OVERVIEWS OF HOLOCAUST DIARIES
CRITICAL EVALUATIONS OF ANNE FRANK'S THE DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL
CRITICAL EVALUATIONS OF OTHER HOLOCAUST DIARIES
CRITICAL EVALUATIONS OF VICTORIAN CHILDREN'S DIARIES
CRITICAL EVALUATIONS OF CONTEMPORARY CHILDREN'S DIARIES
Diaries and diaristic first-person autobiographical narratives authored by children and young adults.
Perhaps the most personalized form of literature, diaries allow the reader into the minds and lives of their authors and, as the sole form of literature written directly by children, children's diaries offer important insights into the juvenile perspective. Generally created without an intended audience and without regard to setting, these diaries nonetheless offer a potent documentation of the adolescent narrative voice that is unlike any other mode of literature. In addition to being a record of this juvenile spirit, such works further encapsulate moments in time, preserving the historical testimony of voices unable to contribute to the official chronicling of history. Diaries, in general, are often described as the voice of the subconscious mind brought into conscious world, or as David Patterson has noted, they arise from "the encounter between world and mind." Such an intersection, Patterson has suggested, "is not just the record of events; it is the record of a consciousness, of a sentient interaction with events." The diary's unique voice is derived, in part, from a relatively unfiltered perspective that seeks to define and account for the world, a spirit that is born, P. A. Spalding has said, of a "spontaneous impulse to record experience as such and preserve it." The nascent perspective found in the juvenile diary can be viewed as an even more raw version of this subconscious need; for the child, the diary serves the dual purpose of confidant and therapist, allowing the developing conscious the opportunity to identify, record, and classify important events and emotions. As such, diaries can often be vehicles of resolution and archive for a juvenile writer. "No other genre," Irena Klepfisz has argued, "affords us the opportunity to glimpse the unmediated and unguarded intellectual and emotional landscape of another human being."
Called "the most authentic form of autobiography" by Suzanne Bunker, diaries offer the reader uncensored insight into the mind of the writer, as well as an unvarnished examination of the time during which they lived. This frozen testimony of bygone eras has proven to be an especially important facet of children's diaries, particularly those born of the World War II Holocaust. Records of that period—such as those written by Éva Heyman, Moshe Flinker, and especially Anne Frank—offer important insight into the turmoil and trauma the period held for children. Composed by an astonishing variety of voices from across Europe, their stories combine to create a single spirit of communal identity, of a culture united through tragedy. Individually, they are records of children under duress, each one bearing witness to the physical and psychological struggles of its author. Often poignant in their musings, these diaries offered their writers an escape from their lives, as well as a chance to find what meaning they could from the apparently senseless conflict about them. David Patterson has posited that this questioning spirit, which manifests itself throughout the spectrum of children's Holocaust diaries, is distinct to these documents: "while other diaries seek to record and preserve the experience of the world, the Holocaust diarist seeks to recover the world itself." Tragically, there are dozens of known Holocaust diaries by juvenile authors, many of whose authors perished, their records found only after their deaths. The most famous of these—and perhaps the best known adolescent diary of all time—is that of Anne Frank. Titled Het Achterhuis (1947; The Diary of a Young Girl), it details Frank's time in a secret annex, or attic, in Amsterdam. Released in English in 1952, the book is unique even among Holocaust diaries for its complex publishing history. The book was revised by Frank herself during her lifetime and, in contrast to most Holocaust diaries, Frank may even have intended it for eventual release. After her deportation to Bergen-Belsen, the book was found by one of her Gentile caretakers and given to her father after his release from Auschwitz. Learning of his daughter's death, he further edited the diary to eliminate potentially upsetting or embarrassing aspects coming to light. While the full contents have since been published, the diary itself remains controversial as much for what it does not say as for its revised contents. While Frank's diary has been become an indelible part of the Holocaust story for its empathetic relation of Frank's harrowing and emotional journey within the fixed confines of that attic, it nonetheless ends before her internment in Bergen-Belsen, thereby limiting her experience to the comparative safety of the annex. Thus, many critics have contended, it allows for her convenient martyrization without the implications of considering how she died, in essence creating the "dehistoricization" of her real story. Despite the terrors occurring in the outside world, Frank's diary is filled with a joy and hope that operates in stark contrast to the tragic elements underpinning the diaries of her contemporaries, a relative bliss afforded to her by the isolation of the annex that spared her from the worst aspects of deprivation and terror detailed in those other children's diaries. The controlled popularity of her diary, which has made Frank famous for her assertions of an unfailing belief in the kindness of mankind while shying away from her more unpleasant but typical adolescent angers, has led to accusations of its misuse and sanitization of history. "In fact," Lawrence L. Langer has argued, "one could argue that Anne Frank's Diary sanctions and indeed enacts in its very text a designed avoidance of the very experience it is reputed to grant us some exposure to … by embracing the need she fulfills, we may fail to identify and thus neglect the truths she did not know."
While nonetheless an important document that continues to occupy a prominent position in introducing the Holocaust to adolescent readers, The Diary of a Young Girl may perhaps be best utilized through the introduction of complimentary Holocaust diaries. Among these compelling—if often tragic—narratives exists a breadth of location and circumstance. The journal of Mary Berg offers the rare testimony of a survivor; the daughter of an American, her mother's nationality allowed her escape from the Holocaust in Europe to the United States in 1943. Lena Jedwab's story is that of another survivor, albeit from the other side of the Iron Curtain. From Bialystok, Poland, she found herself stranded at a summer camp for young Communist Pioneers for the duration of the war, a fate that no doubt spared her, but left her desperately alone. Their tales offer rare strands of hope and survival amidst a litany of wretchedness. Despite the inherently underlying tragic components of many Holocaust diaries, however, Barbara Foley has noted that they nonetheless "yield surprisingly compelling depiction[s] of character in the process of metamorphosis." Many of these diaries are striking examples of questioning narratives. Often the products of exceptionally bright children, several feature unintentionally profound prose that testifies to the enormity of the loss surrounding their deaths. The diaries of Dawid Sierakowiak of Lodz, Poland, for example, give evidence to the intelligence and humanity of their author. Born in 1924, Sierakowiak started his diaries in 1939 before his eventual confinement in the notorious Lodz ghetto and writes about his struggles with hunger, family, and the gripping fear of his own death, as well as his dreams for life after the end of the war. "The diary," Langer has written, "provides a detailed and intimate history of how the finest aspects of human nature—intellectual quest, creativity, familial love, and the appreciation of nature—were incidentally stifled during the Holocaust by the most bestial drives of the species to torment, exploit, oppress, and kill." Sierakowiak died in the ghetto in 1943 at nineteen, leaving behind a series of diaries hidden in a Lodz apartment that were later found and published around the world. By contrast, Moshe Flinker, whose diaries begin when he was thirteen, are written under more of a religious lens. A son of an observant Jewish family—unlike the more secular Franks—Flinker authored a diary that offers broader considerations about the role of God within the Holocaust and the future of the Jewish people.
Beyond their capacity for storing memory and recording history, children's diaries have other demonstrated functional uses. For instance, researchers have repurposed turn-of-the-century diaries like those of thirteen-year-old Mamie Pickering of Portage La Prairie, Canada, to help give a better picture into the reading habits of a typical adolescent girl of that era. Such studies, Norman J. Williamson and Angela E. Williamson have suggested, "offer a revealing look at the place literature occupied in a fairly typical small-town North American childhood of the latter years of the last century," enabling contemporary readers to gain rare insight into the development of children's literature over the course of a century. Perhaps most importantly, the diary maintains its original purpose as confessional and confidante to the developing mind. The diary is of particular value to the adolescent writer, as it allows a means of considering the world through a personalized lens, without adult input or judgment. As such, Katie Van Sluys has asserted, children writing diaries are "building relationships through literary practices…. Texts become tools for refiguring boundaries, encountering new worlds, and building identities." Mutually beneficially as both a vehicle for encouraging psychological development through writing as for its ability to impart the unvarnished individual life history of a writer, children's diaries have demonstrable value for both juvenile reader and writer alike.
‘Les Vrais Riches’—Notizen am Rand: Ein Tagebuch aus dem Ghetto Lodz (Mai bis August 1944) [edited by Hanno Loewy and Adrejz Bodek; translated by Esther Alexander-Ihme] (diary) 1972
Warsaw Ghetto: A Diary [edited by S. L. Shneiderman; translated by Norbert Guterman] (diary) 1945
Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Sarajevo [translated by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić] (diary) 1994
Stolen Voices: Young People's War Diaries, from World War I to Iraq [as editor; with Melanie Challenger] (diaries) 2006
Hana'ar Moshe: Yoman shel Moshe Flinker [Young Moshe's Diary: The Spiritual Torment of a Jewish Boy in Nazi Europe] (diary) 1958
Het Achterhuis [Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl] (diary and memoirs) 1947
The Diary of Anne Frank: The Definitive Edition [edited by Otto Frank and Mirjam Pressler] (diary, essays, and memoirs) 1995
The Diary of Éva Heyman [translated by Moshe M. Kohn] (diary) 1974
Children in the Holocaust in World War II: Their Secret Diaries [editor] (diaries) 1995
The Diary of a Soviet Schoolgirl: 1932-1937 [translated by Joanne Turnbull] (diary) 2003
The Beautiful Days of My Youth: My Six Months in Auschwitz and Plaszów [translated by George L. Newman] (diary) 1997
Lena Jedwab Rozenberg
Girl with Two Landscapes: The Wartime Diary of Lena Jedwab, 1941-1945 [translated by Solon Beinfeld] (diary) 2002
The Diary of Dawid Rubinowicz [translated by Derek Bowman] (diary) 1982
The Diary of the Vilna Ghetto [translated by Percy Matenko] (diary) 1973
The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak: Five Notebooks from the Lodz Ghetto [edited by Alan Adelson] (diary) 1960
The Diary of Opal Whiteley (diary) 1920; republished and edited by Benjamin Hoff as The Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow: The Rediscovered Diary of Opal Whiteley, 1986
David Patterson (essay date 1999)
SOURCE: Patterson, David. "Opening Remarks." In Along the Edge of Annihilation: The Collapse and Recovery of Life in the Holocaust Diary, pp. 3-28. Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Patterson emphasizes the presence of a common Jewish identity found throughout Holocaust diaries despite the apparently dissimilar personal backgrounds of each diarist.]
"If my life ends," reads the last line of Chaim Kaplan's Warsaw Diary, "what will become of my diary?" (400). Kaplan's life ended in the death camp Treblinka in December 1942 or in January 1943; the exact date is uncertain. It is certain, however, that, apart from surviving the Shoah—which in itself borders on the miraculous—very little has become of his diary. Very little, in fact, has become of any of these diaries composed with courage and trepidation, in times and places where, by all that is rational, they should not have been composed at all. Yet, from little girls to old men, Jews did set their hands to blank pages in the midst of a world that had gone blank. Precisely when every trace of all that was meaningful and sacred in life was being erased, Jews of every ilk—but nonetheless Jews—struggled to utter a word that might transcend this erasure. Precisely when writing a diary became a crime, it became most needful for the recovery of a life that had been deemed criminal. Contrary to all that reason might have predicted, thousands of pages from these diaries have reached our hands. And, far from an egotistical concern for the fate of himself or his memory, Kaplan's question about the fate of his diary is a question concerning the fate of the truth, to which the fate of humanity is tied.
According to the Talmud, it is a religious duty to "carry out the wishes of the deceased" (Gittin 14b); just so, it is a religious duty to respond to Kaplan's question and to the cries of those who shared his fate. Like it or not, the voices of these victims and the truth that they sought persist. That is why this book delves into their diaries. Written from a Jewish perspective, it is a Jewish response to Jewish outcry. Which is to say, it is a book that examines a searing question rising up from these scrolls of agony: how is the interior turmoil of the human diarist linked to the exterior annihilation of humanity? Or: what is the connection between the response to the collapse of life and the effort to regain a life? Or: what does writing the diary have to do with living a life, when both are under assault? These are a few variations on a single question. It is above all a Jewish question, which, like the Covenant entered into for the sake of "all the nations of the earth" (Genesis 18:18), is a question that concerns all humanity. "There comes a time," Elie Wiesel has written, "when one cannot be a man without assuming the Jewish condition" (Beggar 77), and assuming the Jewish condition has come to entail addressing the Jewish question that arises from these diaries. Kaplan himself believed that the time for this confrontation is precisely the time now upon us, in the post-Holocaust era. After the Shoah, he asserts in his entry for 10 October 1940, "either humanity would be Judaic, or it would be idolatrous-German" (130)—either yehidutiyt or germaniyt-eliyliyt in his Hebrew (201), suggesting an embrace either of the truth or of the lie, either of meaning or of the void. And Kaplan's concern for the fate of his diary is inextricably tied to this either/or.
The project here undertaken is an attempt to embrace the truth and meaning, both terrible and sublime, that Kaplan and other Jewish diarists sought to embrace. Once again, in contrast to most others who have examined these diaries, I wish to emphasize the word Jewish and, in that emphasis, adopt a premise set forth by Emmanuel Levinas: "Jewish existence itself is an essential event of being; Jewish existence is a category of being" (Difficult 183). How that category is distinguished will be seen in the ways in which the Holocaust diary is distinguished from other diaries; generally speaking, these distinctions are outlined in the titles of the chapters that go into this study. Seeking a link between those Jewish lives lost and our own lives, moreover, its method is phenomenological, in the sense that Levinas ascribes to phenomenology when he says, "Phenomenology is a way of becoming aware of where we are in the world, a sich besinnen that consists of a recovery of the origin of meaning in our life world, or Lebenswelt" ("Dialogue" 14-15). In the Holocaust diary, to be sure, this recovery of meaning in life is attempted in the midst of a Todeswelt, death world. And yet the diary lives. Hence we are faced with a phenomenological question: how do the collapse and recovery of life in the Holocaust diary implicate us in our own pursuit of life? But before we explore this huge question, we must consider other questions. Let us begin with the question concerning the critical contexts for the investigation.
The Critical Contexts for the Investigation
While the Shoah has invoked a great deal of research and even a great deal of genuine testimony, there has been very little embrace of the truth, very little response to the larger question before us, in the responses to these voices that arose from the very depths of the whirlwind. Renata Laqueur Weiss's doctoral dissertation on concentration camp diaries is, to my knowledge, the only book-length study of Holocaust diaries. When the diaries do come under investigation in the occasional chapter or article, their consideration is usually combined with a discussion of Holocaust memoirs, as if there were no significant generic distinctions between the two. And they are rarely approached as Jewish texts that bear implications for an understanding of Jewish life and tradition, that is, of Jewish existence as a category of being. The scholarly contexts for this investigation, then, are sparse. But the spiritual context—the context of the truth and of the soul's struggle for life—is immense, though little explored.
Before going into a critique of existing studies of the diaries, however, at least two exceptions to the claim that their truth has been ignored must be noted. While one comes soon after the Event, the is other much later, and both arise in reaction to the popular acclaim for Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl. In 1960 Bruno Bettelheim commented on the stage production of the diary by saying: "There is good reason why the enormously successful play ends with Anne stating her belief in the good in all men…. If all men are basically good … then indeed we can all go on with life as usual and forget about Auschwitz…. [Anne Frank's dramatized diary] found wide acclaim because … it denies implicitly that Auschwitz ever existed. If all men are good, there was never an Auschwitz" (46). And if there was never an Auschwitz, there was never an Anne Frank, never the hiding or the capture, the despair or the death—in a word, never a diary. More thoroughly developing Bettelheim's position, Alvin Rosenfeld published a study of Anne Frank and her diary in 1991, where he argues: "In order to give the book this emphasis—one that urged readers to cherish its youthful author rather than to mourn her—one had to read the diary in such a way as to have it appear an uplifting and not a harrowing experience. The only way to do that, though, was to dehistoricize Anne Frank's story: to see it, on the one hand, as emblematic of Jewish fate during the Nazi period, to be sure, but, on the other hand, as transcending that fate" ("Popularization" 250). Therefore: "Far from being remembered as one dead child among a million or more murdered Jewish children, she was instead to be taken up and cherished as a general symbol of martyred innocence, who stood for but also transcended the lot of suffering humanity" (260). Again, to dehistoricize the diary is to eliminate it, and to make Anne Frank into a symbol is to get rid of her, as a child and as a Jew. Thus, as Bettelheim and Rosenfeld rightly suggest, we settle a burning question and silence a disturbing voice.
