★ ★ ★ ★
By Marsha Owens
Welcome to springtime in Virginia, 2017, where new life greets me everywhere! It’s a glorious time of year that returns regularly without invitation. The change of seasons is just normal. But for me, nothing is normal this year. The new season is an imposter. I want to shout a warning: Go away! Leave while you still can. Don’t you know there’s no beauty, no happiness, no future here anymore?
Recently I’ve been writing a lot to help me make sense of current events in my country. I have many beginnings, but no endings. Where, I wonder, will the new world according to T***p end up?
When I was 14, I read the letters Anne Frank wrote to you, Kitty, later entitled The Diary of Anne Frank. I could easily identify with Anne and you. I understood her wanting to write, how she needed a best friend, especially a boyfriend, and how she had lots of questions about growing up, including thoughts about her own budding sexuality. Anne’s words reached out to me saying, “I’m normal, just like you!” Of course, I knew that guy named Hitler was a very bad man, but I cared more about Anne’s teenage angst. I had no life experience. I couldn’t grasp the depth of her anxieties that had nothing to do with her first kiss, nor could I comprehend the evils of Nazi Germany. For me it was a story about fascism. A part of history. Over there. No worries.
Years later when I was teaching 9th grade English, the first book I assigned my students was Anne’s diary, referred to by her father as “The Red-Checked Diary.” As I re-read the book, I was drawn into Anne’s experiences in a way far different from when I had read it as a teen. I became an invisible friend in the room with Anne. I had a visceral reaction to the lack of privacy in the small secret annex. I gasped as though I crouched beside her when the dreaded SS lurked nearby. And I grieved her death as you might have, Kitty, had you known.
The discussions I had with my young students—all of them about fourteen—centered around shared experiences of growing up, though they were separated from Anne by several decades. We talked about you, Kitty, and how important it was to have a best friend, no matter when or where you’re growing up. We didn’t know if you really existed or lived only in Anne’s imagination. Either way, we knew you were a wonderful friend for her during long, lonely days of confinement. And we studied the history of WWII, the Nazis, and concentration camps. Like me years before, my students were most interested in the friendship between you and Anne. As adolescents, they couldn’t relate to the horrors and unspeakable deaths of six million people. They shrugged and went home to families and dinner on the table. Again, for these teenagers—fascism, over there, no worries.
Until now. In my country. I worry.
Now I’m drawn back into the pages of Anne’s diary. I can almost hear the thrum, thrum, thrum of heavy boots on pavement while I lie awake at night, unable to shut off pictures from the day’s news. My body stays on high alert like a dog on point. A palpable fear punches me
in the gut.
I wonder about this man who has become president—did he not read Anne’s diary? Can he not sense the horror of people who must hide from murderers, or the depth of sorrow for children who never grow old, or the despair of families torn apart by an evil thirst for power? The elite schools he attended may not have made Anne’s diary required reading. If so, that is tragic. But most public schools still teach this book today for its historical value and its rich, albeit horrific, example of the human condition.*
Anne wrote about her life in hiding, yes. But the bigger message was the comfort that comes from family, especially in desperate times, the camaraderie of friends, and the hope that tomorrow might be better.
A deeper read of Anne’s diary, however, is chilling. Fascism lurks just below the surface, if one only pays attention.
And, Kitty, to use a well-worn phrase, I’m afraid history just may be repeating itself. It seems that only those of us who are sitting up straight, reading deeper, paying attention realize how close we may be to the precipice.
Friends say to me, this too shall pass or a lot of smart people working on this, and they’ll figure it out. I’m not so sure. Children might soon live in an authoritarian state, see their parents and grandparents lower their eyes and whisper remember when we were a democracy and didn’t fear our government? When we were encouraged to use our voices? When we took for granted the daily news reports from a free press? I can’t fathom those who still, still support this would-be dictator, and I cringe at how expertly he has stirred the vitriol and racism that have always roiled beneath the surface in my country. It takes my breath away to watch how fast he’s running with the mantle towards the finish line of the new normal he’s creating.
Kitty, I wonder if you think Anne’s stories were all for naught? Perhaps there have been too many people not paying attention for too many years, who maybe didn’t read Anne’s book, who have no knowledge how danger comes cloaked and disguised.
I’m not living in a secret annex. I have food, water and shelter and friends and family who are near and safe. But it is the spirit, Kitty, that slumps around my shoulders now like a cornered animal seeking solace.
Even so, life does go on for me, packaged in four seasons and twenty-four hour slices of afternoon naps, graduations, and grocery shopping. Women still birth babies. Children skip and run toward summer vacation. Friends gather. Men work. Nevertheless, tomorrow is followed by a question mark.
One of my favorite lines from Anne’s diary is “What is done cannot be undone, but one can prevent it happening again.” Therein lies the gift of hope that she left pressed between the pages of her diary for me to hold on to now, all these years later.
With peace and hope. . .
*Sadly, as recently as 2010, Anne’s diary was banned in public schools
in Virginia. “Culpeper County, VA public school officials have decided
to stop assigning a version of Anne Frank’s Diary, one of the most
enduring symbols of the atrocities of the Nazi regime, after a parent
complained that the book includes sexually explicit material and
homosexual themes.” (Washington Post, January 29, 2010)
Anne Frank addressed many entries in her diary to a friend, Kitty.
Scholars are unsure whether Kitty was a real or an imagined friend.
Marsha Owens is a retired educator who survived teaching English to middle-schoolers. She now attends writing classes, teaches workshops, and writes for her own learning pleasure. Her poems and essays have appeared at NewVerseNews, Feminine Collective, Rat’s Ass Review, and Life in 10. She lives in Richmond, VA, not far from the peaceful Chesapeake Bay.