The Diary of a Young Girl

Anne Frank lacht naar de schoolfotograaf

…I seem to have everything, except my one true friend.  All I think about when I’m with friends is having a good time.  I can’t bring myself to talk about anything but ordinary everyday things.  We don’t seem to be able to get any closer, and that’s the problem.

As I read The Diary of Anne Frank for the first time, two things really struck me.  The first was that humans, ordinary humans, can turn cruel so quickly and completely.  The second was that, even as an adult, I could see pieces of my own life in Anne’s, because her writing, in so many ways, is ageless.

It’s one of the most famous memoirs of all time, so many people know the story: a Jewish family in Holland is compelled to go into hiding after the Nazi takeover, and the youngest daughter records their experiences in her diary.  I had heard much about the book but put off reading it, due to my emotional experience with similar memoirs (The Hiding Place, Night, and From the Ashes of Sobibor).  Though different in scope and perspective from those other books, The Diary is every bit as emotional and, while difficult to put down, cannot be read lightly.

Anne’s first entries show the Frank family before they went into hiding, making the best life they could under an increasingly oppressive police state.  When she was about twelve, Anne and her sister were forced to transfer to the Jewish Lyceum school due to segregation by Nazi mandate.  Always intent to be cheerful, she writes joyfully of her friends and admirers at the new school.  Of the discrimination against Jews – from harsh curfews to exclusion from public transportation – she writes very matter-of-factly, in a bluntness that carries through the rest of the diary.

Even at thirteen, when she began writing, Anne seemed to have a sense for what was important to record; later, she told her imaginary friend “Kitty” that she wanted to become a writer or journalist when she grew up.  What results is a fascinating combination of personal (even intimate) anecdotes and journalistic writing about the family’s day-to-day activities and the progress of the war. 

The Frank family was not alone; they shared the “Secret Annex” with the van Daan family and a middle-aged bachelor, Mr. Dussel.  For two years, the eight people were cooped up together in the tiny hidden rooms, fearful of making noise or being seen by the outside world.  Understandably, tempers often ran high.  Much of the book covers the conflict between Anne and everyone else, as it seems (at least from her perspective) she was frequently the target of the grown-ups’ frustrations.  In the Definitive Edition which I read, even the arguments between Anne and her mother are included.  The whole dynamic is extremely believable, and I would imagine the situation caused the majority of the friction between people who would otherwise have got along pretty well.

What is most enduring to me about Anne’s diary is just that: its honesty.  There’s the day-to-day dramas, traumas, and bathroom jokes, which make the characterizations so real.  Then there’s the introspection, self-analysis, and over-analysis which ring true for a girl in her early teens.  Anne’s desire to be taken seriously and understood is something I could so well relate to at that age, and reading it now was like a flashback to my own diary.  Less relatable for me was her enthusiasm about puberty and “growing up,” but I think a lot of other readers would be able to relate to that.

There were many great quotes, but I wanted to end with one that I found especially insightful, as well as chilling:

I don’t believe the war is simply the work of politicians and capitalists.  Oh no, the common man is every bit as guilty; otherwise, people and nations would have rebelled long ago!  There’s a destructive urge in people, the urge to rage, murder, and kill.  And until all of humanity, without exception, undergoes a metamorphosis, wars will continue to be waged, and everything that has been carefully built up, cultivated and grown will be cut down and destroyed, only to start all over again!
– May 3, 1944

The Frank family, the van Daans, and Mr. Dussel were eventually captured on August 4, 1944. Anne and her sister Margot were separated from their parents and, within about six months, had been murdered through the terrible conditions in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Anne’s father, Otto Frank, was the only survivor.

As I remember Anne Frank and her family, I also pray for those who are suffering persecution today, such as Pastor Wang Yi.  We shouldn’t forget that history is repeating itself, even today, all over the world.

The Congo and the Cameroons – Penguin Great Journeys

The Congo and the Cameroons contains excerpts from Mary Kingsley’s memoir Travels in West Africa, published in 1897.  The first two sections cover some observations and anecdotes about West African flora and fauna, while the last two-thirds of the book follow Mary’s climbing of Mount Cameroon.

