Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

When I was about eleven Mom was a bit concerned about how voraciously I was consuming novels. She wanted to encourage me to read with a bit more variety, specifically more nonfiction and biographies. Because I loved the Dear America series of fictional historical diaries, so much she said I should try The Diary of a Young Girl. Just a few entries in I wasn’t enjoying it very much, and I knew there was stuff in it Mom wouldn’t appreciate me reading. So I took to her to preview, more because I didn’t want to have to read it than anything…I was a bad child. Long story short, Mom read it (with a bit of dismay, I might add) and kept it her room until it was time to return it to the library.

Now an adult (HA!) I decided I should give it a fair shot. After all, it is one of the most acclaimed books in history. I have to say, I was disappointed. But first some background. For those of who may not know Diary of a Young Girl exists in multiple forms. What Anne originally wrote in her diary while in hiding from the Nazis was not what appeared in print. Her father, Otto Frank went through her journal,  excising sexual matters and particularly venomous statements about the people they were hiding with. This was the first manuscript that was published. But after he died, he willed the originals to The Anne Frank-Fonds (Anne Frank Foundation) and they published a more complete journal. Then years later more pages were discovered, and once again a more complete manuscript was published.

I went out of my way to find the most complete, least excised manuscript. I’m still not sure whether that was the best idea or not. On the one hand, I read it as Anne first wrote it – and wrote it knowing one day the public would read it. On the other hand, there was a very good reason her father and other censors left out the things they did.

Anne Frank wrote her journal from the time she was 13 until just after she turned 15. Not to put too fine a point on it, things happen to a girl’s body around that time. Anne writes about it…in detail. With a dramatic excitement and longing I cannot identify with. Not only that but she becomes interested in sexual matters, discusses them with a boy two and a half years older than her, and indulges in fantasies of one sort and another, all varying degrees of perverse. One passage that was excised until after Otto Frank’s death even had lesbian tones. And it came out of nowhere. SURPRISE! Not at all what I wanted to find in a 13-year-old’s journal.

But beyond the sexuality, I’m afraid I didn’t expect the entire book to reek of teenage angst quite as badly as it did. That was my own fault. After all, she was 13-15 – a certain amount of teen angst is to be expected. I even related to  some of it. Entire passages of drama and “no one understands me” statements almost exactly mirror my own journals from the time I was 12 to 14. And I mean, exactly. It was actually creeping me out a bit. It embarrassed me both for her and for myself. The entire book can summed up in two sentences. “I’m all alone. No one understands me.” And while I do not doubt that she was sincere in those feelings, I do think they came out of a great deal of emotion and drama, the heat of the moment so to speak, and have to be taken with a grain of salt. Writing about negative experiences has the bad habit of concentrating and amplifying them and the emotions associated with them.

The entire book actually ended up reminding me why I decided a few years ago to stop trying to keep a diary. After I turned 15 I tried several times to start journaling again, and I couldn’t do it. I’d try for a little while and then stop because it just didn’t feel right. It took me until recently to figure out why. For some people (not all, but for me and maybe for some others) a diary, if not carefully used turns into a platform for self-absorption and obsession on the faults in others and our circumstances. This book reinforced that feeling.

In the first two-thirds of the book, the best sections are when she’s talking about the other people in the Secret Annex, both those in hiding with her family, and those hiding them. She describes them and all their doings, the good, the bad and the ugly. She’s extremely negative about the other family hiding with them, but even more so about her mother. She clearly had no relationship with her mother, and it’s rather sad, if not even angering at times. But all the same, she had a knack for capturing people’s personalities and characters in her words, and even their simple hum-drum goings-on came alive. There’s not too much about the actual war and the Holocaust, hiding as they were in almost total isolation from the world, but what they did hear clearly affected them deeply. Hearing about the suffering of the Jews who were not as fortunate in their friends and circumstances as the Franks especially impacted Anne. She seemed to have a bit of survivor’s guilt, especially when thinking of her friends that she knew had not escaped.

But toward the last third something happened to change Anne. Suddenly she seemed much older, a bit more mature, and her way of looking at the people and world around her was very different. Even she noticed it. She said she even felt different. She attributed the change to a dream she had, but frankly I think that’s nonsense. I’m not sure what it was. Maybe a physical change, maybe a mental change, maybe simple growth. Whatever it was, all the quotes that stood out enough to me that I saved them were in that last third.

I think my favorite happening of the book was in this section as well. Anne writes a letter to her father in which she says everything she cannot bring herself to tell him face-to-face. She thinks it’s a particularly wonderful letter, and as soon as I read it, I facepalmed and writhed in anguish at her stupidity. Suffice it to say she made a fool of herself and was taken to task for it. What I loved about this section? She realized how foolish she had been, abhorred what she had done, and herself for having done it. Earlier in the book she had constantly defended herself and excused herself from any wrong. But in the last third, and particularly in this one event, she sees her faults, regrets them, acknowledges them and seeks to change.

There were quite a few quotes in this last third that I really loved. Loved enough to share.

About the people that are helping them hide:

It’s amazing how much these generous and unselfish people do, risking their own lives, to help and save others. The best example of this is in our own helpers, who have managed to pull us through so face and will hopefully bring us safely to shore, because otherwise they’ll find themselves sharing the fate of those they’re trying to protect. Never have they uttered a single word about the burden we must be, never have they complained that we’re too much trouble. They come upstairs every day and talk to the men about business and politics, to the women about food and wartime difficulties and to the children about books and newspapers. They put on their most cheerful expressions, bring flowers and gift for birthdays and holidays and are always ready to do what they can. That’s something we should never forget; while others display their heroism in battle or against the Germans, our helpers prove their every day by their good spirits and affection.

A note to the only young boy in hiding, with whom she has just spent an afternoon looking out the attic windows at the world they can no longer touch:

This morning, when I was sitting in front of the window and taking a long, deep look outside at God and nature, I was happy, just plain happy. Peter, as long as people feel that kind of happiness within themselves, the joy of nature, health and much more besides, they’ll always be able to recapture that happiness.

Riches, prestige, everything can be lost. But the happiness in your own heart can only be dimmed; it will always be there, as long as you live, to make you happy again.

Whenever you’re feeling lonely or sad, try going to the lost on a beautiful day and looking outside. Not at the houses and the rooftops, but at the sky. As long as you can look fearlessly at the sky, you’ll know that you’re pure within and will find happiness once more.

One of her many complaints about her mother, but the only one I actually liked:

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 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!

I have to say about that last one, I see the wisdom in both positions, and I do not consider them mutually exclusive, but rather complementary. And as Anne said she ‘became part of the suffering.’ I wonder whether she found beauty and happiness in the concentration camp at all. It seems impossible, but then humans have found happiness in the darkest places.

No matter how I feel about her attitude Anne was an excellent writer, or would have been had she lived through the war. The most painful part of the book was knowing how the story ended, and yet having to read all her dreams for ‘after the war.’ As self-absorbed, obnoxious and dramatic as she could be, I still found myself interested in her, her voice, her stories, and the people she was with.

I can’t tell you to read this book, or not to read it. I can only say what I thought of it. It was interesting, well-written and alive. But it was also pretty adult, and at the same time very teenager-y with all the angst. Perhaps an earlier edition before the excised portions were added back in would be more YA appropriate, but that’s a call for others to make. Would I read it again? Probably not. Do I regret reading it? Definitely not. Do I think it deserves to be one of the most popular books in history? Honestly…not really. But still, it is a true story, a living story from one of darkest chapters of human history. And having an inside look at a side of life back then that we might never have had otherwise…well, that is worth something.

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