“I hope to tell you everything that I could never tell anyone until now. And I hope that you will be a faithful and supportive friend.”
These are the opening words of the most famous personal diary in the world, the diary of Anne Frank. The Diary of a Young Girl is written in the first person and with the sensitive open heart of a teenage girl. It bears testimony to the two years in which Anne, together with her parents, her sister and four other Jewish souls hid in the secret annex of a Dutch family in Amsterdam before the Nazis tracked them down and deported them to the concentration camps. The diary describes the friction-packed, tense and demanding daily life of eight people living together in a small, hidden confine, under the constant threat of being captured, together with the deliberations and inner conflicts of a teenage girl.
Anne Frank’s diary is the best selling diary in the world; the best selling book ever written by a Jewish woman; and the best selling book that has ever been written by a person under the age of thirty. Thirty-three million copies have been sold to date and apparently, translated into seventy-five languages, it is one of the most translated books in the world. In addition, it is the most widely read book on the holocaust in the world. In the decades that have passed since its first publication, The Diary of a Young Girl has offered millions a direct window into the horrific ordeals that met the Jews during the Second World War; sometimes it may even be their only glimpse into the agony and torment of the holocaust.
Every year, half a million people visit the house where Anne Frank hid and to date, many people from all over the world who were touched by her story have written her letters as if she was a living person. Every one of these facts is amazing in itself when one remembers that the book was written by a girl who was only fifteen years old.
Anne Frank grew up in an assimilated Jewish family that possessed little or no connection to observant Judaism. Nevertheless, by Divine Providence she was given the privilege to represent the entire Jewish nation to millions of people all over the world. The Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, taught that everything in the world should be perceived through the prism of faith and through the wisdom of the Torah. Let’s see what inspiration we can glean by contemplating Anne Frank’s story in this way.
A Diary as Prayer
Let’s reread the opening lines of Anne Frank’s diary, “I hope to tell you everything that I could never tell anyone until now. And I hope that you will be a faithful and supportive friend.”
Anne Frank wrote these words to her own diary, almost as if they were intended for the sympathetic ear of a flesh and blood confidante. In fact, in order to emphasize just how much her diary is like a real friend to her, a friend to whom she can pour out her whole heart, she later gives her diary a name, “Kitty.” In some of the theatrical productions of the book, this idea has even been developed to the extent that “Kitty” has become an actual person, played out by an actress, who watches what is taking place from the side, narrating Anne’s inner thoughts to the audience as they echo through her diary without any of the other characters ever being “aware” of her.
The idea of writing or speaking to an invisible confidante obviously reminds us of prayer. Indeed, the opening words of Anne’s diary sound like an appeal that anyone who believes in the power of prayer might make to God. The Creator is omniscient and knows everything that is going on inside us; in fact, He knows us better than we know ourselves. This is why some identify the need to pray to a hidden entity as a desire to get in touch with our innermost selves. Yet, identifying God with our inner being detaches us from our essential point of faith in God’s omnipotence. Prayer to one’s self is a self-contradiction, because we cannot expect salvation to sprout from the limitations of our own being, however deep we delve. Nonetheless, this idea is rooted in the simple truth that God is present at the core of our souls and we can therefore approach Him with the same directness and simplicity with which we may write a diary.
So, the first thing that we learn by considering Anne Frank from the vantage point of faith is that writing a personal diary, particularly during times of stress and suffering, is analogous to pouring out our hearts to God in prayer. There is a verse that captures this stance, “The prayer of a pauper as he shrouds himself and pours his words out before God” (Psalms 102:1). At times, when we feel as powerless as a pauper, we must freely pour our hearts out before God, as if we were writing our personal diary.
An exalted soul
The fact that Anne Frank was given the privilege to represent the entire Jewish nation to millions of people around the world teaches us about the extraordinary quality of her young soul and the importance of her mission. The writing talent that characterized her from a young age, the diary that she received on her thirteenth birthday, just a month before going into hiding, the amazing story of the diary’s survival and of her father who published it, these all serve as a dynamic backdrop revealing the light of her soul to the world, illuminating the hearts of so many.
After the diary was published and received unprecedented success, challenges to its authenticity began. A number of holocaust-deniers began to claim that it was not Anne Frank who had written the diary at all. Some claimed that Meyer Levin, the journalist who published the diary in America and wrote the first script based on it was its author, while others pointed a finger at Anne’s father, Otto Frank, arguing that it was he who wrote it in order to reinforce the “lie” of the holocaust and make a fortune on his daughter’s account. Some even went to so far as to claim that Anne Frank hereself never existed. Otto Frank fought legal battles with some of these people, which continued until his passing in 1980.
