I vividly remember when I read The Diary of Anne Frank for the first time. Just like one can remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard news of a major historical event, reading the profound words of a girl not too much older than myself, yet in vastly different circumstances, gave me similar lasting memories.
I was in grade five. I sat in a row of desks three down and perpendicular to the teacher’s, which happened to be the seat location I pulled from a hat not long earlier, a system used to allow all students a different seating position every month or so. I liked this spot; the window was behind me and shone good natural light on my notebook. If we got a short break from activities, I would pull out Anne’s Diary from under my desk and get in a good few pages. All the girls at school had been reading the book. We giggled and gossiped about the things she said about boys and first periods.
I think one of the reasons why I liked her diary so much was that Anne herself was so relatable. A young girl with all the same emotions, dreams and fears of any adolescent; finding that human connection with her was easy. Yet at the same time, she spoke of inconceivable things, of a situation so dire and desperate, it was difficult for someone like me who had never experienced war or racism to reckon.
Today one can visit the house in Amsterdam where Anne and her family hid during Nazi occupation of Holland, and where she wrote her now world-famous diary. Unlike some museums where special rooms may be roped off, at Anne Frank House one can go through the door disguised as a bookcase and climb their way into the Secret Annex where the Frank’s, along with family friends, lived in hiding for two years.
Standing in Anne’s room today, still with some of the newspaper and magazine clippings she glued to the walls to make them more cheerful, I once again felt that human connection with her, but simultaneously worlds apart. How unimaginable this time is to me, perhaps even to Anne at the beginning of the occupation.
What really brought home what happened to Anne and the others after capture was having visited Auschwitz-Birkenau just a few months ago during our time in Poland. This was the concentration camp where they were sent after their arrest. Anne and her sister Margot were eventually relocated away from their mother to the Bergen-Belsen camp in Germany shortly before their deaths. Having seen the conditions of the camps for ourselves really put into context the extreme gravity of their situation.
Yet from an incomprehensible situation, Anne found strength in her diary, her outlet in the Secret Annex. Thanks to her years of writing and stories from her father (the only Secret Annex survivor) and others who survived the war, we know a lot about Anne. We know that Anne wanted to be a writer and she wanted the thoughts expressed in her diary to eventually be read. In fact, she had already started editing her original diary to be ready for publication after the war. She knew the power of words and she wanted them to make change.
Standing in line to sign the visitors’ book on the way out, I struggled for the minute or so I had to decide on my message before reaching the front of the queue. I could see there were a lot of thank you’s and R.I.P.’s and while these are perfectly legitimate messages of gratitude and condolence, ones I could wholeheartedly sign off on myself, I wanted to write something to Anne specifically about her desires for her writing. Perhaps more than anything she wrote about the realities of her situation, it was her need to write, her desire to document and her belief that words could change the world that I could relate to the most.
In the end, I wrote:
“Through your words, you’ve changed generations.”
Thank you to I amsterdam for arranging tickets for us to visit Anne Frank Huis. It is with honesty and sincerity that I recommend this attraction. Really, don’t leave Amsterdam without going here. My only bias, and I hope you’ll forgive me for it, is having already been in awe of Anne’s words some two decades ago.