The first time I read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, I was a closeted teenager attending a Jewish private school. I was an outcast with frizzy hair, glasses, and an innocent smile, which I mostly suppressed because smiling showed my braces. I gazed at the photograph of Anne on the cover and admired her. She was pretty, popular and strong: all qualities that I desired.
When I read the diary that Anne kept while she was in hiding during World War Two, as well as other Holocaust books intended for young adult readers, such as The Devil’s Arithmetic, I experienced several notable sensations.
I felt fearful and terrified by the descriptions of life in Nazi-occupied Europe. Anne writes about the military vehicles turning up at homes and demanding to know whether any Jews lived there. She describes people being dragged out of their homes – Including children, the sick, the elderly, and pregnant women – and bullied, beaten and marched to their death.
Around this time, I started having recurring nightmares of a home invasion. I imagined how I would respond. I planned a strategy down to minute details, including how I would keep my miniature schnauzer quiet, while we hid during the attack. I didn’t make the connection to Anne Frank’s story. My Jewish friends and family members described similar fears when I asked. One described a particularly striking recurring nightmare about the Holocaust taking place in a modern day context, involving all the people in this person’s life.
My other reactions to Anne Frank’s diary included the strange sense of being a voyeur. This was back in the 90s, before The Bachelor, Big Brother and social media. Despite feeling uneasy, I was also fascinated by her boldness, especially when she wrote about love, sexuality, development, and family conflict. I couldn’t imagine writing about such personal topics. I always locked my own diary.
Anne Frank’s diary was addictive. The writing was high quality, even for a discerning young reader whose only involvement in competitive sports was my reading list during the annual MS Readathon.
Anne’s insights into teenage dynamics, especially within her immediate family, resonated with me. “They’re so sentimental together, but I’d rather be sentimental on my own. They’re always saying how nice it is with the four of us, and that we get along so well, without giving a moment’s thought to the fact that I don’t feel that way,” she writes.
When she mentions that she would like to have a heart-to-heart talk without bursting into tears, she adds, “But apparently that has to do with my age.” I remember relating to her words with shock and surprise. How could my life, which was so different, and so safe, connect with Anne’s?
Most enduring were my feelings of admiration and sadness. I grieved Anne, her family and her friends. I struggled to comprehend the pain that Anne’s father, Otto Frank, must have felt. He survived Auschwitz Birkenau and was liberated by Soviet troops, only to learn that the rest of his family perished in the death camp. At the time, I hadn’t heard of survivor guilt, but something inside me ached when I imagined how he must have felt amidst the jubilance of survival.
When I first read her diary, I believed it was without any experience of hiding my own identity. In the two decades that passed since I first read Anne’s diary, I figured out that I am queer. This took a surprisingly long time, despite my many crushes on girls and boys at high school. I censored their names in my diary, using initials or pseudonyms for any girls I wrote about.
After high school, I was uncertain of whether I could connect my Jewish identity to my queer identity. The two worlds, or identities, seemed entirely disconnected. I felt rejected by the Orthodox Jewish community, especially whenever I expressed my queer or feminist identities, and like an outsider in the queer community.
I tried to process this tension through fiction writing, during my undergraduate degree in Creative Writing. But the intersection of my faith and sexuality is complex, and it took more than the subjects offered at university to make sense of it. There’s a lot of friction. It has taken serious soul searching, regular therapy, and memoir writing, to begin to understand the dynamic between these two important identities.
Now that I am out and proud about my queer identity, but perhaps not quite as confident in my queer Jewish identity, I can tell that Anne’s diary had more of an impact on me than I realised. Ever since I was a child, I identified as a writer. This gave me more security than any of my other identities. After learning about the Holocaust, and when my fears of invasions began, I thought about what I would do if I was ever captured, or locked in solitary confinement. I felt a sense of calm knowing that writing would get me through.
As an adult, writer, and educator, I appreciate Anne’s use of language beyond that which I admired as a teenager. She’s sly, witty and intelligent. Her writing is emotive and moving, without being maudlin. As she says, “Not being able to go outside upsets me more than I can say, and I’m terrified our hiding place will be discovered and that we’ll be shot. That, of course, is a fairly dismal prospect.”
Rereading Anne’s diary, there are things that appeal to me as an activist on social issues. Anne comments, “I feel wicked sleeping in a warm bed, while somewhere out there my dearest friends are dropping from exhaustion or being knocked to the ground.” Later, she sounds even more judgemental of herself and the others in hiding: “We’re so selfish that we talk about ‘after the war’ and look forward to new clothes and shoes, when actually we should be saving every penny to help others when the war is over, to salvage whatever we can.”
It is striking that Anne, despite her situation, worries about her friends, fellow Jews, and the Christians involved in the war. Despite her own fears and immediate danger, she has a genuine desire to help others. Her concerns for other people felt generous, selfless and admirable to me as a teenager, and today as an adult. I continue to be impressed and moved by her strength. In a polarised world, split by partisan politics, it is rare to encounter media coverage of individuals like Anne Frank. Brave young people exist, but we don’t hear nearly enough about them.
In my ideal world, Jewish secular and religious life would embrace difference. The museums would represent heroes of all varieties, including Jews of colour and those with diverse sexual or gender identities. I feel as though this vision is getting closer. Last year, I heard a Jewish lesbian writer read an erotic poem in Yiddish to a large audience inside the Jewish Museum. I feel pride when I watch people proudly transgress the restrictions and boundaries that religion often places on human behaviour. Despite danger, some people are willing to be vulnerable. As I delve deeper into my own past and reveal it on the page, I realise how inspired I have always been by Anne Frank’s bravery.