anne's faith grew in the Annex. On January 30, 1944, she writes: "I stood at the top of the stairs while German planes flew back and forth, and I knew I was on my own, that I couldn't count on others for support. My fear vanished. I looked up at the sky and trusted in God." She tried to stay hopeful, as her February 3, 1944 entry shows: "The world will keep on turning wihout me, and I can't do anything to change events anyway. I'll just let matters take their course and concentrate on studying and hope that everything will be all right in the end." And she tried to stay happy, too. On February 23, 1944 she says: "Riches, prestige, everything can be lost. But the happiness in your own heart can only be dimmed; it will always be there, as long as you live, to make you happy again."

Anne grew up a lot--faster than she should have had to--during the years she spent hiding out in the Annex. On March 7, 1944, she writes: "When I think back to my life in 1942, it all seems so unreal. The Anne Frank who enjoyed that heavenly existence was completely different from the one who has grown wise within these walls. Yes, it was heavenly. Five admirers on every street corner, twenty or so friends, the favorite of most of my teachers, spoiled rotten by Father and Mother, bags full of candy and a big allowance. What more could anyone ask for?...I look back at that Anne Frank as a pleasant, amusing, but superficial girl, who has nothing to do with happy-go-lucky, carefree schooldays are gone forever. I don't even miss them...I lie in bed at night, after ending my prayers with the words, 'Thank you, God, for all that is good and dear and beautiful.'"

One normal teenage rite of passage that Anne got to experience was having a first boyfriend...and a first kiss. She and Peter van Daan (his real name was van Pels)--who was about two-and-a-half years older than she was--became very close. On March 22, 1944, Anne writes: "...things are getting more and more wonderful here. I think...that true love may be developing in the Annex." And later that same month, she writes, "My life here has gotten better, much better. God has not forsaken me, and He never will."

Throughout her diary, Anne talks about her dream of becoming a journalist and a writer one day. On April 4, 1944, she says: "For a long time, I didn't know why I was bothering to do any schoolwork. The end of the war still seemed so far away, so unreal, like a fairy tale...I finally realized that I must do my schoolwork to keep from being ignorant, to get on in life, to become a journalist, because that's what I want! I know I can write. A few of my stories are good, my descriptions of the Secret Annex are humorous, much of my diary is vivid and alive, remains to be seen whether I really have talent...I want to go on living even after my death! And that's why I'm so grateful to God for giving me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and to express all that's inside me!...When I write I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived! But, and that's a big question, will I ever be able to write something great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer?...So onward and upward, with renewed spirits. It'll all work out, because I'm determined to write!"

On April 11, 1944, Anne writes: "If God lets me live...I'll make my voice heard, I'll go out into the world and work for mankind!" Just a few months after Anne wrote these words, on August 4, 1944, the SS (having received a tip from an anonymous informer) arrested the eight people in the Annex. They were all transported to concentration camps.

Anne ended up at Auschwitz and then Bergen-Belsen, where she died of typhus in February or March of 1945, about a month before the camp was liberated by British troops. The only person in Anne's family--in fact, the only person out of the eight who'd hid together in the Annex--to survive the war was Anne's father, Otto Frank. Anne's diary had been saved by Miep Geis, one of the selfless people who'd helped to keep the Franks, the van Daans, and Mr. Dussel alive while they were in hiding; she gave it to Otto when he returned to Amsterdam. Otto had the diary published in 1947, and since then, it has been read by millions of people all over the world.

Of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust, more than a million of them were children. Although she was just one of many, Anne Frank helps to put a human face on the others who suffered the same fate. As it says on the back cover of the book, Anne's diary "continues to capture the remarkable spirit of Anne Frank, who for a time survived the worst horror the modern world has seen--and who remained triumphantly and heart-breakingly human throughout the ordeal."

If you haven't read this extraordinary book yet, I highly recommend it. I read somewhere that, aside from the Bible, it is the most frequently read non-fiction book of all time. Anne Frank dreamed of becoming a writer, and she also aspired to someday "work for mankind." Through her beautifully written and thought-provoking diary, in my opinion, she achieved both.

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