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Anne Frank Forever

Anne Frank died in 1945 at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. June 12, 2004, would have been her 75th birthday.

When I first read Anne Frank’s diary I was not yet 13 years old. Jewish tradition dictated that I was on the verge of adulthood, but I knew I had a long way to go. I was a neurotic girl with a hyperactive imagination and an ever-expanding index of fears: throwing up, choking, my mother dying, my brother dying, being teased about my hair, my cat dying, dying in my sleep, going blind, getting a sunburn, being teased about my last name… . I was dangerously self-aware, always connecting the dots of an impending crisis, the dispatcher of my own ambulance. But these concerns were all but shelved once I read “The Diary of a Young Girl” and learned what a real case of emergency was.

Before meeting Anne on the page, I literally could not have imagined her circumstances, much less her fate. For me, being Jewish meant that Santa skipped over our house on Christmas, just like God did in Egypt in the Passover story. But Anne’s story seemed more real than anything I had ever read in my haggadah, or seen on any after-school television special. Could being Jewish really have been that … special? I was suddenly desperate to understand how one man’s diary (“Mein Kampf”) could have led to the events described in Anne’s. I would look up HITLER, ADOLF in my World Book Encyclopedia, along with HOLOCAUST and HOLLAND, where Anne had lived from the age of 5, in the same volume. I would ask my father about my Nana, and why she fled HUNGARY. I would ask Nana about the family she left behind, and what Dad meant by “covered train.” My mother would tell me about the time her college roommate felt her head for horns, and our rabbi continued to remind us that Jews have always been the Chosen People —chosen for what? I wondered. But I didn’t care much for the authoritative, vacant way adults spoke. Ditto for all those prayers to “God.” The only one I wanted to hear from, and talk to, and identify with, was Anne. So I did what any curious, sheltered American girl might do: I went into hiding myself.

My Secret Annex took the shape of a small cedar closet beneath the basement staircase of my home. I made three visits to the site before settling in for good: First I delivered the provisions; next, a notebook, a pen, and a flashlight; and, finally, my cat. I might have lasted one whole hour, and that probably included one trip to the bathroom, another to the refrigerator. I wish I could say, now, that I realized then how lucky I was to be alive. And free. I didn’t. Claustrophobia took over, and I began worrying that if I were to hyperventilate and/or suffocate and/or die, no one would know where to come for my rescue. It did not occur to me that the only thing Anne longed for more than an escape was the promise of never being found. How could I have missed the point?

I was living in the affluent yet culturally compromised suburb of Andover, Mass. Though I had my own special issues — unmanageable hair, my parents’ divorce, the Dramamine I’d take before getting on the school bus — I did not have to live in secret from the Nazis, romantic as that notion may have seemed to me at the time. (Anne had a love affair with Peter, after all.) Anne’s story was terrifying and uplifting, tragic and full of humor, mundane and transcendent — but, mostly, it was true. I had wanted to make-believe her experience; I thought that doing so would bring me closer to her. Teach me about what it means to be Jewish. Make me feel grown up. What I didn’t understand, and wouldn’t until I was older, was that Anne and I already had something very powerful in common: our youth. Why didn’t I know that was something to cherish?

I was not the first girl to sentimentalize Anne Frank. I am not the only one who dreamed of being her friend. I will not be the last reader to weep over the words “Anne’s diary ends here.” She does not need me to ensure her memory. Still, I pay my dues. When I’m stuck on a stalled subway car, I think: Anne Frank. If I’m out in the cold without a warm coat, I think: Anne Frank. When it’s a sunny day, and I’m feeling too depressed/anxious/unattractive/heartbroken to go outdoors, I think: I’m lucky.

Elizabeth Frankenberger is the “Sects and the City” columnist at Killingthebuddha.com. She lives in Brooklyn.

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