As I write to you today, it is the anniversary of the day in 1944 when Anne Frank decided to re-write her diary as an autobiography (as I am reminded by Garrison Keillor’s delicious site, “The Writer’s Almanac.”)
Maybe it is the fact that young Anne had aspired to be a newspaper journalist - a vocation that people like me take so thoroughly for granted - that makes her writing seem alive to me.
The very fact that cruel history has so often sought to silence expression makes me reflect on what many suggest is the pending demise of the written word.
We, who have the luxury to write our minds and hearts, more often than not squander our opportunities. When was the last time you really wrote a letter, turning thoughts into flowing paragraphs that could stand the test of time - not a monosyllabic shorthand of 70 characters posted online or texted and forgotten as instantly as it is produced?
Too often in journalism today, the joy of writing is missing. Stories are churned out in mass production style, more like a factory than an art. Faster, not better. A writer’s time is monopolized not in creativity, but in typing. Or sitting in droning meetings, repackaging content, or posting snippets online to compete for an audience that largely wants instant gratification in single sentence packages: “This just in...”
If a writer is lucky, once in a while there is an assignment or an idea that captures him or her, and inspires some sense of soul and meaning to the process. Something that makes writing seem like more than just a grinding task.
I can’t help but feel that writing is an elemental thing in the human experience, like breathing. It doesn’t matter much what form it takes - recording the history of our times as it happens, or weaving a fanciful story that exists only in imagination. A love letter, a poem, song lyrics, commentary, protest. Without expression, I’m not sure life can be totally lived, even in an age when our top form of communication seems to be pushing a key to copy forward someone else’s sarcastic political meme via Facebook.
These days, letters to the editor in newspapers like ours are few. Where once we often published a full page of them per issue, now there may be just one a week, and those usually from one of the four or five people who write on a consistent basis. I wonder about the thousands of others - do they have no thoughts or opinions to share, or do they just feel they don’t have the time or ability to put them to words? Or worse - re they convinced that no one would care if they did?
I recall seeing recently some sharp criticism of President Donald Trump’s actions from the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, the civil rights organization that dates to the young diarist’s father.
It warned that administrative efforts to divide people with a massive wall, to turn away the world’s desperate refugees, to hunt and deport undocumented residents, and to try to intimidate and silence a free press, is “driving our nation off a moral cliff.”
Maybe the warning comes from an appropriate source. As history buffs will know, Ann Frank’s family
tried to obtain visas to flee to America in 1941 under Nazi persecution of Jews, but were denied due to U.S. immigration policies. She might still have been living today if given the chance.
“Which new Anne Frank will your refugee ban turn away, @POTUS? Which new Anne will your Wall turn away, @realDonaldTrump?” the Center posted.
As a 13th birthday present in 1942, Anne’s parents gave her a red-and-white checked autograph book she had often admired in a shop window. She began to write immediately. Only a couple of weeks later, the family and a few others were forced into hiding in a space secreted behind a bookcase in her father’s place of work. Anne recorded her daily thoughts and feelings daily in her diary, which she nicknamed “Kitty.” When it was full, she continued, using a black-covered exercise book brought to her by non-Jewish friends who took pity on the family’s plight.
Over a contraband radio, they heard a news broadcast from London by the Dutch Government in Exile, encouraged those living under Nazi occupation to write and preserve the experience for future generations in ordinary documents - journals, family letters, sermons. That’s how much writing matters.
“Not until we succeed in bringing together vast quantities of this simple, everyday material will the picture of our struggle for freedom be painted in its full depth and glory,” a deposed leader said. Anne reflected on this in her diary the next day.
“It would be quite funny 10 years after the war if people were told how we Jews lived and what we ate and talked about here,” she penned.
This day in 1944, she began to painstaking rewrite her two years of entries, self-editing them to something of the memoir we know today. In her last spring into summer, she filled 300 loose pages in handwriting.
“I know that I can write, a couple of my stories are good, my descriptions of the ‘Secret Annex’ are humorous, there’s a lot in my diary that speaks, but whether I have real talent remains to be seen,” she wrote.
“Everything here is so mixed up, nothing’s connected any more, and sometimes I very much doubt whether anyone in the future will be interested in all my tosh. ‘The unbosomings of an ugly duckling’ will be the title of all this nonsense.”
She was still working on her story when the Nazis raided the hiding place that August on an anonymous tip, and sent all of the inhabitants to concentration camps. Anne and her older sister died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen camp a few months later, days apart.
But a friend who had helped the family found the diary and saved it as the Franks’ annex was being raided, and kept it for Anne, not knowing of her fate. It was eventually given to her father, the only survivor of the family, and made into a book, realizing too late the secret dream of Anne to be a published writer.
She never got the chance to write. What in the hell is stopping the rest of us?