Earlier this week was Holocaust Memorial Day and so I wanted to take the opportunity to talk about one of my favourite books. I feel almost uncomfortable calling it that; like how can a book about such an unsettling subject, with its devastating real-life ending, be a favourite? But for me – and many others, I’m sure – it’s a book that has stayed with me for a long time and one I will always recommend. I want to try and explain why if I can and also share my experience of visiting the Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam.
Anne’s diary is a historical text, documenting the discrimination, persecution and many other horrors of the Holocaust. But it’s a very human story. Her diary is – literally – the hidden-away, private, personal side of war. Looking back, this book taught me more about the Second World War and the Holocaust than any of my history lessons at school. It’s also a story about growing up. In any other circumstance I’d call it a “coming of age” story but the sad fact is that Anne died at just fifteen-years-old. That’s no age at all.
“Even though I’m only fourteen, I know what I want, I know who’s right and who’s wrong, I have my own opinions, ideas and principles, and though it may odd coming from a teenage, I feel I’m more of a person than a child – I feel I’m completely independent of others.” Anne Frank
Most importantly, Anne’s diary reads like a diary, not a history textbook or even a memoir. She writes like someone who wants you to experience everything with her, almost in real time, and shares everything that’s going on inside her head. Sometimes when reading Anne’s diary, you’ll forget the world outside her window. You’ll forget that she’s anything but a normal teenager: annoyed at her parents, crushing on (effectively) the boy next door, trying to figure out who she really is. She had dreams of making her mark on the world.
“When I write I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived!” Anne Frank
I read Anne’s diary at about fourteen. We were similar ages and, despite our very different circumstances, I immediately connected with this young girl who wanted to be a writer. I agreed completely when Anne wrote that “paper has more patience than people” and was inspired to start writing a diary myself, documenting my – comparatively boring but thankfully very safe – teenage years and beyond.
Last year, I had the opportunity to visit the Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam. It was top of all the Amsterdam “must sees” but for me it wasn’t about ticking a box on the tourist trail. It felt more like a pilgrimage of sorts because I’d wanted to visit for such a long time. I felt like I needed to pay my respects to this girl who I didn’t know but that had inspired me so much at such a young age.
“Will I ever be able to write something great, will I ever become a journalist or writer? I hope so, oh, I hope so very much, because writing allows me to record everything, all my thoughts, ideals and fantasies.” Anne Frank
Two things stick in my mind from my visit to the Anne Frank Huis. Firstly, there was a moment when I stood in the front office and peered past the blinds as Anne had done, shocked to see the heads of people walking on the street below. I hadn’t realised just how close they were to civilisation and therefore discovery. Their situation suddenly felt all the more precarious.
“I long to ride a bike, dance, whistle, look at the world, feel young and know that I am free.” Anne Frank
The second thing I remember is the height chart recording how much Anne and her sister Margot grew during their time in the annexe. I found it quite emotional seeing those little marks on her parents’ bedroom wall, visually representing two years spent in hiding when she should have been free to enjoy her childhood. By the time she leaves the annexe, Anne is about the same height as me and that made her seem much more real to me; this person who could have looked me in the eye.
“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.” Anne Frank
I expected to leave the Anne Frank Huis feeling sad, and I guess I did, but I mostly felt reflective. It also felt strangely like closure; like I’d finally said goodbye to someone I’d never even met. Ever since, I’ve often recalled what Emma Thompson said about Anne (in a funny and moving speech at the Anne Frank Huis): “All her would-haves are our real possibilities. All her would-haves are our opportunities.”
Anne made her mark on the world, sharing her gift of writing, just as she always wished to do.
“To build up a future, you have to know the past.” Otto Frank
Originally posted to Tumblr on 30 January 2016