The Diary of Otto Frank

Originally a 2013/5774 Rosh Hashana [Jewish New Year] sermon, part of a series called “The Greatest Stories Never Told” imagining alternative voices from Jewish literature and history. Audio available through The Kol Hadash Podcast.

My name is Otto Frank, and I used to be my own person, not just Anne’s father. You have probably read her diary, or at least heard of it, and you know about our attic hiding place in a warehouse in Amsterdam, where we hid for 2 years until we were discovered and sent to Auschwitz. Only I survived the war. In the First World War, I was an officer in the Kaiser’s army. I ran a business in Germany until we left in 1933, and then I ran another in Amsterdam – in fact, we were hiding in my building. I was the father of TWO daughters, not one, Anne AND her older sister Margot, and I was trying to save NINE people. My associates who hid us and fed us, they were in danger too, and two of them were also arrested. I have my OWN memories of that upstairs annex on Prinzengracht. But after the war, when my loyal friend Miep Gies knew for sure that Anne was dead, she told me she had found my daughter’s diary in the piles of papers left behind. I read that diary, and I knew that the diary of Anne Frank would tell the story of the Holocaust in a way nothing else could. So I cleaned it up a bit; is that so wrong? Still, I sometimes wonder how it might have been different if I had kept the book for myself, or if I had written my own story of the annex. Instead of Anne Frank, Diary of a Young Girl, what about Otto Frank, Diary of a Middle Aged Man? Maybe not.”

Is it wrong to imagine what a real person might have said? It’s one thing to retell the Garden of Eden story in the voices of Eve and the Snake, but it’s entirely different to put words in the mouth of a real person, even more so a survivor of the Holocaust. I once was a teaching assistant in a class called Perspectives on the Holocaust, and one of the assigned readings was Cynthia Ozick’s short story “The Shawl”, a riveting narrative about two daughters and their mother in a concentration camp. My class was shocked to learn during our discussion that “The Shawl” was fiction and not memoir, and Ozick herself was not a survivor – born and raised in New York City, no personal or family Holocaust experience. The class’s reaction was: How DARE she write about the Holocaust when she hadn’t experienced it herself? How dare anyone create Holocaust fiction when some deny that it actually happened? How dare that Italian funny man, Roberto Begnini, create Life is Beautiful, a comedy film set during the Holocaust, where a man saves his son’s life by pretending a concentration camp is a game of hide and seek? How dare they, how dare I?

The Jewish New Year is a time for reflection: who are we, where are we going? We see no external author dictating the plot of our story, and we also know that we cannot always determine how our narrative develops – events beyond our control interfere all the time. Still, we can write our own pages in the book of our own life, if we are willing to tell our story. Perhaps by exploring how Otto Frank might have told his, we can learn something about telling our own.

How dare we do so? Three answers: humanity, necessity, creativity. First, humanity. From the evolutionary moment we discovered how to use language, we could learn from anyone what they felt, what they experienced, what they had learned. A newborn baby of any ethnicity can learn any language on earth. At the same moment we are male or female or Jewish or Irish or anything else, we are always human. A slave from North Africa who became a Roman citizen once wrote, “I am a human being; nothing human is alien to me.” Humanistic Jews draw inspiration from all human wisdom, whatever its ethnic origin, and we temper pride in our own people with the humility of knowing that human progress is a common human achievement. People all over the world celebrate weddings with wine, and many cultures light ceremonial fire in winter as nights grow longer – they’re just not lighting candles for the Maccabee children. Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, secular philosophy, they are all responses to the human experience. Our common humanity is why we CAN write what we have not experienced; or else women writers could have no male characters, nor Jewish writers embody non-Jews; there would be no historical fiction, no science fiction, no fiction at all. We CAN write because we NEED to create.

