Tuesday, 12 June 2012

'Memories mean more to me than dresses'.

While teaching a weekly grammar lesson to my hilarious group of year 8s recently, I got into a discussion with the class about forms of writing, and about diaries in particular. A quick show of hands revealed that less than a third of the class has or would consider keeping a diary. One girl even went so far as to comment that diaries are old fashioned now. She informed me that calling, texting, tumblr, facebook, twitter – and the list goes on – are the modern replacements. Self expression? Teenagers have got it covered, apparently.

What this student said bothered me. It wasn’t just that she had called out, which is completely against Mrs Kaur’s class rules. Actually, it was her dismissive tone. The lack of awareness and the unwitting lack of respect she was demonstrating for the power of the simple act of writing out one’s innermost thoughts and feelings. To be fair, we discussed this further as a class and the students were able to tease out the importance of diary writing and to tell me a bit more about how it’s done nowadays.
The whole experience made me reflect though, on my own views which are obviously stronger than I realised. As a young girl and as a teenager, I kept a diary which my sisters bought for me. Writing regularly was encouraged by the primary school I attended, which I can now recognise was an amazing place. But I was also inspired by another young writer – Anne Frank. Her story has always been very familiar (again, thanks to my primary school) and at the forefront of my mind: a story that I feel has shaped me. I can remember feeling carsick from reading a copy of her diary whilst out in the car with my parents as a teenager, and being told to look up from the book in my lap and to take a break. I went on to study Holocaust Literature as part of my MA which exposed me to many other testimonies. I was also lucky enough to visit the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam recently, which was a very meaningful experience.
The Anne Frank House calls itself ‘a museum with a story’, which given that it is the site of the secret annexe where Fritz Pfeffer and the Frank and van Pels families were in hiding, is apt. It allows visitors to witness and observe the physical details of the lives of these families which we become privy to in Anne’s diary. It’s also something of a living monument, bearing witness to the struggles and the bravery of the eight Jews who hid inside.
What struck me about the experience of visiting the museum was learning of Otto Frank’s thoughts about Anne’s writing. After learning of her death, Otto Frank read his daughter’s diary and also discovered that she had been working to redraft it as a novel. Learning of the depth of his daughter’s emotions and inner life through her writing, Otto Frank concluded that ‘most parents don’t know really, their children’. The thoughtfulness and the quality of Anne’s thoughts really are remarkable and given her fate, make visiting the house and reading the diary both sad and enriching experiences.
As the youngest daughter in a family which had moved from Frankfurt to Amsterdam and with hopes to move to America in order to the escape the persecution of Jews, Anne Frank would have been under no illusions as to the danger that her family faced. I feel that there is a great sense of poignancy in Anne’s ability to see beauty during her life in hiding, despite the extreme stress and fear that all the individuals involved in the secret would have been under. Anne’s inner life flourished as expressed through her writing, despite the darkness and threat around her and despite the restrictions placed upon her. She still had the courage to imagine, to dream and to think for herself, throwing herself into the intimate act of writing and expressing her innermost thoughts and feelings. The museum reconstructs how she immersed herself in her own interests, plastering her walls at first with pictures of film stars. As the years went by and Anne’s interest in art and history grew, the likes of Greta Garbo and Ginger Rogers had to compete for space on her wall with Da Vinci and Rembrandt. Other incidental and domestic features in the house offer glimpses of stoicism, such as the marking of growth lines for Margot and Anne Frank, charting their changes in height. In 1943, Anne wrote ‘I long to ride a bike, dance, whistle, look at the world, feel young and know that I’m free’. She is also said to have drawn inspiration from the chestnut tree outside the secret annexe, commenting on her view of it from Peter van Pels’ room in 1944: ‘The two of us looked out at the blue sky, the bare chestnut tree glistening with dew, the seagulls and other birds glinting with silver as they swooped through the air’. Her enduring ability to admire nature and to dream of freedom under such conditions represents a tragic resilience to me and her lack of contempt for the persecutors of Jews speaks of a generous soul.
We can now only wonder what kind of a woman and a writer Anne Frank would have become. However thanks to her avid diary writing, her legacy endures. There’s something about stories of individual courage and spirit which inspire and evoke our sympathy. Somehow I think we need individual examples like this one in order to understand the experiences of others and the events of history as a whole. Of course, countless other persecuted Jews went into hiding and it’s possible to learn about Corrie Ten Boom for example, and to visit the house in Haarlem where she harboured hundreds of Jews. However for me, Anne Frank’s work is enduring. Her struggles as documented in her diary and those of the seven others in hiding with her represent the struggles of all who suffered in the Holocaust. The museum does an impressive and admirable job of preserving her memory and all that she represents with love and care. The Anne Frank House also works to spread awareness and understanding and to fight prejudice and extremism. There’s an interactive forum at the end of the tour which presents visitors with modern day examples of discrimination, from Holocaust denial on social networks to the rights of the EDL to express its opinions. It’s encouraging to know that lessons can be learned from such tragic events and that the facts of Anne Frank’s life are sparking debate about contemporary issues.
At the end of the visit to the house, I thought about what Anne Frank means to me, this remarkable, spirited and thoughtful young girl whose diary I once read. To me, Anne Frank represents the beauty of self expression which has the courage to flourish under the most fearful of circumstances. She is a reminder that I must remember the lessons that history teaches us and to have empathy in order to understand. Anne Frank represents the power of the written word and of humanity to endure and to transcend.

‘We cannot change what happened anymore. The only thing we can do is to learn from the past and to realize what discrimination and persecution of innocent people means. I believe that it’s everyone’s responsibility to fight prejudice’.  Otto Frank, 1970