Dehistoricizing the diary is a means of overcoming the Event and salving our soul with the illusion that these dead Jewish children have no bearing on our humanity. To be sure, once they are stripped of their humanity and made into a symbol, our illusion goes so far as to suppose that their spirit of innocence and optimism lives on (whatever that means); hence we are redeemed. Or at least we are let off the hook of responsibility. But, as Emil Fackenheim insists, this illusion cannot bear the weight of a reality that cannot be overcome. "The edification of our soul is disrupted by the cries of the children," he maintains. "We therefore conclude: where the Holocaust is there is no overcoming; and where there is an overcoming the Holocaust is not…. So long as no way is found to confront the Holocaust and yet endure, it has the power to render questionable all overcoming everywhere" (To Mend 135). The responses of Bettelheim and Rosenfeld show that the effort to transcend the truth of Anne Frank has failed; which, in turn, is evidence that we have not found a way to confront the Holocaust and yet endure.
Dehistoricizing the diary and making it into a false symbol, however, is not our only means of removing it from its reality and placing it at a safe distance from ourselves. Another method of overcoming the Shoah is to bury it in history. Contrary to its elevation as a transcendent symbol, the diary is often reduced to a mere historical document or a piece of evidence. Here, lacking the courage of the diarists, we shrink from their diaries and regard them simply as eyewitness accounts and sources of information, as data, and not as the outcries of Jewish souls that might implicate us in any way. Albert Graeser, for example, omits these diaries from his study of the "literary diary" precisely because they are "documents" that arose from despair, rather than from Kunstwille, or the "will to art" (105). And yet to view them as art would be equally wrongheaded, since this would open the door to the false transcendence that occurred when Anne Frank's diary was made into art, that is, into drama. How, then, should these diaries be approached?
In the area of Holocaust studies, James Young is perhaps the most prominent scholar to have undertaken any detailed examination of the Holocaust diary. He too, however, fabricates a distance between ourselves and the diaries by reducing them not only to documents, evidence, and sources of information but to problematic documents, evidence, and sources of information. He accomplishes this task in two ways: first he raises epistemological concerns that discredit the diarist, and then he assumes a phenomenological stance that renders suspect the diary itself. And the fact that the diaries are written by Jews in the midst of the annihilation of the Jews is all but incidental to both approaches. From an epistemological standpoint, Young argues that the diarists "necessarily convert experience into an organized, often ritualized, memory of experience." Hence it is "difficult to distinguish between the archetypal patterns the ghetto diarist has brought to the events, those he perceived in or inferred from them, and those that exist in the narrative. As raw as they may have been at the moment, the ghetto and camp experiences were immediately refined and organized by witnesses within the terms of their Weltanschauungen" ("Interpreting" 414). Let us put aside for the moment our doubts as to whether Anne Frank or Dawid Rubinowicz can even have a Weltanschauung, at least in the same sense that Chaim Kaplan and Janusz Korczak may have one. There are more important issues to consider here. For example, if the ideological bias of the diarist stands between himself and any truth concerning the event, then it certainly stands between us and the event: once again we are safe and do not have to answer for anything, since we cannot answer for what we cannot know. How we know that the Event took place Young does not explain; what we know, he insists, is corrupted by the outlook of witnesses who transmit that knowledge.
One comparison that Young makes in order to support his contention is between Anne Frank and Moshe Flinker, two adolescents who were very different in their Weltanschauungen; Anne was an assimilated Jew, Young notes, for instance, whereas Moshe was a religious Jew. Further, "at the end of her diary," says Young, "Anne can declare that in spite of everything, she still believes in the goodness of humankind. In contrast, following his afternoon prayers on the last day of his diary, Moshe writes: ‘The sky is covered with bloody clouds, and I am frightened when I see it…. They come from the seas of blood … brought about by the millions of Jews who have been captured.’ … Where Anne might have seen beauty and hope in a fiery sunset, Moshe ‘saw’ only apocalypse. The ‘vision’ of the events in these diaries depended on the languages, figures, and even religious training that ultimately framed these testimonies" ("Interpreting" 415). Therefore, one is led to ask, who can know anything about the truth of what these children "saw"? Underlying this question, from Young's perspective, is not the horrendous nature of an event that thwarts the imagination and frustrates the understanding; rather, it is the tainted nature of the testimony that makes knowledge of the Event problematic, if not impossible.
Young's epistemological flight from responsibility is mirrored, moreover, by his irresponsible handling of these examples; here his own intellectual and ideological bias shows itself. Regarding the remark that he attributes to Anne Frank, it is not at the end of her diary but at the end of the contrived stage production that "Anne" asserts her belief in the goodness of humankind. Although she has her moments of optimism, what the child Anne does write near the end of her diary, on 15 July 1944, is this: "That's the difficulty in these times: ideals, dreams, and cherished hopes rise within us, only to meet the horrible truth and be shattered" (278). And is it the assimilated Anne who writes that, when gazing into the Sabbath candles, she senses "in the candle" the presence of her late grandmother, who "shelters and protects" her (177-78)? As for Moshe Flinker, it is true that his diary is full of apocalyptic foreboding and religious fervor, but he too has his moments of optimism. On 26 November 1942, for example, he writes: "It seems to me that the time has come for our redemption" (26). And later he declares: "The Lord will not be able to forsake His people. Undoubtedly He will save us" (52). Is this affirmation of faith so diametrically opposed to Anne Frank's assertion that "it is God that has made us as we are, but it will be God, too, who will raise us up again" (221)? Yes, these children come from different backgrounds and have different perspectives on the world. But far more significant to an understanding of their diaries are the things these Jewish children have in common: their struggle to respond to a world in ashes, their effort to recover some traces of life, and their questions concerning the dearness of life that implicate us all. This is precisely what Young overlooks.
Young takes up the phenomenological challenge to the validity of the diary itself in his book Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust. "Because the diarists wrote from within the whirlwind," he maintains, "the degree of authority in their accounts is [mistakenly] perceived by readers to be stronger than that of the texts shaped through hindsight. Operating on the same phenomenological basis as print journalism, in which the perceived temporal proximity of a text to events reinforces the sense of its facticity, diaries can be far more convincing of their factual veracity than more retrospective accounts" (25). One dubious assumption behind this statement is that a reader's primary interest in the diary lies with the facts that it conveys, and not with the questions that it may pose for the life of the soul; indeed, it is an assumption that insulates the soul from such questions and that ignores any internal aspect of the human being at work in the diary. And yet, as Wiesel has insisted, "the ultimate mystery of the Holocaust is that whatever happened took place in the soul" (Against Silence 1:239). If we are to find our way into these diaries, then we must find our way into our own souls. And to do this, we must begin by recognizing the difference between writing a document or a report, and keeping a diary.
Unlike Young, Alain Girard makes an important distinction between the phenomenological basis of diaries in general and print journalism: "[In the diary] internal observation plays a role analogous to the plane of individual consciousness, allowing it to escape from appearances and to communicate with itself. One could not imagine two forms of writing more opposed in their manner, their aim, and their content than the journal of journalists and the journal of diarists" (xvi-xvii). As we shall see, there are significant differences between diaries in general and the unique aspects of the Holocaust diary, but in this instance, Girard correctly notes a distinguishing feature of the diary which Young ignores: in the diary, notes Girard, "the interior landscape reflects the variations of an exterior landscape" (xvi).1 When assessing the events reported by a journalist, we are interested in the factual nature of the report, not in the reporter's strife of the spirit. While many Holocaust diaries include accounts of what is transpiring around the diarist, none of them can be reduced to mere reports or documentation of facts, for all of them harbor an internal, human aspect that, far from isolating us from the diarist, establishes for us an essential bond with him. And the diary is a mirror held up not only to the horror but also to ourselves.
Even when it looks as though Young is about to make a distinction between the internal and the external aspects of the diary, he deftly avoids it. For example, he says: "The diarists who participated in Ringelblum's communal Oneg Shabbat archive were motivated to record events far different from those reported in a more personal record, like Mary Berg's diary…. The reasons for which the diarists wrote and the focus of their witness inescapably regulate, and at times restrict, the diarist's record. In the end, these formal and generic constraints contribute as much to the meaning and significance of these diaries as do the figures and selection of details in the diaries themselves" (Writing 25). There are certainly differences between Mary Berg's diary and those kept by the members of the Oneg Shabbat circle. But, as in his comparison of Anne Frank and Moshe Flinker, in this contrast between the Oneg Shabbat diarists and Mary Berg, Young oversimplifies to the point of being misleading, since there are considerable religious and ideological differences among the Oneg Shabbat diarists themselves.
In the study at hand we shall examine some of the diaries found in the Oneg Shabbat archives; among them are those written by Rabbi Shimon Huberband, Menahem Kon, Abraham Levin, S. Sheinkinder, Hersh Wasser, and, of course, Emmanuel Ringelblum. Although they stood not in the middle of a circle but in the midst of a maelstrom, these men exemplify a talmudic tradition that goes back to Choni the Circle Drawer, who declared to the Almighty: "I swear by Thy great name that I will not move from here until Thou hast mercy upon Thy children!" (Ta'anit 23a). Like Choni the Circle Drawer, these diarists, and Ringelblum in particular, refused to move from where they stood; for, like Choni, they sensed a profound link between themselves as Jews and their Jewish community. To be sure, the very title of this communal group distinguishes it from other archival circles of other times: Oneg Shabbat means "rejoicing in the Sabbath" and implies, if not a personal stake, a deeply Jewish, human, and spiritual responsibility that far transcends any ordinary keeping of records and reporting of facts. They gave their group this Jewish name because, as Jews, they were deeply aware that the Sabbath is "spirit in the form of time," as Abraham Joshua Heschel states it (Sabbath 75), and that "what we are [as Jews] depends on what the Sabbath is to us" (Sabbath 89). Nor is it too much to assume that some of the members of the Oneg Shabbat, particularly Rabbi Huberband, were aware of the teaching in the Zohar that "the Community of Israel is also called ‘Sabbath’" (3:198-99). The question of who we are—and of what will become of us—as a Jewish community was central to the members of the Oneg Shabbat; it cannot be ignored—and Young ignores it—if one is to understand what they and their diaries were about.
To be sure, the centrality of this Jewish consciousness can be seen both among the diarists of the Oneg Shabbat and in the texts of other diarists. "Our purpose," Abraham Levin explains the aim of the Oneg Shabbat, "is that our sufferings, ‘the pains before the coming of the Messiah,’ should be noted down for remembrance by future generations, for remembering by the whole world" (316). Mary Berg has a similar sense of purpose that goes well beyond the confines of personal interest; like the members of the Oneg Shabbat, she often exemplifies a sense of responsibility to others. For she is mindful of "an inner voice" that "urges" her—or rather "commands" her, which is a better translation of the Polish nakazuje (243)—"to write down all the terrible things" she has discovered about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (227). Despite the differences between them, she and Ringelblum's diarists have this much in common: they are all conscious of a deeper responsibility to a human community which does not leave them free not to write. In its implications for the life of the soul, as well as for the life of humanity, this similarity surpasses the difference that Young regards as most decisive.
But even with respect to the difference that he emphasizes, there are problems with Young's division between archival information and personal anguish. On 12 July 1940, for example, Mary Berg relates that "there are now a great number of illegal schools, and they are multiplying every day," and that "two such schools were discovered by the Germans some time in June" (32). And in his archival "record" for 5 May 1942 Sheinkinder allows himself an expression of personal anguish. "Tomorrow will be the eve of Shavuot," he writes, noting the observance of the Revelation at Sinai. "There is no sadder hour for me than when I finish my work and make my way home, where my hungry family is waiting for me. They have prepared no dinner for me. I did not leave them anything for lunch" (260). As for Ringelblum himself, like his comrades, he seldom uses the first-person singular when making his entries, but surely he includes himself in the "we" when he writes: "Despair and a sense of hopelessness are growing. There is the universal feeling that They are trying to starve us out, and we cannot escape, save through a miracle" (157). Ringelblum's "we" extends throughout the community, to the children who attend the illegal schools and the hungry family awaiting the return of a tormented father. In these examples, then, one finds similarities that, despite all differences, lead Marie Syrkin to assert of the diaries: "The social historian trained in political thought and action [Emmanuel Ringelblum], the Orthodox Hebrew scholar [Chaim Kaplan], and the fifteen-year-old schoolgirl [Anne Frank] move from confused hopefulness to hopelessness in the same baffled progression. Though they differ in emotional intensity and intellectual resources, their basic responses are as tragically alike as the events they describe" (227). But there is an even more fundamental bond that ties Anne Frank and Mary Berg to Chaim Kaplan and Emmanuel Ringelblum, one that neither Young nor Syrkin addresses: they are Jews and are therefore conscious of an essential, definitive interweaving of personal and communal life. For "my soul is not by the side of my people," Martin Buber expresses this crucial point. "My people is my soul" (Judaism 20). This relation lies at the heart of the sense of responsibility to current and future generations that we find in every Holocaust diary. A Jew cannot stand alone, in isolation from other Jews, any more than a word can stand alone, in isolation from the language. (As we shall see below, this Jewish feature of the Holocaust diary proves to be one that distinguishes it from other diaries.)
Yet there are linguistic differences among the diaries, which in this study originally appear in Dutch, German, Romanian, Hungarian, Russian, Polish, Yiddish, and Hebrew. And, similar to David Roskies before him (199-212), Young makes much of these differences. "In choosing to write in Hebrew over Yiddish," he explains, for instance, "Kaplan and Kalmanovitch may not have deliberately chosen every specific allusion and figure in Hebrew over those in Ringelblum's Yiddish, but they did locate events within different linguistic realms all the same…. Where Hebrew tends to locate events in the sanctified linguistic sphere of Scripture, rabbinical disputation, and covenant, Yiddish (as the daily language and in many literal ways, the "mama-loshen," or mother-tongue) often brought into sharper relief the details of daily life and its hardships. Community, politics, and organization had a vocabulary in Yiddish not developed at that time in Hebrew. Conversely, questions of theodicy, covenant, scriptural antecedent, and even the interpretation of events ‘as text’ had a lexicon in Hebrew they did not have in Yiddish" ("Interpretation" 415). But this distinction carries weight only for those who have little knowledge of Hebrew and Yiddish. Although different languages certainly harbor different ways of organizing and conceptualizing the world, the mutual exclusion that Young ascribes to these particular languages is simply false. Bernard Martin, for example, points out that, through the work of Eliezer ben Yehudah (1858-1922) and Achad Ha-Am (1856-1927), Hebrew had become the vernacular of the Jewish community in Palestine by the early 1920s (344). It was the language of instruction and administration for the Technion, founded in Haifa in 1924, and for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, founded in 1925. When the Jewish Agency was established in 1929 to deal "with the practical task of financing and administering the settlement of Jews" in Palestine, Hebrew was the language in which it conducted its communal, political, and organizational business (Martin 346). And that business extended to Jewish organizations throughout the Diaspora, such as the Hitachadut (United Zionist Labor Party), which "championed the revival of Hebrew" as part of its political activity (Heller 267).