Here Otto jumps in: “You know, some people have objected to my publishing the diary at all! They claim Anne’s diary was private, personal, not intended for publication. Publishing it was a last violation of Anne’s personhood, they say. They forget, or they don’t know, that Anne herself heard a radio announcement to save war diaries and she wanted hers to be one of them. They forget that Franz Kafka, when he was dying, asked a friend to burn his writings, which would have cost the world such beauty! They forget that I was the ONLY survivor of my family – can you even imagine? I could have treasured Anne’s writing all for myself, and no one would have said anything against me. But that would not have helped me, and it would not have helped anyone else. What Anne wrote spoke to the world, not just to me, not just to Jews or to the Dutch. Anne’s voice was a human voice, putting a human face on a human tragedy. If it were not for Anne’s voice, would the world have been ready to hear Elie Wiesel by the time he was able to write Night? Night didn’t appear in English until 1960, eight years after Anne’s diary. If you read Anne’s diary, you don’t need to know HOW Anne died to know who she was while she lived. It’s not only survivor testimony that keeps memory of the Holocaust alive – sometimes it’s voices that speak from the grave.
“You see,” Otto says, “that’s the second reason your rabbi is speaking for me – necessity. Anne was 14 years old in 1943; today she would be 84. If we only rely on survivors to tell the stories and make the experience real, if we only rely on survivors to bring the dead back to life by giving words to grief and love, then we will stop talking. Of course, commit no fraud, but if you admit it’s fiction, of course new voices! I remember a novel imagining Anne survived the war secretly and lived in New York, or Einstein’s Dreams imagining what Albert might have imagined while changing all of science.
Here’s the lesson, here’s what I have to teach. My daughter did not plan to publish her diary because she did not plan to die! I myself was compelled to speak for her after she died. Many, many survivors have spoken of the need to bear witness, to tell the world what happened. How lucky was I, how lucky was the world, to have so many of Anne’s thoughts and feelings to hold on to! The lesson: if you do not speak for yourself, someone else will have to. I had to do it for my daughter; but will your children have to do it for you? What do they really know of who you really are? What will they say when the rabbi comes to talk with them after you are gone? If you consider yourself a humanist, a Jew, a good person, a loving parent, will they have enough evidence? And what would you WANT them to remember? I remember much more of Anne and our time in the Annex than just the diary, but when I read the diary I recalled many of the moments Anne described; others, like that first kiss, were hers alone. But now we all know her even better than I did then, even the day before we heard those terrible boots stomping up the secret staircase.”

Rabbi Chalom again. How dare I put words in Otto’s mouth? Humanity, necessity …and creativity. The Holocaust poet Avraham Sutzkever wrote “Step on words as on a minefield.” Be very careful in what you write and say, but do not silence yourself. You run the risk of disrespecting memory, but you might also touch people and move them in new ways as they remember the Holocaust, or the Shoah, whatever they call it. Perhaps you will motivate them to speak and to act when they might not have, and that is a good worth pursuing.

And new generations respond differently. 15 years ago, many were appalled when two children of Holocaust survivors made a comedy show from their experiences with survivor parents; they called it “Taking the Shoah on the Road.” It opened with the song, “There’s no business like Shoah business, like no business I know.” Too much, too soon? Steve Allen likely coined the phrase “tragedy plus time equals comedy” – and the very Jewish Mel Brooks got great mileage from “the Inquisition, what a show”; and now that I think of it, Mel Brooks also wrote, “Springtime for Hitler and Germany!”

I have no song and dance for you, even if I had more talent. There were jokes told in the secret annex in Amsterdam and in ghettoes and concentration camps, but context makes all the difference. What was it like reading Elie Wiesel’s Night in the original Yiddish, the language in which he suffered and mourned and raged? What was it like reading Anne Frank’s diary in her handwriting for the first time, and then for the second? And what if the diary had never seen the light of day at all?

            Otto again: “You have no idea how close that was, the series of fateful choices that led to that diary’s afterlife. I knew we had no future under Nazis – that’s why we left Germany early, in 1933, and that’s why again we tried to get out of Europe in ‘38 and ‘41. I had planned ahead to hide in the secret annex, though we had to run early when Margot was called for questioning, and we hadn’t planned on hiding everyone that wound up there. The Nazis who arrested us in 1944 just threw our papers around, and they left the diary. And if our friend Miep had actually READ the diary, she would have destroyed it because it named our helpers and their black market suppliers! In January 1945, Elie Wiesel left the Auschwitz sick barracks, afraid of what they might do to him and refusing to let his father leave and die alone. I, Otto Frank, was there in those very same sick barracks, and I stayed, and I was liberated, along with someone else you may have heard of named Primo Levi. If I had left, if Elie had stayed, if the hiding spot had not been betrayed, if, if, a thousand times if.
What’s the lesson? You don’t need a Holocaust to be surprised by life. Car accidents and cancer and chance happen every day. We cannot stop them all, we cannot always manage them, sometimes they manage us and we struggle to stay afloat. What’s the lesson? Prepare and plan as best you can, but you cannot be destroyed when the best laid plans are betrayed by an indifferent universe. Some survivors were broken and never recovered. And many came back to life from the land of the dead, creating new families and helping to build a new Jewish state or putting down new roots in the New World, even a New Amsterdam, now called New York. My Anne was a vibrant young girl whose only experience of the outside for two years was looking at a tree – but she was alive. The tree itself, that lived until 2010, and saplings from that tree have been planted all over the United States. I, Otto, lived for 35 years after the war, I married again, but one doesn’t get over something like that – at best you get used to it. And that’s another lesson: don’t plan to always get over, surmount, avoid tragedy. Sometimes, we have to face it, to get used to it. Yes, learn from it, but also learn to live with it when it cannot be changed, like the past.”

