I know that any curriculum of World War II books has to include The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank at some point. I put it off for a bit because it leaves the reader so emotionally invested, and I’ve already dedicated a lot of emotion to this project as it is. Sometimes you need a little light WWII reading before delving into the darker stuff. I’m still working up to reading a history of Auschwitz. For obvious reasons.
A Note on History:
I realized with my last post that it might be handy to first explain some of the WWII history surrounding a book (unless it’s a history book, and then the point is moot). Not everybody is coming into these book reviews with the type of knowledge that I’ve been gathering over the last 7 months.
With the help of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, here’s a rough sketch of the history of the Dutch Jews during WWII:
Like in all the other countries under Nazi occupation during WWII, the Jews in Holland weren’t suddenly rounded up and murdered. I can’t say that Hitler was a subtle man, but he was smart enough to use baby steps and secrecy when dealing with “the Jewish problem” (—I hate that phrase allies and enemies alike used, as if the Jews were an inconvenient aspect war).
Upon the German invasion of Holland (the Netherlands) in 1940, Jews were first prohibited from serving in public office. So big deal, right? Over centuries of wandering in strange lands, the Jewish people were nothing if not adaptable (while still holding to their own unique culture—it’s amazing, really). The next year, they had to be officially registered as Jews, then they were segregated into Jewish slums. Even this they dealt with.
You may think, “Didn’t they see the writing on the wall? Didn’t they know what was happening?”
The answer: no.
Secrecy, subtlety, and long stretched of regular life fooled them into thinking this was the worst of it.
I digress. In 1941, some Jews were taken to labor camps. It was actually these camps that later Jews thought they were going to go to, as well. Not extermination camps. There was only the barest of a whisper about those, and nobody could believe that they really existed.
In 1942, they had to wear the Star of David on their clothing. Then the mass deportations began that summer and continued through 1944:
- About 102,000 Dutch Jews were murdered in the deportations of 1942-44.
- Only 5,200 of those who were deported survived.
- 25,000 to 30,000 Jews (like Anne Frank’s family), managed to go into hiding thanks to their friends, neighbors, and the Dutch Underground.
- 2/3 of those in hiding survive.
- Of the 159,806 Dutch Jews (number known by those who registered as Jews), less than 25% survived.
- Nearly 120,000 people were murdered
Anne Frank’s family (along with their friends, the van Pels) were among those Jews who went into hiding. Her older sister, Margot, was summoned to report for a work camp, and her father, Otto—who apparently saw the writing on the wall—moved the entire family to the Annex (a building connected to the business he owned in partnership with Hermann van Pels). He’d been slowly moving their furniture and food to the building for a while in preparation, giving them a fairly cushy two years in hiding (in comparison to other Jews).
For two years, friends keep them supplied with food and books, and life goes on fairly normally (with the exception of strict rules about when they can run water and the like to keep workers next door from suspecting). Anne’s a voracious reader and splits time between keeping up in her subjects, reading histories, doing genealogy (true story), and writing. They listen to the BBC on the radio, so they keep fairly well-informed on the progress of the war. Anne repeated all the headlines in her journal on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
In August 1944, just months before liberation, someone reported them to the SS. (I wonder if they and others became careless. They expected liberation at any moment and the Americans fought their way across Europe.) They were taken to concentration camps. Of the eight people in the Annex (the Franks, van Pels, and an unrelated dentist), only Otto Frank survived. He knew that his daughter wanted to donate her diary to the collection Winston Churchill wanted to create of diaries and letters about the war, so he had it published.
Already this post is long, and I haven’t yet reviewed the book. It’s hard not to want to tell Anne’s story for her, but she does that well enough on her own.
The Characters. During her time in the Annex (nearly the entire time frame of the journal as she received it for her birthday right before her family went into hiding), her life revolves around just a handful of characters: the three van Pels, Fritz Pfeffer the dentist, Anne’s parents and sister, and a few people helping them out.
Above all, Anne’s life revolves around herself, which isn’t so surprising considering that she was a 13-year-old girl at the time of the first entry. While Anne’s a typical teenager in so many ways—she obsesses about boys, struggles with independence, fights with her mother, has difficulties with the van Pels—she’s also unique in her deep introspection. She talks about quiet, good Anne, the one no one sees, and outgoing gregarious Anne. In fact, a lengthy journal entry detailing these sides of herself is the last thing we have in her hand.
What’s most impressive about Anne is her logic, her understanding of human nature and herself:
“I know what I want, I have a goal, an opinion, I have a religion and love. Let me be myself and then I am satisfied. I know that I’m a woman, a woman with inward strength and plenty of courage.”
“Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”
“Human greatness does not lie in wealth or power, but in character and goodness. People are just people, and all people have faults and shortcomings, but all of us are born with a basic goodness.”
There really isn’t anything she writes that isn’t deeply inspiring. And all this by a teenager who’s suffering through one of the most devastating periods in human history.
The Storyline. Anne’s journal covers her time in hiding, which is a remarkably fantastic look into the life of Jews during WWII especially because she mentions what’s happening in the outside world (as far as she can gleam from the Frank’s friends and through the radio).
The hardest part for me was the abrupt ending. I knew this about the book (because who doesn’t know how it ends), but one moment she was talking about her personality and how she struggles with trying to be better, and the next moment, the afterward appears. It was jarring. And kind of perfect, actually. I’m just glad that one person survived (Anne’s dad who she affectionately called Pim), to get her story out. As sad as it sounds, I believe that Anne’s diary wouldn’t have touched nearly as many people had she lived. Through death, she influenced generations. I think she would have liked that.
The Writing. If I haven’t mentioned that Anne was a gifted, beautiful, lyrical writer, than here it is: Her gift with language paired with her intuition and insight created some of the most lovely turns of phrase and memorable of quotes:
“I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.”
“I’ve found that there is always some beauty left – in nature, sunshine, freedom, in yourself; these can all help you. Look at these things, then you find yourself again, and God, and then you regain your balance.”
“He who has courage and faith will never perish in misery!”
“Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.”
I know this has been a lengthy post, and I thank you for sharing the journey with me. I don’t just think that people should read this book, but they need to because it defines something that’s not just war and not just the Holocaust. It defines the human spirit and its ability to find joy in adversity and goodness in people, even after everything it suffers:
“It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”