‘Fess up Books: The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank

Office Move-Over 026My first real encounter with Anne Frank was in 8th grade, when my English class recited and analyzed the stage play of Anne’s diary. It was part of a several week long lesson on the Holocaust. Laminated photos of shoes, the remnants of concentration camp victims, were tacked up to the bulletin board at the back of the classroom. The heaps were enormous and every size of shoe was represented. There were plenty of holes in the corners of the image, signs that these photos were placed on that bulletin board every year when this topic was addressed. It was a safe image of the Holocaust for young minds.

I performed the part of Albert Dussel, Anne’s pseudonym for dentist Fritz Pfeffer, and I knew from that limited experience that she hadn’t enjoyed his company or his near-constant moral speeches. As Anne was the youngest person in the Annex, she received the majority of his admonitions. We saw some of these speeches in the 1959 George Stevens film version, but mostly the class sat in awe of the saintly and ever so optimistic Millie Perkins’ performance. It was easy for an idealistic young boy to manufacture a crush around this girl. In looking up this film on IMDB, I found that Anne’s father, Otto Frank, personally asked Audrey Hepburn to play his daughter in the film. Audrey refused, saying that she was too old and lacked the skills to portray Anne.

note the plaid cover

note the plaid cover

Within that week, word had gotten out amongst the 13 year old boys that Anne’s diary had sexual pages. I saw a group of curious boys, huddled behind the stacks in the school library, flicking through pages looking for catchwords. It was something that teenage boys flocked to, and Anne’s diary represented a furtive peek into girl’s diary that didn’t involve the risk of actually picking a lock or stealing from a sister. While we were just boys being boys, which always struck me as an intentionally vague euphemism, I think that anyone would understand our fascination. It is true, we giggled and tittered at her frankness with words. At the time, I don’t know if we were interested in the context of her self-examinations or her sensitive and unprudish attitudes towards sex. I don’t want to put words in my 13 year old self’s mouth, but I think we were aware that reading the rest of the diary would ruin the clandestine excitement of those passages where Anne described her vagina. If we had read on, we would have discovered that Anne was just as curious about the other sex as we were. As it is, through rapid-breathing and nimble page-scanning, we did discover the dialogue with Peter where she confessed to not knowing the name for the male sexual organ. Peter’s response was a simple “Hmm,” which Anne quickly answered by saying, “How are we supposed to know these words? Most of the time you just come across them by accident.” It was hard for young boys to not find this funny, and even on reading this at the age of 22 it shocks me that a 14 year old girl didn’t know that information. It still bothers me that some interfering parents have tried to stop having the book taught in middle schools due to these passing sexual pages. Surely the lesson to be achieved from Anne’s exploratory descriptions of her own labia and clitoris is that all girls have the same questions and curiosities about their bodies. To ignore that fact and ban Anne’s diary is just an example of parents looking for a scapegoat to blame when their children start growing up too fast.

We stuffed the book back into its shelf and fled, as if we were afraid of being caught. Boys tend to make everything an adventure in their heads. Girls do the same, but I’ve known plenty of young boys who don’t believe girls are capable of adventure.

Anne and Fritz Pfeffel’s room in the annex

At this point, if I was reviewing any other book on my list, I might write a summary. I don’t think that’s necessary for The Diary of a Young Girl for blatant reasons. For those who haven’t read the book or have misplaced its details in memory, I think it’s helpful to say that eight people survived for over two years in around 500 square feet. That alone should prepare the reader for the revelation that Anne Frank’s diary is frequently humorous. She had a wonderful observer’s eye that wasn’t afraid to turn critical on herself. There are transcriptions of dialogue that spark with the sense of differing personalities all trying to carve out their own segment of space and control. Among this throng, Anne is a profoundly relatable teenager. Despite the conditions in the secret annex, Anne is constantly a teenager with her feet in two worlds–she is still childish at times, but the voice is breaking through to a sense of self and maturity that every teenager goes through.

I want to share two pieces of footage that are on loop at the Anne Frank House. The first is the only known footage of her. It comes from 22 July 1941. The Frank’s next door neighbor is getting married and, for five seconds, Anne can be seen smiling and watching from the upstairs window of her house. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4hvtXuO5GzU

The second is a moving interview with Otto Frank, the sole survivor from his immediate family: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AWRBinP7ans

His reactions to reading his daughter’s diary for the first time are very moving, and they remind me of something madiirenee wrote on her blog entry about visiting the museum: “Anne’s words showed a girl starving for interaction with the outside world, as it was apparent she would have been an extrovert in every sense of the word.” Anne started the diary before going into hiding, and from her descriptions it seems that she would have been content to have her large circle of friends and boy admirers if she had been allowed average teenage interactions. Instead, she was forced to go within herself. In her very last entry, Anne talks about her inner and outer selves. The outer self is the one that her father encountered. The insecure but very wise Anne writes: “I’m afraid that people who know me as I usually am will discover I have another side, a better and finer side…I’m used to not being taken seriously, but only the “lighthearted” Anne is used to it and can put up with it; the “deeper” Anne is too weak. If I force the good Anne into the spotlight for even fifteen minutes, she shuts up like a clam the moment she’s called upon to speak, and let’s Anne number one do the talking. Before I realize it, she’s disappeared.” Everyone, including my mom when I called her up to read that passage, understands this feeling.

As madiirenee also notes, she “read Anne Frank like most girls around the age of 12.” I can only say that, for once, there is a pretty concrete and unbiased example of the fact that girls mature faster than boys.

Between ten and ten-thirty on the morning of 4 August 1944, armed men arrived at the annex, some in civilian clothes. To this day it is a mystery who tipped the SS off to the presence of the eight people behind the hinged bookcase entrance. I don’t really want to dwell on what follows, because reading this book brought back strong memories of reading Elie Wiesel’s Night and gasping in choked shock at certain passages. In that book, just as in Anne’s, the small, never mentioned details are what stick in the mind of the reader. (See below in favorite lines.)

May 1942, just two months before the Frank family went into hiding

May 1942, just two months before the Frank family went into hiding

In summation, I said near the start of this post that is was easy to manufacture a crush around Anne Frank. Reading the real Anne Frank, however, uncovers a complex person who is easy to fall in love with. A crush is ultimately shallow, an ideal that no one can or wants to live up to. Anne is so much more and reading the diary is a chance to see her alive again, laughing, gossiping, thinking, falling in love, and coming to terms with her emerging opinions as they spit and sputter in her mind.

Favorite Lines

This one was unexpected. The van Daans wrote up a list of rules and regulations for Mr. Dussel to learn before he joined the annex months after everyone else. It shows the expectation and the happiness everyone felt about getting a new face. I loved this: “Singing: Only softly, and after 6 P.M.”

“Because paper has more patience than people. ”

“Women should be respected as well! Generally speaking, men are held in great esteem in all parts of the world, so why shouldn’t women have their share? Soldiers and war heroes are honored and commemorated, explorers are granted immortal fame, martyrs are revered, but how many people look upon women too as soldiers?…Women, who struggle and suffer pain to ensure the continuation of the human race, make much tougher and more courageous soldiers than all those big-mouthed freedom-fighting heroes put together!”

“Memories mean more to me than dresses.”

This line was also particularly interesting, and it sheds some meaning on why Anne addressed her diary as “Kitty” and wrote everything as if it were a letter to some far off and understanding friend. Anne wrote this to explain why she couldn’t reveal her “deeper” self easily in her family: “It’s because we’re always together. I don’t want the person I confide in to be around me all the time.”

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