Anyone who has ever kept a journal (or blogged) has probably compared themselves, however briefly, with one of history's greatest diarists, Anne Frank.
Anyone who's ever attended a public school. in the United States of America has read at least an excerpt from The Diary of a Young Girl.
I've read the book far too many times to be bowled over by the totality of the diary and its background (i.e. the Holocaust). But a fresh reading after 12 years or so is still worth reflecting on.
Anne received the diary as a birthday gift when she turned 13 in 1942, just weeks before her parents made the decision to go into hiding to avoid capture and deportation by the Nazis. She was "not yet sixteen" when she perished from typhus at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.In between those two milestones, she lived in very close quarters, often under straitened conditions, with her mother, father, sister, a family they were close to, consisting of husband, wife and son, and a retired dentist. They were protected by the owners of the business (Anne's father was co-owner but not on paper -- he had transferred legal ownership to colleagues so as to keep the company designated "not Jewish" and safe from being shut down) and their hiding place was in the same building with a warehouse and set of offices.During the day, they had to be extremely quiet so as not to give themselves away to the office and warehouse workers who weren't in on the secret. At night they still had to be quiet to avoid attracting attention from the cleaning crew, and the neighbors in a densely populated section of Amsterdam.
The actions of the Nazis and their adherents, it should go without saying, represent anomalous human behavior. We read the diary and know how it ends, and therefore we know what the stakes are. We nonetheless "root" for the Franks, Pfeffer, the Van Pels family, and their guardians. Knowing how things conclude, it's probably more useful and instructive to look at these people who co-existed for over two years. And in doing so, we inevitably ask ourselves Would I have been able to do this?
Picture yourself in precisely the same situation, except in the present day. You're a 13-year-old girl with a 16-year-old sister. You're stuck inside with your parents, their friends, a gawky teenage boy and an elderly dentist, a man you barely know. You're not quiet by nature and it is a matter of life and death for you to be quiet.
How would this arrangement play out among a 21st century group? I have a strong feeling that very few Baby Boomers, GenXers or Millennials could pull it off for more than a week -- maybe a month, with luck.
Remember those old TV shows from the 1950s like "Leave it to Beaver?" Remember how Ward Cleaver always seemed to wear a suit and tie, even on weekends, and June mopped the kitchen floor in a shirtwaist dress, high heels and pearls? Well, based on Anne's writings, this was the norm in the cramped, drafty-in-winter and baking-in-summer domicile hidden behind the bookcase:
Daddy goes about in frayed trousers and his tie is beginning to show signs of wear, too.
It took a second, reading that, to recall that Otto Frank never went farther than the office on a lower level, and only when there was assurance of secrecy. He is described as eavesdropping through the floorboards on a business meeting that he otherwise would have attended, and having daily visits from the other principals in the company ... but he did not "go to business" after taking up residence in the "Secret Annexe." Nonetheless, he dressed for his role as respectable middle-class businessman and father. There is no indication that anyone else in the group was any less formal. No sweats, no shorts, no pajamas all day. Meals were at set times, and despite the frequent squabbles, everyone sat together at the table and ate.
There is a hint of one possible source of calm and tranquility for the adults: Nicotine. Remember, this wasn't the sixties, with the Surgeon General's warning appearing on packs of cigarettes. Social conventions would have frowned upon Anne and Margot smoking, but Mrs. Frank apparently lit up; Mr. Van Pels got downright cranky if there was a shortage, and young Peter is described as receiving a lighter for his 16th birthday...
Not that he smokes much; it's really just for show.
Still. There was something that suggests a wider ethos. Anne describes the behavior of the Van "Daans," as she calls them, a couple of months after taking up residence behind the cupboard:
Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan have had a terrible quarrel, I've never seen anything quite like it before. Mummy and Daddy would never dream of shouting at each other.
Imagine the tension, the stress, day in and day out, not just from the close confinement, but the reality beyond the walls of a world war (including daily air raids), and a government that has authorized ordinary citizens to turn you in and get you sent off to a concentration camp. Or just shot dead in the streets. Anne's writings indicate that she knew, but didn't really know, how bad things were. At one point early on, she writes:
The English radio speaks of their being gassed. Perhaps that is the quickest way to die.