Mont-Cameroun
Normand Roy [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Mary – like her fellow solo traveler Isabella Bird – was a tough cookie.  She was only about 33 years old when she decided to become “the third Englishman to ascend the Peak [of Mount Cameroon] and the first to have ascended it from the southeast face” (p. 33–34).  With her trusty umbrella, some German camping gear, and a small group of native assistants, she set off into the jungle.  Surviving rain, mud, tornadoes, and a range of minor accidents, Mary was determined nothing, even her own moments of discouragement, would keep her from achieving her mission.

Apart from bravely facing the elements and all kinds of creepy-crawlies, Mary was also quite a character.  She writes much in the style of a male British officer of the day, referring to her assistants as “the men” or “my boys.”  Natives and Germans alike feature heavily in her jokes, so it is hard to tell whether she was racially prejudiced, misandrist, or simply impatient with anyone less committed to her goal than herself.  Either way, I really didn’t care for her sense of humor.

While I may not read the full memoir, I’ll probably seek out a biography on Mary Kingsley, because it sounds like she had a very interesting life.  (I was particularly interested to learn on Wikipedia that she met Mary Slessor, a missionary whose story fascinated me as a child.)  Sadly, she died when she was only 37, serving as a volunteer nurse in the Second Boer War.  I can imagine how many more adventures she would have gone on had she lived a longer life, but it’s amazing what she accomplished in the years she had.

Adventures in the Rocky Mountains – Penguin Great Journeys

I knew Isabella Bird was a Victorian solo traveler, who had visited far-off places such as China on her own. What I didn’t know was what a great writer she actually was.

Adventures in the Rocky Mountains contains excerpts from her book, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains (1879). Surprisingly for a travelogue, here you’ll find a variety of experiences and emotions – from courage and trepidation to hilarity and friendship. I was really impressed by Isabella’s fearlessness, paired with her knitting needles and an honest confession of her physical weaknesses. Still, this middle-aged lady exhibits far more stamina than I could ever dream of, whether it’s braving out the freezing cold in a cabin or helping cowboys round up their cattle! Through it all, she focuses on the exhilarating beauty of the Rocky Mountain landscape, which is the subject of all her voluntary hardships and a lesson to all of us (privileged to travel comfortably) not to take it for granted.

Among other quirky characters, Mr. “Mountain Jim” Nugent features frequently: a handsome, rugged desperado who is determined Isabella shall achieve her goal of climbing Pikes Peak, Colorado. Behind the genteel prose, it’s clear Ms. Bird and Mountain Jim have a thing for each other, but Jim’s criminal past and alcoholism makes it a futile (and bittersweet) romance.

Modern readers should know that Isabella was a person of her time in many ways, so there are some derogatory references to Native and African Americans early in the book. Interestingly, in a later letter, she does strongly condemn the way the U.S. government treated the Native Americans (p. 93–94).

In both history and human element, Adventures in the Rocky Mountains packs a lot of punch for a mere collection of excerpts. When I got to the end, I regretted not having read the full original, and I probably will someday. Recommended if you want to read an eye-witness account of the Old West from a unique perspective.

The Cobra’s Heart – Penguin Great Journeys

The Cobra’s Heart is a succinct yet expansive book about a Polish journalist’s experiences and observations in 20th-century Africa.  Just under 100 pages, it’s merely an excerpt of Ryszard Kapuściński’s full-length book, The Shadow of the Sun.  Upon finishing it, I was happy to find the full version already on my to-read list (added, though forgotten apparently, in 2013) as well as pleasantly surprised that this miniature made me want to read the full book.

Though the titular chapter – in which the author has a close call with a deadly cobra – is interesting enough, it’s the historical-political anecdotes that I found the most intriguing.  In “I, a White Man,” he talks about the feeling of apartheid in Dar es Salaam, a coastal city in Tanzania which encompasses neighborhoods from the comfortable, predominantly white Oyster Bay to the dry, dusty African suburbs away from the water.  He explains how, upon the eventual departure of the Europeans, a new elite class emerged which continued to exploit the common people and led to events such as the 1966 military coup d’etat in Nigeria. In “Amin,” Kapuściński paints a portrait of Idi Amin, the notoriously brutal dictator of Uganda in the 70s.

