We wrap up our Letters About Literature series with the second tie-winning National Honor Award letter for Level 3 (grades 9-12). The national reading and writing program asks young people in grades 4 through 12 to write to an author (living or deceased) about how his or her book affected their lives. Winners for 2016 were announced in June.
Research shows that students benefit most from literacy instruction when they are engaged in reading and writing activities that are relevant to their daily experiences. Nine students were given national recognition and come from all parts of the country. You can read all the winning letters here, including the winning letters from previous years.
This letter comes to us from Violet Fearon of New York, who wrote to Anne Frank, author of “The Diary of a Young Girl.”
There are some books you read that you like, and some that love, and some that you adore. And then there are books that are separate from the rest – books that burrow down deep into your consciousness and stay there, festering. Books that change the way you think, the way you act, the way you see the world, that change who you are. You don’t come across too many of these books in a lifetime. The rare few that you do, I believe, are typically read early in life. The young mind is more open to suggestion. And your book, Anne, is even more unusual. Because you never really intended to write a book, did you? Let alone one that would shape the world. Then again, I suppose I never really intended to read your book, let alone be shaped.
It begins at age seven. I found you on my parent’s bookshelf. I remember running my hands across all the spines – I’d just read a fantasy novel where the girl did that, and the one that stuck out taught her how to cast spells. All the other books were big and serious, no pictures, no colors, just thin pages and tiny text. Yours was small – it could almost fit in a coat pocket. It had a picture of you on the cover. You were pretty. Not pretty in a Marilyn Monroe, Scarlett Johansson, Hollywood way – that would’ve scared me. You were pretty in the nice kind of way. You smiled with your eyes. I looked behind me, pretended I was committing some unspeakable crime for the sake of excitement, then stuffed your little book under my shirt and ran upstairs to my bedroom.
Let me preface this by saying: I didn’t know. Almost everyone who reads your diary, I think, goes into it with some knowledge of how it all ends, some sense of foreboding. They interpret every word in that context, tense up at every sign of something going wrong. I didn’t know what was waiting in the last few pages. But this is what I did know: You had dark hair, just like me. You wanted to be a writer, just like me. You felt frustrated by the way people thought of you as some frivolous little girl, just like me. On the back of your book, it said you were Jewish; my Mom was Jewish, but my Dad wasn’t. We hardly ever went to temple, and I was starting to feel like I didn’t believe in God. Did that count? I wasn’t sure. You had one older sister, though, just like me – and she was three years older than you, just like mine. Given that I was emerging from an age when having the same color shirt on the playground was enough reason to make a new best friend, these correlations fascinated me. So I read on.
You were older than me-thirteen. It seemed very exotic – even Lily, my sister, was only ten. The cover said “The Diary of a Young Girl,” but that didn’t make any sense to me; a young girl was a girl younger than me – three, four, five. Once you added “teen” to your age, which meant you were like an adult. You became six feet tall and looked like Barbie and were in control – “teen” meant you knew things.
Your diary is touted as a historical document, as a cultural landmark, as a fresh perspective – and it is. But it is also engrossing. All the little private victories and failures, the speeches about mothers and sisters and friends – it amazed me. It amazed me that the people in history were real people. That everyone, everyone who had ever lived, had feelings and thoughts just like mine. This still amazes me. I had a vague idea of Hitler and the Nazis, faded tidbits I’d picked up here and there. A few elderly relatives on my mother’s side had bad things happen to them in The War – I could hear the capitals, when people talked about it, the slight emphasis on “the.” I knew it was impolite to ask them about it, though I was dying to. I had never considered that when they’d lived through The War, they weren’t old. The thought of my grandparents as teenagers made me uncomfortable, like some immutable law of the universe was being broken.
But you weren’t my grandparents. You were like me. I wondered if you were old now. I kept on reading. It was sometimes a struggle – most of the books I read at that age involved talking animals or friendly orphans. I would read a few entries every night, a private ritual before I went to sleep. I noticed the history behind the stories – the mentions of Hitler, of fighting, of death. But my main focus was on the drama: disputes over rations, arguments over whose turn it was to use the bathroom, musings about cats. The Secret Annex seemed almost magical to me, something terrifically exciting. If I ever had to live in an attic, I decided, I would start a diary. You’d started yours before going into hiding, though – so I began one just in case. As I continued, I kept track of how much I had left. The pages held down by my right thumb dwindled – The War , I thought , must almost be over. I wondered how you were going to end it. I imagined what it must be like – to step outside for the first time in three years, to breathe in fresh air, to feel the sun. I hoped you would come back to make a final entry talking about all that – but then, I reasoned, there would be so much more to do, and less time to write , once you got back to normal life.
I don’t really need to tell you how it ends, do I? But I will. There is no end. Not really. The last entry talked about your duality – the flippancy you show around others, the more pensive person you could be without society. Then, “Yours, Anne M. Frank,” and that was it. There was an afterword; it was just a page long. It traced the paths of the eight in the Secret Annex – from Amsterdam, to Westerbork, to Auschwitz. I didn’t know how to pronounce “Auschwitz” – in my head, it was an ugly word, Ayoo-skah-wizz. Van Daan, gassed; Peter, the death march; Edith, starvation and exhaustion. You and Margot went to Bergen Belson, where you both died of typhus. Typhus. It wasn’t Mengele or firing squads or Zyklon B – it was disease. You were buried in a mass grave. For some reason, I fixated on that – to not even have a grave seemed a minor injustice that, on top of all the others, brought the whole situation to a breaking point. Back then reality and fiction were intertwined , but I knew enough to know that you had existed in a way that the girl that found the magic spell book hadn’t. I hunched over in bed, and I stared at your eyes, and I cried for a long time. I think that must have been the first time I ever cried about something other than scraping my knee or going to school or being cranky. The enormity of non-fiction, of reality, pressed down on me; this had happened. It had happened before I was born, and it will keep on “having happened” after I die, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. The past is the past. There was no use telling my parents. Maybe there are some things even parents can’t solve. I don’t know.
