I grew up in a white, evangelical subculture, a cultural bubble in a city with large Mexican American and African American populations. In the part of Riverside where we lived Seventh Day Adventists made up the dominant minority. They considered those of us outside the fold as gentiles. (Just so you know how important I am, in college I briefly dated a descendent of 7th Day founder Ellen White.)
I did not know any Jews until adulthood. Riverside in the 1970s and 80s had one synagogue (in a city already over 100k in population). Even into the 1970s the most prestigious country club in Riverside still banned Jews from membership. My first real connection with the Jewish community came from developing a Holocaust education program at the Catholic high school where I taught. We worked with the local rabbi, and held a full day of the program at the synagogue. That also put my colleague and I into contact with the Jewish community in L.A. associated with the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Still, my first real sense of Jewish culture in America came after I moved to New Jersey to study at Rutgers. Seeing Jews, seeing Jewish institutions and getting to know professors and other graduate students who were Jews, all of this slowly developed notions of what it meant to be a Jew and to be Jewish. I freely admit, my sensibilities were still blunt instruments.
All of the above happened passively and largely unconsciously. But I realized even those crude sensibilities existed on a trip to the U.K. in 1987. My (now ex) wife and I drove from London through the length of England into Scotland. In Chester, we stayed at a bed and breakfast where it happened that two Catholic priests were also staying. Over breakfast we got to talking to them about religion, especially about Catholicism in England and Scotland. But we also discovered they were in Chester to see the Mystery Play, a three day event that the city had revived in 1951 (it had been suppressed by Cromwell, of course). So we decided to spend an extra night and to see at least the middle day of the event.
The play took place outside. The audience sat in bleachers, as if for a high school sports event. Props, acting, even script all impressed me. And the final scene, the crucifixion, had the Jesus actor carrying the cross as the audience followed along until he was crucified on the steps of the town hall.
But the scene that impressed me more than any took place when authorities hauled Jesus before the judges of the Sanhedrin. The costumes, the symbolism, everything about the scene emphasized (screamed) that these were Jewish authorities. Even though, as we know, the judges of Jewish law referred the matter to the Romans, this scene in from the Passion drama made clear that it was the Jews who were responsible for what would follow at the town hall. Those minutes of the drama quickly expanded my sense of how profoundly anti-semitism weaves its way into western and Christian culture. Once you see it, you see it everywhere.
One of the glaring gaps in my preparation as a teacher of the Holocaust is that I never read Anne Frank, Diary of a Young Girl. Anne Frank’s diary is one of those touchstones of Holocaust education. During a recent trip to my home city in California, I looked for a copy of the diary in a used book shop. The owner helped me, but we couldn’t find one. She said it was required in the school district, and that students often bought copies from her, then sold them back, and then she sold them again. I know this is one of the key texts in Holocaust literature, at least for younger readers.
What makes this blank spot in my self-education even more acute is that I have read many diaries of young girls—probably more than anyone who is not, like me, a historian of youth. So when I finally picked up a copy of the diary from my local library recently, I entered a work that felt familiar in many ways. Even though the dozens or scores of diaries I’ve used in my research were written by American girls and young women, Anne Frank took up many of the same themes.
As Joan Jacobs Brumberg has pointed out, diary keeping has clear class boundaries. There are vanishingly few diaries from working class girls. But as we enter the middle-class, adolescent children, especially girls, take up diary keeping and writing in huge numbers. And Anne, of course, came from a very comfortable middle-class family and background. In fact, the physical diary is a present for her on her birthday, and in the opening pages she writes about the gifts she received. Her education and the family’s prosperity are markers of her favored status. She had both the leisure and the facility with language to become a successful diarist.
Like many girls, Anne seems to have had the goal of writing mainly about the good things in her life. She begins with an overview of her friendships at school, both the girls who are her friends and the boys who are her admirers. But when girls become consistent diary-keepers, documenting happy times falls into a tangential activity and the diary always becomes a trusted ally in other projects of youth.
The most obvious use of the diary is a source of reflection and solace regarding the wear and tear of adolescent life. Anne’s life has more of this than my American writers, of course. While she begins with scenes from school, her life suddenly narrows to the warehouse annex where she goes into hiding from the Nazi purge of Dutch Jews. Rather than using her writing time to carefully review and analyze her relations with peers, she has to fill it with the daily grind and tensions of life with five adults, her sister, and an older boy. As we emerge from a pandemic period that constrained the lives of most of us, we should have abundant sympathy for the people in the hidden rooms. They had one toilet among the eight of them, and a diet limited to mainly potatoes and a diminishing supply of whatever vegetables that could be purchased with black market ration cards.
