The Continuing Relevance of Anne Frank and her Diary
Amsterdam, June 2017
A Muslim woman wearing a hijab and long, flowing black clothes stands with her bicycle at a busy intersection, waiting to enter the throng cycling through the city on a Saturday afternoon. The city is hot, crowded, and filled with cars, motorbikes, and tourists from all over the globe. Bakeries and small restaurants run by immigrants from Asia and the Middle East line the narrow side streets, while the scent of pot wafts outside the coffee houses. A party boat carrying barely-clad women cruises a canal, advertising an establishment in the red light district.
And on one of the sleepier canal streets across town, tourists have formed a line snaking around and around an otherwise vacant lot near the bulky brown nave of the Westerkerk, waiting for hours upon hours to get inside the Anne Frank House. Earlier in the day, tourists who’ve made reservations months in advance climb inside the upper floors of the house-behind-a-house, perhaps taking a moment to notice newspaper photo of the then Princess Elizabeth, still living. An hour before closing on a late Saturday afternoon, hundreds more hope to get inside before closing time – despite the heat, despite having a plethora of museums, coffee houses, bike rides, and other attractions they could have chosen.
New generations have not only embraced but amplified Anne Frank’s life and work in the 21st century.
A Fresh, Young, Authentic Voice
“Keeping it real,” is a mantra I’ve heard from my young-adult aged children. “Keeping it real” means telling the truth – being your authentic, God-honest self. And this is what Anne Frank did as she wrote the diary entries that became the best-selling, beloved Diary of a Young Girl. Anne by no means sugar-coated her situation, her family, her relationship with the other people hiding in the Annex, and especially herself. Her diary is raw, brutally honest, and without agenda. She writes of sexual feelings most of us would never, ever put down on paper. She speaks ill of the other family who joins her own in the Annex. She describes her frustration at having to suddenly share her room with a grown man and (bane of all writers) her inability to get the space and time to work on her own writing project.
It’s this kind of voice we rarely hear any more in this world of stage-crafted communications, talking points, and what may or may not be fake news. Everybody has an agenda, and social media posts and every other communication usually seeks to serve someone’s cause, political views, or self-image. Anne Frank, at age thirteen, just wanted to survive to live another day.
The Importance of Small Kindnesses (and Cruelties) in Everyday Life
Re-reading Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl as an adult while in Amsterdam, I was struck by how Anne’s family and co-habitants of the Annex were able to survive so long without having been found. The story I really wanted to know about was that of Miep Gies, who brought food and other necessities to the family. These daily, extraordinary acts of kindness – by Miep, by the green grocer who surely knew (or at least suspected) where the food went, by those who helped with ration cards, money, or even by their sheer silence in not letting on what they knew or suspected – kept the family alive.
Small kindnesses matter. There are things each of us can do each and every day that could benefit someone we know – or even someone we don’t know very well or at all.
The group hiding in the attic is eventually discovered and send off to concentration camps, where everyone but Anne’s father will die. Who ratted them out? Walking around the block of houses on the Prinsengracht, I realized it could have been anyone. Any of the neighbors looking out their windows onto the courtyard could have seen Anne as she looked out at the trees and sunshine from her attic window. As hunger and even starvation loomed in 1944 Amsterdam, someone – anyone – must have caved to self-interest and sold the secret of the Jews in the Annex to the Nazis. Giving this information was a small act, likely taking very little time and effort, but one that was deeply destructive to those in hiding.
There’s a lesson here, too. Little acts of gossip, bad-mouthing, pettiness, and sheer meanness – even if it’s done for what you think is your own survival – can destroy other people. In a new culture where we seldom even see our “friends” or neighbors, we might forget that words count. Words can destroy.
Policies and Agendas Affect Real People
In our current cultural and political climate, the most relevant lesson we can learn from the fate of Anne Frank is that whatever political, corporate, or even personal agenda we might have, real people will be affected. As I read Anne Frank’s diary and other books about her, I was struck by how utterly apolitical Anne was. Though her persecution is most definitely an “us against them” agenda by the Nazis, Anne shines through as someone who simply wants to go back to school, have a boyfriend, write, and be able to go outdoors again.
This is what most human beings want – love, purpose, freedom to come and go, and a way forward, whatever that looks like for each individual. This is what the “us versus them” mentality plows under in its relentless path to make everyone else look, think, and be like you. This is what killed the fresh, young authentic voice of Anne Frank, now beloved but snuffed out as a teenager.
Cynthia Coe is the author of two novels and “Considering Birds & Lilies: Finding Peace & Harmony in the Everyday World Around Us.”
For Further Reading:
Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl