Writing in a diary is a really strange experience for someone like me. Not only because I’ve never written anything before, but also because it seems to me that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl.
Oh, Anne Frank. If only you knew! Although, you did kind of know there, didn’t you? Because I read The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition by Anne Frank (edited by her dad, Otto H. Frank, and Mirjam Pressler), and it’s based on both of Anne’s diaries. The foreword of the book explains that the first diary was written for herself, and the second was revised and edited in response to a radio broadcast wherein Gerrit Bolkestein said he hoped to collect eyewitness accounts from Dutch people under German occupation, and he specifically mentioned letters and diaries. So Anne planned to have her diary published as part of that account.
I really don’t know what to say about the book. I read it for the Women Unbound challenge because it’s a memoir that I haven’t read yet (I’ve seen bits of the movie and read some excerpts). And, I’ll be honest. Part of the reason I wanted to read it is The Freedom Writers movie. I wanted to know why it had such an impact on the kids Erin Gruwell worked with. And I get it now. I do.
Because Anne is just a girl. A girl who fights with her mom and feels frustrated by the perceived favoritism of her sister and likes boys and is curious about sex and has ideas and feels deeply and thinks deeply. And all of that is compounded by the horrors of war, by the fact that she can never escape her parents and the suffocating feelings she gets being around them all the time. She feels ganged up on and misunderstood and cries a lot and fights a lot and…Anne is just a teenager. Who, as my daughter said, had a really hard life.
Memories mean more to me than dresses.
The book starts when Anne is thirteen and ends when she is fifteen. As the book goes on, she becomes less of a petty self-involved teenager and more of a thoughtful young woman–which is to be expected. In the beginning it’s all, “Nobody understands me! Nobody listens to me!” but by the end, Anne has a handle on what she adds to these situations. This clarity probably would’ve come much later had she not been, essentially, imprisoned in the Secret Annex, but because she has nothing to do but think and consider her actions, she has that depth of thought and feeling at fourteen. (It took me until I was in my twenties to even think that way.)
I think the unfairness of the story really resonates. I went into the book knowing Anne would die, which made it hard to read at times. I found myself thinking how unfair it was, and how I wished she would survive. And while it’s good that Anne personalizes the experience for the reader because we’re attached to her, it also made me stop and remember that Anne’s story doesn’t exist in a vacuum. She is one of millions of Jews who were unfairly and systematically murdered to further racist ideology. And it makes me sick to think of it.
I love that Anne plans for the future, even as it makes the book even more devastating to read. That she and her sister focus on education, so that when the war is over, they can pick up where they left off, go back to school, and become productive members of society. I love that Anne longs for school, not only for the book learning but because she realizes it provides a much needed break from her family.
I found all of the quarrels that broke out in the Annex fascinating. Not because they were fun to read about or anything, but because it was so clear that the fighting was so petty and always about control. Well, not always. Sometimes there were very real things to be upset about, like the arguments over food. But others were so ridiculous and Anne would point out how they were ridiculous, and it was the type of thing that could probably be blown over if they were living in ordinary times, but they weren’t in ordinary times. They were trapped in a house, terrified for their lives.
I really liked that Anne explained everything that I wondered about (bathroom schedules) and things I wouldn’t even think about. Her descriptions of the bombings, of the terror they lived in was so real and palpable. I liked when she made fun of how scared they were because it was clear that if they couldn’t laugh about it sometimes, they would surely die from the tension. I liked knowing the bathroom schedules because I wondered how they worked that out, but I hated when the toilet would break or they couldn’t flush the toilet for fear of being overheard. And usually when that happened it was because they were terrified, so everyone’s stomach was a mess.
A good hearty laugh would help more than ten valerian drops, but we’ve almost forgotten how to laugh. Sometimes I’m afraid my face is going to sag with all this sorrow and that my mouth is going to permanently droop at the corners.
The friendship/romance with Peter was something I thought was just in the movie (for Hollywood tension, you see), but no, the two were drawn to each other. And why wouldn’t they be? Anne points out that she would’ve sought out Peter’s company if he were a girl because she longed so much for a friend. But Anne is also aware of her own (sexual) power.
And she has her own ideas about sex. She is all for comprehensive sex education–from parents. The danger of learning about sex is not the facts of life, but getting information from your classmates who don’t understand anything. She thinks parents are scared to talk about sex with their kids because “purity is a bunch of nonsense.” She thinks it’s okay if a man has experience before he gets married, and she also knows that she wants more for her life than being an “ordinary housewife.” Anne is, in short, a budding feminist:
One of the many questions that have often bothered me is why women have been, and still are, thought to be so inferior to men. It’s easy to say it’s unfair, but that’s not enough for me; I’d really like to know the reason for this great injustice!
…but how many people look upon women too as soldiers? […] in childbirth alone, women commonly suffer more pain, illness and misery than any war hero ever does. And what’s her reward for enduring all that pain? She gets pushed aside when she’s disfigured by birth, her children soon leave, her beauty is gone. Women, who struggle and suffer pain to ensure the continuation of the human race, make much tougher and more courageous soldiers than all those big-mouthed freedom-fighting heroes put together! […] I don’t mean to imply that women should stop having children…What I condemn are our system of values and the men who don’t acknowledge how great, difficult, but ultimately beautiful women’s share in society is.
Ultimately, though, Anne is relatable. She wants to be a writer and a good person. She wants a better life. And she wants people to stop being so stupid.
To be honest, I can’t imagine how anyone could say “I’m weak” and then stay that way. If you know that about yourself, why not fight it, why not develop your character?
I have often thought the very same thing! Oh Anne.
My favorite bit in the book comes near the end when Bep, one of the women helping to hide them, gets engaged, and Anne talks about how it is a Bad Idea. Because Bep wants to get ahead in the world, but Bertus is holding her back. Sound familiar? Then there are the arguments about the proper way to raise a child and how parents are stupid and boring and grown ups are lame and everything you’ve probably ever thought when you were 13, 14, or 15.
I was reading this at the same time as Summer of My German Soldier and what struck me most is that both are, ultimately, about acts of kindness and how they can change your life. Anne and her family get two extra years, even if they are in hiding. They are as safe as they can be in a country filled with warmongers who hate them. And it’s all because of the kindness of the people hiding them.
That’s something we should never forget; while others display their heroism in battle or against the Germans, our helpers prove theirs every day by their good spirits and affection.
Hiding Anne and her family is an act of heroism. And an act of defiance. These people are putting their lives on the line to help keep Anne and her family safe for as long as they possibly can.
But in the end, Anne dies. Everyone hiding with her dies. Except her father, who gets her diaries from the secretary who helped hide them, and decides to publish her diary–first heavily censored/edited and later in full. The great tragedy is that Anne, Margot, Peter, Anne’s mom all die shortly before liberation. And Anne and Margot are dumped in a mass grave. She doesn’t make it. But like I said, she’s one of millions. Millions. I’m just glad her dad was able and willing to share her story with the world.
I sometimes wonder if anyone will ever understand what I mean, if anyone will ever overlook my ingratitude and not worry about whether or not I’m Jewish and merely see me as a teenager…
Oh, it’s sad, very sad that the old adage has been confirmed for the umpteenth time: “What one Christian does is his own responsibility, what one Jew does reflects on all Jews.”
One day this terrible war will be over. The time will come when we’ll be people again and not just Jews!
Women Unbound challenge: 2/8; YA Reading Challenge: 5/75