With regard to Yiddish and its shortcomings when it comes to interpreting events "as text," Young appears to overlook the massive Yiddish literature that eloquently explores all aspects, including the deeply religious and spiritual aspects, of East European Jewish life. As for the inappropriateness of Yiddish for delving into "theodicy" and rabbinical disputation, is it possible that Young is unaware of the fact that in Eastern Europe Yiddish was—and in some places remains—the language used for discussing and debating Torah and Talmud in the yeshivot? Reinforcing this point that undermines Young's characterization of Yiddish, André Neher makes a telling observation on Franz Rosenzweig and the significance of Yiddish for Jewish religious thought: "Throughout his life of Jewish studies, over and above the anxiety which assailed him sometimes when faced with the slowness of his progress in mastering the Talmud and the vastness of the intellectual realm which he still had to unravel, Rosenzweig was haunted with another worry, which gradually began to appear like an unquestionable certitude: He lacked the linguistic instrument— the truly Jewish language [of Yiddish], which the Warsaw schoolboy imbibed with the air of the ghetto—which would allow him an intuitive penetration of Talmudic knowledge" (They 143). In the matter of linguistic difference, then, Young ignores essential aspects of Hebrew and Yiddish that render his distinctions invalid.
The more pressing issue, however, is not Young's false generalizations concerning these differences among the diaries, but rather his ultimate aim in making these generalizations. Returning to our initial concern with his approach—namely, the reduction of the diaries to problematic evidence and dubious historical documents that pose no particular threat to spiritual life—we come to Young's own statement of a serious consequence of his approach. "The words in a translated and reproduced Holocaust diary," he argues, "are no longer traces of the crime, as they were for the writer who inscribed them; what was evidence for the writer at the moment he wrote is now, after it leaves his hand, only a detached and free-floating sign, at the mercy of all who would read and misread it. Evidence of the witness's experiences seems to have been supplanted—not delivered—by his text" (24). That there are problems with translations we readily admit; hence in this study we shall make use of the original texts for most of these diaries. But the soul and the humanity couched in the diary, the collapse and the recovery of a life reflected in it, can penetrate even the veils of a translation—if we do not decide beforehand that the diaries are "free-floating signs" or mere bodies of evidence and the diarists nothing more than reporters. Made into mere reports, the dairies are reduced to the status of "being there"; understood as human voices, they take on a capacity for calling forth, for calling me forth and announcing my responsibility. This is why Wiesel warns us: "Consideration for others must precede scholarship. Abstract erudition may turn into a futile game of the intellect. Words are links not only between words but also between human beings. The emphasis on the other is paramount in Judaism: Achrayut, responsibility, contains the word Akher (Acher), the Other. We are responsible for the other" (Sages 184). Thus the response to the diary—the Jewish response—must be one that endeavors to establish a link with the diarist.
Remember Mikhail Bakhtin's insight: "The text as such never appears as a dead thing; beginning with any text—and sometimes passing through a lengthy series of mediating links—we always arrive, in the final analysis, at the human voice, which is to say we come up against the human being" (Dialogic 252-53). But coming up against these human beings, against these Jews, who collide with the extremity of the collapse of life and wrestle to recover it, is not just a difficult task—it is a terrifying task. For in the encounter with the human being, we encounter ourselves and there confront the questions of what we live and die for, of what we hold dear and what we fear. It is understandable, but not excusable, that Young would avoid the fearsome task of encountering the human being in the diary by getting rid of him. We can see why he invokes the free-floating sign in an eclipse of the human face: it is to flee, either knowingly or unknowingly, from a terrible responsibility. "Face and discourse are tied," Levinas points out. "The face speaks. It speaks, it is in this that it renders possible and begins all discourse. I have just refused the notion of vision to describe the authentic relationship with the Other; it is discourse and, more exactly, response or responsibility which is this authentic relationship" (Ethics 87-88). When the diaries are reduced to documents or signs, we do not respond to them; we examine, explain, and explicate them, but we do not respond to them. But then we betray the face that speaks from within and from beyond them. Chaim Kaplan's question once again comes to mind: "What will become of my diary?" In Young's approach to the diary we see what must not become of it.
But there are two other matters that must be considered before we launch our own attempt to respond to these diaries. First, in the existing approaches to the Holocaust diaries there is very little consideration of the generic features of the diary as such; as already indicated, when diaries get discussed or listed in bibliographies, they are often grouped together with memoirs and autobiographies. We shall proceed, then, to a brief discussion of the diary as a literary form. It will turn out, however, that, while it has some things in common with other diaries, the Holocaust diary is in a category by itself and cannot be neatly filed into the general genre of the diary. The matter of what distinguishes the Holocaust diary as Holocaust diary, then, is a second point that scholars thus far have not addressed and that must be addressed in these introductory remarks.
Generic Features of the Diary
According to P. A. Spalding, one distinguishing feature of the diary is that it arises from a "spontaneous impulse to record experience as such and preserve it" (12). A key term in this statement is the word experience. The video camera in the convenience store may record everything that transpires in the store throughout the day, but it experiences nothing. Experience belongs to the consciousness of a living soul; it arises in the encounter between world and mind. The diary, then, is not just the record of events; it is the record of a consciousness, of a sentient interaction with events. If the aim of this interaction recorded in the diary is the preservation of experience, then one might question Spalding's claim that it arises from a spontaneous impulse, as if it were void of any thought or calculation; indeed, the desire for preservation would seem to preclude spontaneity. We can come to Spalding's assistance, perhaps, by noting that, if the diary does arise from such an impulse, it is not because it is pointless or a reflexive stream of consciousness, but rather because it is not intended for a reader other than the diarist. And yet the diarist's reading of the diary is couched in the very process of writing it: the writing is itself a reading of the experience, and the diarist's pen becomes an organ of insight. Thus Yitzhak Katznelson, for example, can say, "This pen of mine, wherewith I have written most of these notes, has become a living part of me" (187)—byichad im libiy biy, im nishmatiy biy, reads his Hebrew text, "one with my heart, one with my soul" (87): it is an essential part of me. For Katznelson, the pen that produced the diary was his soul's link to whatever life he could retrieve from the ruins of the day.
Although most diarists do not see the day pass in destruction, they do see the day pass. The diarist's "impulse" to preserve his experience, then, is an attempt to lay his hands—or his pen—on a moment and a life that may otherwise slip through his fingers. This he does by inscribing a word upon a page, as though the inscription were a net that could snare the experience, or a sieve through which he might filter some significance attached to the experience. Thus the word becomes a repository of time and experience; thus the word takes on meaning, even if the experience is negative, since to deem an experience as negative is to ascribe to it a value and therefore a meaning. As the moment fills the word to overflowing, the word overflows with the gravity of the moment. Hence the soul of the diarist takes on substance in a life that is otherwise emptiness, and his time—that is to say, his life-time—is regained. This is what it means for Katznelson to say that his pen is one with his soul: his soul draws its breath as his pen inscribes the word, even if that breath tastes of ashes. Keeping the diary, the diarist keeps a hold on his sense of being: the daily record is a means of seizing the day. The diary may in some sense arise from a "spontaneous impulse," but the diarist's stake in the diary can be very high indeed. The diary becomes a portal through which the diarist inserts himself into a life that is otherwise closed off to him by the horizon of time. It is a means of capturing a trace of presence by seeking a trace of significance in the midst of a time that is draining into the void. It is a means of returning the sand to the empty hourglass. Or better: it is a means of filling the emptied glass with substance. How? Through the return of meaning to the words consigned to the pages of the diary. For where meaning is torn from words, a void appears, one that swallows up meaning. In order to fetch meaning from the void, the diarist returns meaning to words.
The diary's attempted recovery of time and meaning is a primary point of interest for Karl J. Weintraub in his study of autobiographical literature. "The diurnal entries of the diarist," he argues, "are governed by the very fact that a day has its end. Even if in the maturing diarist a sense of selection begins to be guided by the growing awareness of what this person values and does not value, the journal entry is the completed precipitate of each day. It has its very value in being the reflection of but a brief moment; it attributes prime significance to the segments of life" (827). In contrast to other literary genres, the significance of what the diarist records is definitively linked to the time when she records it: the entries in a diary are dated. If the diarist might emerge as a kind of protagonist, the antagonist is time itself; if the diarist does no more than establish a narrative point of view, time itself is narrated. And, whether we speak of protagonist and antagonist or of subject and object, the two confront each other not just in the word but in the written record. In contrast to other literary forms, the diarist does not simply write—she records; novels and poems, on the other hand, are not recorded—they are written. As "the completed precipitate of each day," the diary is written, in a sense, by the day itself, even as the day derives its significance from the writing of the diary. Unlike the daily recording of, say, the high and low temperatures or levels of rainfall, the diary is an interweaving of the time, word, and meaning that constitute a life. Which is to say: the day takes on meaning because it is the day of a life, a day lived in the commentary upon life, where commentary is to be understood not as explication but as interrogation. And if the diary may be viewed as a commentary on the day, then the day may be viewed as a kind of text. From a Jewish standpoint, the day is a text of the creation that comes from the hand—or the mouth—of God.2 Unable to bear the silence of the day, the diarist inserts her voice into it so that she may hear it speak. The diary is a responding that is at once a hearing. The diarist does not first hear and then comment; rather, her hearing transpires in the midst of her commentary.
To the extent that it is lived in commentary, the day assumes significance, not because it has been brought to a halt but because it has been made part of a process of becoming through the process of interrogation.3 If the "completed precipitate" of this day assumes significance, then it is oriented toward the next day; if the ordeal of the diarist has meaning, then it has direction, which implies a future where the diarist and the diary have yet to arrive. In the words of Adin Steinsaltz, "The never-ending conflict between the existent and not-yet-existent is at the root of man's whole inner struggle" (Strife 6). As the expression of an inner struggle, the diary is the diarist's response to the silence that frames the future. Recall once more Kaplan's question: "What will become of my diary?" Thus the diarist participates in a universal, or at least a communal, questioning; he may write in solitude, but he does not write in isolation. It is through this relation to a community of others that the diary establishes a relation to the future; Kaplan raises the question concerning his diary in the light of a fate that awaits not just himself but his community as well. Time, then, as Levinas has said, "is the very relationship of the subject with the other" (Time 39). Why? Because, he explains, "the other is the future. The very relationship with the other is the relationship with the future. It seems to me impossible to speak of time in a subject alone, or to speak of a purely personal duration" (Time 77). Time is contained in the word addressed to the other, inasmuch as the word seeks a hearing that is yet to happen, and the word is part of a public domain that implies the presence of another. Comprised of the word, the diary is an address to another, even if the other is the diarist herself. Hence many diaries are written in the form of letters, as in the case of Anne Frank's "Dear Kitty" or Éva Heyman's "Dear Diary."
If the word, however, implies the presence of another—either actual or potential—to whom it is addressed, in the diary it may also imply an essential division within the diarist, a condition in which the diarist is "other" to himself. In his massive study of the diary, Girard makes this point by saying, "If the individual interrogates himself with such avidity, it is because his situation has been called into question, and he must recover the basis of a new equilibrium" (xi). The peace that characterizes the soul's equilibrium arises only where meaning imparts wholeness to life, and that wholeness is the wholeness of presence. And yet the very writing that seeks to recover the basis of a new equilibrium undermines it, so that, contrary to what is possible for other literary genres, the diary has no closure other than death. Though it may escape him, the diarist seeks meaning in the word not just because meaning is absent from life, but also because he is himself absent, living "only in the event's reverberation," as Edmond Jabès phrases it (Desert 41).4 The diarist may cast the net of the diary over the day, but he cannot live in that net, for the words that comprise the net increase what it would capture. And yet he cannot live otherwise.
This tension between the weight of the necessary and the longing for the needful comes out in one of the last entries in Emil Dorian's diary; it is dated 1 September 1944. There he writes: "I really have no idea why I go on jotting down things as I used to in the days of silent waiting when these trite pages were my consolation. I no longer have time now for personal thoughts, for sitting and contemplating people and events. Carried along on the impetuous wave of changes toward the labor awaiting me, I ought to give up these flimsy notes once and for all. Nevertheless, I was drawn again to the typewriter: a breathing space, a need to look around me" (347). Here we see that the diary is not merely the record of experience but is an encounter between the soul and itself as the one who, in the light of an essential absence of meaning, both experiences and seeks significance in experience—not only in experience as such but in my experience. "Each person has a curriculum vitae that belongs only to himself," says Girard. "In the same way, any action or work derives its meaning only to the extent that it is not anonymous but is signed" (xiii-xiv). In the diary, the man does not first inscribe his deeds and then sign his name; rather, signing his name, he inscribes the deeds and from that inscription derives his substance.5 Whereas novels, for instance, are novels by someone, diaries are diaries of someone, where of is followed both by a genetivus objectivus and by a genetivus subjectivus; it is both an object created by a living subject and a window looking into the soul of the subject. If the diary is generally self-centered, moreover, it is because the soul has lost its center. The diary, therefore, becomes a means of regaining a center, and this can often take the diarist outside himself. In the Holocaust diary it always takes the diarist outside himself. Let us consider, then, those aspects of the Holocaust diary which place it in a category of its own.
The Distinguishing Features of the Holocaust Diary
In citing the Holocaust diaries to make a point about the generic distinctions of the diary, we have already implied that the Holocaust diary has certain things in common with the generically defined diary. And so it does. But, as we shall now demonstrate, the Holocaust diary bears certain characteristics that place it in a category of its own; to be sure, each of the chapters in this book deals with an aspect of the Holocaust diary that is peculiar to it. Still, some general remarks on the distinctive characteristics of the Holocaust diary should be made by way of introduction.
One of these distinctive features is the consciousness of a community of others to whom the diarist not only belongs but is accountable—a point touched upon earlier, in the discussion of the critical contexts for this project. In contrast to the generic aspects of other diaries, the Holocaust diary harbors a consciousness of accountability that is explicit and pronounced, not merely implied, and that situates the diarist before his or her community; this consciousness, indeed, is what imparts to the Holocaust diary a spirit of testimony. The Holocaust diary, then, contains a movement through the word and toward another who is other than oneself; generally speaking, such a movement is not a distinguishing feature of other diaries. Again, this movement toward another is a distinctively Jewish feature of the diary, and the Holocaust diary is above all a Jewish diary: this is the key to the diarist's accountability to and for a community, past, present, and future. To be sure, the time measured by the Holocaust diary's daily entry is made of this responsibility. For a Jew who stands alone, cut off from his fathers, neighbors, and children, is not a Jew. "Whoever sees himself as a severed branch becomes other," writes Elie Wiesel. "Isolate yourself within time, and time itself becomes abstraction, and so do you. Time is a link, your ‘I’ a sum total. Your name has been borne by others before you. Your fate is not yours alone" (One 217). Your fate is not yours alone because, from a Jewish standpoint, your blood is not yours alone.
Indeed, if the Holocaust diary is a record of the day's "completed precipitate," that precipitate consists of Jewish blood; in the Holocaust diary, time is made of blood, and this feature of the diary is also an important part of its Jewish aspect. That is why Avraham Tory, for example, writes on 6 April 1943, "Blood trickles into the huge cup of Jewish suffering" (280), and on 13 January 1943 Yitskhok Rudashevski laments, "The entire White Russian earth is soaked with Jewish blood" (122). Passages like these are reminders of the link between blood and time in the Jewish tradition, one that goes back at least to Abraham ibn Ezra's twelfth-century commentary on the Book of Isaiah. Writing on the verse that reads, "Their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments" (Isaiah 63:3), he explains, "The blood is called netsach, literally ‘time,’ because through the blood man lives his time" (287). And because man lives his time through the blood, his time is inextricably tied to communal time: Jewish blood is an essential element of Jewish community. The Holocaust diary, then, characteristically includes not only the consciousness of personal experience but the consciousness of communal ordeal. "The people of Israel are compared to a lamb," we read in the Mekilta of Rabbi Ishmael. "What is the nature of the lamb? If it is hurt in one limb, all its limbs feel the pain" (2:205-6). As we shall see in the chapters that follow, the Holocaust diary, as a Jewish diary, is the chronicle both of a soul that has lost its equilibrium and of a community under assault, whether the diarist is Anne Frank or Emmanuel Ringelblum. For the internal condition of the Jewish soul—indeed, of the human soul, according to the testimony of the diaries—is tied to the fate of the other human being. Fathers such as Aryeh Klonicki-Klonymus are obsessed with the fate of their sons; daughters such as Sarra Gleykh are preoccupied with the fate of their parents; and men such as Adam Czerniakow, Chaim Kaplan, and Janusz Korczak dwell on the fate of the children.
