Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Unlike nearly all the other works I've read so far, this is not a work of fiction. It is a collection of letters that compose the diary of a young woman living in Amsterdam in the early 1940s during World War II. Now a household name, Anne Frank was simply a teenager when she started her diary, looking for a friend to hear her thoughts. It is perhaps no accident that Anne's last name is Frank, for there is no better word to describe her letters. She doesn't think they will ever be read, and so she is honest about everything, from her own insecurities to her deep-seated fears and her questioning of our collective humanity. Because Anne and her family are Jewish, they enter hiding shortly after the diary begins, when Anne is just thirteen years old. She moves into 'the secret annex', a hidden apartment attached to a warehouse where her father used to work, with her mother, her sister, and another family, the Van Daan's*. The Van Daan's have one son, Peter, and he brings his cat, Mouschi. The coterie is joined by just one other member during their time in hiding, Dussel, a dentist, and a fellow Jew. As readers, we are privy to all the ups and downs of their time in hiding, and bear witness to the end of Anne's adolescence and the birth of her independence. After two years in the secret annex, Anne's diary comes to an abrupt end. Through the work of many historians and anecdotal accounts, we now know that the occupants of the annex were discovered by the Gestapo and arrested in August of 1944. They were all transported to concentration camps, and Anne's father, Otto, was the only one to survive the war. Anne died in Bergen-Belsen, after being transferred from Auschwitz, in early 1945. She died six months shy of the end of the war, and roughly three months before her sixteenth birthday.
*NB: Some of the names in Anne's diary were modified to preserve anonymity.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here
I read this book in two days. Two nights, to be honest. While I don't think I've ever read it before, I knew the ending, and I knew that I couldn't stand to stretch it out. After I finished it, I felt like something had broken inside me. It's been almost a week since then, and this is the first day I felt like I could handle writing about the experience.
This is not the saddest book I have ever read. In fact, it is not even a sad book. But, as with Shukhov, as with Sethe, as with Ashala and Malcolm and Bigger Thomas, I knew that's Anne's story was a piece of heartbreaking historical truth. So the words were different this time, and they hurt me a little more.
That being said, I have so much I want to share with you from Anne's 'Het Achterhuis'. So I hope that you will grab a cozy blanket, a box of tissues (if you're a weeper like me), and a warm mug of something tasty, and settle in for this literary adventure with me.
How would you feel if someone published your diary?
This thought kept coming back to me as I read Anne's letters. Each entry is a letter, because, in Anne's words, "I want this diary itself to be my friend, and I shall call my friend Kitty." In a way, the letter format makes it feel less intrusive, because Anne wants to share her thoughts and feelings and experiences with Kitty. But it is interesting to think about whether Anne would have wanted the world to read her innermost thoughts. She's an aspiring writer, though, and several times says she intends to try to publish her stories, and possibly this diary itself as a story, so it's not such a far leap, I suppose. Miep Gies, one of the friends and trusted helpers of the Frank family, kept the letters after the arrest and eventually returned them to Anne's father after the war. Otto Frank apparently circulated copies of the diary to his close friends and family as a memorial to his wife and daughters, and eventually he decided to publish it. It has since been translated to over 60 languages. Here are a few of my favorite lines about Anne the writer.
- It's an odd idea for someone like me to keep a diary; not only because I have never done so before, but because it seems to me that neither I - nor for that matter anyone else - will be interested in the unbosomings of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl. Still, what does that matter? I want to write, but more than that, I want to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried deep in my heart. such beautiful reasons for wanting to start a diary, I think.
- Will I ever be able to write anything great?
- You've known for a long time that my greatest wish is to become a journalist someday and later on a famous writer. Whether these leanings towards greatness (or insanity?) will ever materialize remains to be seen, but I certainly have the subjects in my mind.
Well blobbists, if you're a devoted fan, you'll be familiar with the Citizenship Accords, since I just blobbed about them in the Tribe series. They are fictional, but modeled after real legislation in Australia focused on restrictions toward indigenous folks.
I couldn't help but think of the Citizenship Accords when I read the early part of Anne's experience as a Jew in Amsterdam. Here's a quick reference test:
Did you ride a bicycle today?
Did you take public transportation?
Did you drive somewhere?
Did you shop for something before 3 pm or after 5 pm?
Did you leave the house after 8 pm? (even to your own back yard?)
If you did any of the above, you had more freedom than Jews in Amsterdam just before the Franks went into hiding.
