"[T]his time I understood it as an adult, and more specifically as the father of a daughter who is very nearly the same age as Anne at the start of the book and of a son who is the same age as Peter Van Daan, the boy who lives with his own family and the Franks in the same small, secret place."
'Anne Frank' infused with new meaning
by Edward Cone
News & Record
I didn't plan to re-read "Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl" when
it was announced as this year's One City, One Book selection. I'm all
for the public reading project, in a semi-condescending former English
major kind of way, and I think the true story of a girl and her family
hiding from the Nazis in occupied Amsterdam is important on several
levels. But I had read it before -- in middle school, if memory serves
-- and I didn't see much value in plowing through it again.
But then I did read it again, and this time I experienced it very differently than I did when I read it as a teenager. Great stories engage readers on a personal level and tell us something fresh each time we come back to them. Anne Frank's story seemed more real and more terrible to me when I re-read it last week because this time I understood it as an adult, and more specifically as the father of a daughter who is very nearly the same age as Anne at the start of the book and of a son who is the same age as Peter Van Daan, the boy who lives with his own family and the Franks in the same small, secret place.
This time, I saw things not only from Anne's perspective, but through the eyes of her father, Otto Frank. I was less focused on the day-to-day dramas of a teenage girl and more amazed at the group dynamics and psychological struggle of eight people -- two families and another man -- forced to share a small space for more than two years.
My take on Anne's blossoming relationship with Peter, and her adolescent conflicts with her mother, was much changed over the decades. Back then I saw Otto -- if I saw him at all -- as an obstacle to young love or just part of the scenery. Now I wondered how I would handle the volatile mix of personalities and hormones. And now I felt a much more visceral sympathy for the powerlessness of a father to protect his family, and the hard questions raised by the story seemed more real to me: Who would hide my family in such a situation? Would I have the courage to hide families myself?
We all bring our own stories to Anne Frank's diary, and it is a book that can work for different people in different ways. Some of the narratives are pretty straightforward and universal, like the drama of Anne and her family surviving in secret, listening to the war news on the radio all the way through D-Day, their hopes growing for a deliverance that the reader knows will not come. There is the larger story, in which the Franks and the Van Daans stand in for the 6 million murdered Jews of Europe, humanizing that unfathomable number by replacing statistics with real voices and the mundane details of family life.
And of course the reason that Anne Frank's diary speaks to so many people is that its story, although specific to a girl and a family and a time and place and people, transcends all of those particulars to speak to anyone who is paying attention to history and to the world today. There are families now in Darfur and Baghdad that are living some version of Anne's story, fathers who are trying to protect children from forces way beyond their control. Reading the book again helped make their stories more real to me, even as I read about this one girl, and her father, Otto, who would be the only member of the Frank family to survive the Holocaust.
It's easy to be cynical about the earnestness of a program like One City, One Book, to scoff at its reading list as middlebrow and middle school. I'm glad I got past that and actually read the book.
© News & Record 2006