I met Anne Frank when I was eight years old. I spent most of lunchtime and every break in the school library, curled up on a rubbery cushion the colour and shape of a boiled sweet, reading and reading. The library felt cavernous at the time, as though I could never get to the end of it. (When I revisited the school ten years later, I was surprised at how much it had shrunk.) One afternoon, as I reluctantly eased Sense and Sensibility back onto the shelf and prepared to drag myself off to class (not very late this time. Well, only five minutes late…), I caught sight of a striking face in black-and-white looking out at me from one of the librarian’s special displays.
I knew a bit about the Second World War; we had done a project on the Blitz and the evacuee children last year. I also knew that Hitler had killed people for being Jews, although the Holocaust hadn’t been presented to us in any real depth, as we were only seven at the time. But the librarian never restricted the books she allowed me to check out (a source of some friction between her and my class teacher) and on that day I went home with The Diary of Anne Frank in my satchel. I read it in between teatime and bedtime, and afterwards I could not sleep. The agitation made me pace around my room.
She died. She wasn’t supposed to die.
The full import of Anne’s death wasn’t brought home to me by the short epilogue at the end of the book, which described the family’s capture and deportation simply and without emotion. It was the last pages of the diary that cut through me. Turning the last page was like putting out my foot for the next stair and finding only air. She had put the pen down after that last sentence, meaning to write again, and she never had.
I had never come across an unfinished book before. They all ended somehow. Even if the endings weren’t happy, they still satisfied the reader by affording a sense of completeness. Here there was no ending, just absence. This was my first significant encounter with what it meant to die – and not just to die, to be killed.
This was the beginning of a long fascination with the Holocaust in general and Anne Frank in particular. I reread the diary multiple times, noticing the changes in how I reacted to Anne as I grew older myself. As a thirteen-year-old, the age she had been when she started keeping the diary. As a fifteen-year-old, the age she had been when her hiding place was uncovered. As a sixteen-year-old, when I realised that I was now older than she had been when she died. The affinity that I felt with her wasn’t something unique – the enduring popularity of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and the sheer number of books and films about her life attest to that. Tonight, in honour of Holocaust Memorial Day, a new play about a young Japanese girl’s relationship with the diary and its writer is premiering in Manchester.
Initially I was wary of using Anne’s diary as part of my work in Bethlehem. I wanted to, but the Holocaust can be a sore subject in Palestine, as it is so often used to justify what is happening here. I have heard people using the Holocaust to downplay Palestinian suffering by pointing out that at least there are no gas chambers being assembled on the outskirts of Ramallah. (The message heard by Palestinians is: “You have no right to complain.”) Others try to implicate present-day Palestinians in Nazi crimes against Jews by emphasising the anti-Semitic views of Hajj Amin al-Husseini, who met Hitler and expressed support for him. (The message heard by Palestinians is: “You are guilty of genocide.”) The last time I visited Yad Vashem, I paused to sign the visitors’ book and saw that earlier that morning someone had written, “Only a strong IDF will prevent a second Shoah perpetrated by the anti-Semites of the Middle East.” Stepping out into the blazing July sun, I saw what remains of Deir Yassin, a Palestinian village that was the scene of a massacre in 1948 and now lies in the shadow of Yad Vashem. There is no sign to commemorate what happened in Deir Yassin, no indication of where its surviving residents and their descendents might be living now. Palestinians look at this and hear: “Your own tragedy does not matter, and you are retrospectively cast as the villain in ours.” It is a role that they resist fiercely, sometimes even to the point of Holocaust denial.
Usually the reaction is sensitive, but still wounded. The following was written by my friend Jehan, a twenty-one-year-old woman who is from Gaza:
I remember, as a child, the invasions of Israeli soldiers. Cracking down on houses, searching some and demolishing others. I remember the piercing sounds of bullets, and how my knees would fail me every time I heard one. I remember the first time for me to see a tank, I was in primary school, but I am not exactly sure what grade I was in. As I was leaving school and waiting for a car to pass by, a tank came out of the blue and was hardly 6 meters away. As soon as I saw that monster, my knees brought me down to the ground in a split second and a loud explosion caused my eyes to shut too tight that it hurt. I never knew why at the beginning, but then as I grew up, I became more aware. I read about Zionism, about the holocaust, and about the state of Israel. I never understood what our fault as Palestinians was. I never understood the relevance between what Hitler did and what my people had to pay.
I wanted to include passages from Anne’s diary in a creative writing course that I was devising, but I didn’t know how to introduce her to this thorny context. My class was supposed to be all about self-expression, yet the women in the group had mostly experienced the Holocaust as a suffocating gag designed to keep them quiet about their own experiences under occupation. I sought advice from a colleague, a Dutchman who is married to a local Bethlehem woman. He told me not to worry, it had already been done.