While this book articulates the challenges of being Jewish in such a toxic and violent time for them, Anne frequently expresses her affection and gratitude for those who have reached out to help them and bucked the government - the Dutch family friends, acquaintances who deliver food, the few who keep the secret safe. I feel I would be remiss if I didn't mention that I recently learned that my grandmother Doris's cousin, Guido de Görgey, was just such an ally during the war.
His story can be found here. Here's an excerpt:
Guido de Görgey showed exceptional courage when he deserted the Hungarian army after the Nazi occupation of Hungary to risk his own life saving Jews from certain death. Guido de Görgey, together with his mother (Frederika de Görgey) and his friend Jenő Thassy, ended up saving the lives of more than a hundred people in 1944-1945. Guido eventually had to go into hiding as well. He had been part of an underground resistance group during the war, helping not only to hide Jews but also to carry out acts of sabotage against the Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators.I always like to think that were I to stand face-to-face with something akin to the Holocaust, or slavery, that I would be different, and I would rebel. In a word, that I would be better. I can't possibly know for sure, nor can I pretend to understand the complexities of survival, battles between loyalty and safety, or the not-so-subtle influence my government might have had on me. That being said, I am deeply honored to have Guido in my bloodline, and I hope that I would have done the same.
What would you take into hiding?
This thought occurred to me as Anne was grabbing, somewhat willy-nilly, items to take into hiding. Here's a list of what she took:
- Hair curlers
- A comb
- Old letters
She had to leave behind her cat, Moortje (her neighbors took care of it) which made me very sad. I think this is what my list would look like:
- Suzy (my chubby calico)
- A small collection of excellent books (likely I would struggle to decide, so whatever I grabbed from the shelves first)
- A journal
- A hairbrush
- Photos/letters/small keepsakes
- My cello (if sound is ever allowed in hiding. So TBD.)
What's on your list? If I can't take my cat, I don't think I want to go into hiding. Although Suzy is so vocal that she would almost definitely get everyone found. Must consider.
When Anne reviews her gathered things, she realizes she has not brought very much to wear, and says this:
- "I'm not sorry, memories mean more to me than dresses." I love this line.
- Daddy, Mummy, and Margot can't get used to the sound of the Westertoren clock yet, which tells us the time every quarter of an hour. I can. I loved it from the start, and especially in the night it's like a faithful friend.
As with Shukhov, there were several moments in reading this work or after reading it where I was struck by a very tangible moment of empathy. Here are a few examples:
- We have forbidden Margot to cough at night, although she has a bad cold, and make her swallow large doses of codeine. I have been sick for several weeks this winter, but even when I sat up in bad and couldn't sleep for coughing, I thought of Margot and realized that at the very least, I could cough as loudly as I liked without fear of consequence.
- We have eaten so many kidney beans and haricot beans that I can't bear the sight of them any more. I try to remember when I am bored with all the food in my house that I am lucky to have such incredible variety. Anne also talks about 'food cycles', or periods when they can only eat one dish or kind of vegetable (endive, spinach, sauerkraut), and I look down at my plate of the same leftovers from the day before and think, this is Not, in fact, so bad. It is not a week of sauerkraut.
- Fleas/Mouschi - I've mentioned before that I often go into books thinking I will not have direct things in common with the protagonist, whether it's because they look different from me, they lived in a different century, or they have a different home country. I continue to be surprised in this area, which I think is one of the most profoundly magical aspects of reading. I learned that my cat, Suzy, had a rather nasty case of fleas, for complicated reasons (considering she is an indoor cat and I am a very neat person), as I was reading this book. After spending the day aggressively attempting to rid both Suzy and my apartment of fleas, I settled in to read more about the annex, and they were immediately overrun by fleas from Mouschi, the cat which Peter Van Daan brought into hiding. Mouschi eats the mice and rats that also live in the annex, so he is not such a bad companion, but I once again had a moment of gratitude and empathy in realizing that I was lucky enough to have access to all the things I wanted to treat the fleas, and unlike the members of the Secret Annex, was not semi-permanently embedded with the tiny nibblers.
(A section where I mention other books it reminded me of, whether they came before or after, and share quotes that resonate)
Harry Potter Series (1997-2007) by J.K. Rowling
- This quote from the secret annex: It is really true that as the news from outside gets worse, so the radio with its miraculous voice helps us to keep up our morale and to say again, 'Chins up, stick it out, better times will come!'
- Keep each other safe. Keep faith. Good night.
This line about Anne's burgeoning courtship with Peter in the annex, said by VanDaan and Dussel:
- Is it suitable for young gentlemen to receive young girls in semidarkness?
