While teaching a weekly grammar lesson to my hilarious group of year 8s recently, I got into a discussion with the class about forms of writing, and about diaries in particular. A quick show of hands revealed that less than a third of the class has or would consider keeping a diary. One girl even went so far as to comment that diaries are old fashioned now. She informed me that calling, texting, tumblr, facebook, twitter – and the list goes on – are the modern replacements. Self expression? Teenagers have got it covered, apparently.
What this student said bothered me. It wasn’t just that she had called out, which is completely against Mrs Kaur’s class rules. Actually, it was her dismissive tone. The lack of awareness and the unwitting lack of respect she was demonstrating for the power of the simple act of writing out one’s innermost thoughts and feelings. To be fair, we discussed this further as a class and the students were able to tease out the importance of diary writing and to tell me a bit more about how it’s done nowadays.
The whole experience made me reflect though, on my own views which are obviously stronger than I realised. As a young girl and as a teenager, I kept a diary which my sisters bought for me. Writing regularly was encouraged by the primary school I attended, which I can now recognise was an amazing place. But I was also inspired by another young writer – Anne Frank. Her story has always been very familiar (again, thanks to my primary school) and at the forefront of my mind: a story that I feel has shaped me. I can remember feeling carsick from reading a copy of her diary whilst out in the car with my parents as a teenager, and being told to look up from the book in my lap and to take a break. I went on to study Holocaust Literature as part of my MA which exposed me to many other testimonies. I was also lucky enough to visit the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam recently, which was a very meaningful experience.
The Anne Frank House calls itself ‘a museum with a story’, which given that it is the site of the secret annexe where Fritz Pfeffer and the Frank and van Pels families were in hiding, is apt. It allows visitors to witness and observe the physical details of the lives of these families which we become privy to in Anne’s diary. It’s also something of a living monument, bearing witness to the struggles and the bravery of the eight Jews who hid inside.
What struck me about the experience of visiting the museum was learning of Otto Frank’s thoughts about Anne’s writing. After learning of her death, Otto Frank read his daughter’s diary and also discovered that she had been working to redraft it as a novel. Learning of the depth of his daughter’s emotions and inner life through her writing, Otto Frank concluded that ‘most parents don’t know really, their children’. The thoughtfulness and the quality of Anne’s thoughts really are remarkable and given her fate, make visiting the house and reading the diary both sad and enriching experiences.
We can now only wonder what kind of a woman and a writer Anne Frank would have become. However thanks to her avid diary writing, her legacy endures. There’s something about stories of individual courage and spirit which inspire and evoke our sympathy. Somehow I think we need individual examples like this one in order to understand the experiences of others and the events of history as a whole. Of course, countless other persecuted Jews went into hiding and it’s possible to learn about Corrie Ten Boom for example, and to visit the house in Haarlem where she harboured hundreds of Jews. However for me, Anne Frank’s work is enduring. Her struggles as documented in her diary and those of the seven others in hiding with her represent the struggles of all who suffered in the Holocaust. The museum does an impressive and admirable job of preserving her memory and all that she represents with love and care. The Anne Frank House also works to spread awareness and understanding and to fight prejudice and extremism. There’s an interactive forum at the end of the tour which presents visitors with modern day examples of discrimination, from Holocaust denial on social networks to the rights of the EDL to express its opinions. It’s encouraging to know that lessons can be learned from such tragic events and that the facts of Anne Frank’s life are sparking debate about contemporary issues.