The fishermen threw their catch onto a table, and when the onlookers saw it, they grew still and silent. The fish was fat, enormous . . . Everyone knew that for a long time now Amin’s henchmen had been dumping the bodies of their victims in the lake, and that crocodiles and meat-eating fish must have been feasting on them. The crowd remained quiet.

Kapuściński has a great writing style, descriptive but not too wordy or overly “clever.” Some reviewers have described his full-length book as too bleak or negative.  I can’t speak to that (yet), but I think these excerpts show someone with real interest in the subject and empathy with the people he is describing.

Fear No Evil: The Classic Memoir of One Man’s Triumph Over a Police State

Flickr - Government Press Office (GPO) - P.M. Peres Welcomes Sharansky
Prime Minister Shimon Peres (left) welcomes released Prisoner of Zion Antatoly Sharansky as he steps off the Westwind plane arriving from Frankfurt at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Government Press Office (Israel) [CC BY-SA 3.0]

For many of us the scientific-technological revolution arrived at precisely the right time, with the world of science as a kind of castle where you could protect yourself from the shifting winds of official ideology. (p. xii)

This single sentence from Natan Sharansky’s memoir Fear No Evil really grabbed me.  Here is someone I could immediately relate to in a unique way.  I’m not brilliant at chess, math, or computer science like Sharanksy, but I understand him.  In a world where politics and ideology are constantly in our face, some of us cling to science and technology – constants of logic and scientific process – as a way to feel safe and find commonality.

But what happens when not even science can protect you?

This break-down of “the castle” is what happened to Sharansky.  He talks about how he came to explore and embrace his Jewish heritage, in part through his friendship and eventual engagement with a Jewish activist, Avital.  During the 1970s when this all occurred, the USSR was preventing many Jews from emigrating to Israel, so those who were denied visas became known as refuseniks.  Sharanksy, a refusenik himself, began to campaign for refuseniks’ rights, becoming almost a minor celebrity through his interactions with the Western press.

Barely a day married to Natan, Avital was finally allowed to leave Russia and compelled to leave immediately before it was too late.  Natan, however, was still denied his own visa and continued to be followed by his “tails” who were assigned to watch him.  Three years later in 1977, he was arrested, accused of being a spy for the U.S.

The rest of the memoir follows his intense and truly stunning determination to survive his prison sentence and demand justice.  Logically minded, Sharansky immediately came up with a mind map, outlining his method of dealing with the authorities and maintaining his dignity.  A major piece of this was his decision to have no association with the KGB – no bargaining, no deals – even when tempted or tortured.

As I read this, I was having flashbacks to Kafka’s The Trial.  Since Sharanksy was well known outside of Russia, he was treated somewhat better (relatively speaking) than more obscure prisoners.  Nonetheless, the authorities intended to destroy his integrity, chiefly by means of monologues and monotony, trying to manipulate him by withholding visits with his worried mother.  They really took several pages out of Kafka, and the sheer, maddening tedium of it all would be enough to drive most people into cooperation.

Sharansky, however, managed to not only not cooperate but to come out ahead.  He took advantage of his position as a well-known activist to call out the authorities when they were not following their own rules.  He used his empathy to network with other zeks (prisoners) and try to stay on good terms with his fellow inmates.  He used hunger strikes strategically and stuck to them.  Finally, he focused on his spiritual life, through his Psalm book, his pictures of family members, and his prayers.

One small part of the book that also stood out to me was the role of literature.  Sharansky credits Sherlock Holmes as being a major influence in his pursuit of logic, which was to help him in his trial.  He also relates a moving scene in which he and two others, locked in punishment cells (solitary confinement with low rations), passed the time by debating about authors and their books.

Thanks to Stephen for sharing his review of the book (which is how I found out about it!).