I vividly remember reading The Diary of Anne Frank for the first time. I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but I do remember that shortly after finishing I started to keep my own diary. I was a rather uncreative child, and so I called my diary “Kitty” too. While I understood that her situation was bad, and the her story had a sad ending, I was more taken by the idea of the diary itself than anything else.
At the time, I am certain that I had a limited understanding of World War II, and even less of the Nazis and their idea of an ideal race. It wasn’t until the tenth grade, probably five or six years later, that I saw my first film footage of the Auschwiz liberation. The gas chambers, the emaciated survivors, the mass graves. I had to change my understanding of the world that day. I had to include the idea that someone, anyone, could want to exterminate a whole religion. A whole people.
In my early adulthood I went to the (then) brand new Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. I saw the shoes lined up on the floor, heard the voices of survivors telling their stories, and stood in a train car. I was old enough then to imagine letting go of my own child in hopes that her destination might have a less final fate.
This week, I went to the Dutch Resistance Museum, an excellent and powerful tribute to the many people who took small and large, and even enormous risks to fight the war, the Nazis, and the hatred. I learned about the stories, present in almost every European country, of outrage and solidarity in the face of overwhelming power and strength. I had to think hard about how different it is to be an American learning about this war, or living through it, than a Frenchman, a Dutchman, a German. If you live in Europe, how does your personal story ever recover? How does your country?
Also this week, I stood in the room where Anne Frank wrote her diary. I walked through the bookcase that hid the door, climbed up the very steep stairs, and stepped into the secret annex. It was hard to breathe. I cried when I saw her diary pages, her writing, and especially the photograph of her father, Otto, when he returned to the annex after learning that his wife, his children, indeed all of the people he had hidden with in that annex, were dead.
In preparation for this trip I read Anne’s diary again. As a grown up I now realize that part of what makes it so remarkable is how much like a normal girl’s diary it reads in spite of the fact that Anne and her family were hiding from the Nazis.
My older sister is the favorite.
My mother yells at me too much.
I want to be a famous writer some day.
Gosh that boy is cute.
Of course, then there are the passages where she longs to walk outside, to touch the earth, to dance and sing loudly and not care if anyone will hear. Those are the passages that break your heart. And then the ending which isn’t an ending at all, but just silence. Death.
Even today, no one knows who betrayed Anne and her family. The people who helped her were arrested too. So many of the resistance fighters lost their lives. When you are faced with such hatred and power, do you stand up and risk your own life or do you just try to survive? What would I have done, if faced with such horrible choices? What would I do now?
I like to think that I would have been a resistance fighter. That I would have stolen money to help Jews in hiding, or carried messages to Allied forces. But the truth is, I don’t know what I would have done. I can only wonder. And hope.
As I left the Anne Frank Huis Museum, there was a quote on the wall from Otto Frank:
“To build a future, you have to know the past.”
Perhaps that is the best I can do. That, and, in my own small way, speak and act against discrimination, injustice, and hate whenever I have the chance. In honor of Anne.