During the Second Intifada, when Bethlehem was being placed repeatedly under strict curfews and children were unable to get to school, an enterprising teacher named Susan Atallah decided to get her eighth-grade students writing diaries. It was something they could easily do at home, during the long days and even longer nights when it was barely possible to open the door without shots being fired. The students read child diaries from other painful situations, such as Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo (penned by ten-year-old Zlata Filipovic as Yugoslavia was torn apart) and The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow: The Diary of Sarah Nita (a fictionalised account of the dispossession of the Najavo tribe at the hands of the US government in 1864). Eventually Susan added Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl to the list.
As the diary project was ongoing, Susan penned an open letter describing the situation in Bethlehem. It is a cry from the heart, with no particular addressee. “I truly lost count of how many incursions we have been exposed to accompanied by curfews since March 2002,” she wrote. “We have lived through many hardships in our lives under occupation, but never this cruel.”
The decision to present young people living in this situation with Anne Frank’s diary was not taken lightly. “Some of us were worried,” my colleague Toine told me. “When the girls first read Anne Frank’s story, they rolled their eyes, according to Susan. The Second World War and the occupation of Holland by the Germans were not a setting to which they could easily relate or desired to relate. But after a while they started to identify with Anne, partly because they could understand the feeling of being closed up in a room.”
It helped that Anne was the same age as Susan’s students. There is a reason why this diary has resonated with teenagers round the world; you don’t have to have experienced conflict or persecution yourself to feel an affinity with its author. In many ways her voice is very ordinary, and this is why it endures. Anne Frank helped these young Bethlehem teenagers to come to terms with what was a very frightening situation through her humour, her candour, the simple fact of her youth. She knew what it was to be shut in with the sound of bombs and bullets raining down, and she had favourite film stars and problems with parents too.
“Some foreign visitors confided in me that they weren’t sure about use of the diary by Palestinian youth,” Toine remembered. “They thought it might lead to the comparison of two incomparable situations, even to subtle forms of anti-Semitism. They were wrong. The interest kept growing. It was warm and genuine. Susan asked me to bring more copies of the diary from Jerusalem, as with my foreign passport I was the only one of us who could get about freely. I went to the Steimatsky bookshop and bought every English copy of the diary they had, and then I ordered some more. Now it wasn’t just the teenagers who were reading the diary, but their parents. A parent all the way out in Ta’amreh wanted a copy.”
In her open letter, Susan wrote, “I started to ask people around me for the real reason behind being under curfew. Nobody knows! The ironic thing is that the Israeli army is so creative at disrupting our normal lives and making us more miserable and depressed. I think that some Israelis are even delighted to know about what is happening to us, others don’t even know what their government is doing against us, and that others don’t agree at all with what is going on.” Her students, trapped in their houses, living in fear of the tanks that rumbled through the streets, and receiving only a piecemeal education, also wanted to know the thoughts of people who witnessed their pain (even participated in its creation) and yet said nothing. This question was burning inside one girl in particular.
It was routine for the Israeli army to requisition Palestinian homes for hours at a time, often overnight. They would confine the families to one room, placing them under guard, and use the windows to shoot from. Such intrusions could be made without rhyme or reason. One of Susan’s students, a fourteen-year-old girl living close to Manger Square (a scene of terrible violence and bloodshed), grew very used to having the army in her house on a daily basis. She and her family would be shut in a back room, where they slept on the floor. They had to ask for permission to be taken to the toilet. On one such toilet trip, the curious student stopped to talk to the soldier in the corridor.
“Do you know the story of Anne Frank?”
“Of course,” the soldier said. He seemed pleased by the question, and he was friendly enough. “Do you want to read her book?”
“No,” the girl replied. “I’ve read it. I want you to read it!”
This to me is a profound act of remembrance. Never again, which has echoed across the world from Cambodia to Rwanda to Darfur, is meaningless. Persecution, ethnic cleansing, and genocide have continued to happen again and again, with denial rippling in their wake. Remembrance is about honouring the past, but it is also about creating a more compassionate present. This means that lessons from the past have to be applicable to many different situations. If that wide applicability didn’t exist, it would be impossible to learn anything from the past at all. The Holocaust may have been unique in scale and scope, but the beliefs that underpinned that slaughter are far from unique.
In her challenge to the soldier, Susan’s student highlighted the dangers of ceasing to be critical of your government and its policy, even when you see the consequences of that policy in front of your eyes: a fourteen-year-old girl who can’t go to school or even to the bathroom without military approval, purely on the basis of who and what she is. This path leads to dangerous places. Those dangers may not be the same from situation to situation, but they are always real and they are always gravely wrong. Remembrance involves uncomfortable reminders, the breaking of taboos. It is based on an appreciation of shared humanity, an understanding that you can’t hurt one branch without mutilating the entire tree; and it is embodied for me by that image of a teenage girl with a book standing opposite a slightly older teenage boy with a gun, and telling him, “Read.”
Written on Europe’s Holocaust Memorial Day, January 27th 2012.