- "When Constantin asked if I would like to come up to his apartment to hear some balalaika records I smiled to myself. My mother had always told me never under any circumstances to go with a man to a man's rooms after an evening out, it could mean only the one thing. 'I am very fond of balalaika music,' I said." heh heh heh - I think Anne and Esther would have been friends.
- The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely, or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature, and God. And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles. This comment from Anne reminded me of another Anne with an E.
- Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I'll tell you what I'd do. I'd go out into a great big field all alone or into the deep, deep woods, and I'd look up into the sky - up - up - up - into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I'd just feel a prayer.
- Let me be myself and then I am satisfied. I know that I'm a woman, a woman with inward strength and plenty of courage... If God lets me live, I shall attain more than Mummy has ever done, I shall not remain insignificant, I shall work in the world and for mankind! And now I know that first and foremost I shall require courage and cheerfulness! These lines from Anne reminded me of a certain hobbit.
- Frodo asks an elf this, before setting out on his quest: But where shall I find courage? That is what I chiefly need. And the elf says, simply, "Courage is found in unlikely places. Be of good hope! Sleep now! Anne was gone from this world before Frodo came to join us, but I like to think they could have found courage in each other.
Ways in which Anne is a classic teenager
- Interest in boys/dating:
I told them how Peter often strokes my cheek and that I wished he wouldn't as I don't like being pawed by boys. lololololol. I love this.- Family issues:
Honestly, you needn't think it's easy to be the 'badly brought-up' central figure of a hypercritical family in hiding. I love that she is so self-aware but also finds humor in the bizarrerie of this temporal moment.- Comparisons to sibling (something I am often guilty of, as the youngest of 3 sisters):
I might tell you I don't want to be in the least like Margot. She is much too soft and passive for my liking, and allows everyone to talk her around, and gives in about everything. I want to be a stronger character!- Just wants to have fun:
I sometimes ask myself, 'Would anyone, either Jew or non-Jew, understand this about me, that I am simply a young girl badly in need of some rollicking fun?'- Crushing on Peter:
How can he, who loves peace and quiet, have any liking for all my bustle and din? Can he possibly be the first and only one to have looked through my concrete armor?When you remember Anne's life is not that of a classic teenager:
- I can't tell you how oppressive it is never to be able to go outdoors, also I'm very afraid that we shall be discovered and be shot.
- If ever we come to the extremity of fleeing from here, the street would be just as dangerous as an air raid.
- I swallow Valerian pills every day against worry and depression, but it doesn't prevent me from being even more miserable the next day. A good hearty laugh would help more than ten Valerian pills, but we've almost forgotten how to laugh.
- I wander from one room to another, downstairs and up again, feeling like a songbird whose wings have been clipped and who is hurling himself in utter darkness against the bars of his cage.
- I simply can't imagine that the world will ever be normal for us again. I do talk about 'after the war', but then it is only a castle in the air, something that will never really happen.
- We are quite as used to the idea of going into hiding, or 'underground,' as in bygone days one was used to Daddy's bedroom slippers warming in front of the fire.
- I have now reached the stage that I don't care much whether I live or die.
Funny real things about Anne
- Complicated relationship with her mother - I liked that she was so honest here. I have a great relationship with my mother, but it was interesting to peer so intimately into Anne's interpersonal relationships and see what worked for her and what didn't, setting war and bigotry to the side.
- Chamber pot talk - Anne is by no means indelicate, but she finds some humor in the discussions of difficult subjects, like dealing with the issues of the toilet in the secret annex.
- She really wants to get her period -"I'm so longing to have it too; it seems so important." Admittedly, I thought Anne was a little crazy in this desire. I certainly can't remember wanting to get mine, but I guess we'll agree to disagree here ;)
- Sense of humor - Anne's wisecracks about dieting: "Whoever wants to follow a slimming course should stay in the "Secret Annexe"!
- Sharing a room with Dussel - Anne does not get to have her own space in the annex, as she shares her room first with her sister Margot, then later with Dussel the dentist. Here's my favorite of her descriptions of his sleep habits:
First, I hear a sound like a fish gasping for breath, this is repeated nine or ten times, then with much ado and interchanged with little smacking sounds, the lips are moistened, followed by a lengthy twisting and turning in bed and rearranging of pillows.- Outspoken advocate for young people:
Even if people are still every young, they shouldn't be prevented from saying what they think.I've done rather a lot of blathering, so just a few final things. This list is compiled and shared with Dussel the Dentist upon his arrival, and I simply had to share it. The dark humor of it, paired with its quotidian quality, made me laugh and cringe and sigh all at once.
