Thursday, June 9, 2011

On the Birthday of Anne Frank

Sixty-nine years ago this Sunday, Anne Frank turned 13 years old. The most famous of the gifts given to her on June 12, 1942 was, of course, a diary bound in red gingham that would become one of the world's most widely read books.

There's another item which makes an appearance alongside that diary less than a month after this milestone birthday that intrigues me. On the morning of July 5, 1942, Anne's sister received a call-up notice from the SS, and Otto Frank told his daughters of a long-fomented plan. The family was to go into hiding; July 16 had been the target date, but with Margot Frank's sudden call-up notice, there was no time to spare. "Margot and I started packing our most important belongings into a schoolbag," Anne wrote on July 8. "The first thing I stuck in was this diary, and then curlers, handkerchiefs, schoolbooks, a comb and some old letters. Preoccupied by the thought of going into hiding, I stuck the craziest things in the bag, but I'm not sorry."

Let me highlight what stands out to me here: Anne Frank packed curlers.

Yes, curlers were more de rigueur in 1942 than they are today; it was probably less like packing lipstick and closer to packing, say, dental floss, or the comb she also tucked into her bag. Yes, she was probably in shock and automatically packed as she might for a sleepover at a friend's house, not for going into hiding for an indefinite period during wartime. Yet in a way, that's exactly what hooks me about this small bit of reportage: In the midst of a waking nightmare, in the midst of one of the greatest horrors this world has seen, this particular 13-year-old reached not for "the craziest things," but to something that could potentially provide familiarity, routine, a pastime, and some semblance of normalcy. She reached for an emblem of beauty.

At best, it would be disingenuous to claim that perspectives on beauty form an essential lesson that Anne Frank's diary gives us. At worst, it would be so dismissive of her legacy as to exit the realm of integrity. Please rest assured that I'm making no such claim. What I am saying is that her instinct to grab her curlers pays testament to the anchor that beauty rituals can become during times of chaos. Whether, given more time, she would have categorized curlers as an essential item worth bringing along in one of the two bags she toted to Prinsengracht 267, we don't know. We only know that with mere hours of notice before going into hiding—during which she had to select which clothing she could layer without attracting too much attention on the streets of Amsterdam, say good-bye to her cat, try not to distract her parents from the crucial tasks at hand, and begin to process the notion of living a life hidden away—curlers were instinctively deemed indispensable enough to take the journey with her. After her diary, they were the second thing she listed packing.

When I reread that diary recently, in addition to being struck by the sheer skill of her writing, I found myself on high alert for her other perspectives on appearance. She writes of emulating the hairstyles in the movie-star magazines that Miep Gies, one of the people helping the family hide, would bring to her, and reports that she could "read the disapproval" on the faces of the other residents of the Annex when she'd model her creations. She writes of a cross-dressing episode she concocted with Peter, a boy two years older than she is who also lives in the Annex, for the evening's entertainment. "We made our appearance, with Peter in one of his mother's skin-tight dresses and me in his suit. ... The grown-ups split their sides laughing, and we enjoyed ourselves every bit as much."

In time, she'd muse on the effect her growing romance with Peter would have on her appearance. 1944: "I saw my face in the mirror, and it looked so different. My eyes were clear and deep, my cheeks were rosy, which they hadn't been in weeks, my mouth was softer. I looked happy, and yet there was something so sad in my expression that the smile immediately faded from my lips. I'm not happy, since I know Petel's not thinking of me, and yet I can still feel his beautiful eyes gazing at me..." She evaluates the charm of herself and others, dubbing fellow Annex resident Mrs. van Daam a "coquette" and later damning herself as the same, when she reflects on how popular she was at school before going into hiding:

You're probably wondering how I could have charmed all those people. Peter says it's because I'm "attractive," but that isn't it entirely. The teachers were amused and entertained by my clever answers, my witty remarks, my smiling face and my critical mind. That's all I was: a terrible flirt, coquettish and amusing. ... Would all that admiration eventually have made me overconfident? It's a good thing that, at the height of my glory, I was suddenly plunged into reality. It took me more than a year to get used to doing without admiration. —March 7, 1944

It's precocious, insightful, mature. And, of course, heartbreaking.

"How did they see me at school? As the class comedian, the eternal ringleader, never in a bad mood, never a crybaby... I look back at that Anne Frank as a pleasant, amusing, but superficial girl, who has nothing to do with me. ... I'd like to live that seemingly carefree and happy life for an evening, a few days, a week. At the end of that week I'd be exhausted, and would be grateful to the first person to talk to me about something meaningful. ... My serious side is always there." —March 7, 1944

I'm aware that much of what stood out to me upon rereading this book as an adult who writes about the concept of personal beauty was a result of my eyes being primed for her thoughts on appearance, not an integral part of her experience in the Annex. Perhaps that detail of Anne Frank packing curlers is much the same; it could be utterly insignificant even after establishing that we're talking about relatively trivial aspects of her story. But the very power of Anne's diary is in its normalcy: I recall reading it as an adolescent and feeling ashamed of myself for being enraptured with her romance with Peter when I knew full well what the larger scope was. The Diary of a Young Girl is used to instruct students on the horrors of the Holocaust because she's a protagonist we like, feel a kinship with, and perhaps, if we're her age, begin to feel like we can relate to. It's an absurd claim, of course, but that's the paradox that makes the diary so resonant: Her ability to communicate what a gifted but basically normal teenage girl was feeling in extreme circumstances led me, an 11-year-old girl in South Dakota, to feel like I related to Anne, wanted to befriend her, except--oh yeah, she was a Jewish girl in hiding from the Nazis during WWII. So in honor of what would have been her eighty-second birthday, I'm meditating on the documented aspects of her life that embodied the normalcy that aided her work in becoming so compelling. I'm meditating on the moment of confusion, fear, and necessity that prompted her to instinctually reach for her diary above all other possessions, and on what shade that instinct took when she then put her hand on her curlers, put them into her schoolbag, and moved on.


  1. What a nice tribute. I remember wanting to be friends with her too, when I read it (only once) as a kid.

  2. This is beautiful, Autumn. It's delicate, but in a strong way, if that makes sense. It's an interesting perspective.

  3. Oh, you have made me want to read the book again. Linda Grant in her book The Thoughtful Dresser describes the small efforts of women in concentration camps to distinguish themselves with a bit of beauty--in the face of so much horror.

  4. LZ, I don't think I realized at the time exactly how powerful that made it, but indeed that's exactly it. She was like us--and so very much not.

    Alexa, thank you--that makes sense, and it's a compliment that I'll take to heart.

    Terri, you are fantastic with the reading recommendations! I hadn't known of this book and it's now on my list. That detail is so small and heartbreaking.