The Continuing Relevance of Anne Frank’s Diary

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

Miep Gies, Anne Frank Remembered: The Story of the Woman Who Helped to Hide the Frank Family

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Favorite Books Set in Amsterdam

Hello after a long break, faithful readers!  It’s been awhile since I’ve posted on this blog.   I just got back from a much needed vacation to Europe, and I’m finally back in the saddle and ready to write again.

My family and I gleefully jetted off to Amsterdam as a first stop in our latest European adventure.  This was my youngest son’s first European vacation, so we wanted an easy entry point to the continent –  friendly people who spoke American English, lots of charm, and easy to navigate.

Part of a great vacation is vicariously living in your destination through books and travel guides before you get there.  Before we went to Amsterdam (and while I was there), I had the pleasure of reading several novels set in Amsterdam’s golden age of the 17th century, bringing the charming houses along the canals and their inhabitants to life.   Here are my favorites:

The Coffee Trader, by David Liss.  If you like intrigue and financial dealings, this is the book for you.  The scheming was like the Survivor show on steroids.  This novel starts out slowly, but stick with it.  I couldn’t put it down once I eventually got into it.  Set in 17th century Amsterdam, a trader tries to introduce a new drink, coffee, to the Dutch.  This novel also includes an interesting history of the Jewish community in Amsterdam.

Tulip Fever, by Deborah Moggach.  This book is more about romance than tulips, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.  A young girl is married off to an old Dutch merchant.  A young handsome painter comes to paint their portrait – the perfect set-up for a 17th century soap opera.  Good light reading.

The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton.  This is a weird book.  I still don’t know quite what to make of it, but the writing was marvelous, and I couldn’t put it down.  Also set in 17th century Amsterdam, also involving a young woman married off to a guy she hardly knows.  The iconic centerpiece of this novel is a dollhouse modelled after the house where the main characters live.  Miniatures of real life people, pets, and objects mysteriously show up on the door step.  Fascinating…but weird.

All these books are about $10 in paperback and also available on Kindle.

Blessings, Cindy

Cynthia Coe is the author of the novels Ginger’s Reckoning and Runaway Kitty, along with several books on spiritual formation. 

 

 

 

Short, Wonderful Novels: A List of Favorite Quick Reads

For a book lover, nothing beats a really good novel you can read and savor in the space of a weekend – or even in one long sitting.  I just finished reading Paulette Jiles’ News of the World.  I started the book the day before yesterday, found myself seriously engaged in it, and I couldn’t put it down until I finished it.  It was a truly marvelous book.

Short novels tend to swiftly whisk us off to another world and keep us there, capturing our full attention, but just for a day or two.  Short novels typically have just one or two main characters, tight writing, and a plot that moves.  I love big fat novels that allow you to wallow in their complex worlds for weeks, but short novels are like perfect chocolate truffles: short-lived, delicious pleasures.

Here are some of my favorite short novels (of about 200 pages or less):

Paulette Jiles, News of the World (Set in post-Civil War Texas, an old man is charged with returning a young girl captured by the Kiowa tribe to her surviving relatives. Riveting.)

Dai Sijie and Ina Rilke, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (A gorgeous story of two Chinese boys living on their own, books, and love for a girl)

Jane Mendelsohn,  I was Amelia Earhart (A beautifully written novel of what might have happened to the famous aviator)

Tracy Chevalier, Girl With a Pearl Earring (A classic story of a young girl, based on the painting)

Rick Moody, Hotels of North America (Quirky)

And because it’s Lent and some of us are not giving up chocolate…

Joanne Harris, Chocolat  (A priest in France has a hissy fit when a new chocolate shop opens during Lent. A bit longer than 200 pages, but a quick read.)

Cynthia Coe is the author of the short novel Runaway Kitty, along with several other books. 

 

 

Favorite Books About Russia

With all the talk about Russian intrigues in the news, along with the bitingly cold temperature outside, I’ve thought back on my favorite books about Russia that have come out in the last few years.  Once the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed, a number of both novels and memoirs detailed the hardships of life in Russia behind the Iron Curtain – stories and history lessons we in America are just now hearing.

Like modern Russia itself, many of these stories are rich with drama – but filled with heartbreak as well.  When I first travelled to Russia several years ago, it was described to me as “the wild, wild East.”  Indeed, my travels to Russia were experiences of a lifetime.  Among the crumbling infrastructure and scarcities of many of the common conveniences we take for granted in America, we met many Russians who showed kindness, resilience, and friendliness to us as Americans.  In the Russian Arctic, we found ourselves driven around by a former Soviet fighter pilot who loved to make turns by hitting snow banks at top speed.  We visited a local “mall” that turned out to be not much more than a flea market.  Our eyes widened at the sight of a huge poster of Andrew Jackson on a twenty dollar bill at the one currency exchange outside the one western grocery store in town.  Finding ourselves snowed in at our hotel, we dined old school, with a gourmet meal served on a white linen tablecloth, accompanied by a string quartet so beautiful it made me weep.

We were also told that Moscow is “a country within a country,” and we found this to be true as well.  While Russians in the provinces welcomed us, in Moscow we found ourselves under surveillance at all times.  A hotel manager followed me into a bathroom to watch while I changed my child’s diaper.  The hotel maids felt free to come into our room at any time, without knocking, to check on us.  A restaurant across the street from the US Embassy refused us service.  When politics went really south, I had to get in our guide’s face and yell at him before he would take us to the Delta office to change our tickets.  After leaving our hotel at 4 in the morning, our cab was stopped on the way to the airport for the proverbial check of our “papers.”

We got only a taste of the bare bones existence and the ultra-paranoid police state experienced by most Russians after the Russian Revolution.  For full stories by those who lived or travelled extensively in Russia, here are some of my favorite books about contemporary Russia and its recent history:

Dancing Under the Red Star: The Extraordinary Story of Margaret Werner, the Only American Woman to Survive Stalin’s Gulag, by Karl Tobien.  An American family moves from Detroit to Gorky in the early 1930’s to work in a new Ford factory.  This book shows, from an American standpoint, the ruthlessness of life under Stalin, told by Margaret Werner’s son.

The Bronze Horseman, Paullina Simons.  This novel details the life of a young woman enduring the siege of Leningrad by the Germans during World War II.  One million people died of starvation.  This book has it all – romance, sex, death, suffering.  It’s a little romance-novel-ish at times, but the story of the siege of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) is one I’ve not read anywhere else (and especially this graphically).

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food & Longing, Anya von Bremzen.  This beautifully written memoir is the story of an average young girl growing up in the Soviet Union during the 1960’s era of post-Stalinist Russia.  It gives a superb picture of what daily life was like in the late 20th century, along with the author’s immigrant experience in the United States.  Highly recommended.

Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia, David Greene.  Written by an NPR Morning Edition journalist, this wonderful travel book chronicles the author’s train journey from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian Railway, stopping to meet ordinary Russians along the way.  This is an insightful look into present day Russia.

I hope you enjoy these marvelous books on cold winter nights!

Happy New Year, Cindy

Cynthia Coe is a writer and author of two novels, based in Knoxville, Tennessee.