There's a sense of detachment, and it is useful to remember that this may not just be a function of Anne's teenage naivete. From our vantage point, we know so much more than she, her parents, even lower-level government functionaries did. When we hear the phrase "six million," we know immediately what it refers to, but at that time, the full reality was well-hidden. The senior Franks and Van Pels knew there was danger; why else would they have gone to such extraordinary lengths to hide? Otto Frank had attempted to secure visas for his family to flee to the US or Cuba, but that avenue was cut off once the Nazis invaded Holland. I doubt, though, that they had even a suspicion of how massive the genocide was. And the camps represented only a portion. Nearly a third of the Jews killed in Eastern Europe met their fate at the hands of small village detachments, in the town squares or nearby forests. The New York Times reported on this just in the past few days, explaining that part of the problem with identifying the victims is the Jewish prohibition on exhumation. Seventy years later, many of the survivors have since died, and much of what transpired can only be hinted at.
However, in early May of 1944, just a few months before the beginning of the end for the Franks (and a year and a half before Hiroshima), Anne writes in a prescient vein:
...why do they make still more gigantic planes, still heavier bombs and, at the same time, prefabricated houses for reconstruction? Why should millions be spent daily on the war and yet there's not a penny available for medical services, artists, or for poor people? ...There's an urge in people simply to destroy, an urge to kill, to murder and rage, and until mankind...undergoes a great change, wars will be waged, everything that has been built up, cultivated, and grown will be destroyed and disfigured, after which mankind will have to begin all over again.
So the small contingent lived quietly, kept their routines, and never shed the mantle of civility. Even when hormones were raging. Approximately six months before they were betrayed and captured, Anne and young Peter Van Pels discovered one another. This seems to have been precipitated by Anne's dream of another Peter (Schiff) from her school days. That infatuation had been cut short by age differences and Schiff's moving away, but seeing him in her mind's eye gave Anne a desperate need to confide in someone closer to her age, and in the ensuing weeks, she and Peter Van Pels began seeking each other out. From what I've gathered from reading more expanded versions of the diary, the possibility of sex crossed everyone's mind, and when Anne tells her father that kisses have been exchanged, he seems shocked, dismayed and worried. Ultimately, the two teens remain close friends and nothing more, mainly because of the intellectual gulf between them. Anne is lively, curious and hopeful of the future, while Peter is inarticulate and relatively lazy. Still, I can't help but imagine the situation in the present day. Peter would have been unable to restrain his urges and probably would have ended up getting shot by "Pim." And as for Anne's sharing her tiny bedroom with old Dr. Pfeffer? A rape, a false accusation, or a false accusation of a false accusation would have been inevitable.
Self-control, discipline, humility and innocence worked for and against Anne Frank and the others in hiding. If they'd known what lay ahead -- Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and Mauthausen (where young Peter died after being marched over 370 miles from Auschwitz. Accounts say that Mr. Frank tried to persuade him to stay, but Peter believed he had a chance of escaping on the way) -- would they have kept on in their efforts to maintain as normal a lifestyle as possible? It is also heartbreaking to learn that so many of the deaths among the group took place mere weeks before various camps were liberated.
Anne relates second-hand a story, in Amsterdam, of
a poor old crippled Jewess sitting on her doorstep; she had been told to wait there by the Gestapo, who had gone to fetch a car to take her away... But Miep did not dare take her in; no one would undergo such a risk.
I have trouble imagining anyone today sitting passively on their doorstep, waiting to be taken away and executed, without anyone daring to intervene. The yellow star that Jews were forced to wear on their clothing -- we live in a society now where relatively well-paid corporate employees continually rebel against company dress codes. It defies the imagination that people nowadays (especially Americans) would stand for such treatment. We've become a people that understands, on an abstract, moral level, the importance of individual freedom, but often squanders it on petty rebellions that do nothing to keep society cohesive. That is the difference between my generation and that of Otto and Anne Frank. We are perhaps better equipped to spot the warning signs of oppression...we say "Never again" to such outrages. But when privations in our own time come (gas shortages, economic collapse, unprecedented inequality), how do we respond? Do we resolve to muddle through and make sacrifices for the greater good, no matter what? Or do we waste our brains and strength on petty things like tracking down a better cell phone or technologically advanced sneakers? Is it a good thing or a bad thing that we've never really known hardship or the threat of genocide?
And would we ever want to find out?