Though these ridiculous claims are nothing more than infantile provocations by anti-semites, there is something to be learnt from them. Strange as it may sound, the Ba’al Shem Tov himself, the founder of the entire Chassidic movement and one of the greatest Jewish figures in modern Jewish history, has suffered a similar fate at the hands of individuals considered bona fide historians, some of whom claimed he existed only in the myriad legends about him. When people claim that you don’t exist or that what you are saying is unreliable without supporting their claim with clear evidence, that is a sign of your greatness.
To better understand the significance of doubt in a historical figure’s existence, we turn to an example that comes from the Talmud, regarding the Biblical character of Job, the most famous sufferer in the world. A wide range of opinions, varying from one extreme to the other, have been expressed by the sages regarding his character and his life. Was he Jewish? In what era did he live? Who was his wife? Did he actually exist or is his story merely a parable? The question of one’s existence is not only related to greatness, but for some mysterious reason, also to suffering. In fact, according to one opinion, Job’s wife was none other than Dinah, Jacob’s daughter and the sister of the twelve tribes whose fate is also debated among the sages. Dinah too suffered great anguish throughout her life.
We can definitely say that the roots of all souls whose very existence has been immersed in doubt, are at a very lofty level of Divinity. For such a high soul coming from such an exalted level of Divinity to manifest in mundane reality depends, from a purely subjective point of view, more than anything else, on our belief or disbelief in its existence. Indeed, in Chassidic terminology, the source of the power of faith in the soul is in the hidden and elevated level of the soul that is called the Radla, “the unknowing [of itself] and unknowable [by others] head.” One can thus suggest that Anne Frank’s soul is rooted at this exalted level.
A Diary of Repentance
The author Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor whose writings also expanded public awareness of the holocaust, once said,
One single Anne Frank moves us more than the countless others who suffered just as she did but whose faces have remained in the shadows. Perhaps it is better that way; if we were capable of taking in all the suffering of all those people, we would not be able to live.
Levi’s words are reminiscent of a fundamental Kabbalistic idea called, the contraction (tzimtzum, in Hebrew) God wanted to create the world and illuminate it with His infinite light, but He knew that a finite world would not be capable of containing His light without shattering into fragments. God therefore contracted His light into one thin ray and projected it into the world. This ray of light appears in our world as the Torah, in the words of the prophets, and in the spark of Divinity that is in every one of us.
Primo Levi spoke of contracting the unfathomable suffering of millions through one small window; the eyes of a fifteen year old girl named Anne Frank. Her eyes serve as a peephole through which people can encounter the horrors of the holocaust yet continue to live without shattering. Expressing this idea in a positive way, we can say that if the personal story of one individual is capable of revealing the darkness that millions experienced, it must also be capable of revealing great light to the world.
We live in a generation in which many people like Anne Frank and her family are completely detached from the roots of their Jewish faith and from spirituality in general. Such people often begin to wake up in their teens and find their way back to the true origin of their souls. Similarly, people who grew up in Jewish homes, yet for various reasons became estranged from their tradition, become reacquainted with it in all its potency as they grow older. This experience of arousal and return to God is actually the most profound experience of the human soul. Those precious, rare and fragile moments when a person reveals the essence of his soul are no less than Divine revelation. This idea is evident in the literal translation of the verse in Deuteronomy (30:3), “God, your God will restore your return.” In his commentary on the verse, Rashi asks, “It should have said, ‘will have restored your return,’” and he explains that, “The day of gathering of the exiles is so tremendous, that God Himself needs to take hold, as it were, to excise every individual from his place,” meaning that the ingathering of the souls of Israel to their origins is so wondrous, that it requires God Himself, as it were, to accompany each soul on its way back home.
In our generation, anyone who has had the privilege of experiencing such a spiritual arousal should try and express it in writing or transmit it verbally so that other people get a sense of it too, to “taste and see that God is good” (Psalms 34:9). Anne Frank’s diary has given millions a glimpse into the terrible ordeals that the Jewish people endured during the holocaust and into her faith in life despite all the difficulties. In this way, accounts of a person’s return to his Jewish roots can transmit a taste of his newfound faith in the Divine light that is above and beyond our normal experience and infuses our lives with flavor and significance.
Writing a personal account of the journey of one’s return to God is unlike any other form of journal writing, because the writer must express the inexpressible and pen thoughts that cannot be articulated. In other words, in this type of writing, the words that are left unsaid can be even more significant than those that are actually expressed in writing. All this should not deter us from putting pen to paper in an attempt to transmit our experiences, as long as we remember that heartfelt words penetrate the soul of those who read them. This is even true of words that have never been uttered explicitly, but are merely implied silently between the lines.
