The biggest mistake people make about “The Diary of Anne Frank” is to assume it’s about a little dead girl.
Anne Frank is not dead.
Not in 1945. Not in 2019.
Anne was a Dutch Jew hiding from the Nazis with her family and four others in a loft above her father’s former factory in Amsterdam.
The teenager is the most famous victim of the Holocaust, but her story doesn’t end when she succumbed to typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in the closing days of WWII.
Because it’s a story that never ends.
Her physical self may be gone, but her spirit remains.
In the 1990s, she was a Muslim Bosniak child killed by Christian Serbs in the former Yugoslavia.
In the 2000s, she was a Christian Darfuri in Western Sudan killed by Arab militias.
A decade ago, she was a Palestinian toddler torn to pieces on the West Bank – a victim of Israeli bombs.
And, yes, today she is a brown skinned Central American girl fleeing from violence to the United States only to be forcibly separated from her family and thrown in a cage.
Not only is Anne Frank not dead, she is more alive than most people who draw breath, whose hearts still pump blood, whose eyes shrink from the violence, prejudice and hatred all around them.
Perhaps that’s why it is so hard to teach her Diary in my 8th grade class.
It’s not a particularly difficult book.
Her prose is uncomplicated. Her ideas clear.
In fact, she jumps right off the page and into the classroom.
But that’s what makes her so difficult for me, the teacher.
Every year I help bring her to life for my students. And I suffer her loss all over again each time.
I think everyone sees something different in Anne.
My students see themselves in her. Or they see their friends or siblings.
Her problems are their problems. They, too, can feel closer to one parent than another.
They, too, can hate to be compared with a “perfect” sibling.
They, too, feel all the emotions and frustrations of growing up – the confusion, passion and hurt.
For me, though, it is different.
I don’t see Anne primarily as myself. I see her as my daughter. Or perhaps I see my daughter in her.
A precocious child hunched over a book scribbling away her deepest thoughts? Sounds like my precious 10-year-old drawing her comic books, or writing her stories, or acting out melodramas with her dolls and stuffed animals.
I want to take her somewhere safe, to keep her away from the Nazis, to conceal her from all the evil in the world.
After teaching the book for almost a decade and a half, it was only this year that I hit upon a new perspective. I realized that if Anne had survived, she would be almost the same age as my grandmother.
And for a moment, an image of her was almost superimposed over my Grandma Ce Ce. There she was – a physical Anne, a living person. But then it was gone.
When speaking about her to my students, I try to be extremely careful of their feelings. I make it exceedingly clear from the very beginning where her physical life ends.
She and her family are in hiding for 25 months before the Nazis find and send them to concentration camps. Only her father, Otto Frank, is left.
I don’t want any of that to be a surprise.
Yet it is.
My classes stare back at me with shocked expressions when we reach the last page.
That can’t be the end. There has to be more.
So we read first hand accounts of Anne in the camp.
But that can’t be all, either. Can it?
So we learn about her legacy – about the Anne Frank House, the Academy Award winning film, and how her book is an international best seller.
Somehow her spirit still refuses to die.
I think it’s because she has become more than just a victim. More even than a single physical person.
We know that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust. We know that 5 million non-Jews were also killed. But no matter how many documentaries we see, or how many pictures we look at – none of them come alive in quite the same way as Anne.
She is a face for these faceless.
She irreparably humanizes the other.
Once you read her Diary, you can’t forget that smiling little girl whose light was so suddenly snuffed out.
We can go numb at the numbers – the sheer scale of these atrocities.
But with Anne, it becomes something personal.
On Dec. 24, 1943, Anne wrote:
“I sometimes wonder if anyone will ever understand what I mean, if anyone will ever overlook my ingratitude and not worry about whether or not I’m Jewish and merely see me as a teenager badly in need of some good, plain fun.”
We see you, Anne.
And because we do, we see beyond you, too.
We see you in the continuing horrors of our age.
Because your death is never in the past tense. It is always present.
Your eyes look out at us through the victims of our day, too.
And your words ring in our ears:
“What is done cannot be undone, but one can prevent it happening again.” (May 7, 1944)
We have not prevented it.
Hatred and prejudice and murder echo through our human interactions.
All while the history fades.
According to a 2018 study, only 22 percent of millennials say they’ve even heard of the Holocaust.
I don’t think any of those young adults read your Diary, because my students remember you.
That’s why I’ll never stop teaching your story.
In the vain hope that by remembering you, they’ll see your eyes on the faces of all the future’s would-be victims.
In the vain hope that caring about you will help them care about the faceless strangers, the propagandized others.
In the vain hope that knowing your face will force their eyes to see – actually see – the faces of those who are demonized and dehumanized so someone will care when the boot comes down on their visage.
So that someone will stop the boot from ever coming down again.
In one of her last entries, on July 15, 1944, Anne wrote:
“I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.”
That time has come for us all.
Anne’s Diary remains to remind us – a clarion call to empathy and action.
Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!