Then I forgot. Well, not forgot, as such – but life happens. Things slip from the conscious, if not the subconscious. I woke up the next day still upset, but not in tears; I ate breakfast. Over the course of a week or so, your book found its way back to my parent’s room, and I went to school and came home and brushed my teeth twice a day and started reading Harry Potter.
The next time I remembered you was brief – I was twelve, in sixth grade. We read a picture book about you on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Before we began, the woman reading the book told us all, this is a very sad story, and we all have to learn about it so it never happens again. All the pictures were watercolors, painted in blacks and whites and browns – a girl standing in the rain, a girl staring out a window, a girl in a train cart. I remember thinking that wasn’t right at all, was it – your life was many things, but it was never colorless.
At the end, the inevitable happened, as I knew it would. The woman said you were fifteen when you died. She and my teacher exchanged a glance. It was only three years away, but fifteen seemed just as far away as when it did when I was seven – thirty-six long months was time enough to get taller and know everything. I realized, though, that I was now almost at the age when you went into hiding. It was like two paths were splitting.
I came home and re-opened your book. It was the same copy. There you were, on the cover, still smiling, still unchanged. This time I read the introduction and skimmed the pages, quickly flipping past months and years. Now I understood what represents the lost potential meant. “Lost potential” means that when you died, all the novels you might have created, all the articles you might have written, all the people you might have touched with even more words, died with you. “Represents” means that this loss, this story, is just one of millions; more than millions – every child, every adult, every person ever killed before they got to do what they should have been able to.
I understood, then, that your book, the one you never meant to write, is one of the most widely-read pieces of nonfiction in the world. Everyone from John F. Kennedy to Eleanor Roosevelt has referenced you; you are the poster child of the Holocaust, of all holocausts; you are probably the most influential teenager to ever live. I know all this, and it all is true – you’re a symbol. You are, but you’re also just Anne, who spent her days looking out attic windows and wishing she could play hopscotch with the Christian girls. These two identities seemed to conflict in my mind – I thought some more, then put away your book once again. Is it possible to be an international symbol and human being at the same time? I don’t know.
But all that is over. Your story is long gone. I am sixteen now. I haven’t thought of you much in four years – I can’t. But last night, I was lying in bed, surfing online, and I came across your Wikipedia page- little numbers beneath your picture: June 1929 – February 1945. I counted in my head, then I counted again. I have passed the point. You were younger than me when you died. I’m sixteen, and I’m still short, and I still don’t look like Barbie. I still don’t know everything.
I closed the computer and lay in the dark. I couldn’t fall asleep because it was too loud in my head, a single thought, repeating: I am not a grown-up. I am not a grown-up. I am not a grown-up. That look the woman and the teacher exchanged – that is the look adults give each other when they talk about children dying. I am not a grown-up. Is this how getting older works? That you have this fantastic idea of what you will be like at 10, at 16, at 30 – but when you arrive, you still feel the same? I don’t know.
Let me tell you something: when asked about reading your diary, your father said, “I had no idea of the depths of her thoughts and feelings.” Some people say, She was his daughter. They were locked together for years. How could he not have known? But that is not unusual. We all have our innermost selves, the ones we keep deep inside us that we hide from prying eyes. Everyone-you taught me that.
You taught me that for each of the 12.5 million Africans shipped to this country in the Triangular Trade, there was a story. That every Armenian killed under the Ottoman Empire had innermost musings. They tell us we learn about you so it never happens again – but it has already happened again. Every child murdered in Darfur, in Rwanda, in Cambodia, is a lost adult, a lost world, a lost universe. It’s like that video, the one narrated by Carl Sagan that shows you that vastness of the galaxies, then zooms in on a picnicker’s hand and shows you the vastness of cell walls and protons and quarks. You can zoom in however far you can take. I’m not aware of this all the time. I’m not aware of it most of the time. But sometimes – sometimes I am able to look up from the textbook, from the statistics and body counts – and remember you.
Remember that every human being is, essentially, a human being; that there is so much two eyes can say. Maybe you wouldn’t have written novels or articles, or anything of more importance than your diary. Who can say? Maybe you would’ve just lived a quiet life and had a little cottage and two children, and turned into an old woman around whom seven years olds have to remember not to ask about The War. That would’ve been enough. More than enough. I don’t know.
Let me tell you something else: the man who discovered you, the SS officer – his name was Karl Silberbauer. He died a long time ago, too. HIs Wikipedia picture is grainy; he had deep set eyes and puffy cheeks. Your father testified at his trial in defense of him, telling the disciplinary hearing that he had simply been doing his job as a policeman. Otto said, “The only thing I ask is not to have to see the man again.” I don’t think I can even imagine the strength that took. When Silberbauer found the Secret Annex, he told your father: “You have a lovely daughter.” After reading this, my first thought was, “Lovely enough to kill, apparently.” But after that I just felt a little bad for him. Maybe I shouldn’t have. Maybe there are enough people out there to feel bad for without looking up long-gone Nazis. Still – did he have innermost thoughts, too? I don’t know.
This is what I do know: I will be seventeen soon. From then on, the gap between us will just keep on widening. One day I will think about you again, and I really will see you as a “young girl.” I guess that’s a good thing. I can’t be like you – forever an adolescent, frozen in old photographs, timeless. We age. This has gotten long, longer than I planned, longer than it has to be. Because this is all I need to say: thank you.