Thursday, May 01, 2008

From the diary of a not-so-young girl

I must have read Anne Frank's diary about a thousand times as a child. We were both Jewish girls who dreamed of writing, and in my youthful mind, that made us kindred spirits. Never mind that she faced persecution and eventual death while I enjoyed the privileged of a suburban middle class upbringing; if anything, I thought that I envied Anne her dramatic story and the writing material she was able to extract from her situation. (I may have been lacking in first person experience, but I clearly had the melodrama thing down pat...)

Last weekend, Paul and I took advantage of a visit from my parents and left the kids in their capable hands while we headed off for a weekend trip to Amsterdam. The top item on my "must do" list, unsurprisingly, was a trip to the Anne Frank House.

We followed our guidebook's advice and arrived at the museum late in the day to try to avoid the worst of the queues, but we still had about a 15-20 minute wait before we entered the building. As I looked up and down the peaceful, tree lined street, I kept trying to see it as Anne's last sight when she entered hiding and her first one two years later as she emerged in the custody of the Nazis. I couldn't wrap my mind around any of it. Intellectually, I understood what had happened in the spot where I was standing, but I found myself unable to connect any emotion to that awareness at all.

Numbly, I entered the building and numbly I walked through the exhibits. I studied the model of the annex from above, listened to the recorded interviews with those who remembered Anne and her family after the war and viewed the artifacts on display. "This is the bookshelf I read about so many times," I told myself as I entered the stairwell. "These are the walls the family stared at, this is the attic where Anne and Peter escaped to be alone. This is what I read so much about, imagined in my mind so many times. This is it." They were just words, though, and these were just rooms. None of it was sinking in.

I walked slowly through the annex, careful not to miss anything, as I waited to feel... something. It didn't seem to be happening. After years of imagining a connection based on a book, I felt no connection whatsoever as I finally stood in its setting. This was a museum, carefully staged to convey meaning and evoke emotion. But all of that careful cultivation wasn't working for me. Here in the house where she had lived and written, I could no longer identify with or even recognize the young girl who had captivated me so much in print.

Resigned to a museum experience but determined to make the most of it, I continued on to a room which featured a recording of Otto Frank talking about what it had been like to first read his daughter's diary after the war. He described his surprise at the thoughts and reflections expressed within the pages, so different and so much deeper than the ideas Anne had shared with him in person during their time in hiding. He had thought they had talked about anything and everything, he said, and yet here was so much more to his daughter than had ever met his eye. "From this I can only determine," he said, his face carefully composed around his grief, "that as parents we can never truly know our children at all."

I thought of my own children, of the ways in which they are still transparent and of the complicated layers underneath their surfaces which I am beginning to sense and unable to penetrate. I pictured how completely I had known them in their infancy and how much less I seem to know them with each passing day. I reflected on the odd mixture of wistfulness and pride their blossoming independence sparks in me. I contemplated the experience of watching your child's shoulders hunched over in concentration as she secrets her innermost thoughts away day after day. I thought about what has to go so terribly wrong before you are privy to those reflections. And then -- finally -- I felt my heart break open into a thousand pieces.

At 10, it was Anne Frank with whom I felt an imagined kinship. Twenty five years later, it is her father with whom I identify the most. Anne is frozen in time as a teenager, but I am not, and I should have realized that time would change me and my perspective. What time hasn't changed is the impact this one family's story has on me. I walked out of that house wanting to go back and re-read the Diary for the first time in many years. But as I look at my children and reflect on my obligation to protect them, I wonder if I could even make it through the book now, reading it -- as I surely would -- through Otto Frank's eyes.


Blogger Suzanne said...

When I visited the Anne Frank house, I also found it hard to envision it as something other than a museum. I found myself trying to mentally summon scenes from the book as I visited each room. I remember thinking that the stairs leading to the upper room were impossibly steep, that the logistics of living in that space so daunting.

My biggest surprise, oddly enough, was learning that Anne's name was really Annelies, and that the shortened form was pronounced "Ann-eh". How did that information escape me for so long?

3:22 PM  
Blogger Almost American said...

Visiting the house as a teenager, the museum itself didn't have quite the impact I thought it would either. What did make an impact was the older visitors, walking slowly, examining each photo carefully and commenting "I knew him" "I knew her". That more than anything else, brought home to me the depth of the tragedy. My visit was some 30 years ago, and those older visitors were survivors of the camps.

12:57 AM  
Blogger Vegas Princess said...

What a truely amazing post. Thank you for sharing this. As someone who also enjoyed Anne's diary as a young girl and even performed in the play in high school I have always thought of Anne in much the same way, like a kindred spirit. But your post has made me think of that diary in a different light.

3:37 AM  
Blogger Victoria said...

This was beautiful.

12:42 AM  
Blogger Frog in the Field said...

I really couldn't read the diary or indeed go there. As a youngster I thought it was all so shocking and terrible, as a mother I would break down.

9:33 AM  

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