If, as Barbara Foley maintains, the Holocaust diary "yields a surprisingly compelling depiction of character in the process of metamorphosis" (342), it is because the communal tradition that imparts life to that character faces an imposed "metamorphosis" that ends in annihilation. Unlike Young, Foley is aware of this definitive connection between the Jewish diarist and the Jewish community, both of whom struggle to recover a collapsed connection with life. Distinguished from other diaries, "the extremity of experience recorded in the Holocaust diary," she notes, "entails a profound readjustment of accustomed patterns of literary communication. Ordinarily serving to mediate between two aspects of the self—the one that performs, the other that records the performance in peace at the end of the day—the diary projects a self whose principal performance is the act of testimony and whose sense of identity hinges upon the recoverability of the text" (337). The act of testimony is an act of responsibility that situates the diarist and the diary within a relation to the community and its ebbing way of life—its tradition, its covenant, and its mission. God, for example, invariably finds His way into the Holocaust diary in its concern for prayer, holy days, and the sanctification of life; like the Jew himself, this Jewish diary cannot do without the relation to the God of Abraham, whether it manifests itself in Anne Frank's observance of the Sabbath or in Moshe Flinker's vision of a messianic age. What Foley sees as the effort to recover a text, moreover, is an effort to situate the Jewish text of the diary within the contexts that form the foundations of Jewish life. These contexts include a concern not only for the Holy One but for the human image, for the family, and for the tradition that, more than merely an accumulation of customs, is a history of the sacred. "Sacred history," according to Heschel, "may be described as an attempt to overcome the dividing line of past and present, as an attempt to see the past in the present tense" (God 211-12). Only when the past may be seen in such terms—may be seen as tradition—can we generate any basis for a future.
For the Holocaust diarist, however, both the past as tradition and the future it makes possible are elsewhere. In her study of concentration camp diaries Renata Laqueur Weiss makes a similar observation, which, with an added word of explanation, may apply to Holocaust diaries in general. The diarists of the concentration camp, says this woman who was herself a concentration camp diarist, wanted "to escape the present and hold on to an ideal or a concept in order to survive" (8). Later she explains that these diarists tried not only to bear witness but "to write themselves out of the concentration camp world" (22); Nathan Cohen, it is worth noting, offers a similar commentary on the diaries of the Sonderkommandos. "All [these] authors," he says, "resort to writing as one of the means of preserving their sanity" (287). Far from being a flight from the world or from life, however, the "escape" of these diarists is a flight to the world from the antiworld, a flight to life from the kingdom of death. Their clinging to "an ideal or a concept" is not a clinging to some fantasy but to the reality of home and family, for instance, in the face of a radical unreality. This point is illustrated perfectly in Laqueur's own Bergen-Belsen diary, where she writes: "Father, Mother, I implore you, think of me for a few intense seconds. I shall do the same of you, and our thoughts will meet and merge" (45). And, commenting on two parents in a sealed train, the Sonderkommando diarist Salmen Gradowski writes: "Not so long ago they had given to the world a child and thus have joined the circle of eternity, have become partners in the progress and construction of the world. Just when their first steps had led them on in the world they were told to go away, to leave the place where they had started building their nest. They are not thinking of themselves now. Only one thought predominates—what will happen to their tiny, dear beloved child" (79). While there are obvious and significant differences between the conditions endured in the ghettos and in the camps, this struggle to recover a trace of the sacred in life—as it once was or as it is now threatened—is a distinctive feature of the Holocaust diary.
Thus, while other diaries seek to record and preserve the experience of the world, the Holocaust diaries seeks to recover the world itself. While other diaries offer an account of life in the "completed precipitate of each day," the Holocaust diary struggles to recover a life despite the day's destruction. While other diaries are projected toward a future that is yet to be realized, Holocaust diaries are written in the shadow of a doom that is certain to come—indeed, that is already at hand. While other diaries contain the individual's interrogation of himself in the pursuit of meaning, the Holocaust diary includes an interrogation of God and humanity after the loss of meaning. While other diaries are written for the diarist, the Holocaust diary is written for others, living, dead, and yet to be born. How can the dead be included in an audience? Through the diarist's conscientious engagement in a testimony for the sake of a future.
Such are the distinctions that go into the why that distinguishes the Holocaust diary. Says Syrkin: "The diaries begin with ‘why’ and end with ‘why’ though the object of the query keeps changing. At the outset the writer tries to find rational explanations for the Nazi program which in the beginning is viewed not as a new mode, sui generis, but as an atavistic throwback to the familiar persecutions of the past. An ancient, much-enduring people can find comfort in historic parallels…. The first stage in the education of the diarists … is the recognition of the existence of motiveless evil…. They are reduced to the simplest formulation: he murders because he is a murderer" (234-35). Here too, in the initial search for explanations in precedents, the diarist's ties to the community are revealed. But the seemingly motiveless evil of the Holocaust could not be accommodated by any established categories: it was, in fact, sui generis. And so is the Holocaust diary.
In order to acquire a better sense of these distinguishing features of the Holocaust diary, it may be helpful to consider a diary that is usually regarded as a Ho- locaust diary but which, in truth, is not. It is An Interrupted Life by Etty Hillesum. The point of this brief examination of Hillesum's diary is not to discredit it or to make light of the author's genuine suffering; rather, it is to show that not all diaries written by people who suffered during those years can be regarded as Holocaust diaries, as we have described them.
First of all, no why pervades Hillesum's diary. The undoing of the human image, the eclipse of God, the obliteration of mother and father, of family and home, of children—none of this poses any particular difficulty for her. At times, just when it looks as though there may be a why that would link Hillesum to her community, this vision is immediately undermined. The entry dated 29 June 1942 is a good example: "The English radio has reported that 700,000 Jews perished last year alone, in Germany and the occupied territories. And even if we stay alive we shall carry the wounds with us throughout our lives. And yet I don't think life is meaningless. And God is not accountable for the senseless harm we cause one another. We are accountable only to Him! I have already died a thousand deaths in a thousand concentration camps. I know about everything and am no longer appalled by the latest reports. In one way or another I know it all. And yet I find life beautiful" (127). Invoking the "we" who do senseless harm to one another, she seems to include both Germans and Jews in this one category; she does not make the distinction between "we," the Jews who are murdered, and "they," the murderers who murder because they are murderers. Although the Holocaust diarists have a sense of an essential bond between themselves and their fellow Jews who have been sent to the camps, none of them presumes to know everything about the camps or the suffering of the Jews in the camps, and all of them are appalled by the reports. Underlying the why in the Holocaust diary, moreover, is a fundamental refusal to accept the unreality of the Nazis' antiworld as real, that is, as viable or meaningful—a fact of life, yes, but not part of life's meaning. And certainly none of these diarists can regard as beautiful a life that runs red with so much blood.
Hillesum, by contrast, writes: "They are out to destroy us completely, we must accept that and go on from there…. Even if we are consigned to hell, let us go there as gracefully as we can" (130). And three months later, on 10 October 1942, she repeats: "Of course, it is our complete destruction they want! But let us bear it with grace" (190). What can this "with grace" mean? Is she suggesting that the mothers of the Warsaw Ghetto should send their children to the flames of Treblinka with grace? Does she suppose that the women of Auschwitz who bore children only to have them drowned so that they themselves might stay alive for another day could act with grace? And how does the Muselmann—that living image of death created by the Nazis, who proves, in the words of Fackenheim, that "the divine image in man can be destroyed" (Jewish Return 246)—go to the gas chamber with grace? If this is her advice to these victims, it is because Hillesum operates as a severed branch: she does not understand herself to be standing in a relation of responsibility and testimony to a community or a tradition. Like many diarists, but unlike any Holocaust diarist, she is far too focused on herself alone to sense any accountability or care for another. For example, on 25 April 1942 she boasts: "I make my own rules and do as I like. In all this chaos and misery I follow my own rhythm…. God save me from one thing: don't let me be sent to a camp with the people with whom I work every day" (162). And three days later she writes: "Ever-present in me is an almost demonic urge to watch everything that happens. A wish to see and to hear and to be present, to worm out all of life's secrets, to observe with detachment what people look like in their last convulsions" (166, italics added). While the Holocaust diarist responds to a horror in order to recover some shred of life, Hillesum voyeuristically and vicariously experiences this or that as part of a strictly internal structure of her self. Therefore, as long as she merely looks on from the safe distance of self-centeredness, she has no sense of a life of humanity torn to shreds.
Hence the other who is of primary significance for the Holocaust diarist—as parent or child, friend or sibling, God or community—is of very little significance to Hillesum. Although it is written by a Jew, hers is not a Jewish diary, since for the Jew, as Leo Baeck states it, "‘fellow man’ is inseparable from ‘man’" (190). When we find her asserting, "I so love being with people," we might think that this assessment of Hillesum is too harsh. But look at her next sentence: "It is as if my own intensity draws what is best and deepest right out of them" (191)—as if they owed the emergence of their best and their deepest to me. Only a radical blindness to the other and an extreme preoccupation with the self, could lead Hillesum to comment on her work at a community center by saying: "Whenever yet another poor woman broke down at one of our registration tables, or a hungry child started crying, I would go over to them and stand beside them protectively, arms folded across my chest, force a smile for those huddled shattered scraps of humanity and tell myself, ‘Things aren't all that bad, they really aren't all that bad’" (192). If she stands there protectively, it is herself that she is protecting: her arms are folded across her own chest, not extended in an embrace of these others. And how bad do things have to become before they are all that bad? After all, "knowing everything," Hillesum must know that these mothers and children are undergoing registration for one thing: to be murdered. Even her confinement in Westerbork fails to draw Hillesum out of the confines of her self and into some relation of concern for others, for on 2 October 1942 she writes: "I prayed, ‘Let me be the thinking heart of these barracks.’ And that is what I want to be again. The thinking heart of a whole concentration camp…. Happen what may, it is bound to be for the good" (191). Such a sentiment is utterly alien to all other Holocaust diarists; indeed, it is not the sentiment of a Holocaust diarist but of a diarist who is so focused on herself as the center of all that she would make herself into the center of a concentration camp! As for the statement that whatever happens is for the good, it is precisely because, in the ghetto and in the camp, nothing happens for the good—because the good has been annihilated—that the Holocaust diarist takes up the diary.
If whatever happened was for the best, if things were not all that bad, and if Jews slated for murder were to go to theirs deaths with grace, then there is indeed no being appalled at the reports of those days of destruction. And if we need not be appalled, then Bettelheim's complaint about the stage production of Anne Frank's diary applies even more so to Hillesum's diary: we can forget about Auschwitz. It never happened. We are safe. These diaries can be ignored. But these are the lies that ooze from Hillesum's diary, and, in that sense at least, her diary is inauthentic. Hers, therefore, is not a Holocaust diary. For Hillesum has no notion of anything that might be called a Holocaust: things are not all that bad, she says, it is all for the good. The Holocaust diary, on the other hand, is defined by its pervasive awareness of Holocaust—Holocaust of children, mothers, fathers, home, God, community, meaning, sanctity, humanity. In the Holocaust diary things are not that bad—they are infinitely worse. In the Holocaust diary things are for the good—of the Nazis, at the utter expense of the Jews. The absolute enigma confronting the Holocaust diarist is how to respond to this annihilation, how to recover a human life from a realm that absolutely negates humanity. Yet, in a place void of humanity, to paraphrase Rabbi Hillel's remark in the Talmud, one must be a human being (Avot 2:6). But how?
1. I am the translator of all quotes from sources for which an English title is not given.—D. P.
2. "All relations between man and God," writes Edmond Jabès in this connection, "pass through the word. That's why the Jew, unable to bear the silence of the Book, has always busied himself commenting on it. Every commentary is first of all a commentary on a silence" (Desert 102).
3. Here too Jabès offers a helpful insight: "Every question is tied to becoming. Yesterday interrogates tomorrow, just as tomorrow interrogates yesterday in the name of an always open future. The famous ‘Who am I?’ finds its justification only in a universal questioning of which we would be but the persistent echo" (Desert 74).
4. "I write," says Jabès in The Book of Yukel, "and right away I become the word which escapes me and thanks to which I am, the word which leads to other words and asserts itself as such. I am multiplied in my sentence as a tree unfolds its branches" (56).
5. Emmanuel Levinas makes this point by saying, "The true substantiality of a subject consists in its substantivity: in the fact that there is not only, anonymously, being in general, but there are beings capable of bearing names" (Existence 98).
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Klonicki-Klonymus, Aryeh. The Diary of Adam's Father. Trans. Avner Tomaschaff. Tel-Aviv: Ghetto Fighters House and Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1973. [Yoman avi Adam. Tel-Aviv: Ghetto Fighters House and Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1969.]
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Korber, Mirjam. Deportiert: Jüdische Überlebenss-chicksale aus Rumänien 1941-1944: Ein Tagebuch. Trans. Andrei Hoisie. Konstanz: Hartung-Garre, 1993.
Korczak, Janusz. Ghetto Diary. Trans. Jerzy Bachrach and Barbara Krzywicka. New York: Holocaust Library, 1978. [Pamietnik, ed. Alicja Szlazakowa. Poznan: Wydawnictwo Poznanskie, 1984.]
Laqueur, Renata. Bergen-Belsen Tagebuch. Trans. Peter Wiebke. Hannover: Fackelträger, 1983.
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Ringelblum, Emmanuel. Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto. Trans. and ed. Jacob Sloan. New York: Schocken, 1974. [Notizn fon Warshever geto. Warsaw: Yiddish Books, 1952.]
Rubinowicz, David. The Diary of David Rubinowicz. Trans. Derek Bowman. Edmonds, WA: Creative Options, 1982. [Pamietnik Dawida Rubinowicza. Warsaw: Ksiazka i Wiedza, 1960.]
Rudashevski, Yitskhok. The Diary of the Vilna Ghetto. Trans. Percy Matenko. Tel-Aviv: Ghetto Fighters House and Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1973.
Sheinkinder, S. "The Diary of S. Sheinkinder," Yad Vashem Studies 5 (1963):255-69.
Sierakowiak, David. "Extracts from the Diary of David Sierakowiak," Yad Vashem Bulletin 12 (1962): 15-21.
Tory, Avraham. Surviving the Holocaust: The Kovno Ghetto Diary. Trans. Jerzy Michalowicz. Ed. Martin Gilbert. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.
Wasser, Hersh. "Daily Entries of Hersh Wasser." Trans. Joseph Kermish, Yad Vashem Studies 15 (1983): 201-82.
Baeck, Leo. The Essence of Judaism. Revised edition. Trans. Victor Grubenwieser and Leonard Pearl. New York: Schocken, 1948.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.
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Fackenheim, Emil L. The Jewish Return into History. New York: Schocken, 1978.
———. To Mend the World: Foundations of Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought. New York: Schocken, 1989.
———. What Is Judaism? New York: Macmillan, 1987.
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Sue Vice (essay date 2006)
SOURCE: Vice, Sue. "Children's Voices and Viewpoints in Holocaust Literature." In Children of the Holocaust, edited by Andrea Reiter, pp. 11-24. London, England: Vallentine Mitchell, 2006.
[In the following essay, Vice differentiates between the narrative voices of first-person diaries written by children versus those seeking to later recapture a child's perspective in works about the Holocaust.]