Yet, in spite of the grim circumstances, Anne handles these tensions with clear descriptions and humor. After the adults decide that their hiding place can take in one more person, they invite Mr. Dussel, a dentist, who ends up sleeping in the room where Anne sleeps. At first he seems merely awkward. But soon enough, tensions mount:
Mr. Dussel, the man who was said to get along so well with children and to absolutely adore them, has turned out to be an old-fashioned disciplinarian and preacher of unbearably long sermons on manners. Since I have the singular pleasure (!) of sharing my far too narrow room with His Excellency, and since I’m generally considered to be the worst behaved of the three young people, it’s all I can do to avoid having the same old scolding and admonitions repeatedly flung at my head to and to pretend not to hear.
The passage is pitch perfect. Even through the anger and frustration, Anne shows a keen perception of the situation she finds herself in.
Again and again, Anne reports on her run-ins with adults and on her feeling of being the target of most of the criticism circulating in the attic rooms. Perhaps the most heartfelt of her laments concerns her relation with her mother, whom she feels scolds too easily and fails to give her the kind of affection she craves. One night, for instance, her mother comes to her at bedtime and offers to listen to her prayers rather than Anne’s father. Anne refuses and her mother leaves in tears. (April 2, 1943) Of all the adults, Anne feels most supported and closest to her father.
Diary-keeping serves not only as a repository of grievances but also as an aid in the project of self-definition. “Who am I?” “How am I distinct and special in my family and among my peers?” “How do I relate to the world around me?” “What am I becoming?” All these questions, in some form, run through the diaries of young people, and typically we see them working these out as they relate to other youth. Anne, of course, loses almost all of her access to peers after she goes into hiding. So we see her working through many of these issues in relation to the unsympathetic adults around her or in her own mind.
So, for instance, in the incident with her mother at bedtime, Anne receives a scolding from her father. But she also processes the incident in her own way. “It’s hard to tell the truth, and yet the truth is that she’s the one who’s rejected me. She’s the one whose tactless comments and cruel jokes about matters I don’t think are funny have made me insensitive to any sign of love on her part.”
Adolescent girls seem to specialize in this kind of introspection. Anne considers what she prefers in her studies (history) and what she struggles with (algebra). She speculates on what she can do out of hiding, what she will become in life. She hopes to be a writer, and already in the Annex she begins writing short stories and fairy tales. She is pointedly self aware, even of her self awareness. “I have one outstanding character trait… I have a great deal of self-knowledge. In everything I do, I can watch myself as if I were a stranger.” (July 15, 1944)
We have the benefit of this awareness, this self observation. This comes especially into play as Anne grows closer to the older boy, Peter, who is the son of the other couple in hiding. From about the midpoint of the book onward, Peter plays a larger and larger role in her life. We see Anne relaxing with him and gaining a better sense of balance in what is at best a difficult life. Slowly, the two fall in love. They share a first kiss. They discuss sex, though more its anatomy than its possibility. This romantic connection seems almost inevitable. We know proximity is one of the most important variables in who people fall in love with. And not only are Anne and Peter close in physical space day after day—they also have no real alternatives.
[Of course, Peter is about the same age as Margot, Anne’s sister. But Margot, oddly, is the least rounded of the characters in Anne’s diary. They have a few exchanges of sisterly affection and recognition, but generally Anne says little of Margot except that she is the exemplary child.]
All of this happens in the shadow of what we know about the world outside the hiding place. While news reports play an important role in the discussions in the Annex, these never become the principal topic of Anne’s work. She worries about friends she knows could not go into hiding. She wonders about the treatment of Jews in the world, and whether this will change after the war. But, for most of these pages, Anne remains a young girl, dealing with her need to become a distinctive individual. Because we know that the diary ends when Anne and the others are arrested, we can never treat this text as lightly as we would if she had grown up in the Bronx. The diary is what we still have of Anne, her self reflected in her ideas and frustrations and aspirations.
Brumberg, Joan Jacobs. The Body Project : An Intimate History of American Girls. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.