Thursday June 20, 2013 | June 2013 Issue
"If I haven’t any talent for writing books or newspaper articles, well, then, I can always write for myself….I want to go on living even after my death! And therefore I am grateful to God for giving me this gift, this possibility of developing myself and of writing, of expressing all that is in me!”
Anne Frank wrote these sentiments to her imaginary confidant, Kitty, in the diary that has served a letter to humanity, a work that has been translated into multiple languages and taught in schools all over the world.
When I first read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, I was living in West Germany, where my mother taught the book in her eighth grade English class. I was eleven and captivated by Anne’s story. I looked out my bedroom window in my German village, staring at the sharp sparkle of stars whose radiance might have left them light years away at the time when Anne was scribbling away in her clothbound book. I remember the beautiful April day we visited the Secret Annex at 263 Prinsengracht in Amsterdam, the spice warehouse that hid eight Jews from Nazi persecution for two years and a month between July 1942 and August 1944. The chestnut tree she loved was tossing in the breeze behind the Annex, and I strove to take in the idea of her tiny, cloistered world. In this circumscribed and controlled atmosphere, she generated a work that was not just a tale of any adolescent’s experiences, but a sharp and penetrating work of accelerated maturation and self-knowledge that would do credit to any adults forced to turn their attention inward.
At the same time the diary was certainly a tale of an adolescent’s difficulties and reactions. This is the first time I have read the diary since I was young, and this time I read The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition, which included parts her father had excised from the original version—parts where Anne gloried in, by today’s standards, her very modest sexual awakening from ages 13 to 15 that sometimes focused on longing for Peter, her fellow attic occupant, along with the beginning of her monthly cycle. It also featured some of her very sharp clashes with her mother, whom she did not understand or respect, and her reassertions of independence from both parents as the two years passed. This very adolescent reaction was balanced by her understanding of her motives and those of others.
Asserting that she had fought hard to detach from their judgment and ruling parental opinions, she wrote about a journey of accelerated personal growth and intense loneliness that occurred in pressured and tortuous circumstances. Kitty, her diary, is her best friend, and the only one in which she completely confides her vulnerability. This revised and definitive edition is well worth re-reading, just to see how she gains invaluable wisdom and ardently pursues self-improvement on an intellectual and personal level. The two Annes co-exist. There is the strong-willed, eager, often inconsistent teenager who masks herself with chatters and laughing, has fits of strong unhappiness, shares her unpopular opinions and irritates her family, their fellow Annex occupants, and even her budding love interest, Peter. Inside that Anne is the intensely lonely, hypersensitive, witty, kind, detached and sharply observant writer who is intensely affected by her situation and that of those around her. She pinpoints their characters, their actions under pressure, their habits, their opinions on world news and their situations, and maintains her equilibrium in doing so. One of her gifts is that she often shows rather than tells, allowing readers to make up their own minds. What many do not know is that she revised and sometimes streamlined her earliest entries towards the beginning of 1944, often improving them as literature, since she had wanted to publish it in some form “after the war.”
After re-reading her diary, I found it astounding to see her note her character failings and vow to be better to her parents and the other Annex occupants. The majority of adults are much less aware of their need to accommodate others and change and grow, let alone young teenagers. Above all she was an optimist and a survivor, but not naïve. She was very aware of the peril that surrounded a clutch of Jews in hiding, coming up with some beautiful and haunting descriptions of lost friends and her own circle in relation to the Nazis. After the Annex occupants were betrayed and sent to the camps, the true crime is that cold-blooded, systematic genocide denied her passionate humanity, innate optimism and demonstrated ability to survive. In that she stands not only for the six million killed then and those killed in other genocides, but you and me. The newer edition fills out her portrait and accelerates our knowledge of her as a flawed, striving, immensely talented writer who represented the world.
After re-reading this newer version, I perused Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife by Francine Prose. This work is a quick but thorough read that will prove immensely useful to those wanting to know various facets about the book and its eventual reception. It covers the preliminary history of the Frank family and their pre-war Holland after fleeing Nazi Germany in 1933. It also describes the immensely courageous Dutch workers in Otto Frank’s company, who were the primary means of hiding their former superiors and colleagues to keep them alive. In addition, Prose examines Anne as a writer and complex individual, not as the popular image of a sweet teenager penning optimistic bromides in lined notebooks. She follows up on the seven months the Annex occupants experienced after their arrest until most died in the camps, with Margot and Anne Frank dying in an emaciated state while sick with typhus in Bergen-Belsen. When her beloved father, Otto Frank, emerged as the sole survivor of the original eight, he took it upon himself to fulfill his daughter’s wish and publish her magnum opus.
Prose also addresses the publication of the book first in Holland, then in other European countries, and finally in the United States, where it was a tremendous success. She deplores the way in which the diary was turned into a play and movie splashed with American optimism and artistically removed from the horrors that waited outside the Annex’s bookcase-hidden door. Also, she depicts the barrage of loony Holocaust deniers who have tackled the diary as a false work, only to be proven inarguably wrong by handwriting experts.
Last but most importantly, she examines the way Anne Frank is taught in schoolrooms, noting that teachers can have difficulties in approaching the darkness surrounding Anne’s Annex bubble or understanding her as a singularly focused writer who naturally understood human motivation as she battled fear with buoyancy and humor. Prose quotes one of her favorite reactions to the diary that she received from a young male university student after she taught the diary as a work of literature at Bard College: “To feel a real connection with a girl who has been dead for almost 63 years…is a strange emotional experience….I know that, given the chance, we would have been close in life. We have a lot in common in terms of our interests and desires….She has a passion for self-expression that I find very moving, and I wish I could be that honest and clear when I write for myself.” As Prose says, “They would have been friends.” Anne had that gift of creating connection. More adults should read her as a burgeoning adult, to remember how they themselves matured and to find a connection to her shrewdness, sweetness, vitality and humanity.
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