Ah, says Rabbi Chalom, that’s where I disagree with Otto. The past DOES change, it changes all the time as we ourselves change. There is no unmoving mover, there is no impartial observer of the course of human events. Every time we remember our own past or learn a detail of human history, that history changes because we ourselves have changed. If these voices, mine and “Otto’s,” if these ideas change your reading of The Diary of a Young Girl, the words on the page have not changed, but the experience of reading is still very different. As some of you know, this past spring my half-brother Dorian died rather suddenly. I was not very close with Dorian, over a decade older and from my father’s previous marriage. So I learned a lot about him and how he connected with others at his funeral; that experience that was both enlightening and disappointing. Why didn’t I know before? All the more reason to talk NOW. And what I learned about my brother, and the very fact of his death, have changed what I thought I knew. Text and Context dance a complicated tango in our minds.

Would The Diary of Anne Frank have been as impactful if she had lived? Would a book by Otto Frank about his daughter have been as beautiful? Impossible to know, but I doubt it. What we need to discover, each of us, is what we want in our own diary, our own sense of who we are. The Jewish New Year is traditionally a serious day, the beginning of ten days of reflection and repentance. We prefer apology and restitution here and now rather than repentance directed above, yet we still use these days for self-reflection. What would you write about yourself and how you understand the world?

            “And,” Otto adds, “that reminds me of one last thing, something your rabbi wrote about. The question of WHY? In Auschwitz, Primo Levi was struck and he asked ‘why;’ the guard said, ‘Here there is no why.’ We humans want there to be a why, a reason, a cause and effect we can understand – that’s how civilization is built. The problem is that sometimes, there just is no why.
Any Humanism in the face of a Holocaust, especially a Jewish humanism, must be limited. There will be no messianic, perfect age because we are working with flawed material – human beings! We invent antibiotics, eventually we make antibiotic resistant bacteria. Clean your home, you might increase your children’s allergies. The new problems may be better than the old ones – I would happily trade a dust allergy for cholera! But we must also accept our limitations, just as we accept that sometimes in the best of worlds there IS no why.
Why did my Anne die and I live? Survivors of Holocausts, or plane crashes, or earthquakes often ask themselves this. Why are you living in America when others are dying in Syria, in the Aleppo where your rabbi’s father’s family was born? Some see providence in their own survival, others see chance. My answer? Here there is no why. It’s the wrong question. Yes, I made the best of tragedy by sharing Anne’s beautiful words with the world. But I would easily trade my daughter’s diary for my daughter’s LIFE; any power that created such a trade deserves no praise, no gratitude. We in the Annex, we were always on our own, except for all the other people who kept us alive. Yes, some evil person turned us in, and many good people kept us alive. My humanism survives when I remember those good people in dark times.”

Rabbi Chalom again, at the end. In the Babylonian Talmud, it is asked why Noah in Genesis is described as “righteous in his generation” – was Noah was simply righteous compared to a wicked generation, like a barrel of waste in a vault of vinegar, only fragrant by comparison? Or, if Noah was righteous when others were wicked, would he have been righteous in any time, like perfume amid garbage – if fragrant there, how much more so elsewhere!

The righteous, the good, are not only the perfect, the heroic, the mythical. They are also the human, the flawed, the people we know and STILL admire. 2000 years ago, Rabbi Hillel said; “Bamakom sheh-ayn anashim, hishtadel l’hyot ish. In a place where there are no people, strive to be a person.” That is our perfection, that is our aspiration for the new year. Each one of us can be a hero in our own way – what will your story be?

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