PROSPECTUS AND GUIDE TO THE "SECRET ANNEXE"
Special institution as temporary residence for Jews and suchlike.
Open all the year round. Beautiful, quiet, free from woodland surroundings, in the heart of Amsterdam. Can be reached by trams 13 and 17, also by car or bicycle. In special cases also on foot, if the Germans prevent the use of transport.
Board and lodging: Free.
Special fat-free diet.
Running water in the bathroom (alas, no bath) and down various inside and outside walls.
Ample storage room for all types of goods.
Own radio center, direct communication with London, New York, Tel Aviv, and numerous other stations. This appliance is only for residents' use after six o'clock in the evening. No stations are forbidden, on the understanding that German stations are only listened to in special cases, such as classical music and the like.
Rest hours: 10 o'clock in the evening until 7:30 in the morning. 10:15 on Sundays. Residents may rest during the day, conditions permitting, as the directors indicate. For reasons of public security rest hours must be strictly observed!!
Holidays (outside the home): postponed indefinitely.
Use of language: Speak softly at all times, by order! All civilized languages are permitted, therefore no German!
Lessons: One written shorthand lesson per week. English, French, Mathematics, and History at all times.
Small Pets - Special Department (permit is necessary): Good treatment available (vermin excepted).
Mealtimes: breakfast, every day except Sundays and Bank Holidays, 9 A.M. Sundays and Bank Holidays, 11:30 A.M. approximately.
Lunch: (not very big): 1:15 P.M. to 1:45 P.M.
Dinner: cold and/or hot: no fixed time (depending on the news broadcast).
Duties: Residents must always be ready to help with office work.
Baths: The washtub is available for all residents from 9 A.M. on Sundays. The W.C., kitchen, private office, or main office, whichever preferred, are available.
Alcoholic Beverages: only with doctor's prescription.Words and Phrases That were New to Me
pogrom - an organized massacre of a particular ethnic group, in particular that of Jews in Russia or eastern Europe
shank's mare - using one's own legs for walking (idiomatic, apparently. For more on the origin of this phrase, go here. I particularly like the part about the velocipede being a 'toy' that will never take the place of good old shank's mare. ;))
furbelow - a gathered strip or pleated border of a skirt or petticoat (LOLOL. Apparently also the last name of a friend of George Jetson (Bertie Furbelow, pictured right. adorbsable.)
scudding - moving fast in a straight line because or as if driven by the wind (often in reference to clouds)
Other lines in the running for title of this entry:
- I expect you will be interested to hear what it feels like to 'disappear'; well, all I can say is that I don't know myself yet.
- If I just think of how we live here, I usually come to the conclusion that it is a paradise compared with how other Jews who are not in hiding must be living.
- Who has inflicted this upon us? Who has made us Jews different from all other people?
- Ordinary people simply don't know what books mean to us, shut up here.
- When will we be granted the privilege of smelling fresh air?
- I have often been downcast, but never in despair; I regard our hiding as a dangerous adventure, romantic and interesting at the same time.
- I hope one thing only, and that is that this hatred of the Jews will be a passing thing.
And what would be the object of making our 'Secret Annexe' into a 'Secret Annexe of Gloom'? If I want to laugh about something, should I stop myself quickly and feel ashamed that I am cheerful? Ought I then to cry the whole day long? No, that I can't do. Besides, in time this gloom will wear off.
I've found that there is always some beauty left - in nature, sunshine, freedom, in yourself; these can all help you. And whoever is happy will make others happy too.
Again and again I ask myself, would it not have been better for us all if we had not gone into hiding, and if we were dead now and not going through all this misery. But we all recoil from these thoughts too, for we still love life; we haven't yet forgotten the voice of nature, we still hope, hope about everything.
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.Anne, I cannot give you these gifts in our world, but I give them to you in the world of fiction: Dutch citizenship, which you said you wanted after the war; unlimited trips to the public library, a treasure you only dreamed of; and the opportunity to travel the world and see so much more than the Secret Annex and that corner of Amsterdam.
Readers, may you heed the approaching thunder, imagine an end to the cruelty of humans, find compassion and hope in yourself and in others, and be a part of the force that guides us away from the wilderness and into peace and tranquility. If Anne can imagine it and believe it, we can, too.
Keep each other safe. Keep faith. Good night.