Voice Versus Viewpoint
I began thinking about the area of children's-eye views of the Holocaust in response to Binjamin Wilkomirski's Fragments. As is now well known, this was published as the memoir of a child of the camps, then shown to be fiction.1 The controversy made me wonder, first, how many other works there are about children's experiences during the Holocaust years; and whether the striking techniques used in Fragments, of disrupted chronology and artfully simple language, were used in these authentic works too. In this essay, I will approach children's-eye-view works specifically as texts, considering above all their narrative construction.2 Such an approach can preserve what is distinctive about the experience of children during the Holocaust years, and acknowledge the terrible loss of one million children during that time, without falling prey to what Norman Geras calls ‘morbid pieties’,3 which the subject might seem to encourage.
Clearly the features of voice and viewpoint mentioned in the title of this essay are quite different. Representing a child's voice means that his or her own language would have to be present in a text. On the other hand, representing a child's viewpoint usually means that an adult narrator describes how events seemed to his or her younger self. As the critic Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan puts it, ‘speaking and seeing, narration and focalization’ are often separate in literary works,4 even when they seem to originate in the same first-person utterance; typically, in children's Holocaust texts the person who sees or focalises events is the child, while the one who speaks about or narrates them is the adult.
I will begin with two examples in which it may appear that the child's own discourse is present within the adult's narration. I will then analyse further instances from different genres of Holocaust writing, ranging from testimony to fiction, to see whether or not the child's own voice is ever locatable. The first is an episode from Memory Fields, Shlomo Breznitz's memoir of living in hiding in a convent orphanage in Bratislava during the war. It shows clearly that while the reader may gain the illusion of the presence of a child's voice, what we read is, rather, a combination of the adult narrator's voice and the focalisation or viewpoint of the child. In this episode, the commander of the local German garrison visits the orphanage at Christmas; Shlomo and his sister Judith are the only children who know the words to the carol ‘Silent Night’ in German. As they sing, however, Shlomo realises that the children are giving themselves away by their very success:
In a flash I finally understood: Why was it that the two of us were the only ones to know the German version of this song? Where were the rest? There were no others because in this country only Jews (Jews) understood German. The person above the medals must have known this, too; after all, it was he who had trapped us.5
Despite appearances, there is no trace here of a child's language. The boy's perceptions are paraphrased by the adult, as is clear in the verb tenses: the phrase, he ‘must have known this, too’, is a retrospective deduction. The repeated, italicised version of the word ‘Jews’ in parentheses is an approximation by the adult narrator of the child's sudden realisation that the danger of being recognised was a reality. We do not even read the individual words that the child used. Calling the commander ‘the person’ is a nod at a child's ignorance of terminology and rank, but this word appears within a sentence fully informed by hindsight. What does remain instead is a literal instance of a child's perspective, in the phrase ‘the person above the medals’: we see the commander from below as the child looks up past his uniform to his face.
A slightly different example is from Louis Begley's autobiographical novel Wartime Lies. There is no direct speech at all in this first-person novel, and the characters' voices are blended into the narrator's in a sustained example of free indirect discourse. This is true even of the voice of Maciek, the little boy—and the narrator's younger self—who is hiding with his aunt in Warsaw by masquerading as a gentile. For instance, we read what appears to be the boy's own voice describing his preparations for communion:
I also found, as I studied the book [of prayers] and listened to Father P., that my personal situation was desperate and despicable. There was no salvation except through grace, and grace could be acquired only through baptism … I asked Father P. whether savages living in our time away from the church could be saved if they were good, and he was very clear about it: the ministry of Jesus was complete. Virtue without grace could not suffice.6
However, as the past tense indicates, this is the voice of the adult narrator. In particular, the phrase ‘desperate and despicable’ shows this, with its arch alliteration and dark humour. Parts of the extract may still seem to be the reproduction of a child's voice, even if a fictional one. The child is clearly repeating Father P.'s words when he says, ‘There was no salvation except through grace’, and ‘virtue without grace could not suffice’. Some childlike vocabulary is used, such as the word ‘savages’, and the phrase ‘if they were good’. But in fact, as these words are not directly cited—there are no quotation marks—they are not a transcription of a child's voice. Instead, they consist of a mingled utterance, partly the child's and partly the adult narrator's voice as well.
As we can see, it is hard to find examples of texts in which a child's voice—as distinct from viewpoint—is heard unmediated, on its own terms and without the interference or additions of an adult, and of adult hindsight. The reader might think that such a voice, even if absent from memoirs such as Breznitz's and survivor fiction such as Begley's, would be perceived in texts written by children at the time of the events themselves. The following are some instances from Holocaust diaries written by children and teenagers. The first is from Mary Berg's Warsaw Ghetto: A Diary, which was published in the US as early as 1944 when Berg was 20. Berg's family were able to leave the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, due to her mother's American nationality, in exchange for prisoners of war. Her diary entry for 26 June 1941 begins, ‘I am writing this in the bomb shelter of our house. I am on night duty, as a member of the home air defense’; and it ends, ‘I think there is an alarm now; yes, a long blast of the siren. I must run to awaken the commandant’.7 Berg even picks up her pen on the train that takes her family from Warsaw in 1943: ‘A few minutes ago I woke from my sleep … Our train is moving in the direction of Poznan, not Oswiecim’.8 It appears that there is an extremely close fit here between the ‘I’ who writes these entries, and the ‘I’ who is their subject. It is as if we are reading Berg's own voice as it speaks in the midst of events. However, it turns out that this impression of contemporaneity is staged. Berg's diary was rewritten and edited for publication soon after her arrival in New York, and we might wonder if she went out of her way to emphasise moments which seemed particularly authentic—that is, which emphasised the very moment of writing. In fact, this text is a hybrid of diary and memoir, affected by the very hindsight usually missing from diaries.
Mary Berg survived the Holocaust to edit her diary, but even the death of the child-diarist during the war cannot guarantee that the voice we read is authentic, or that retrospection has not crept in. Thirteen-year-old Éva Heyman wrote a diary during her internment in the Budapest Ghetto; the diary ends before her deportation to Auschwitz in 1944, where she died. The diary was in the hands of her mother and stepfather for several years after the war, leading critics to ask whether everything we read is Éva's own words.9 Once we begin to question this, the diary's irony—arising from a clash between Éva's youthful frame of reference and the adult reality she experiences—appears overly self-conscious for such a young writer, for instance in Éva's description of life in the ‘ghetto-camp’:
The most awful thing of all is that the punishment for everything is death. There is no difference between things; no standing in the corner, no spankings, no taking away food, no writing down the declension of irregular verbs one hundred times the way it used to be in school. Not at all: the lightest and heaviest punishment—death.10
We may be disappointed to think that this is not all Éva Heyman's own voice. But I would argue that the multi-voiced and temporally complex nature of apparently simple diaries is a positive thing. Even in cases like the Lódz Ghetto diary of an anonymous boy, or Anne Frank's diary, where the authenticity of the diarist's own words is not in question, there is a double-voiced element of a different, historical kind.
The next example is from the anonymous diary written in the Lódz Ghetto in Poland, by a boy who wrote during a few months in 1944. The diary is known as ‘Les Vrais Riches’ because, due to the scarcity of paper, the boy wrote on the pages of François Coppée's nineteenth-century French novel of that title. The anonymous boy sees his diary as the means of recording—and even hastening—the passing of time, which, as he notes, in itself might save lives: ‘When I write these lines, I don't know for sure if the out-settling [deportation] has been wholly stopped—or partly only, but it is after all good news, because time plays a considerable part at present’.11 He starts another entry, ‘Actually I have nothing to diarize’:12 here, the act of writing itself marks the crucial passage of time, rather than constituting a record of particular events. In the case of ‘Les Vrais Riches’ diary it seems that if enough days can pass, then the Nazis will, literally, run out of time. This was a reasonable thought on the boy's part at the time, as the Red Army reached the River Vistula near Lódz on 1 August 1944; but the reader, with hindsight, knows that the Russians did not liberate the city until January 1945, and the boy is thought to have perished before this date. The child's voice is not unitary, but is overlaid or even answered by the reader's retrospective knowledge.
A further example of a child's voice which is crucially altered by the reader's historical knowledge is that of Yitskhok Rudashevski in his Diary of the Vilna Ghetto. Rudashevski writes in September 1942, when he is 15: ‘It is dusk. "We have staved off another day", the women say to each other’.13 This notion of ‘staving off’ is also clear in the next quotation, as if Rudashevski's diary were not just about, but actually facilitating, the passage of time itself:
My determination to study [and thus to write] has developed into something like defiance of the present which hates to study, loves to work, to drudge. No, I decided. I shall live with tomorrow, not with today.14
This commentary on diurnal composition suggests a new relation between the writer and time in a child's Holocaust diary. The passage of time is not just recorded, but—as if this were a new kind of relativity—the diarist implies that the act of daily record itself may have an effect on the speed at which time passes. That is, the diary does not just record the child's voice itself, but acts as a temporal measuring device at an over-determined historical moment. Once more, a complex notion of viewpoint takes over from the simpler one of voice.
In the case of Anne Frank's diary, it is again the reader in the present who adds an extra dimension to her voice. In several entries from Frank's diary, we can see an intersection between adolescent concerns and concerns about living in hiding. Frank's frequent wish for adulthood and self-determination is barely distinguishable from fears about the war and hopes for its end in these examples:
Now I think either about unhappy things or about myself.
Oh, what kind of bombshell is about to burst now? If only I weren't so involved in all these skirmishes! If only I could leave here!
I'm longing—really longing—for everything: conversation, freedom, friends, being alone.15
Frank does not separate the ‘unhappiness’ and ‘skirmishes’ of family life from those of life in hiding in occupied Amsterdam. The reader, however, cannot help but read her wish to ‘leave’ or ‘be alone’ as an unwitting reference to both. In other words, even in these cases of diaries where the child or teenager records external events, the act of writing itself transforms his or her voice into a comment on keeping a diary at all in such circumstances, and what it was like to live in the midst of momentous events. We do not read these diaries primarily as historical documents, or as authentic records of the child's subjectivity, but rather as narratives which exhibit historical or even tragic irony.
Testimony and Memoir
The next category in which we might expect to find the voice of a child is that of testimonies gathered just after the war's end. The closer to the events the testimony was written, the more we may feel the child's voice is likely to be fully present. However, once more the very process of presenting such material in published form inevitably interferes with such immediacy. My example here is Henryk Grynberg's edited collection, Children of Zion. In Children of Zion, Grynberg has assembled material from interviews gathered in Palestine in 1943; he describes his role as one of ‘selecting and arranging’.16 The interviewees were the ‘Tehran Children’: these were young, often orphaned Polish Jews who had been deported to Siberia in 1940 and were allowed to leave for Palestine through Iran a year later. Grynberg has placed his chosen ‘fragments’ from these interviews in short, chronologically arranged paragraphs. Each new paragraph represents a new voice, so that the same event is told several times by different children, each of whom is anonymous. For instance, we see below what the children remembered of their deportation to Siberia:
Even though we were famished, my father would not allow us to eat treyf [unkosher] soup.
We received four hundred grams of bread daily, and soup—which we did not eat because it was treyf.
My father would not eat the soup because it was treyf.17
As we can see, although each voice is that of a child remembering recent events in their own words, the effect of placing the anonymous voices side by side in this way is literary and not documentary. The children are individuals but repeat the same information and phrases; we get a sense of a collective tragedy but not of unmediated voices.
The effect of multi-voiced interference of this kind is even clearer in the category of the memoir. As memoirs are written retrospectively, we might expect the adult narrator to try to recreate the voice of the child in the past. The first example is from Hidden, a testimony by an American brother and sister who were once Polish teenagers Faiga and Luzer Rosenbluth. In this text the children's voices do at first appear to be present. Although the text is a reconstruction, written by a ghost-writer from the life histories of adults Fay and Leo, it uses a stylised, present tense ‘image’18 of teenage idiom. This impression of orality conforms both to the genre of oral Holocaust testimony, and, in literary terms, to Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of ‘skaz’. Bakhtin defines this as a mode of narration ‘that imitates the oral speech of an individualized narrator’.19 For instance, Luzer's inner monologue in the barn where he hid during the war consists of a clash of discourses arising from the Polish story and its telling by an American ghost-writer:
Yeah, yeah, Mamche ordered me to stay alive, to carry on the family name. (Which is pretty funny, since I've changed my first name to Lonek, to seem more Polish.) But, at this minute, I'm like Esau, so hungry … that he'd sell his birthright to Jacob.20
Here, skaz consists both of an image of pre-war Jewish idiom (the word ‘Mamche’, Biblical references), and contemporary American discourse (‘Yeah, yeah’, ‘pretty funny’). Together, they produce not a sample of the child's language itself, but a literary image of one that never existed.
By contrast, in her testimony of hiding in a French convent, Leah Iglinsky-Goodman does at times attempt to reproduce authentically both the perspective and the language of the three-year-old child in a convent cellar:
I was all alone in this dungeon place. The giant stone walls concealed frightening monsters, and the ceiling, the floor and the huge wooden door … 21
However, this effort at reproduction is just as stylised as that in Hidden, showing the adult narrator's efforts to convey the child's viewpoint (the walls' concealment of ‘monsters’ is presented as fact) rather than her voice. The closer the text tries to approach this voice, the further away it gets, as shown by the use of the unchildlike word ‘concealed’. An adult narrator is apparent here, not a child protagonist. The reader knows that the impression of a child's voice in these cases is an adult reconstruction. But, as I have argued, this layering of voices is a positive effect and allows us to read the texts for narrative effect as much as for factual evidence.
My next examples are two memoirs which, in contrast to Hidden and For Love of Life, suppress any trace of the child's original voice. These are Cordelia Edvardson's The Burned Child Seeks the Fire, and Karen Gershon's A Lesser Child. Both eschew the first person and instead use third-person narration to convey an abrupt severing of ties between past and present. Gershon's memoir was written in German and translated into English—despite the fact that this was the language she had spoken since she was 15. Rather than acting as the child's language, however, the use of German shows the great gap between the pre-war life of the child Kate Löwenthal and the adult Karen Gershon.
Gershon left Germany for Britain in 1938 on a Kindertransport train; although she and her two sisters survived the war, her parents Paul and Selma Löwenthal were killed. In A Lesser Child the limited developmental view of a child is matched by the restricted-historical view of someone living in Germany in the 1930s. For instance, the child interpreted her parents' behaviour according only to the familial scenarios of paternal philandering and maternal hysteria, but the adult sees the historical dimension, which the child could not. As we can see in the extract below, Kate's father often stayed out late:
The cause of Selma's anxiety at such times may not have been, as Kate believed, his philandering, but his reckless tongue: he would tell political jokes without caring who might overhear him. When she observed her mother weeping in his arms, this may not have been, as she believed, evidence of a reconciliation after a quarrel. Paul may have been trying to comfort her when she was in despair over their worsening circumstances.22 (emphasis added)
This extract consists of an adult perspective and not the child's voice, shown by the third-person narration. As the phrase of reconstruction shows (‘may not have been’), there is an overlap in Holocaust narratives between what Dominick LaCapra calls ‘structural or existential trauma’23—which is, here, the child's Oedipal view of her parents—and the ‘historical trauma’ of specific events. Such a historical perspective can only be supplied with hindsight. A similar awareness of historical trauma appears in Edvardson's memoir The Burned Child Seeks the Fire. Like the unnamed child in this memoir, Edvardson was born in 1929, the illegitimate daughter of the ‘half-Jewish’ German writer Elisabeth Langgässer and a Jewish father whom she never met. Although she was brought up as a Catholic, the child was deported to Auschwitz in 1943, partly as the result of her efforts to protect her mother. The ‘existential’ trauma of the child's familial relationships is inseparable throughout The Burned Child from its historical dimension. The child remembers that a family friend called her a ‘"filthy Jewish brat"’ when she was about nine. Only with some effort does the adult narrator recall the incident fully, apparently during the very act of writing:
What was he so mad about? She no longer knows. But she does! It occurs to her—wasn't that how it was?—that the girl and the blue-eyed son had played forbidden games and been caught. Yes, that's how it was. Yes, she was a filthy Jewish brat.24
This extract, like that from A Lesser Child, uses third-person narration to convey adult perspective at the expense of the child's view, let alone her voice. Beneath the historicised, racial slur, which Edvardson describes, lies a sexual transgression. However, as in Gershon's memoir, the two are not separable, as the word ‘forbidden’ suggests: these ‘games’ represent both an existential and a historically specific affront. Although we seem to read the voice of a child speaking about herself—‘Yes, she was a filthy Jewish brat’—‘she’ here is the third-person pronoun chosen by the adult narrator, rather than the child, writing about her younger self. Once more, there is no real trace of the child's voice. The child's perspective, however, does remain, in her view of pure Catholicism versus filthy, sexualised Judaism, as she thinks about herself in the third person: ‘A filthy Jewish brat: what is that, anyway? Does it mean … playing forbidden games? But she's really a pious little Catholic girl who took her first communion several years ago’.25 In both Gershon's and Edvardson's memoirs, the use of third-person narration, rather than the more usual first-person, simply emphasises the formal absence of the child's voice and its replacement by an adult's viewpoint.
