Remembering Anne Frank
My mother read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl to me when I was eleven years old. In the summer of 1986, after hours of playing on the beach, we retreated to Kirk’s Cottages, my grandparents’ motel comprising a row of ramshackle cabins in the sleepy village of Oceanside, Oregon, USA. The late afternoon sun poured through the antique window panes of our cottage, spreading a patchwork quilt of light across the old shag carpet. My younger sister and I, caked in salt and sand, curled into warm squares on the floor and listened to the daily entries of a girl in hiding.
Nearly thirty years later I’m driving through an autumnal Oregon downpour, listening to the news on the radio: a downed plane in Egypt, attacks in Paris, and U.S. governors declaring that they will not allow Syrian refugees to resettle in their states. As I struggle to make sense of the refusal of Americans to help refugees I am transported from my seat behind two furious windshield wipers to the lazy summer days at Oceanside. More than thirty million copies of Anne’s diary have sold in sixty-seven languages, yet it occurs to me for the first time that my experience was particularly unique and profoundly formative.
Most Americans have never read the diary or heard their parents read it aloud. As children, they did not ask their mothers why the Franks and six million other European Jews did not flee to America. Their mothers did not explain that in the 1930s and 40s Americans would not make room for them. Their mothers did not recount how at the end of World War II Americans were stunned by the scope of the atrocities committed by the Nazis, that Americans felt shame and guilt and resolved to provide asylum for political refugees in the future.
Not every kid got the Miep Talk – when mom puts down the book and says, “Miep Gies risked her life to help the Frank family. Would you be willing to do that?”
Perhaps it was the image of a crowded annex at Prinsengracht 263 described by Anne juxtaposed with the glittering expanse of the Pacific Ocean before us that emboldened me to say “Yes!”
I was free. The question was simple, uncomplicated. The answer was easy. Of course, like Miep, I would do the right thing, no matter the risks or costs.
Last summer I naively assumed that every American had emailed their elected officials to offer a room, food, and clothing for a Syrian family fleeing war. I was surprised when I received a personal telephone call from an aide at the state senator’s office explaining that there are national and international policies, which—in a nutshell—prohibit human kindness. “It’s really a wonder,” to quote Anne, “that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out.”
Truth be told, I have not thought much about Anne Frank through the years. Only now do I realize how powerfully the diary of an intelligent, witty, sometimes peevish, always imaginative, ever hopeful and very real young girl shaped my worldview.
Perhaps it is the books we take for granted, such as those we read in childhood and forget about for years, that are the most influential. Their messages quietly weave into our thoughts, shape our personal philosophies and actions, and provide the basis for all of our assumptions about people, life, and the world. Adulthood experiences may unlock the memories of those books, which have the power to sustain us on rainy days.
Liberty Walther Barnes, Ph.D. is the award-winning author of Conceiving Masculinity: Male Infertility, Medicine, and Identity (Temple University Press 2014). She lives in Oregon, USA, with her family, where she is conducting research for her next book, tentatively titled, Kid Medicine: Modern Childhood and the Invention of Pediatrics. Dr. Barnes holds a courtesy affiliation at the University of Oregon.