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Reading Anne Frank's Diary, as a Writer

Thursday, March 09, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ursula Werner wrote about how her family’s Nazi heritage taught her the importance of taking action in the face of oppression and inspired her novel, The Good at Heart. Ursula is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Anne Frank’s parents could not have known, when they bought the small, square notebook with its red-and-white checked cover, that this little book would be a present not just for their daughter but for the entire world.

Like many thirteen-year-old girls, Anne eagerly embraced the project of keeping a diary. But unlike so many of them, who abandon the enterprise after a few weeks, she faithfully maintained hers, year after year. Why? Because Anne was a writer:

There is a saying that ‘paper is more patient than man’; it came back to me on one of my slightly melancholy days, while I sat chin in hand, feeling too bored and limp even to make up my mind whether to go out or stay at home. Yes, there is no doubt that paper is patient and as I don’t intend to show this cardboard-covered notebook, bearing the proud name of ‘diary,’ to anyone, unless I find a real friend, boy or girl, probably nobody cares. And now I come to the root of the matter, the reason for my starting a diary: it is that I have no such real friend. (June 20, 1942)

On one hand, Anne’s hope for a “real” friend can be read as a sensitive adolescent’s desire to be seen and heard. Reading this entry with the knowledge of what ultimately happened to Anne and her family imbues it with a great sadness and heartbreaking irony: Anne’s wish to share her innermost thoughts was granted beyond her wildest dreams, as her words have been read by millions of people, over several generations—at the tragic cost of her own premature death.

But there is more to this entry than a teenager’s yearning to be understood. These words also offer us one young girl’s explanation for why she chose to write. They show us a nascent artist’s yearning “to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried deep in my heart,” and they reveal a writer’s faith in pen and paper as the surest medium for expressing the thoughts and feelings of the secret self that she most valued.

Reading Anne Frank’s diary as a kind of “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman” is a poignant enterprise. She proves herself to be a great storyteller, as she recounts life in the Annex, using singular descriptions (“[Father] puts on his potato-peeling face”), wry dialogue (“[Mr. Van Daan announces, ‘When this is all over, I’m going to have myself baptized’”), and amusing metaphors (“An elephant’s tread is heard on the stairway. It’s Dussel”). Time and again, I catch glimpses of her sensitivity—her desperation to lift the curtains and look at the moon, the fact that a dark, rainy evening, a gale, “scudding clouds” can hold her “entirely in their power.”

Anne’s artistic temperament also reveals itself when she feels depressed. Her mother admonishes her and advises, “Think of all the misery in the world and be thankful that you are not sharing in it!’” (March 7, 1944). But Anne rejects that cure for melancholy. She finds that, for herself, the key to joy is to dwell in beauty, not sorrow:

I don’t think then of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains. . . . I don’t see how Mummy’s idea can be right. . . . On the contrary, I’ve found that there is always some beauty left—in nature, sunshine, freedom, in yourself; these can all help you.

Anne’s faith in the redeeming power of beauty, even or perhaps especially in the midst of sadness and defeat, oppression, and tragedy, is, to my mind, quintessentially artistic. While the world around her appears to be going mad, Anne clings to beauty as a pillar. She cannot count on anything else; she has lost her home, bombs are being dropped on her head daily, she is grateful to be able to eat even rotten kale, yet beauty remains. When overwhelming darkness and injustice descend upon the world, creating something beautiful may seem insignificant and pointless—but Anne Frank reminds us that that effort may in fact be the most important one of all.

A lamentable and shameful truth about Anne Frank’s story is that the United States had the opportunity to shelter her: in 1938 and again in 1941, the entire Frank family sought to enter this country as refugees. Ultimately, their efforts were futile, because widespread antisemitism and xenophobia led to drastic restrictions on immigration from war-torn Europe. Had the United States not allowed itself to be ruled by fear and distrust, had it welcomed Anne Frank into its borders, she would surely have continued writing, increasing the measure of beauty in the world with every word.

Ursula Werner is a writer and attorney currently living in Washington, DC, with her family. Born in Germany and raised in South Florida, she is the author of two books of poetry and the novel The Good at Heart.