Hidden and Revealed
We know that when Anne Frank began writing her journal, she never intended others to read it. This is why she wrote the true names of the people with whom she lived in hiding, even writing personal information about them, sometimes even negative facts. Yet, one day she heard a radio address by one of the exiled members of the Dutch parliament residing in London. He mentioned that after the war, he planned on publishing the reports and journals of Dutch citizens who had suffered during the Nazi occupation of Holland. Inspired by his speech, Anne decided that when she was released, she would publish her diary because she understood the benefit for others. It was then that she began to edit her diary and change the names of the tenants in the annex in order to protect their privacy.
This teaches us an important fact about personal writing. Our emotions should be expressed in writing with the utmost honesty, exposing our inner feelings in a way that we would never reveal to anyone in the world. Even if we know that one day, someone may read our diary, or even if we ourselves intend to publish it in the future, we should write it as if no one else is ever meant to see it.
Yet afterwards, we must ask ourselves if what we have written could perhaps be of benefit to anyone else or if our candid words could affect someone else for the better, by helping them make a significant change in their lives or by bringing them closer to God. Perhaps these very words will bring blessing to many more people. If the answer is positive, it demands that, with self-sacrifice and after the necessary editing, we strive to have our work published, even though it contains what is most intimate to us.
The transition from writing one’s most intimate thoughts to publishing them publicly can be understood more profoundly in light of a baffling statement made by the sages in the Talmud. The sages state that God has “outer chambers” and “inner chambers.” In God’s outer chambers, they explain, He demonstrates His joy, as described in the verse, “might and joy are in His place,” while in His inner chambers, we find that, “In secrecy, My soul weeps.” God weeps in secret over the exile and torment of the Jewish people. Similarly, the ultimate purpose of publishing intimate and private thoughts, written in a state of tears, is to turn them into a source of empowerment and joy, touching the hearts of many in a way that will strengthen and elevates them, (just as God’s secret tears will eventually be revealed to bring us comfort.)
Letters to Anne
Above, we mentioned that many people all over the world continue to write Anne Frank letters, especially girls around the age that Anne was when writing her diary. The fact that she succeeded in touching their hearts over such a great distance of time and space teaches us an important lesson about the power of the soul to rise above the limitations of reality and to illuminate into the distance. If we are so inspired by the words of a person who has long since passed away, so much so that we feel a desire to reply to her in person, then in a certain way her soul remains with us. She is still here among us, inspiring us to think and feel.
Anne Frank died at the age of 16. If she were still alive today, she would be 84 years old. We can try to imagine her as an elderly lady, perhaps somewhat bent with age, but with that same glint in her eyes, an amiable smile shaping her lips, and a willful, energetic personality that is so familiar to us from her photographs and from her diary. But we have trouble doing so because in our mind’s eye, like others who have died in their youth, Anne remains forever young. Despite the tragedy of her early death, she is one of those people whose life-after-death clarifies something important about the soul, which, like them, remains eternally young, immune to time.
There is a custom to continue to commemorate birthdays even many years after a person has passed away. For example, Chassidim commonly read the chapter of Psalms corresponding to the age of their deceased Rebbe, as if the deceased leader continues to mature in years. Yet Kabbalah reveals that at the time of the resurrection of the dead, the deceased will rise at the same age they were when they passed away, as if not even a day had passed. In other words, after death, a person matures, but does not grow older; continues to develop, but lies peacefully.
The concept of resurrection is difficult to conceive, as Maimonides has stated regarding the entire redemption process, “We will not know how it will be until it takes place.” Yet, we could imagine Anne Frank returning to us as a wise old lady in the form of a young girl. This is a perfect parable for the soul: it constantly matures, but simultaneously retains every drop of vitality (this is how Chassidut describes the Mashiach: he will be composed of the soul of the elderly Moses, who died at the age of 120, within the body of the younger King David).
If you had the opportunity to write to Anne Frank, what would you write her? What would you like to tell her about your life, here and now? Anne Frank’s diary ought to be on the reading list for every child her age and pupils should be encouraged to write letters to her and have the best ones published. Anne Frank’s soul continues to illuminate our dark world and inspires us to express our innermost thoughts and experiences, as she effectively articulated herself.
The soul of Mashiach will ultimately encourage every one of us to joyfully articulate our most genuine innermost being in all its beauty, illuminating the entire world with Divinity. We pray that he come soon.