Thursday, June 12, 2008

To a Young Girl

This from The Writer’s Almanac:

"It's the birthday of Anne Frank , born in 1929 in Frankfurt, Germany. It was on this day in 1942 that she received a red and white plaid journal, from her father, for her 13th birthday, and she started to write her diary, a diary that she called by the name of "Kitty." A few weeks after she started her diary, Anne's older sister Margot got a notice to report to a Jewish work camp, so the Franks went into hiding in an annex in Amsterdam. They couldn't bring suitcases, because it would look suspicious, so Anne had to wear two vests, three pairs of pants, a dress, a skirt, a jacket, a summer coat, two pairs of stockings, a wool hat, and a scarf-even though it was July. Four other people lived in the annex with Anne and her family, and they lived there together for two years. They had family friends who helped them survive, who brought them food and supplies. Anne wrote about being scared, and about injustice, and about missing the sunshine; and she also wrote about things that many 13-year-olds write about in their diaries. She wrote about how mad she got at her mother, and how she wanted privacy; she wrote about her crush on the teenage boy she lived with, and how she thought it was unfair that her parents liked Margot best.

In August of 1944, someone tipped off the Nazis, and they raided the apartment and sent everyone to concentration camps. Anne died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen just a few weeks before British troops came to liberate the camp; and of the eight people who lived in the annex together, only one, Anne's father, Otto, survived. Otto returned to Amsterdam, and a family friend told Otto that she had found Anne's diary in the annex after the Nazis had left. Anne wrote in the diary that she wanted to have it published, and so Otto wanted to try and honor his daughter's wishes. It took a while and was rejected by several publishers, but it was published in Germany in 1947, and the United States in 1952. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl has sold more than 25 million copies, and it is considered the second-best-selling nonfiction book in history, after the Bible."

Anne Frank was born a year after my own father, who died two years ago on the 16th of June. When I try to imagine them as contemporaries, it's somewhat difficult. I only knew my father as an adult, and despite the few photos and family stories, it’s hard to imagine him as anything but. Of course, none of us had the opportunity to know Anne Frank as anything but a young girl, so it’s equally difficult to imagine what she might have been had she survived.

There is so much to consider when making the attempt to wrap your mind around Anne Frank the living, breathing, thinking and feeling person, as opposed to Anne Frank, the emblem of the Holocaust. When I try to imagine Anne as a real person, outside of the larger than life person she’s become thanks to her journal, it helps to look to my own daughter, who will celebrate her own 13th birthday in four months. Naturally, there are some glaring differences between the two of them, but I would venture to suppose that most girls of that age have conflict with their mother, long for privacy, secretly eye some boy or other and harbor resentment toward siblings. I find myself wondering what the sound of Anne’s laugh was like—was it spontaneous and nutty, like the unselfconscious outbursts of Dear Daughter? Did she find wonder in the world of roly-polies under clay pots of flower seedlings? Was bedtime ever a struggle, or did she read aloud to her pets? Through her diary, we are given an all-too-brief look at her day-to-day life, in conditions that, at best, were arduous. Still, questions remain.

Then, what might the 23 year old Anne Frank have been like? Or the 33 year old? Would she be a young mother by then, a university graduate, an accomplished musician? Would she have worked for the creation of the state of Israel, or raised chickens in her backyard? Would she, at 73, been like my own father, slightly irascible, prone to seizures, fond of her grandchildren?

Only three short years separated the day Anne Frank first received the diary that would ensure her immortality and the day she died in 1945. She was forced by unimaginable circumstances to cram a lifetime’s worth of observation and thought into those brief years and somehow make them fit into the pages of a slim volume. She did a remarkable job.

Anne Frank said, "Everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don't know how great you can be! How much you can love!" God only knows how great she would have been at 80, and how much love she had yet to give.

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