Thursday, October 11, 2007

Remembering Anne Frank

Elizabeth Zelvin

Is there anybody who doesn’t know who Anne Frank was? A young German Jewish girl living in Amsterdam during World War II whose family was forced into hiding for two years before they were betrayed to the Nazis, Anne became a heroine and an archetypal figure when her diary was found and published after the war. If she had been Catholic instead of Jewish, she might have been considered a saint. What I think inspires us about Anne and endears her to us more than sixty years after her death in a concentration camp at the age of 15 is not her suffering but the survival of the unquenchable spirit her diary revealed.

I read The Diary of a Young Girl at the age of 11, not long after it was first published in English. I consider it one of the books that made me a writer. I started a diary of my own modeled on hers, learning from Anne to examine and reveal my emotions and to observe and record the nuances of relationships—my own and those around me—to the best of my ability. Like Anne, I was a Jewish girl living a secular life in the diverse society of a big, modern city. It would have been unimaginably shocking to me, as it was to her, to find myself singled out, forbidden such everyday privileges as going to a public swimming pool, shunned by friends and neighbors, and finally in danger of my life. Her unfolding sexuality made me more aware of my own. Her quarrels with her older sister didn’t seem so different from mine. Yet Anne had to paint her emotional life from such a limited palette, within the confines of such a small frame, and with an underlayer of constant fear.

I’d like to say that at 11 or 12, reading about Anne made me realize how lucky I was, but if I had that much depth in early adolescence, I certainly don’t remember it. I do know that Anne felt very real to me. I was a constant reader at that age, and the people I found in books, especially other girls, felt real to me too: Anne of Green Gables, Emily of New Moon, Jo March and her sisters and all of Louisa May Alcott’s other girls. The shocker was that Anne Frank was not a work of fiction. She really did live and die.

The house in Amsterdam where Anne and her family hid is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Amsterdam. I made my own reluctant pilgrimage to the Anne Frank House in the spring of 2003. My husband and I spent several days in Amsterdam, but I avoided going until the last moment. As an American Jew who had not experienced the full horror of the Holocaust, I didn’t know how I’d feel. My parents, who had both been in America for almost forty years by the time of World War II but certainly knew people who were lost, tried to instill in me a sense of how fragile and terrifying being Jewish could be. It's hard to pass fear and horror on from one generation to the next, especially when a child experiences so many other cultural influences. I tend to avoid the most graphic depictions of the Holocaust. On the one hand, I was afraid I’d find Anne’s Secret Annex too upsetting. And on the other, I feared I might not feel enough.

I needn’t have worried about feeling nothing. Tears streamed down my face for the whole hour or so we were there. The Secret Annex was bigger than I expected. I had pictured a tiny space like a 17th century priest hole. In fact, it was more like a New York apartment—except that two families shared it and they could never go out or even be seen at the windows. The horror was not in the confinement, but in how vividly being there brought Anne’s reality home to me—not real like a beloved character in fiction, but real like me.

Dramatizations of Anne’s story tend to end on the high note epitomized by the best known line from her diary: “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” We would like to believe that Anne was able to hold onto that belief in the nightmare of Bergen-Belsen. What has haunted me most since my visit to Amsterdam is a glimpse of the terrible reality through a recording in the voice of a non-Jewish friend of Anne’s (in Dutch, with a projected translation into English). She recounts how she made her way to the camp and talked to Anne through the wall, though they couldn’t see each other. Anne was starving. The friend threw a loaf of bread over the wall to her. But a woman snatched the bread and ran away. The friend tells us she could hear Anne crying behind the wall.

That’s what really happened to this lovely teenage girl. It's hard to find a perspective on it that offers any comfort. Anne died of typhus a month before the liberation of the Nazi death camps. But 31 million copies of her diary have been sold, and almost a million visitors a year make a pilgrimage to the Secret Annex to bear witness to her story.


Sandra Parshall said...

It's astonishing to realize that The Diary of Anne Frank was rejected by quite a few publishers who thought it was "too depressing" and doubted that the rambling thoughts of a teenage girl would be of any interest to the general public.

A Paperback Writer said...

When I was 16, I visited Dachau, the first of the many concentration camps. I'd read Anne Frank about 3 years earlier, but Dachau is where the horror struck me.
Years later, I was able to go to the Secret Annexe and slip through the bookcase -- and see the diary itself. That was a moving experience.
Then, only a couple of years ago, I read a biography of Anne that explained how she'd laboriously re-written the diary, changing the names and some of the action sequences, once she'd heard that diaries might be in demand for publication after the war. She'd wanted to be an author!
Unfortunately, most copies of the diary present it as just that: a diary, but it is not. It is a lightly fictionalized and carefully re-written autobiography, which is even more fascinating. Anne wasn't just an inspiring and strong teenager; she was a young author.

Julia Buckley said...

I certainly remember her, and I think of her often; I've blogged about her before, too. She's one of those people who transcends time because her words, especially in the context of her time and place, speak of the strength and beauty of the human heart, and the notion that hope can sustain. This remains true even in light of the way Anne died.

pablo said...

The idea that Anne Frank survived the war and made it to the U.S. is a key plot point in Philip Roth's novel The Ghost Writer. The protagonist imagines a young woman he meets to be Anne Frank and how he would marry her and live a full and happy life. The character recurs in the "sequel" novel Exit Ghost by Roth that was just released.