I am young and I possess many buried qualities; I am young and strong and am living a great adventure; I am still in the midst of it and can't grumble the whole day long. I have been given a lot, a happy nature, a great deal of cheerfulness and strength. Every day I feel that I am developing inwardly, that the liberation is drawing nearer and how beautiful nature is, how good the people are about me, how interesting this adventure is. Why, then, should I be in despair?
-- Anne Frank
I read The Diary of Anne Frank after finishing Martin Gilbert's Holocaust Journey, a book which left me with a yearning to know more about the Holocaust. Where better to begin, then, than with possibly the most famous literary work to come out of that period?
The Diary is, without doubt, a singular accomplishment. "Greatest-hits" lists are popping up all over the place in this, the last year starting with the digits "19", and Anne and/or her diary are included in most of these. Its lucidity, honesty and penetrating insight are noteworthy enough on their own. The fact that it was written when Anne was thirteen to fifteen years old makes it even more remarkable; that it was written in the midst of the trials she describes makes it unique.
Despite the nature of the Diary's origins, I didn't find it sad or depressing. I'd feared that it might be so -- after all, the Holocaust is hardly a light-hearted subject to read about. Instead, I found that the book, more than anything, was inspirational -- an example of how human beings can survive and maintain their dignity in the face of ruthless persecution. Anne's optimism and cheerfulness shine through every page of her diary, even as she writes of the hunted existence she and her loved ones were enduring. It's easy to maintain a positive attitude if you don't know what's going on, but Anne knew -- she was aware of the genocide being committed by the Nazis against her people, and she felt terrible guilt at having (so she thought) been spared, while her friends were being deported to the concentration camps. It would have been easy for her to react as others, in similar circumstances, have done: either to be consumed by hatred and a desire for revenge, or to fall into misery and despair.
She certainly knew what despair was. Many times in her stay in the annex, she felt it deeply -- when relations with her fellow inmates were strained to breaking point, or when, in idle moments, the lack of distractions allowed the enormity of their shared plight to fill her mind. Similarly, she was capable of inflicting great hurt on those who loved her -- her father and especially her mother, with whom she was never close. More than anything else, Anne was human: flawed, sensitive and achingly vulnerable, as human as you or I -- and indeed, just as human as those who tracked her down and ultimately murdered her. The Diary records the emotions she felt, as she grew from a child to the first stages of adulthood in the cramped confines of the annex. I read her words and think: that was me, ten years ago -- except, of course, that she had the ability to write down what she was seeing, feeling and thinking, and I didn't.
For in addition to being an ordinary girl, she was also an immensely skilled writer. She had the ability to describe with breathtaking clarity not just the world around her, but also the confused, turbulent world inside her head. She wasn't omniscient -- in fact, it's clear that Anne could be just as blinkered as anyone else. However, her words were always genuine: she held nothing back, and never tried to hide behind dissembling or diplomatic words. She turned her critical eye on herself without fear, and in eloquent words that humble as much as they inspire, she said: this is me, there is nothing else. And in spite of her own protestations, her noble side shines through. She judges herself almost too harshly, wanting to make amends for the wrongs she'd done, and resolving to learn from her mistakes. She kept up a veneer of good cheer that bolstered the spirits of those around her, even as it concealed what she was feeling inside. She gave more of herself than anyone had a right to expect, even if she might not have thought so at the time. She never surrendered to the twin demons of despair and hatred -- and if we were in a similar ghastly situation, could we say the same of ourselves?
All this just serves to underline the tragedy of her fate, since we can identify and sympathise with the young, talented girl who recorded her thoughts in the Diary. It's at this point that the enormity of the crimes the Nazis committed truly hits home. Six million murdered Jews; ten million murdered Russians and Poles -- these numbers are far too large for the human mind to grasp. Intellectually, we know (or at least the more rational ones among us know) that the Holocaust was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century, and perhaps in all recorded history. But raw statistics can't convey its true horror, any more than you can get an idea of what a city is like by glancing at the figures in an atlas. Anne Frank, however -- one innocent child, out of those millions -- that, we can understand. Talented though Anne undoubtedly was, it's the context in which the Diary is read that gives it its true power. It's common knowledge that she and her family were finally caught by the Nazis -- and that makes it very hard to read passages where Anne, in her innocence and hope, makes plans for when the war is over. One of the most poignant of all was written when she discovers that her pen has been accidentally thrown into the fireplace:
I have one consolation, although a slender one: my fountain-pen has been cremated, just what I want later!
She would indeed be burned -- in the flames of the Holocaust. But I don't want to dwell on that; it's too painful, and pointless besides. It would also be wrong, because concentrating on her death fails to do justice to her immeasurable legacy. It's more appropriate to consider the following:
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. . . . I can shake off everything if I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn. But, and that is the great question, will I ever be able to write anything great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer? I hope so, I hope so very much, for I can recapture everything when I write, my thoughts, my ideals and my fantasies.
Anne Frank's career as a writer lasted for just one book, but no sane person could question its claim to greatness.