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What My Nazi Great-Grandfather Taught Me About the Obligation to Act

Monday, March 06, 2017 | Permalink

Ursula Werner is the author of novel The Good at Heart, recently released from Touchstone Books. Ursula will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

When my sister and I were very young, we loved playing with Linda Leibowitz, the little girl who lived across the street from our house in South Florida. We loved Linda’s tininess, her pale skin and straight, jet-black hair, so different from our own heftier Germanic bodies and wavy manes. Most summers, the three of us swam happily for hours in our pool, but every once in awhile, we fought as only girls can. Inevitably during those times, my sister and I ganged up on poor Linda, until she ran back across the street to her mother, crying and yelling, “I hate you, you dirty Nazis!”

At the time, I honestly did not know what a Nazi was, though I did understand that it had something to do with the fact that we were German and that, whatever it was, it wasn’t good. By the time I learned about the Holocaust at school a few years later, I had learned another, far more painful fact about my heritage: my great-grandfather was a Nazi, and he had worked directly for Hitler.

When I shouldered the burden of cultural guilt that, to some extent, every German feels when he or she learns about the Holocaust, I did so believing that it was an appropriate penance, given the lingering pain suffered by the family members and descendants of those millions who had been incinerated by my national forebears. But that burden was nowhere near as heavy as the millstone of my great-grandfather’s participation in the upper echelons of the Third Reich. I felt compelled to know more about what my great-grandfather knew or didn’t know, what he did or didn’t do. On one hand, I felt it was my duty to confront the reality of my personal history; on the other, I hoped for some kind of personal exoneration. But my parents and grandparents, like so many other survivors of the war, did not want to talk about it.

My novel, The Good at Heart, was to some degree a response to this wall of familial silence. It was my fictional recreation of the world in which my great-grandparents lived, my attempt as a writer to explore the choices they confronted and the dangers they faced. Halfway through writing the novel, on a visit to my aunt’s house in Hamburg I found a pile of letters written on behalf of my great-grandfather when he was jailed in Hamburg in 1946, awaiting “de-Nazification.” These letters told me that he stayed in the Economics Ministry of the Hitler administration consciously and deliberately, so that, as he told one Jewish businessmen in 1935, he might ensure that “the regulations against Jews [were] applied in a very lenient way.” I learned that he used his position to help Jewish individuals whenever possible, that he did not approve of the Nazi program, and that the file the SS kept on him was thicker than an unabridged dictionary.

When I first read these letters four years ago, I felt a kind of relief that I finally had some answers. Over time, that feeling of relief has evolved—first, into profound sense of sadness that someone who was apparently so well-meaning could have been so naïve about the intentions of the government he served. Was it fear or wishful thinking that made him believe that antisemitic regulations were the worst the Third Reich could dish out? I imagine my great-grandfather sitting in his prison in Hamburg, a former concentration camp converted by the Allies into a holding depot for possible war criminals. I imagine he understood the irony of where he was incarcerated, and I wonder how blindsided he felt and to what degree he castigated himself for not seeing the truth of Hitler’s ambitions earlier.

I like to think that, if I were in my great-grandfather’s shoes, I would have done the same things he did. I like to think that I might even have tried to do what my character Marina does in The Good at Heart and sheltered those fleeing the Nazi machine because they were Jews or Poles or members of other “unwanted” groups.

But then I remember that both my great-grandfather and Marina were acting in a police state, where the punishment for opposing the regime meant incarceration or death. And not just for themselves, but for members of their family. I might convince myself that I would have the courage to face my own imprisonment or execution in order to do the right thing, but would I knowingly put my family in danger? My young children? These are questions that make me pause.

Fortunately, however, I do not live in a police state. Fortunately, I live in a country with firmly entrenched democratic values and a Constitutional commitment to the freedom and equality of all people. But I am only recently understanding that the privilege of living in this democracy—more particularly, of enjoying the fruits of its ideals—imposes an affirmative obligation on me, an obligation to act. If my great-grandfather’s experience has anything to teach me, it is that whenever my government engages in morally indefensible actions, I have a responsibility to speak up in opposition. Even if those actions do not directly affect me, even if I have other, seemingly more pressing, matters in my personal life, there is no excuse for silence. My apathy and passivity permit the fire of calculated hatred and systematized prejudice to burn unchecked; I have to act because otherwise, as in my great-grandfather’s time, the fire might rise to a conflagration. I have to act because otherwise, as his example teaches me, there might be far worse to come.

Ursula Werner is a writer and attorney currently living in Washington, DC, with her family. Born in Germany and raised in South Florida, she is the author of two books of poetry and the novel The Good at Heart.

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