If you are simply after my musings on the book, skip to the italics section. If you are interested in the journey that took me to the book – read below:
In 2012 I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau camp. The trip was part of an organised tour of Eastern Europe and, to be perfectly honest, I had no prior inclination to visit these places. I booked the tour because it included visits to Krakow and Budapest – two places that I did want to see – probably because I had seen them on TV at some point or in travel magazines… I was not prepared for Auschwitz.
I could never have expected what I was exposed to at Auschwitz and Birkenau camp. I had only a brief knowledge of WWII from school. I knew the headlines and even those were distinctly vague and incomplete: ‘Britain had been at war with Germany.’ ‘Hitler gassed the Jews.’ I knew nothing really of the abject horror that victims were exposed to at Auschwitz and Birkenau or indeed in any other part of Europe. I was profoundly moved by the experience; my psyche had been altered and I felt a real thirst to find out more.
On my return from Europe I chose to spend a Friday evening watching Schindler’s List. I had already seen the places that were formally the “ghetto” in Krakow; I had cycled to Schindler’s original factory and I had been to Auschwitz. I was again intensely moved by what I saw. I watched, too, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. I felt as if I owed it to those who suffered to always remember the atrocities they encountered and to share that remembrance.
Two years on, in 2014, another organised tour took me to Amsterdam. This time, of my own inclination, I chose to queue for several hours to visit the hiding place of Anne Frank and her family. Again I was painfully moved by the plight of this young girl and her family and it felt remarkable to be in the space they once moved in.
2017, three years after the visit to Amsterdam and six years after the visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau, it felt the appropriate time to finally read: the Diary of Anne Frank.
I had just read Jodi Piccoult’s The Storyteller and my interest in the treatment of the Jews in WWII had piqued once more. Browsing through the books on my Kindle, there it was: the Diary of Anne Frank.
(I do remember as a young girl, loaning the Diary of Anne Frank from the library. I even think I may have scanned a few pages but, just as I couldn’t fully appreciate 1984 or the Handmaid’s Tale at A level, so too I couldn’t fully appreciate the diary of a wilful adolescent in hiding. At age 33, having been that wilful adolescent, and now having gained an insight into the treatment of Jews in WWII, I was ready…
“In a conversation with my cousin shortly after commencing my reading of the Diary of Anne Frank, he remarked how mature he had thought her writing was. Initially I didn’t agree. I had read the preface to the Diary which mentions the different versions that have been published. I was aware that Anne began her diary when she was twelve but it is believed that she went back through it and made amendments and additional notes when she was fifteen – you can see those additional notes as you read through. However, I suspect that largely the content at the beginning was unchanged. Anne wrote, as a young girl might, about the people she was in school with – about the boys and girls she liked and those she didn’t. Not wanting to speak ill of the dead, people could be forgiven for not liking the voice shown through the diary of the young Anne Frank; some could say that she was arrogant, even narcissistic – that she had inflated sense of her own intelligence and popularity with boys. But, we must remember this was a diary – the unashamed, unreserved, uncensored private pouring out of a teenage girl – and even that voice, I would argue, cannot be trusted to be the true voice of the young Anne Frank as it is so prone to constant change often caused by the unabated onslaught of tumultuous pubescent emotions.
However, as you read further into the diary certainly what my cousin said was true – the fifteen year old Anne Frank did write with some maturity. Her self-awareness was considerable and it is astounding that she was so able to mark this in herself. She had to learn in that attic to be self-disciplined and poised; she had to learn to subdue her natural desire to be loud and outspoken. She had to learn to be grateful for the existence she was living. And it was endearing to realise that Anne was grateful. She had little real sense of the monstrous behaviour that some Jewish and not Jewish people were facing at the hands of the Nazis but she had insight enough to understand that she was fortunate. Anne was grateful to those who came to visit her family every day and bring supplies, and she was grateful to be alive and be safe.
Out of Anne’s gratitude came a new focus for me. One of the things I was moved most by from reading the Diary of Anne Frank was the willingness of others to risk their lives to help Anne and her family and the others hiding in the attic. What I had certainly not known or at least thought about deeply before is that people came every day to visit the attic. Everyday those people risked their lives. Too often after atrocities we focus on the horrors committed but this made me want, instead, to focus on the hidden heroes. Everyone knows who Anne Frank is but how many, for example, would recognise the names: Miep Gies or Bep Voskuijl. How I would love to read their diaries and to hear their voices!
Finally though, on a different note altogether, I want to write about one other thing that struck me when reading the Diary of Anne Frank: Anne’s feelings towards her mother. Going back to the preface of the diary, you learn that the first version of Anne’s diary to be published was edited by Otto Frank, Anne’s father. The preface teaches you that in this first version, Otto Frank omitted entries where Anne wrote unkindly about her mother and where she wrote anything of a sexual nature. Oh, what is must have been like to be Otto Frank reading about such things in his daughter’s diary! As a reader I certainly felt the utmost sympathy for Anne’s mother or at least for the lack of relationship between Anne and her mother. My own mother is my absolute world and it was heart wrenching to read the way Anne wrote of her mother with such ill-feeling. Again I think what it must have been like to be Otto Frank reading such things!”