People who have a religion should be glad, for not everyone has the gift of believing in heavenly things. You don't necessarily even have to be afraid of punishment after death; purgatory, hell and heaven are things that a lot of people can't accept, but still a religion, it doesn't matter which, keeps a person on the right path. It isn't the fear of God, but the upholding of one's own honour and conscience.
-- Anne Frank
I don't think of myself as religious. I'm not Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim; all these faiths (and others) have too much historical, quasi-mystical baggage for me to commit myself to them. On reading the Diary, though, I can't help but feel that something is present in its pages -- I'll call it the hand of God, even though that's a cliche, because I'm not as good a writer as Anne. How else to describe a work whose impact on the reader transcends anything else written this century? There is grace in the Diary, something eternal: it speaks to all of us, Jews and non-Jews, even if we profess to be faithless.
I can't judge Anne for clinging to her faith, unless it's to admire her courage and resolve in doing so. She speaks of faith as it should be -- something that ennobles the human beast, not a doctrine to be perverted into yet another excuse for us to slaughter each other. Her words
It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet, I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquillity will return again.
resound in the mind. To the cynic, such words might sound superficial: an attempt to retreat from the unpleasantries of the world into make-believe. But in fact, she isn't making a statement about the world at all. The words are a declaration of purpose -- that come what may, she'll live her life as she sees fit, even if everyone else is too brutalised to care. And from a writer as clear-sighted as Anne Frank, they have the ring of truth in its deepest form.
It's not much of an admission to say that the Diary made me cry, simply because I can't believe anybody could read this book without crying. It's strange, that one can feel a sense of loss for the death of one person more than fifty years ago. But Anne's words are so vibrant, so full of wit and hope and candour and feeling, that it's the easiest thing to do to lose oneself in the world she evokes. Once I've entered that world, I can't leave; her words trap me there right to the final page, when she's brutally wrenched away. And along with the grief, I felt anger. I was angry at those who sent Anne Frank to Auschwitz and Belsen, and at the degradation inflicted on the condemned before they died. I was angry at the thought that those who committed these crimes had never been punished. I was angry that the victims died in the first place -- a senseless sacrifice to Nazi Germany's vision of a racially pure Utopia. Perhaps most of all, I was angry that I couldn't do anything. The events in question had taken place half a century before, on the other side of the world -- no matter how I felt, it wouldn't bring her, or her millions of fellow victims, back. It's little more than tokenistic to get angry now, when even the murderers are nearly all dead and gone. I can't forgive the Nazis either -- the Nazis haven't done anything to me, so I haven't got anything to forgive them for. But what I can do is never to forget the hell on earth that they created, just two generations past.
Anne died in March 1945 at the age of fifteen, in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. It's an exquisitely painful irony that this was barely a month before the camp was liberated, and two months before the unconditional surrender of Germany. In many ways, though, she's never died at all. I may be soft-headed, but I want to believe, even though her body lies in a mass grave along with that of her sister, that Anne Frank is still alive. And really, that's true -- every time I open her Diary, I can sense once more her indomitable spirit living on in its pages, and her laughing, chattering voice echoing in my ears. Of course, it's not as if Anne lives on only for me. She is timeless -- generations of readers have been deeply affected by her Diary, and while it continues to be read, she'll never be lost to the world. And finally, she lives on in the sense that her relevance hasn't diminished as we move further away from the events of the 1930s and 40s. Anne herself was aware that anti-semitism wouldn't die even after Germany's defeat; but anti-semitism is just one manifestation of the cruelty that we inflict on ourselves. Perhaps one day she can finally be laid to rest, because we'll have managed to attain the wisdom to put ancient hatreds behind us and to consider, first and foremost, simple human dignity. That day is still a long way off, sadly.
A human being -- many human beings -- brought about the Holocaust. Six million murdered Jews stand as a damning testament to what our species is capable of, when ancient prejudices are combined with modern technology. However, a human being -- a young, yet beautiful; flawed, yet wonderful; fallible, yet preternaturally gifted human being -- also gave us The Diary of Anne Frank. The difference is that the former embodies the most bestial aspects of humanity, while the latter embodies the divine. The nearest analogy I can think of is the Greek myth of Pandora, who opened a sealed box and released Evil into the world. But along with Evil, she also released Hope -- and just as one helps us endure the other, so Anne's diary reminds us that while human beings may be capable of Evil, we can also aspire towards Good. One of Anne's interests was Greek and Roman mythology, so I'd like to think that she'd find this a fitting description of her achievement.
A voice sobs within me: "There you are, that's what's become of you: you're uncharitable, you look supercilious and peevish, people dislike you and all because you won't listen to the advice given you by your own better half." Oh, I would like to listen, but it doesn't work; if I'm quiet and serious, everyone thinks it's a new comedy and then I have to get out of it by turning it into a joke . . . . I can't keep that up: if I'm watched to that extent, I start by getting snappy, then unhappy, and finally I twist my heart round again, so that the bad is on the outside and the good is on the inside, and keep on trying to find a way of becoming what I would so like to be, and what I could be, if . . . there weren't any other people living in the world.
-- Anne Frank