Thirty years ago, on my 12th birthday, my mother bought me two of her childhood favorite books, beautifully bound in red leather. They were two of the finest looking books I have ever owned. The first was What Katy Did, which I am a little ashamed to admit that I never read; I never even gave it a chance. I don’t know why. To be honest, I hadn’t ever thought about the other little red book I had received that day. That is until I sat down to write about the other, the one that I did read, the Diary of Anne Frank.
Like so many people who have read this book, I immediately felt a connection with it and with Anne. I couldn’t help but feel like I knew her, and not just because I was reading her diary, but rather because I saw so much of myself in her. Just like Anne, I wanted to be a writer, kept a diary, and had a similar view of the world we were living in. My twelve-year-old self was convinced we would have been great friends, had we ever had the chance to meet in person.
On the day that I learned that Anne had not survived the Holocaust, I stopped reading the little red book. I put it back on the shelf, where it has safely sat these past thirty years. It was naïve, and perhaps even a tad ridiculous, but somehow in my twelve-year-old brain I figured that as long as I did not finish the book, as long as there were words left unread, then Anne wasn’t really gone. But she was, and I knew it. I also knew that it could just as easily have been me, and I am not sure that is a realization anyone wants to have, let alone at twelve.
Thirty years on, as I now prepare for my own daughter’s twelfth birthday, my thoughts have turned more and more towards that beautiful little red book on my shelf. Like my mother before me, I want to share Anne’s story with my daughter. I want her to know this wonderful, funny, headstrong, opinionated, brilliant little girl, with whom she has so much in common. But in all honesty I just wasn’t quite sure how to prepare her, what to say, how or to say it. I know my own parents had spoken to me, but I couldn’t remember any of it. However, when I learned that a replica of Anne’s Diary would be coming to visit the Holocaust Center for Humanity in Seattle (https://www.holocaustcenterseattle.org), I knew I had found my answer. But first, I knew I would need to see it for myself, if for no other reason than to make sure I was able to hold it together when I took my daughter.
Although it had been my mother whom had put Anne’s diary in my hands, when it came time to actually go and see it, it was my father I called upon to accompany me on my pilgrimage. After all, he had been the one who protected me from danger, real and imagined, my whole life. This was not going to be any different, in so many ways I didn’t feel any older or more grown up than I had when I was twelve, I just wanted my daddy. And I am so thankful that he was able to come with me.
When we arrived, though we knew we were well within the Center’s operating hours, we were surprised to find that the building was locked. Figuring that perhaps we had the wrong entrance, or perhaps had made a mistake we had just turned around to leave and regroup when we were startled by the door opening. On the other side of the door, was an extremely friendly and even more apologetic armed security guard who ushered us inside the building’s vestibule where he explained that due to the nature of the exhibit and the Center’s collection we would have to follow certain security protocols in order to gain entrance to the building.
This was a truly sobering, and rather upsetting moment. Not because he had to search our bags; we live in a world where metal detectors and bag checks have become almost passé. They are everywhere. It has just become part of modern living. So much so, that most of us don’t really think about it, we have simply gotten used to it. We wait as patiently as our years permit, perhaps we even joke or complain to our neighbors about past pat downs and bag checks we have had. But this was different; very different. Never, in any of these previous searches, had I felt that the action was anything, other than a half-hearted fulfillment of a corporate policy by some woefully underpaid minimum wage employee who not only wasn’t expecting to find anything but on the off chance that she/he actually did find something they probably wouldn’t know what to do. This was not like that. This man, friendly and apologetic though he was, knew what he was doing, he was searching for us for weapons, and unlike his counterparts elsewhere, I had no doubt whatsoever that he would know what to do should he encounter one. This, was for real, and it broke my heart.
The idea of bringing a weapon to any museum, let alone one about the holocaust, makes my heart ache and my stomach hurt. “Has the world changed so little?” I had to ask myself as we put the last of our belongings away. “Are we still capable of such willful misunderstanding and hate?” The answer stared back at me in the apologetic eyes of the stranger who had just opened and searched the most personal contents of my purse. “Yes.”
With that thought still ringing in my head, we finally entered the lobby.
The exhibit begins with a short video, introducing viewers to Anne, her story, and the holocaust in general. It is very well done, one of the best I have seen. Unlike most documentaries about this topic, this film is very clearly geared towards young adults. Without either a sugar coating or too strong a focus on the specific details of the Nazis’ atrocities, the film manages to hit the major points of Anne’s short life as well as the course of events throughout Europe, in as gentle but truthful a manner as the subject allows. And while upsetting, unlike other films I have seen, it will not cause nightmares.
This impressive level of truthful, but tempered presentation of information was evident throughout the exhibit. Throughout the Center, large silk screens paint a timeline of Anne’s life, and the Holocaust, which ultimately ended it, in poignant photographs and short bulleted informational text. Time and time again, I was incredibly impressed at the selection of photographs that were included, and how they were able to convey fear, hate, and pain without showing traumatic images of broken, beaten, or even dead bodies. Two images, in particular stood out to me. The first was of young Jewish man who was having his beard shorn off by an SS officer. The caption is something simple like SS soldier tries to humiliate Jewish man. But what the caption cannot capture is the almost maniacal look of glee on the SS officers face, nor the look of fear, abject resignation, and sadness on the victim’s face. The other photograph, was simply of a mountain of shoes, not bodies, but the implication was there.
And there, in the midst of all of these black, white and red images and words, in a glass case, which I presume to be bullet proof, is Anne’s colorful little diary. The one little bright spot of almost normal amongst a sea of unfathomable pain and suffering.
As I stare at the diary, open to the page where Anne had glued in a photograph of herself, I realize one of Anne’s greatest gifts to us wasn’t just her story or her words of hope, but rather the reminder that she was a person. A person with a name. A person with a face. A person with a family. A person with hopes and dreams. A person, an individual, as were the other 12,000,000 people: Jews, Catholics, Gays, Gypsies, mentally ill and retarded individuals, and every one else deemed to be unworthy of life by Hitler and his Nazis.
They were all people, not just the numbers that the Nazis tried to reduce them to in the camps, nor the staggering statistics that history tries to comprehend them by. This, in my opinion, was Anne and Otto Frank’s biggest gift to the world. For in sharing Anne’s story with the world, in an attempt to fulfill her dream of being an author, we are reminded of the humanity of everyone of the 12,000,000. All with names, stories and families.
On the way out of the exhibit, above the guest book, the curators have posed the question to visitors, “How will change begin with you?” And in so doing have created a living mural of brightly colored post-it notes in which guests have left their own thoughts and plans. They are as enlightening as they are hopeful. I was not able at the time of my visit to form the words necessary to share my answer, but it something I have been thinking about ever since.
My answer is simple enough. My answer is simply: my children.
I will raise them to speak up when they see wrong, and to defend others rights, because the opposite of love isn’t hate, it is apathy. Apathy is what allows hate take the place of where merely ignorance may have once resided. Apathy is what allows the concept of “us and them” to take root. Apathy is what allows good people to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others because they are too far away or too different to force us to take notice. Apathy is dangerous, and oddly contagious.
As we now enter in to a new period of history, where most of those unfortunate enough to have witnessed, or worse experienced, the holocaust first hand have passed on, I believe that is as important as ever that we never forget what happened. And perhaps, now more than ever, that we work even harder towards simply never allowing it to happen in the first place by being brave enough to speak up and say no when we know something is wrong. Maybe, that way, someday in the distant future when I take my grandchildren to an exhibit like this one, they won’t have to meet with an armed guard first.
And in the mean time maybe it is time that I go and find out just What Katy Did, and then call my own mother.