A fourth category is that of novels by former child survivors. Here the representation of a child's voice is at its least unified, and most literary. I will discuss three examples from this genre. The first is Jona Oberski's novel A Childhood, which follows the author's experiences—at the age of five he was deported from the Netherlands to Bergen-Belsen; both his parents died during the war. Most of Oberski's novel concerns an unnamed child who cannot fully understand what is happening around him, but in one chapter it is the reader who cannot understand, due to the use of a child's viewpoint. In Belsen, the boy's mother insists that he help carry the empty cooking pots back to the kitchen and clean them out, even though he is too small to reach the pot's handle. In the kitchen,
All the children bent over the edges of the pots. Some couldn't keep their feet on the ground. All I could see were their backs and legs. Their heads and arms were gone. I would have liked to help with the cleaning, but I didn't know how.26
When the children are asked if they enjoyed the food, the boy says, ‘I'd had my head in the pot so long that I hadn't noticed anything good being handed out’.27 It is only at this point that it becomes clear to the adult reader that the boy was sent to ‘help’ in the kitchen in order to lick out the cooking pots, and, predictably, the boy's mother is angry with him for not eating the extra food. The act of misunderstanding is extended through the use of a child's viewpoint, as we can see in the extract describing—but not labelling—the children licking out the cooking pots. However, even here it is not the child's voice that we hear directly, but its mediation, through that of a scarcely perceptible adult narrator who relates this episode in the present. The adult narrator uses deliberately simple language and short sentences in a stylisation,28 rather than a reproduction, of the child's voice. This is not realism so much as adherence to the literary convention I mentioned above, common in novels about children, which invariably separates character and focaliser even as they appear to be united in first-person utterance.29
The second example is from Henryk Grynberg's autobiographical novel Child of the Shadows. Like Grynberg himself, the boy Henryk in the novel lived on false Aryan papers in Warsaw with his mother from the age of six. Once more, an apparent reproduction of a child's voice also includes the adult narrator's, as we see in an episode where Henryk and his mother walk down the street pretending to be Aryan. The adult narrator describes the boy's perception: ‘Mama was walking next to me and even smiling. But her smile was of the kind I could still remember from the days when we went visiting. Therefore, we must be visiting, I thought’.30 Unlike the episode about the cooking pots from Oberski's A Childhood, here the adult reader knows perfectly well what the truth of the matter is. Henryk's mother has an artificial smile on her face, which the boy can only comprehend in terms of a vanished social world; he is too young to understand, and can only adapt to, the demands of passing for gentile. Yet in both cases it is the child's perspective and not his voice that we read. This is despite the fact that, within the adult narration, Grynberg preserves childlike diction (‘Mama’, ‘went visiting’). In the pattern with which we are now familiar, however, it is the adult's voice that is uppermost, relating the experiences of his childhood self.
Finally, a particularly unusual fictional example of a child's-eye view of the Holocaust years is Raymond Federman's experimental novella The Voice in theCloset. This autobiographical novel is about the day of the great round up in Paris on 14 July 1942, when his mother pushed the 13-year-old boy into a wardrobe. He thus avoided the fate of his family, which was deportation to death in Auschwitz, and instead emigrated to the US. Throughout, the narration in The Voice shifts pronoun, so that it is often hard to tell whether boy or adult is speaking, as the opening lines show:
here now again selectricstud makes me speak with its balls all balls foutaise sam says in his closet upstairs but this time it's going to be serious … yesterday a rock flew through the windowpane … scared the hell out of him as he waits for me to unfold upstairs.31
Unlike all the other examples I have mentioned, here it is the child in the past who talks about the adult in the present—‘he waits for me to unfold’. Yet the child in The Voice always emphasises the impossibility of retrieving the voice or experience of the adult writer's younger self. The child mockingly calls the adult ‘selectricstud’: he is a writer using a Selectric golf-ball typewriter with fonts for different languages on changeable balls, which produces only rubbish (‘all balls’). The adult writer is a fan of ‘Sam’—Samuel Beckett—and the child ironically quotes the French word for ‘rubbish’, ‘foutaise’, which is what he predicts the outcome of the adult's ‘serious’ autobiographical impulse will be. But of course once more this is a literary conceit, because the experience and the voice of the child who Federman once was are indeed lost forever. The two voices represent an internal, spatial debate, which takes place within the adult writer's consciousness, rather than a temporal link to a past self. Throughout, the novel is about the adult writer's failure to recapture the traumatic childhood moment. Child and adult act alternately as narrator and focaliser, something possible only in a fictional narrative from which any ‘authentic’ child's voice is absent.
In conclusion, we can see that Holocaust literature from a child's viewpoint cannot make use of an unmediated child's voice. But the interference of other voices, particularly those of an adult narrator, editor, or even reader, actually adds to the child's text. Many voices multiply the text's temporal and spatial elements, as well as conveying—through the absence of a unitary child's-voice—the reality of that absence and loss in children's Holocaust texts.
1. Binjamin Wilkomirski, Fragments: Memories of a Childhood, 1939-1948, trans. Carol Brown Janeway (London: Picador, 1996 ). See Stefan Maechler's full account of the controversy, The Wilkomirski Affair: A Study in Biographical Truth, trans. John E. Woods (New York: Schocken, 2001).
2. See also Sue Vice, Children Writing the Holocaust (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2004).
3. Norman Geras, The Contract of Mutual Indifference: Political Philosophy after the Holocaust (London: Verso, 1998), p. 81.
4. Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics (London: Methuen, 1983), p. 72.
5. Shlomo Breznitz, Memory Fields: The Legacy of a Wartime Childhood in Czechoslovakia (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), p. 80.
6. Louis Begley, Wartime Lies (London: Picador, 1991), pp. 115-16.
7. Mary Berg, Warsaw Ghetto: A Diary, trans. Norbert Guterman, ed. S. L. Shneiderman (New York: L. B. Fisher, 1945), pp. 75-7.
8. Ibid., p. 216.
10. Éva Heyman, The Diary of Éva Heyman, trans. Moshe M. Kohn (New York: Shapolsky, 1973).
11. Hanno Loewy and Andrjez Bodek (eds.), ‘Les Vrais Riches’—Notizen am Rand: Ein Tagebuch aus dem Ghetto Lódz (Mai bis August 1944), trans. Esther Alexander-Ihme et al. (Leipzig: Reclam, 1997), entry for 15 July 1944, p. 74. The boy wrote this entry in English.
12. Ibid., p. 51, entry for 26 June 1944, originally written in Polish.
13. Yitskhok Rudashevski, The Diary of the Vilna Ghetto, trans. Percy Matenko (Israel: Ghetto Fighters' House, 1973), p. 28.
14. Ibid., p. 120.
15. Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition, trans. and ed. Susan Massotty, Otto H. Frank and Mirjam Pressler (New York: Bantam Books, 1995 ), pp. 73, 138, 182.
16. Henryk Grynberg (ed.), Children of Zion, trans. Jacqueline Mitchell (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1997), p.xi.
17. Ibid., p. 79.
18. This is Mikhail Bakhtin's term, from his essay ‘Discourse in the Novel’, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 336.
19. Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, trans. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 8.
21. Leah Iglinski-Goodman, For Love of Life (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2002), p. 1.
22. Karen Gershon, A Lesser Child: An Autobiography, trans. unnamed (London: Peter Owen, 1992), p. 102.
24. Cordelia Edvardson, The Burned Child Seeks the Fire: A Memoir, trans. Joel Agee (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997 ), p. 18.
25. Ibid., p. 19.
26. Jona Oberski, A Childhood: A Novella, trans. Ralph Manheim (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1983 ), p. 46.
27. Ibid., p. 47.
28. This is also Bakhtin's term, meaning a formal, literary imitation of extra-literary ‘everyday narration’, Bakhtin, ‘Discourse in the Novel’, p. 262.
30. Henryk Grynberg, Child of the Shadows, trans. Celina Wieniewska (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 1969), p. 70.
31. Raymond Federman, The Voice in the Closet/La Voix dans le Cabinet de Débarras (Madison, WI: Coda Press 1979), unnumbered pages.
Victoria Stewart (essay date March 2001)
SOURCE: Stewart, Victoria. "Anne Frank and the Uncanny." Paragraph 24, no. 1 (March 2001): 99-113.
[In the following essay, Stewart utilizes Sigmund Freud's essay "The Uncanny" in a literary critical analysis of Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl that seeks to define Frank's work as more than an account of adolescence, but one with overarching themes of social, political, cultural, and familial roles.]
No one ever knew exactly how many rooms we had in our apartment because no one ever remembered how many of them were let to strangers. Often one would by chance open the door to one of these forgotten rooms and find it empty; the lodger had moved out a long time ago. In the drawers, untouched for months, one would make unexpected discoveries.
(Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles)
In what follows, I will be using some of the recent debates surrounding Freud's 1919 essay ‘The Uncanny’ to shed light on Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl, a text which, perhaps because it was written by a child, perhaps because of its ubiquity, has rarely been the subject of close critical analysis.1 I intend to illustrate the ways in which the diary can be seen to produce uncanny effects, and, in the process, to shed light on aspects of the diary which tend to be obfuscated by attempts to grasp the ‘character’ of its author.
Critical Approaches to ‘The Uncanny’
‘The Uncanny’ has been the starting point for various kinds of inquiry. Some, including Neil Hertz and Robin Lydenberg, have reread Freud's reading of Hoffmann's ‘The Sandman’ and found it to be as revealing in what it omits as in what it explores. Hertz, for example, reads ‘The Uncanny’ as an exploration of repetition compulsion which cannot itself be immune from the struggle with uncanny effects. He notes in particular that Freud tends to over-stabilize Hoffmann's story by, for instance, only quoting dialogue and not the narratorial interventions, thus effacing their ‘narrative exuberance’ and imposing a false sense of transparency on the text.2 Ultimately for Hertz, Freud's exclusions reveal both Freud's suspicion of literature, and a realization that ‘the irreducible figurativeness of one's language is indistinguishable from the ungrounded and apparently inexplicable notion of the [repetition] compulsion itself.’3 More recently Robin Lydenberg has also focused on the issue of language, suggesting that the examples and anecdotes Freud uses to explain the different aspects of the uncanny ‘exceed their function as illustrations of a theory,’4 and are thus revealing about the notion of ‘literariness’, despite Freud's apparent suspicion of the literary. The uncanny can be seen to suffuse Freud's writing, exceeding even his own abilities at describing or explaining it.
The textuality, and more specifically the literariness, of the uncanny has also been explored by Samuel Weber and more lately Ellen Wayland-Smith, who both locate uncanny effects operating in other works of literature (for Weber stories by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, for Wayland-Smith the poetry of Mallarmé), whilst acknowledging that the uncanny cannot simply be viewed as an object for analysis, or theme, since it reproduces the structure of castration which is not ‘one phenomenon among others but rather […] the crisis of phenomenality as such.’5
All these writers stress that, as in Freud's story of his repeated and inadvertent return to the street full of brothels, the uncanny cannot be viewed simply as an effect of untoward repetition, an excessive coincidence or indeed, in the classic formulation borrowed from Schelling: ‘the name for everything that ought to have remained (…) secret and hidden but has come to light.’6 As Wayland-Smith suggests, ‘Any attempt to locate the uncanny, to pinpoint its place in articulated time and space, is (…) bound to fail, as it signals precisely that which never takes (its) place as an identifiable present.’7 Revealing the full suggestiveness of the uncanny in this way has made it possible, Martin Jay remarks, ‘to extract the Unheimlich out of its purely psychological or aesthetic context, and make it into a category with larger social and cultural implications, indeed one with a certain critical charge.’8 He cites the renewed critical influence of Walter Benjamin, with his interest in ‘the residues of the archaic and the natural’9 to be found in the city, as a key figure in this widening application of the uncanny. Anthony Vidler's The Architectural Uncanny would be one example of this development. In his opening chapters, Vidler seems both to return to a very literal understanding of the Unheimlich—the subtitle of his book is The Modern Unhomely—but also to connect this to what is essentially the alienation of modern life. He thus cites Marx's Economic and Philosophical Notebooks of 1844, on the estrangement of the individual from his or her home which is the effect of renting property: ‘"Here I am at home"—but (…) instead he finds himself in someone else's house, in the house of a stranger who always watches him and throws him out if he does not pay his rent.’10 These notions of estrangement and displacement will prove important in what follows.
Taking into account the extreme slipperiness of the uncanny I intend to map the different ways in which its effect can be seen to recur in relation to a reading of Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl, which, as an autobiographical text, displays elements of both the literary and the ‘cultural’ aspects of the uncanny. Had this text not survived the war, the Secret Annexe at 263 Prinsengracht could well have been simply a space like that described by Bruno Schulz in his 1934 novella The Street of Crocodiles, or the abandoned ghetto house in Michel Mazor's 1955 account of the Warsaw Ghetto, which Schulz's comic-absurd description seems to prefigure:
I know of many cases where a man who had gone out for a short time, on coming home, found neither his wife, nor his children, nor his aged parents. The man came home: everything was in its place in his apartment—the table with the leavings of an interrupted meal, the notebooks in which his child was learning to write its first letters, toys (…) Only human beings who animated these poignant, henceforth useless objects, did not answer to any call—having ceased to exist.11
The Anne Frank House is of course now a museum of domestic life, with its meanings fleshed out by the diary account. I will be suggesting, however, that this account is itself a text which is capable of producing uncanny effects for the present-day reader. The diary is still often read in a purely humanistic light as an account of the endurance of the human spirit in a young girl in extremis; in a review of three recently published biographies of Anne Frank, Anne Karpf deplores the fact that Frank's writing has been ‘hijacked by those who want their Holocaust stories to be about the triumph of the human spirit over evil adversity.’12 I will be suggesting that it is necessary to read the diary as being about more than simply ‘puberty and growth.’13 that it is overlaid with the problems of displacement, exile and the parlousness of adolescence. The familiarity of family rows, exchanging of birthday presents, and Anne Frank's hopes and desires is inevitably set against that most un/familiar series of events, the Holocaust, and it is the ever-threatened eruption of the Holocaust into daily life which must give the reader pause. I would agree with Karpf that these aspects of the text tend to be masked, partly by the presentation of the diary as a much more discrete composition than it actually was, and also because, despite the revelations of the documentary Anne Frank Remembered (1995) and recent biographies, the end of Anne Frank's life tends to be conflated with the end of the diary.
