Friday June 12, 2015

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It Is Raining on the House of Anne Frank

It is raining on the house
of Anne Frank
and on the tourists
herded together under the shadow
of their umbrellas,
on the perfectly silent
tourists who would rather be
somewhere else
but who wait here on stairs
so steep they must rise
to some occasion
high in the empty loft,
in the quaint toilet,
in the skeleton
of a kitchen
or on the map—
each of its arrows
a barb of wire—
with all the dates, the expulsions,
the forbidding shapes
of continents.
And across Amsterdam it is raining
on the Van Gogh Museum
where we will hurry next
to see how someone else
could find the pure
center of light
within the dark circle
of his demons.

“It Is Raining on the House of Anne Frank” by Linda Pastan from Carnival Evening. © Norton, 1998. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of Johanna Spyri (books by this author), born in the village of Hirzel, Switzerland, in the year 1827. She wrote many stories and novels for children, but she’s best known as the author of Heidi. Heidi is a plucky young orphan who goes to live with her stern grandfather in the Alps, where she drinks goat milk and sleeps in a hayloft and becomes friends with the goatherd, Peter. Heidi is the most popular work of Swiss literature.

It’s the birthday of Djuna Barnes (books by this author), born near Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York (1892). She started out as a reporter for a variety of different magazines, including Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, and she often contributed illustrations for her own articles. She was part of the bohemian scene in Greenwich Village, and published a collection of poems and drawings in 1915 called The Book of Repulsive Women.

She moved to Paris in 1920 and became friends with writers there, including T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and James Joyce. After reading Joyce’s novel Ulysses in 1922, she said: “I shall never write another line. Who has the nerve to after that?” But almost 15 years later, she published Nightwood (1936), an experimental novel about a woman named Nora Flood, her love affairs, and her spiritual advisor, a transvestite named Dr. O’Conner.

For the last 42 years of her life, Barnes lived as a recluse in New York City. Writers came to pay homage to her, including Bertha Harris and Carson McCullers, but she sent them away. Her neighbor E.E. Cummings used to check on her by yelling out his window. She rarely left her house, and she spent her last 30 years working on a long poem that was found in her apartment when she died in 1982. In 1973, she told her editor Douglas Messerli, “It’s terrible to outlive your own generation.”

Today is the birthday of diarist Anne Frank (books by this author), born in Frankfurt, Germany (1929). In 1933, elections were held in Frankfurt for the municipal council, and Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party won. Fearful for their safety, her father, Otto, moved the family to Amsterdam, joining an exodus of more than 300,000 other Jews who fled Germany between 1933 and 1939. In Amsterdam, her father sold fruit pectin, herbs, and spices. After the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1940, Jews were no longer allowed to own businesses or cars, attend movies or musical performances, and could only shop between the hours of 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. Her father sold his business to his employees and prepared a hiding spot in the building, a series of secret rooms located behind a bookshelf.

For her 13th birthday on June 12, 1942, Anne received a red-and-white checkered cloth diary with a small lock on front. She named the diary “Kitty.” She wrote, “I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.” Several weeks later, Anne’s older sister, Margot, receive notice to report to a German work camp. Anne, Otto, Margot, and her mother, Edith, dressed in several layers of clothing, walked in the rain to the warehouse, and made their way upstairs to the warren of rooms Anne would come to call “The Secret Annex.” Within weeks, they were joined by four other people, and for two years, eight people shared five hundred square feet, with one toilet that they could not flush during the day, for fear of being found out.

Otto’s employees brought them food, clothing, and newspapers. Anne wrote every day in her diary, detailing her difficult relationship with her mother and recording daily life in the annex. She told Kitty: “When I write, I can shake all of my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived. But, and that’s a big question, will I ever be able to write something truly great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer?”

On June 4, 1944, Anne, her family, and their four companions were arrested in The Secret Annex. One of the family’s helpers, Miep Gies, cleaned the Annex after the arrest, saving the diary and family photographs. Anne and Margot were sent to Auschwitz and then to Bergen-Belsen, where both sisters died of typhus and malnutrition just weeks before the British liberated the camp. Anne was 15 years old. Of the eight people who hid in the Secret Annex, only Otto survived the concentration camps. Miep Gies gave the diary to Otto. She said, “This is Anne’s legacy.” In June of 1947, The Secret Annex was published; its English translation was called Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl (1952). It has sold tens of millions of copies worldwide. In 1960, the warehouse that held the Secret Annex was restored and opened to the public as the Anne Frank Museum. More than 1 million people visit the house each year.

Anne Frank wrote: “It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually turning into a wilderness, I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us, too. I can feel the sufferings of millions, and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®