Title: The Diary of a Young Girl (original title: Het Achterhuis)
Author: Anne Frank, translated by BM Mooyart-Doubleday
Publication date: 1947 (original Dutch); 1952 (English translation)
Genre: Non fiction (diary)
In 1942, during the Nazi occupation of Holland, the 13-year old Jewish girl Anne Frank and her family went into hiding. This was a time when Jews had few rights, let alone privileges, and any day could bring a summons that would see them transported to a concentration camp.
Going into hiding, with the help of steadfast Dutch friends, was preferable to being in the hands of the Gestapo, but it was not without its difficulties. Anne’s diary is an extraordinarily honest account of the trials she faced, both as part of a family group and alone, as a teenager growing up.
We hear about the food they ate, the quarrels they had, the unexpected kindnesses of the people keeping their secret, all set against a backdrop of the unfolding political situation and the constant threat of discovery.
We watch Anne develop into a young woman with the capacity to love, forgive, and acknowledge her own faults; and we can imagine that, had she lived, she would most likely have gone on to fulfil her dream of becoming a writer. Her journey is moving, full of insight, and a refreshing portrait of the strength of the human spirit.
Where did I get hold of the book?
I’d owned this for a number of years; I think I swiped it off my parents’ bookshelves when I was younger and never returned it…
I must admit to having read it before. However, this was so long ago (probably about 30 years) that, for the purposes of this book challenge, reading it again felt like an entirely new adventure, and all my thoughts and feelings are as fresh as if I’d never seen it before.
- Find the book in a library near you.
- Support local independent bookshops by buying the book from Hive (UK).
What did I learn from it?
As always, it’s the little details from which we learn so much about people’s lives. The mundanity of something like peeling potatoes is juxtaposed with the big political situations, such as listening to a speech by Churchill on the radio. No impressive words can help them when their beans go rotten; and the promise of liberation by the British is of no defence against the more immediate threat of burglars in the building.
I find it’s the birthday presents that offer an insight into their individual priorities, or what each would consider a treat. For the men: bottles of beer; for the women and children: bottles of yoghurt (which I assume to be in a drinkable form); plus other foodstuffs such as jam, sweets, or even an extra butter ration; these are indulgences alongside miscellaneous items such as books, clothes, and flowers. The special nature of the occasions on which these are given only serve to highlight the state of thrift that is the families’ daily experience.
Anne clearly loves books, reading, and educating herself, not just on her favourite topics (anything from mythology to film stars) but on the standard subjects such as maths and languages too. In these days where it’s common, even natural, for children to grumble about going to school, this is a keen reminder that education is a privilege not granted to all and which can make a huge difference to an individual’s life.
How did it make me see the world differently?
I was intrigued by Anne’s thoughts on nature; specifically, how I reacted to them. Unsurprisingly, being confined indoors, she craved being outside in the natural world. She wanted to feel the breeze and the sun on her skin, go for walks, stretch her limbs and exercise.
Obviously this should make anyone with a degree of personal freedom feel hugely grateful for their ability to do these things. I felt I ought to run outside immediately and go for a long walk around my local National Trust park, drinking in the fresh air and counting my blessings.
But, as I sat there on my sofa, I felt disinclined to move. I was happy reading my book; I could see the sun out of the window; I was tired; and perhaps more importantly, I knew I could go out at any time. So I thought, why go now?
At first I felt as though I was taking my freedom for granted, being blasé about the choices available to me; a little like when you live in a town with great landmarks, you never visit what’s on your own doorstep. And I know this is not a great mindset to have: how many things are we letting pass us by because ‘we’ll get round to them later’? How much are we procrastinating when we should be grasping life with both hands and living every last drop out of it at all times?
But then I realised that it wasn’t about the activity, the ‘going out’, the external focus. It was about how I felt inside my head. And I knew that, although I wasn’t out in nature, I was still very mindful that I appreciated it; it was not something I took for granted but something I lived with every day, constantly aware of its importance in my life. I can go outside, and I do; I just didn’t want to do it at that precise moment. I had the choice.
And I realised that being inside, in the warm, with my feet up, reading a book, with the freedom to get a drink or a snack, go to the bathroom, make a telephone call, or even, yes, leave the house… all these things I could carry out without fear of being carted off by the Gestapo at any minute. And that ability to relax into what I was doing, no matter how ordinary, was denied to Anne.
The question is not whether we should take advantage of our freedom to go out and do the things that were impossible for Anne, but whether we appreciate the ease with which we are able to enjoy all the small, seemingly unremarkable things that life has to offer. Because it is the mundane as much as the exciting that makes up the sum of our lives.
What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?
As I read the Diary I became increasingly aware of the sheer volume of thoughts passing through Anne’s head that she didn’t share with the outside world. Clearly I’m stating the obvious, but it’s a salutary reminder that whatever we see of someone on the outside is merely the tip of the iceberg. We have no idea what they are concealing from us, even from those closest to them.
As an introvert, I know this to be massively true about myself – and why should anyone else be different? Everyone has more about them than meets the eye, and I need to actively remind myself of this. The next time I leap to a conclusion about someone – something they’ve done, something they’ve said – I need to tell myself that I don’t have all the facts, probably never will, and give them the benefit of the doubt.
I hope that the Diary of Anne Frank will make me more tolerant of and sympathetic to others.
The book also reminded me of how difficult it can be to live in close proximity to others when you don’t have the option of taking time out on your own. When you’re forced to exist side by side with others, with no chance of a break, slight differences of opinion get magnified into huge arguments, and mild stress transforms into something all-consuming.
For me, as someone who now works solo from home (and loves it), this reminded me of being in an office, in a ‘day job’. Having to be present in a particular place for a specific time period, whether my energy levels were up or down, whether work was busy or slow, was something I really struggled with; my life now is so much more manageable and productive.
Yet sometimes, when clients are thin on the ground, my schedule is unpredictable, and money is short, I start wondering whether I wouldn’t prefer to be back in an office, with guaranteed times of work and a dollop of cash in my bank account at the end of each month. Surely I could put up with the downsides for these upsides?
And then I remember the stresses and frustrations of confinement expressed so eloquently by Anne in her diary, and I am reminded of everything I hate about being in an office, and I give myself a talking to. Do I really want to give up my freedom – something that is denied to so many – simply because of issues that can easily be addressed with a modicum of reason and planning? No.
I count my blessings – and remain resolute that I will continue to pursue freedom in my ‘one wild and precious life‘ for as long as I am able.
Over to you…
Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?
If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?
Please share in the comments below!