War diarist

May 4, 2007

The Diary of a Young Girl
Anne Frank (Folio Society, 2005)
319 pp. First reading.

When I was in Amsterdam in March I walked one afternoon down the canal Prinsengracht to Anne Frank Huis. This is the building, now a museum, where Anne and seven others hid during the Nazi occupation of Holland. They entered their hiding place — their “Secret Annexe” — in July 1942 and remained there until August 1944, when they were discovered. Anne, just thirteen years old at the beginning of their ordeal, kept this diary in which she recounted the goings-on inside the Annexe, her thoughts and feelings about the war, about her fellow residents, and about growing up.

I had known the basic story, of course, but visiting the house itself was quite a moving experience. As I wandered from room to room, seeing with my own eyes the place where the story had taken place, I was subject to a variety of strong feelings: dumb astonishment at the small size of the Annexe; pity for those, like Anne, who had been forced to such an extremity of danger; anger at the evil, here sharpened to a fine point of particularity, that sought the destruction of so many on such feeble and demented grounds; pride at being associated with those who had fought and defeated that evil; clean sorrow at the futility of their hiding; and, what most surprised me, tears at the unexpected triumph of Anne and her story, now known and loved around the world. It is a fine instance of eucatastrophe.

Obviously one must approach such a book with just expectations. It is, after all, the work of a young teenager, and it is a true story, not one dreamed up to satisfy a suite of criteria of literary excellence. If the book were poorly written, it would be obtuse to dwell on the fact; it seems less so to point out that in fact it is remarkably well crafted. Anne is articulate and gregarious; she is full of life and energy, and has a sharp wit; she is hot-tempered and opinionated, but humbly repentant when she sees the error of her ways. She dreams of being a writer when she grows up, and practices her craft by trying to capture the drama and the humour of the events around her.

There were eight people in the Annexe: Anne, her sister and parents, another couple and their teenaged son, and a bachelor friend. As you can imagine, having that many people living in close quarters for so long and under such circumstances, Anne has a steady stream of domestic tensions to report. This she does, now in a white-hot rage, now with pointed humour. She writes about the routine of life in the Annexe: the preparation of food (supplied to them by a network of sympathetic friends on the outside), her studies, nightly radio broadcasts from the BBC (German radio, like the German language, is forbidden in the Annexe), the quiet periods when they must not move around for fear of betraying their presence to those working in the office space below. Two years of such routine takes its toll, of course, and there are times when Anne simply feels trapped by the monotony:

“If the talk at mealtimes isn’t about politics or good food, then Mother and Mrs. van D. trot out stories about their childhood that we’ve heard a thousand times before, or Dussel goes on and on about beautiful racehorses, his Charlotte’s extensive wardrobe, leaky rowing-boats, boys who can swim at the age of four, aching muscles and frightened patients. It all boils down to this: whenever one of the eight of us opens his mouth, the other seven can finish the story for him. We know the punch line of every joke before it gets told, so that whoever’s telling it is left to laugh alone. The various milkmen, grocers and butchers of the two former housewives have been praised to the skies or run into the ground so many times that in our imaginations they’ve grown as old as Methuselah; there’s absolutely no chance of anything new or fresh being brought up for discussion in the Annexe.” (28 Jan 1944)

But when you’re hiding from the Nazis, there are worse things than monotony. On several occasions the shop below the Annexe is broken into, striking fear into their hearts when it happens, and again when the police arrive to investigate. One night a few residents of the Annexe are seen by a curious passer-by while wandering through the vacated offices; terrified of being found out, they stage a robbery to throw the authorities off before retreating back into the Annexe.

Most of Anne’s diary is concerned with internal matters. She struggles to deal with maintaining personal relationships, and to manage the difficulties that come with adolescence — including young love, for a romance blossoms between Anne and Peter, the son of the other family living with her. Her accounts of these feelings and struggles are touching in their earnest passion.

She doesn’t write much about politics, apart from fierce denouncements of the Germans and Hitler, and praise for the British and Churchill. Yet when the Allied invasion finally commences, hope blossoms in their hearts. Anne eagerly tracks their progress as they make their way toward Holland.

Anne’s diary comes to an abrupt end. On the morning of 4 August 1944 police arrived at their address and arrested them all. Clearly, they had been informed, but to this day it is not known who betrayed them. After one month in prison they were all transferred to Auschwitz. Anne and her sister eventually landed in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where, in the early months of 1945, they both contracted typhus and died. Of the eight who lived in the Secret Annexe, only Anne’s father survived the war.

[7 March 1944]
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’, and I’m filled with joy. I think of going into hiding, my health and my whole being as ‘the good’; Peter’s love (which is still so new and fragile and which neither of us dares to say aloud), the future, happiness and love as ‘the dear’; the world, nature and the tremendous beauty of everything, all that splendour, as ‘the beautiful’.
At such moments I don’t think about all the misery, but about the beauty that still remains. This is where Mother and I differ greatly. Her advice in the face of melancholy is: ‘Think about all the suffering in the world and be thankful you’re not part of it.’ My advice is: ‘Go outside, to the country, enjoy the sun and all nature has to offer. Go outside and try to recapture the happiness within yourself; think of all the beauty in yourself and in everything around you and be happy’.
I don’t think Mother’s advice can be right, because what are you supposed to do if you become part of the suffering? You’d be completely lost. On the contrary, beauty remains, even in misfortune. If you just look for it, you discover more and more happiness and regain your balance. A person who’s happy will make others happy; a person who has courage and faith will never die in misery!

[11 April 1944]
Who has inflicted this on us? Who has set us apart from all the rest? Who has put us through such suffering? It’s God who has made us the way we are, but it’s also God who will lift us up again. In the eyes of the world, we’re doomed, but if, after all this suffering, there are still Jews left, the Jewish people will be held up as an example. Who knows, maybe our religion will teach the world and all the people in it about goodness, and that’s the reason, the only reason, we have to suffer. We can never be just Dutch, or just English, or whatever, we will always be Jews as well. And we’ll have to keep on being Jews, but then, we’ll want to be.

3 Responses to “War diarist”

  1. Adam Hincks Says:

    Great post. I should really read it again. I think I was ten when I first read it, and one of my classmates (who was British), thought that the chapter titled `An Affair in the Attic’ (which he pronounced `an affaih in the attic’) sounded salacious, though it was just about some domestic discord.

    Not too much later I too visited the museum in Amsterdam, and remember being fascinated by it.

  2. Christina Attard Says:

    I also enjoyed your Anne Frank Haus post. I went there in 2002 and it was also a very moving experience. Many of your thoughts were similar to my own at the time – the smallness of the rooms, the view from the front of the house onto the street and the canal and the thought of how close danger would have literally walked on a daily basis.

    There, I believe, is some scholarship going on out there that is trying to determine how extensively the diary was edited by Mr. Frank. I don’t think the versions we have in paperback are quite as the diary was originally composed. Still, they are really amazing and I’m so glad that we have them.

    We seem to live in an age where being a good intellectual means “de-constructing” and questioning absolutely everything. Somewhat like saying that you can’t enjoy a painting unless you spend hours determining exactly where and when the fibres in the linen canvas were cultivated.

  3. cburrell Says:

    Thanks, Christina.

    The edition of the diary that I read is called “The Definitive Edition”, and I believe it contains material that was not included in the earliest editions. Whether it is strictly complete, I don’t know.

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