Displacement 1: Germany to Holland
Initially it will be relevant to examine the issues of nationality and Jewishness which emerge within the diary. An important starting point here is Susan Shapiro's notion of the ‘uncanny Jew’, another example, in Martin Jay's terms, of how the category of the uncanny can be placed within a broader social and political context. Beginning with the archetypal image of the ‘Wandering Jew’, an uncanny figure ‘occupying an indistinguishable and undecidable borderline between life and death’14 she proceeds to analyse the contradictory and even ironic position in which Jews can be seen to have been placed during nineteenth-century moves to assimilate. Following Alain Finkelkraut, Shapiro suggests that the assimilated or ‘invisible’ Jew was perceived as an even greater threat to the nation state than those who remained unassimilated: ‘Mimicry did not ultimately empower the Jew as subject but made the Jew who would be emancipated in the modern nation-state even more threatening and threatened.’15 Shapiro invokes the image of the stateless Jew, capable only of making the homelands of others unheimliche. One solution to this would of course be the restitution of a Jewish nation-state, but Shapiro suggests that this itself raises a more fundamental question: ‘Can Judaism and/or Jewishness separate itself from the metaphysics of Europe and its anti-Semitism?’16 Judaism is thus both defined negatively by anti-Semitic attitudes, and capable of appropriating ‘negative’ images, such as that of the uncanny Jew haunting Europe, and re-coining them.
What Shapiro asks is whether, and if so how, it is possible to develop a positive notion of the self when one has been negatively inscribed, as the Other, through history. The Frank family certainly seem to have been defined as Jewish much more readily than they would have defined themselves in this way and they were of course far from alone in this. To cite one other example, Edith Velmans, who survived the war in Holland by going into ‘open’ hiding, that is being taken in by a Gentile family and claimed as a visiting relative, notes that with the introduction of anti-Jewish decrees she and her friends ‘[s]uddenly (…) discovered who was Jewish and who was not. We had never been aware of any differences in our circle.’17 For Anne Frank, Jewish identity becomes closely connected to the issues of national identity which are a preoccupation throughout the diary. Frank describes early on, for the benefit of Kitty, the imaginary recipient of the letters which form the diary,18 that she and her sister were both born in Germany but that ‘[b]ecause we're Jewish, my father emigrated to Holland in 1933.’19 The tension between these two national affiliations is evident in the earliest stages of life in the annexe: not long after the arrival of the van Daan family, who shared the Annexe with the Franks, Anne Frank comments that both her mother and Mrs van Daan ‘speak abominable Dutch’ (p. 34) and that her father asks her for ‘assistance with his Dutch lessons’ (p. 37), whilst, after she unintentionally insults Mrs van Daan, she receives a ‘tongue-lashing, hard, Germanic, mean and vulgar, exactly like some fat red-faced fishwife’ (p. 46). The issue of language is also introduced in the ‘regulations’ issued to the dentist Mr Dussell on his arrival. Here it is declared, albeit as a kind of joke, that ‘only the language of civilised people may be spoken, thus no German (…) No German books may be read except for the classics’ (p. 70). There thus appears to be an uneasy separation between the adults' former lives in Germany and their new lives in Holland: to describe Mrs van Daan as ‘Germanic’ is clearly intended as an insult in this context, but in the case of her own father, the continued use of German, in Anne Frank's birthday poem for example, is considered more in the light of a quirk than as a marker of race. There is also little or no acknowledgement of possible differences in political affiliation between individual ‘Germans’.
As regards the issue of Jewishness, Otto Frank in later life defined himself as a political rather than religious Jew: it is notable that as Anne Frank's anxieties about attitudes towards Jews in Holland grow, she increasingly falls back on Jewishness as a marker of identity. (When she revises her earlier entries, a process to which I will return, her increased knowledge of the implications of anti-Jewish regulations results in a pointing up of Jewish concerns.) When first news of Westerbork transit camp reaches the annexe, via Miep Gies, one of the families' helpers throughout their time in hiding, Anne Frank asks, ‘If it's that bad in Holland, what must it be like in those faraway uncivilised places where the Germans are sending them?’ (p. 54) Two years later, however, shortly before D-Day and renewed hopes of an end to the conflict, rumours of an anti-Semitic backlash provoke further reflections on the issue of nationality. There are suggestions in ‘underground circles’ that German Jews who emigrated to Holland before the war should be sent back to Germany once Hitler is defeated:
We too will have to shoulder our bundles and move on, away from this beautiful country which once so kindly took us in and now turns its back on us. I love Holland. Once I hoped it would be a fatherland to me, since I had lost my own. And I hope so still.
The image of the wandering Jew is evoked here (‘we (…) shoulder our bundles’). What this passage also marks is a knowledge, which has recurred at various points, that it will be impossible to simply leave the Annexe and return to normality, as though awakening from a state of suspended animation. (Anne Frank has previously expressed doubts about whether she would be able to catch up if she returned to school.) The Annexe dwellers are not only sequestered from the outside world, incapable of effecting changes in their own economic or political situation, but also subject to the exigencies of the type of public opinion described above. To return to Susan Shapiro's image these are ‘invisible’ Jews who must nevertheless be rooted out. Having felt ‘at home’, albeit in an increasingly segregated Holland, Frank realizes the impossibility of returning to Germany: the only option would be a further stage of exile.
Displacement 2: Amsterdam to the Annexe
Having exposed some of the traces of the ‘uncanny Jew’ within Frank's writing, it will be useful to explore the notion of life in the Annexe as a form of internal exile. I would suggest that the Annexe can be considered as an unheimlich house, a house haunted by both the shades of everyday life and by other literary images of hidden chambers and locked rooms.
In their meditations on the life of David Rodinsky, whose abandoned room above an East End synagogue was discovered in the early 1990s, Rachel Lichenstein and Ian Sinclair treat the room as a kind of archive; but without the benefit of a written record, the authors, in particular Lichenstein, find it difficult to piece together Rodinsky's life. Rodinsky's apparent vanishing into air calls to mind Kabbalistic practices:
Invisible? Rodinsky is only invisible in the sense that he is absorbed by the room in which he was the last tenant. The Golem is closer to that room than to Rodinsky the man (…) the abandoned room (…) is a dressed set, it solicits narrative.20
Sinclair notes the double function of the Golem. It is an atavistic figure which, at times of crisis, is called upon to protect the Jewish community. Created by man, it continually threatens to take action on its own account and various safeguards have to be put in place to prevent this. In Gustav Meyrink's version of the story, it is kept in a room which has no doors. Sinclair's reflections on the notion of a room without doors expands to a consideration of both city life and Jewishness, which take on the double quality of the golem:
Doors represent status; those who possess them are allowed a measure of privacy. They can remove themselves from their servants or creditors. The door is a border, framed and presented. The impoverished (…) know them only from the outside. Spaces to which they're granted access have no doors (unless they are doors to keep them in, doors of prisons or madhouses).21
The door to the Frank's ‘house’ is hidden behind a bookcase: their ownership of it cannot be freely acknowledged and for much of the time they can make no use of it. When they can, they can only enter other restricted parts of the building, never go into the street. They choose this incarceration, but of course it is barely a choice at all—and is still incarceration. Equally, if 263 Prinsengracht is ‘haunted’, it is difficult to say who is doing the haunting. Some of the diaries most tense moments for the present day reader are those when the families have to take special precautions not to be heard by the workers, or indeed by intruders, in the main part of the building. The second attempted burglary is one example of this:
It was ten-thirty, then eleven. Not a sound (…) Up above you could hear the whole family breathing. For the rest, no one moved a muscle. Footsteps in the house, the private office, the kitchen, then (…) on the staircase. All sounds of breathing stopped (…) Footsteps on the stairs, then a rattling at the bookcase. This moment is indescribable.
What moments like this set into relief for the reader is the constant, but for the most part underlying knowledge, that the families are carrying out a semblance of everyday life whilst on the other side of the wall their presence goes unnoticed. In this sense, they haunt the building. Yet a quite contrary view is expressed when Anne Frank goes downstairs to the lower part of the Annexe alone, to use the lavatory:
There was no one down there, since they were all listening to the radio. I wanted to be brave but it was hard. I always feel safer upstairs then in that huge silent house; when I'm alone with those mysterious muffled sounds from upstairs (…) I have to hurry to remind myself where I am to keep from getting the shivers.
Detached momentarily from the family unit, which is represented here only by ‘muffled sounds from upstairs’, Frank has to remind herself that this is, for the time being, her home. It is as though the emptiness of the rest of the building is itself a threat, and this is of course an archetypal trope for the haunted house story. Emptiness and darkness can never be simply benign absences: there is always a possibility of another presence announcing itself. Freud connects the unheimlich house to the recurring fear of, and repressed anxiety about, death. Immediately prior to the passage quoted above Anne Frank prevents herself from considering the possibility that the police, having got into the office downstairs could just as easily force entry into the Annexe; her fear is not simply a fear of death encoded as a fear of the unknown (as Freud might suggest) but a thinly disguised fear of what, by this stage, she knows could happen. The fear generated by simply being in the Annexe masks, or serves to repress, the fear of what could then follow.
It is also notable in the above passage that Frank experiences estrangement from her family. This not only points to her recurring discussion of the problems of growing up and establishing her own identity in these circumstances (which I will return to) but also to a deeper sense that ultimately, she is on her own. The muffled sounds from upstairs are her family but could be ghosts. She is threatened with being separated permanently from that with which she is familiar, and the friend can suddenly become an enemy. The family unit in fact offers little in the way of protection, either emotional or otherwise. Indeed some commentators, notably Bruno Bettelheim, have suggested that the Franks would have had a better chance of surviving had they gone into hiding separately, or, indeed, if Otto Frank had encouraged his daughters to learn self-defence rather than Latin and history:
Teaching high school subjects had, of course, its constructive aspects (…) it encouraged hope for a future in which such knowledge would be useful (…) but it was erroneous in that it took place of much more pertinent teaching and planning: how best to try and escape when detected.22
These comments really prove little more than the benefits which can be provided by hindsight. More to the point are the ways in which the family unit is affected by their changed circumstances. I would suggest that in reading about these families we may experience something like the estrangement described by Anne Frank when she hears the muffled sounds from downstairs. What we are shown is the familiar made strange. This is especially the case when we are presented, through the lens of Anne Frank's writing, with images of the older inhabitants of the Annexe. In early 1944, Anne Frank apologises to Kitty for retelling the same news stories, but protests that she herself is ‘sick and tired’ of ‘hearing the same old stuff (…) Mother and Mrs van Daan trot out stories about their childhood that we've heard a thousand times before (…) there's absolutely no chance of anything new or fresh being brought up for discussion in the Annexe’ (p. 176-77).
Such passages are often read as illustrating that the stultification of life in the Annexe ultimately failed to dampen Anne Frank's spirits. To me, however, it shows a particular kind of debilitation at work. Anne Frank might dream of new experiences, but for the older generation there is a logic in retreating into the past when the future is so uncertain and the present essentially the marking of time. Frank notes that even stories or news brought into the Annexe by their helpers are soon made-over and re-told by the older women, and thus become absorbed, controlled and non-threatening. Repetition thus becomes a replacement for action, and a way of avoiding detailed consideration of either the present circumstances or indeed external events. To repeat in this way is to mask the knowledge of one's own loss of agency.
Frank's estrangement from this retelling of stories can be connected to the ways in which she perceives herself as changing through her time in the Annexe. Two things are at stake here: one is her belief that the adults refuse to acknowledge that she is growing up, and the other is the way in which adolescence, specifically the ‘romance’ with Peter, follows a familiar pattern, even though it happens in this sequestered place. The photograph of Anne Frank sitting at her schooldesk, pen at the ready, smiling, has taken on an iconic status: this image fixes Anne Frank and it is of course impossible to imagine what she might have looked like after her two years shut away. What information we can glean from Anne Frank's own account serves to place her at a distance from the image in the photograph. The gap between the visual image and the textualized one is impossible to bridge; the text would seem to promise to animate, prosopopoetically, the image, but the distance between the two simply widens. So, for example, when it is suggested that she be taken out to see an optician, a year into her time in the Annexe, Frank tries her coat on ‘but it was so small it looked as it might have belonged to my little sister. We lowered the hem, but I still couldn't button it up’ (p. 110). The use of the image of the ‘little sister’ stresses Frank's sense of estrangement from her own body, emphasizing the distance from the outside world and ‘normal’ time created by the time spent in the Annexe. One could also cite Freud's experience of not recognizing himself in a mirror, which Robin Lydenberg sees as narrating ‘the disturbing loss of the familiar ground of the self,’23 an effect compounded by the fact that the incident takes place when Freud is on a train and is therefore literally without ‘ground’. There is a disturbing disjunction between the individual's mental image and what is seen in the mirror, or what, in Anne Frank's case, is revealed by the coat. She is all too aware of the changes she has undergone in hiding—the mis-fitting coat serves to redouble the distance between her current life and what might have happened before or might happen after in the outside world. Eventually the plan is cancelled, ostensibly in the hope of a breakthrough in the war, but one could almost take it that the unwearable outdoors clothes are themselves the deciding factor. The impossibility of ‘passing’ and therefore of passing back into everyday life, underlies this small incident.
The distance between Annexe life and everyday life is interrogated in a different way by Anne Frank's romance with Peter. The incident with the coat is a minor one in the fabric of the diary: the romance with Peter is structurally, as well as emotionally important, not least because for the reader it is almost the only element of ‘plot’ in the text as a whole. On could even go so far as to say that this is precisely the purpose it served for the author. There is a sort of inevitability about her growing affection for Peter, and at times she herself seems almost to acknowledge this. Having reflected on the changes which have taken place within her body since her arrival in the Annexe (principally the onset of menstruation), Frank reflects: ‘If only I had a girl friend’ (161). In the next entry, however, she begins:
My longing for someone to talk to has become so unbearable that I somehow took it into my head to select Peter for this role (…) You mustn't think I'm in love with Peter (…) If the van Daans had had a daughter instead of a son, I'd have tried to make friends with her.
That night, however, she dreams about another Peter, a former sweetheart called Peter Schiff. Retrospectively she comes to realize the strength of her feelings towards this Peter and for a number of days is unable to get him out of her mind, imagining conversations with him and lamenting over what might have been. It is as though the seeming impossibility of anything actually happening provokes a wave of self-indulgent longing. Within a couple of months this has dissipated into an abstract state of near-ecstasy: ‘I think spring is inside me. I fell spring awakening (…) I have to force myself to act normally. I'm in a state of utter confusion (…) I only know that I'm longing for something’ (p. 184). After such an outburst it can come as little surprise that Frank begins to sense that Peter van Daan is paying her extra attention. A courtship begins, and Anne Frank eventually admits that ‘Peter Schiff and Peter van Daan have melted into one Peter, who's good and kind and whom I long for desperately’ (p. 197). The imagined or remembered Peter, a figure standing for unrealized hopes in the past, becomes superimposed upon the actual flesh and blood Peter so that Frank's abstract desires, centred initially around the spectral Peter, ultimately find their object. There is also, however, a third Peter, the double of Peter van Daan who appears to Frank in a dream, when their relationship is still in its early stages: ‘Last night I dreamed we were kissing each other, but Peter's cheeks were very disappointing: they weren't as soft as they looked. They were more like father's cheeks—the cheeks of a man who already shaves’ (p. 211).
Frank does not attempt to analyse this fragment, and its encoding of an anxiety surrounding male sexuality will be transparent enough to the contemporary reader (although no less discomforting for that). However, this doubling and redoubling of Peters can serve to re-emphasise the extent to which all these encounters take place in a space which is completely removed from the outside world and that as such they bear only a spectral relationship to it. The romance with Peter is not simply a consequence of two lonely teenagers taking comfort in each other; it is a reminder that the usual rites of passage have been denied them. Anne Frank will never be able to fit into her ‘little sister's’ coat, and Peter will never be the man with a rough face like Otto Frank's. Aside from any purely sexual meaning there seems to be an implication in the dream image that the pleasures of the suspended state of adolescence could all too readily be superseded by the anxieties of adulthood. Anne Frank wants to have adult experiences without the concomitant responsibilities and fears. An incident which might seem to assert that Anne Frank was an ‘ordinary girl’ serves instead to emphasise that she is stranded, permanently in abeyance. Just as the ‘uncanny Jew’ cannot be incorporated into the nation, nor can these families ever take up their places in society.
