“It’s like she’s not even trying to be a writer.”
–my son, age eleven
I am 43 years old. I am Jewish. I wrote a novel about the Holocaust. I grew up in a synagogue headed by an Auschwitz survivor and by his wife, also an Auschwitz survivor. I have taught my students work by Primo Levi, Aharon Appelfeld, Charlotte Delbo.
But until this month, I had never read the diary of Anne Frank.
It is difficult to pinpoint the moment that The Diary of a Young Girl slipped past me. I did not read it in school, as so many do, since it was not on the curriculum at the time. (It would be, a few years later, when my sister passed through the same classrooms.) It was not given to me as a gift by a well-meaning Jewish relative. And I did not choose it on my own, not from the school library (where I was often), or the public library (where I was often), and where, undoubtedly, numerous copies sat on the shelf, waiting to be picked up. I knew the diary existed, of course—everyone does—but I did not feel as if I had to read it.
The simplest explanation is that I felt that I knew it already, without ever having read it, without ever having to read it. As if I claimed it as part of my Jewish and my American citizenships without any additional effort on my part. But what is it, exactly, in the case of Anne Frank?
It is, on some level, the Holocaust itself, since it is impossible to separate Anne Frank from our sense of the Holocaust. For many young people (and not just them), Anne is the face of the murder of the Jews, the face of innocence amidst slaughter. But I did not think I needed the diary to tell me about that.
By the time I began Hebrew school, in an orthodox synagogue in upstate New York, the Holocaust was as much a part of our education as Hebrew, halacha, and the trials of bar mitzvah training. When our youth group traveled for weekend shabbatonim, meeting up with young Jews from Binghamton and Rochester and Buffalo, the Holocaust was always part of the educational program, usually on Saturday night—the sober counterpart to the joy of celebrating Shabbat.
My interest in these weekends was overwhelmingly social. I wanted to meet other kids, and being trapped in a synagogue for thirty-six hours under the rigors of orthodox Shabbat observance was worth it because it meant I was there with lots of other young Jews—many of them Jews of the girl variety. If I had read Anne Frank, I would have recognized what I was experiencing, since she wrote about it so beautifully: the curious and disorienting beginnings of sexuality, the beginning of a certain kind of physical self, the lure of the person whom you have seen so many times suddenly becoming an object of desire.
On one of these weekends I met an Orthodox girl from Binghamton. It was a frigid winter in Rochester, and we barely left the synagogue except to sleep. I glimpsed her on Friday night—she had long black hair and dark eyes—and for all the next day I peeked up from my siddur every chance I had to catch sight of her through a crack in the mechitza that stubbornly separated the boys from the girls. On one of these glimpses, I saw her looking back at me.
We spend most of Saturday afternoon walking past each other with intentions I could barely handle. Then, Saturday night, everyone gathered in the synagogue’s carpeted basement for the evening program, a film. We sat next to each other.
In addition to the normal vicious butterflies of adolescent sexuality that we had to contend with, she was orthodox. She wore an ankle-length skirt that she arranged around her bent knees so that no skin showed even as she shifted position on the floor. She was trained in modesty. She was not supposed to touch boys. But she chose to touch me. The lights came down and we brushed hands, as if by accident. Her hand stayed.
We were just the ages that Anne and Peter were when they took their first explorations of each other, inhibited by the cramped circumstances of the annex and their own nervousness. The screen flickered to life. She held my hand as we watched an archival film of Jews, recognizable by their yellow stars, being loaded in the back of an ambulance. A hose was fitted to a pipe and routed into the ambulance’s window. We watched as they were gassed to death by the ambulance’s own exhaust.
Can I be forgiven for not wanting to read Anne Frank? For not wanting to sit and see a Jewish girl’s face page after page, knowing what was to come?
I had a second chance to seek out Anne Frank when, in graduate school, I began to turn in a serious way to Holocaust literature for the first time, to provide guidance and companionship for my attempt to write my first novel, about the German occupation of Denmark. As I read my way through the fundamental works about the Holocaust—everything from Elie Weisel to Cynthia Ozick to Tadeusz Borowski, it did not occur to me to read Anne Frank. Like many people, I thought of her as a young diarist—a particularly compelling one—but a diarist. Not a writer.
As Francine Prose has written, much of the allure of Anne Frank’s writing is that it feels, to most readers, like the “innocent and spontaneous outpourings of a teenager.” This is what my son felt, having encountered portions of the diary in his elementary school (he read Anne before I did)—an easy fluency with language that makes it seem as if the diary emerged, whole cloth, from the terrible encounter of a young girl with events far beyond her control. A unique meeting of a precocious teenager and circumstances that made possible a contribution to our understanding of history.
But that is not the case. Anne Frank was not just a teenager keeping a diary. She was a writer; for those years in the annex, the diary was her work. She wrote and rewrote many times. All the inhabitants of the annex knew how central the diary was to Anne, and, in fact, to all of them. She did not pull the diary out from under her pillow at night. She worked in front of and around the others in the annex, recording events, returning to them, adding and subtracting as the world shifted outside the attic window.
The diary did not just happen to survive. It was part of a concerted effort—aided by fortune at many points, yes—by the family and their helpers to both tell their story and preserve one writer’s literary output.
Francine Prose writes, “Rereading [the diary] as an adult, I quickly became convinced that I was in the presence of a consciously crafted work of literature. I understood, as I could not have as a child, how much art is required to give the impression of artlessness, how much control is necessary in order to seem natural, how almost nothing is more difficult for a writer than to find a narrative voice as fresh and unaffected as Anne Frank’s.”
Reading the diary, finally, now, so much emerges: its place not just as Holocaust literature, but as an example of so many kinds of important writing: the literature of exile, banished as Anne was, from her home, and yet so close; the literature of being stranded, as if on an island only occasionally supplied by food and news; a family drama; a one set play; a romance and a falling-out; a murder in which the plot and killers are well known.
Now, Anne, it is just past Yom Kippur, and the language of the al chet confessional is on my mind.
Forgive me, Anne, for not appreciating before how funny you could be.
Forgive me for not having witnessed you play dress-up in the annex, you in your father’s suit, and Peter in a dress.
Forgive me for traveling to Amsterdam, and for riding on a kindertandem with my nine-year-old daughter past the Annefrankhuis, and for seeing the long line, and deciding to visit a cheese shop instead.
Forgive me for not knowing that your diary, the one that you wrote and revised so many times, was rejected by many Dutch publishers, and by many American publishers, and that it initially sold poorly in Germany.
Forgive me for thinking that I was too old for you. We both know that you will outlive me.
Note: If you are interested in reading more about Anne Frank and her work, I recommend the definitive edition of the diary, edited by Otto H. Frank and Mirjam Pressler, and translated by Susan Masotty; Francine Prose’s Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife; and the Revised Critical Edition of the diary prepared by the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, in which you can read revised and edited versions of the diary side-by-side with early drafts.