I never read Anne Frank’s diary in school. I heard tell of other people reading it, and I’m sure we talked about it in some segment about the Holocaust in middle school English or History, but somehow I managed to go through a high school and liberal arts undergraduate education without having actually engaged in the text.
Until recently, I thought that was a good thing.
I don’t know how I got this impression, but I always assumed it would be stuffy and dull, or else more depressing than I could bear. Is it the ingrained male bias against reading books about “women in history?” Maybe. A reluctance to put myself in the head of a Holocaust victim? Probably.
While waiting for a computer at the Queens Library in Sunnyside (they offer free printing), I happened across the classics shelf and noticed the book sitting there. Having seen Schindler’s List for the first time not long ago, I decided it was finally time to give it a shot.
Reading it opened up an amazing world for me. Anne had a complex and interesting inner life that she poured into the incredibly well written pages of her diary. Far from being dull, living inside her head for a whole book was a vibrant experience, and I find myself wishing she had written other books that we could read.
There’s such a variety to the tone and content of the entries, and there are so many subplots within the overall story arc of her family hiding in “the secret annexe.”
There are moments that remind you how being a teenager is a universal experience, with similarities no matter what decade you’re living in. Love interests. Fretting about looks. Alternating between feeling like a child and an adult. Moments where she feels older and wiser followed by moments where her air of wisdom breaks down.
There are feuds with every combination of characters: her versus her mother, her versus her sister, her and her sister versus their parents, her family versus the other family, her and Peter (who becomes her sort of boyfriend) versus everyone else; the list goes on.
There are details about the progress of the war. Details about the persecution of European Jews. Details about their food situation (they ate a lot of potatoes). Details about burglaries. Details about their home schooling. I thought that was amazing — that her parents cared to continue her education in every subject, including foreign languages and math, when they were so fearful for their lives that they had to keep quiet for most of each day so that the warehouse workers wouldn’t know there were people living upstairs. I can’t imagine myself caring about school subjects, or teaching them to children, in that situation, and yet they never stopped studying.
You could feel her intense desire to be free. To just be able to go outside. Hell, just to look out a closed window without it being covered by curtains.
You could feel the joy she had at being in love. At feeling that everything terrible was bearable as long as she could spend time with “him.” You can perceive the imagination involved in falling in love with someone, especially at that age, when you’re idealizing someone in the abstract whenever they’re not around.
I’m probably not writing anything that someone out there hasn’t written before, but I think this is an important book that everyone should read. It’s an important lesson from not-so-distant history that tells you so much about the era in which it was written and also says so much about the human condition.