Writing in the Shadow of the Holocaust
To the extent that the Annexe stands as an Other to the usual family unit, so the ghetto can be seen as a similarly vicious parody of a social unit, the city. It could be suggested that the Jews in the ghettoes of the east at least had a sense of community to ease their trials, but this carries the danger of buying into the Nazis own idea of the Warsaw ghetto as an idyllic community, as they attempted to portray in their propaganda. The community in the ghettoes was a community only by default, organised in such a way as to exacerbate internal tensions. But one aspect of life in the ghettoes can usefully be set alongside Anne Frank's diary: the Ghetto Chronicles were a deliberate attempt at creating a record of what was known from the start to be a crucial and dangerous point in Jewish history. The compilers of the Lodz Chronicle note the necessity of keeping a record ‘for future scholars studying the life of a Jewish society in one of its most difficult periods,’24 whilst numerous individuals also kept less formal chronicles in the form of personal diaries.
Anne Frank's sense of the impingement of historical events on her life is of course in evidence from the start—her comments on the prospect of a further exile after the war clearly indicate a knowledge of the changes and disturbance which historical events, specifically war, can bring. Equally interesting in this respect, and it is an aspect of the diary which tends to be occluded even in the recent ‘Definitive Edition’, is the fact that Anne Frank deliberately went back and rewrote sections of her diary with a view, if not to their eventual publication, then certainly to them being read by others, in the light of a radio broadcast by a member of the Dutch government, by then in exile in London:
Dearest Kitty, Mr Bolkestein the Cabinet Minister, speaking on the Dutch broadcast from London, said that after the war a collection would be made of diaries and letters dealing with the war. Of course, everyone pounced on my diary. Just imagine how interesting it would be if I were to publish a novel about the Secret Annexe. The title alone would make people think it was a detective story. Seriously though, ten years after the war people would find it very amusing to read how we lived, what we ate and what we talked about as Jews in hiding.
What interests me here is the difficulty Frank has in describing exactly what she does want to write. Everyone pounces on her diary; but she also mentions a novel, and then specifically a detective story. Michel Mazor's description of the abandoned ghetto house is like the description of a crime scene: in one sense that is precisely what it is. Yet Frank also sees this projected work as something which would be ‘amusing’, entertaining or diverting. In negotiating her way between different kinds of writing with which she is familiar, it initially seems to escape her notice that the diary itself might be just the kind of document intended by Bolkestein. However, she immediately sets about recopying and annotating her diary, expressing surprise, for example, at the openness of her early discussions of sexuality. What this rewriting underlines is the tension between public and private writing, whilst the publication of the diary in such a way as to mask its fragmentariness can give a false sense of spontaneity or completeness.25
Werner Hamacher suggests that the key structuring tension in the diary as a literary form is that between fragmentation and completeness:
It registers the completeness of one, and yet another, and still another day gone by, a day that for this individual diarist might find no repetition and renewal in a next day.
Like an aphorism, each diary entry is complete in itself:
The diarist's every word could be his last. Thus in the form of the diary (…) absolute scepticism about the durability of the written word and its meaning is intertwined with an astonishing optimism that demonstrates itself more in the compactness and conciseness of its linguisitic expression than in its contents: since each entry could be the last, everything that comes together in it must appear under the aspect of its perfection, that is, of closure and finality.26
Such remarks are all the more apt when applied to a diary written in extremis. Anne Frank's rewriting of the diary could be seen as both an attempt to evade the sense of finality Hamacher describes, but also, on the contrary, as a means of asserting her own ability to shape, and ultimately bring to closure, her account. Insofar as events can be written about, survival for another day is asserted, as in the burglary incident: Anne Frank's feelings might appear to her to be ‘indescribable’ but the fact that she can write an account of the event asserts her own survival, her own mastery of what has happened. Ultimately, however, the contemporary reader is aware that however much Anne Frank attempted to somehow make these events her own she could not escape becoming subject to history. The ‘completeness’ of the diary—and as Hamacher points out, a diary can never be considered incomplete—can mask the post-textual fate of its author, but only if the very reasons for its survival are ignored. The ‘historical’ Anne Frank, of whom more has lately become known, becomes the uncanny double of the ‘textual’ Anne Frank, the diarist. However much the ‘liveliness’ of Anne Frank's writing might be asserted, however hard the reader might try to claim that her thoughts make her come alive, it has ultimately to be admitted that such a reanimation encapsulates all that is most uneasy about reading this text. The very things which seem most familiar or accessible are precisely those which open up the distance between the present and the past and estrange the reader from the traces being read. Perhaps this is symptomatic of Holocaust writing and reading: we know more about Anne Frank's fate than she did at the time of writing, but to put this to one side while reading is a source of comfort; we can allow ourselves to be distracted from the central issue. Perhaps the only comfortable way to look at the Holocaust is to look at it awry, but tricks of perspective can only emphasise the extent of what is not acknowledged.
Thus it is not simply that reading the diary unsettles us because of what it conceals about the Holocaust but also that it seems a fragile text to be carrying such a weight of history between its pages. Perhaps this is why it has often seemed easier to somehow detach it from its context and empty out the kinds of resonances I have been identifying. Otto Frank was keen to promote the diary for what he identified as its humanitarian and broadly speaking optimistic content. It is still treated in much this way by the Anne Frank Educational Trust, which has anti-racism and universal religious tolerance as its watchwords. What I would suggest is that in acknowledging its necessary fragmentariness and its aporetic nature, it can be seen as evoking a particular sense of radical uncertainty. If such uncertainty can be shared, its lessons are rather harder than those which are usually attributed to this text.
1. Two exceptions are Yasmine Ergas, ‘Growing Up Banished: A Reading of Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum’ in eds. M. Randolph Higonnet et al., Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1987), pp. 84-95 and Rachel Feldhay Brenner, Writing as Resistance: Four Women Confronting the Holocaust (Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997), both of which take a, broadly speaking, liberal humanist approach to the text.
3. Ibid., p. 321.
4. Robin Lydenberg, ‘Freud's Uncanny Narratives’, PMLA 112.5 (1997), 1074-1086 (1074).
5. Samuel Weber, ‘The Sideshow: or Remarks on a Canny Moment’, Modern Language Notes 88.6 (1973), 1102-1133 (1119). Also cited in Ellen Wayland-Smith, ‘En Memoire d'un Site: Freud, Mallarme’, French Forum 23.2 (1998), 179-96.
6. Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny’ in James Strachey trans. and ed., The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, volume XVIII (London, International Psychoanalytic Association and the Hogarth Press, 1955), pp. 219-56 (p. 224), ellipses in original.
7. Ellen Wayland-Smith, op. cit., p. 185.
8. Martin Jay, ‘The Uncanny Nineties’, Salmagundi 108 (1995), 20-29 (22).
10. Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely (Cambridge MA, MIT Press, 1992), p. 5, emphasis in original.
11. Michel Mazor, The Vanished City: Everyday Life in the Warsaw Ghetto trans. by David Jacobson (New York, Marsilio Publishers, 1993), pp. 149-50, ellipses in original.
12. Anne Karpf, ‘Let's Pretend Life is Beautiful’, Guardian, 3 April 1999.
14. Susan E. Shapiro, ‘The Uncanny Jew’, Judaism 46.1 (1997), 63-78 (64).
17. Edith Velmans, Edith's Book (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1999), p. 64.
18. In some of the earliest fragments of the diary, which are not included in the most widely available edition of the text, Anne addresses letters to several of the characters from a popular series of children's books, Joop ter Heul, by Cissy van Marxveldt. One of these characters is called Kitty Francken and this seems to be where ‘Dear Kitty’ originated.
19. Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition trans. by Susan Massotty (London, Viking, 1995), p. 7. All subsequent references to this text will be cited parenthetically.
20. Rachel Lichenstein and Iain Sinclair, Rodinsky's Room (London, Granta, 1999), p. 187.
21.Ibid., p. 184.
22. Bruno Bettleheim, ‘The Ignored Lesson of Anne Frank’ in, Surviving and Other Essays (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), pp. 247-57 (p. 253).
23. Lydenberg. op. cit., 1080.
24. Henryk Neftalin quoted in Lucjan Dobroszycki ed., The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1984), p. x.
25. Attacks on the diary's authenticity by individuals such as Robert Faurisson have often focussed on this issue of the differences between the manuscript and printed versions of the text.
26. Werner Hamacher, ‘Journals, Politics’, in Werner Hamacher, Neil Hertz and Thomas Keenan eds., Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism (London and Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1989), pp. 438-67 (p. 438).
Lawrence L. Langer (essay date 2006)
SOURCE: Langer, Lawrence L. "Anne Frank Revisited." In Using and Abusing the Holocaust, pp. 16-29. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2006.
[In the following essay, Langer suggests that Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl is not, despite its fame, a representative Holocaust diary because its contents reflect the perspective of a child isolated from many of the worst horrors of the Shoah.]
On May 5, 1944, an anonymous teenager began to keep a diary in the Lodz ghetto. This was his first entry:
I have decided to write a diary, though it is a little too late. To recapitulate past events is quite impossible, so I'll begin with the present. This week I committed an act which best illustrates the degree of "dehumanization" to which we have been reduced. I finished my loaf of bread in three days, that is to say, on Sunday, so I had to wait till next Saturday for a new one. I was terribly hungry, I had the prospect of living only on the workshop soups, which consist of three little potato pieces and two dkg. [dekagrams, a few ounces] of flour. Monday morning I was lying quite dejectedly in my bed, and there was my darling [12-year-old] sister's half loaf of bread "present" with me. To cut a long story short: I could not resist the temptation and ate it up totally. After having done this—at present a terrible crime—I was overcome by terrible remorse of conscience and by a still greater care for what my little one would eat the next 5 days.
I felt like a miserable helpless criminal, but I was delivered from the terrible situation by the reception of a B-allotment [extra rations]. I suffer terribly, feigning that I don't know where the bread has gone and I have to tell people that it was stolen by a supposed reckless and pitiless thief. And to keep up appearance, I have to utter curses and condemnations on the imaginary thief. "I would hang him with my own hands if I come across him." And other angry phrases. Indeed, I am too nervous, too exhausted for literary exertions at the present moment. All I can say is that I shall always suffer on remembering this "noble" deed of mine. And that I shall always condemn myself for being able to become so unblushingly impudent—that I shall forevermore despise that part of "mankind" who could inflict such infernal woes on their "co"-human beings.1
Two days earlier, on May 3, 1944, Anne Frank, soon to turn fifteen, had entered in her diary the following:
I've often been down in the dumps, but never desperate. I look upon our life in hiding as an interesting adventure, full of danger and romance, and every privation as an amusing addition to my diary. I've made up my mind to lead a different life from other girls, and not to become an ordinary housewife later on. What I'm experiencing here is a good beginning to an interesting life, and that's the reason—the only reason—why I have to laugh at the humorous side of the most dangerous moments.
I'm young and have many hidden qualities; I'm young and strong and living through a big adventure; I'm right in the middle of it and can't spend all day complaining because it's impossible to have any fun! I'm blessed with many things: happiness, a cheerful disposition and strength. Every day I feel myself maturing, I feel liberation drawing near, I feel the beauty of nature and the goodness of the people around me. Every day I think what a fascinating and amusing adventure this is! With all that, why should I despair?2
Ironically, at almost exactly the same time, early in May 1944, a young teenager named Elie Wiesel arrived at a place called Auschwitz, where he witnessed babies being thrown alive into flaming pits. He did not have a chance to write about it in his diary.
On June 27, 1944, the anonymous adolescent in the Lodz ghetto wrote of the humiliation of his fellow Jews by their German oppressors:
What kind of world is this and what kind of people are these who are able to inflict such unbelievable and impossible suffering on human beings?
Our nearest ones have been murdered, some by starvation, some by deportations (modern civilian death). In a manner unheard of in history, we've been crippled physically, spiritually, emotionally—in our whole personality. We vegetate in the most horrible misery and need; we are slaves who, deprived of our own will, feel happy when we're being trodden upon, begging only that we not be trodden to death. I don't exaggerate: we are the most wretched beings the sun has ever seen—and all this is not enough for the "strong man": they continue deporting and tearing our hearts to pieces—while we'd be happy to live even as enslaved, wretched insects, as abject, creeping reptiles—only to live … live …3
On the same day, June 27, 1944, Anne Frank confided to her diary: "The mood has changed, everything's going enormously well. Cherbourg, Vitebsk, Zhlobin fell today. They're sure to have captured lots of men and equipment. Five German generals were killed near Cherbourg, and two taken captive. Now that they've got a harbor the British can bring whatever they want on shore. The whole Cotentin Peninsula has been captured just three weeks after the invasion! What a feat!"4 Even as she wrote, the Germans were deporting seven thousand Jews from the Lodz ghetto to be murdered in the mobile killing vans at Chelmno. It was a feat she knew nothing of. How could she? A little more than a month later, four days before her attic hiding place was discovered, most of the remaining 68,000 Lodz Jews were shipped to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the majority were sent directly to the gas chambers.
The contrast in mood, tone, and content between these excerpts is clear, though there are other pages from both diaries where mood, tone, and even content overlap. Like Anne, the anonymous teenager has his moments of hope, and then his very language begins to sound like hers: "I am sitting and dreaming—dreaming and floating in the clouds. I am overtaken by an indescribable longing for life, life as I conceive it, full of beautiful things, of intellectual interests, a passion for books, theater, movies, radio, oh (it is not fair to sigh)—and yet I am trapped in such a swamp."5 But that swamp introduces a crucial difference, because in her hiding place Anne Frank was never forced to breathe its fetid vapors, and she could remain convinced that her dreams might become less fetid realities. The boy from the Lodz ghetto, despite his moments of hope, knew he was facing a bad ending to a terrible life. Anne Frank, despite her genuine flashes of despair, believed, as she wrote, that she was facing "a good beginning to an interesting life." One can find in her Diary a few attempts to acknowledge the enormity of the threat confronting Jews outside the annex, but they are based on rumor or vague details provided by BBC radio broadcasts or the Dutch friends who were helping to hide them. Because she has no specific experience of the horror, because her greatest fears, of being caught and of the occasional air raids, were only intermittent, because hunger or terror was never a steady internal presence in her mind, she was affected rather than afflicted by the circumstances outside the hidden annex. After living there for more than eighteen months, at a time when most of European Jewry had already been murdered, she wrote in February 1944: "Riches, prestige, everything can be lost. But the happiness in your own heart can only be dimmed; it will always be there, as long as you live, to make you happy again."6
Lines like these should remind us how shielded Anne Frank was from the worst realities of the event we call the Holocaust. She is in no way to blame for not knowing about what she could not have known about. But readers are much to blame for accepting and promoting the idea that her Diary is a major Holocaust text and has anything of great consequence to tell us about the atrocities that culminated in the murder of European Jewry. The happiness in her heart was genuine, not only because she was so young but also because the notion of a future was still a vivid and meaningful possibility for her. Contrast her recurrent optimistic tone with the attitude of a twelve or thirteen-year-old girl from Lvov named Janina Heshele who was sent with her mother to a prison cell to await deportation:
Mother, who was deathly pale, lay in bed. I lay down near her and asked her "Why are you so crushed? I am still alive." She replied, "I do not care what happens to me. I have a poison tablet which will bring instant death. But what will happen to you?" She broke out in loud sobs and implored me, "Anula, save me from further anguish. Go away. I don't want you near me. I don't want to see what will happen to you." But I refused, saying, "what have I to live for? Without documents I cannot exist on my own. Mother, do you want to prolong my agonies? Isn't it better to make an end to my life once and for all? Let us die together, with me in your arms. Why live on?"7
When we contrast Anne Frank's words with the gloomy finality of such excerpts, we realize how relatively uncontaminated she was able to keep her imagination, in spite of her ordeal. How else can we explain the cheerfulness of a sentiment such as the following, which engages our collective desires while remaining insulated from the historical milieu in which Anne found herself: "The best remedy for those who are frightened, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere they can be alone, alone with the sky, nature and God. For then and only then can you feel that everything is as it should be and that God wants people to be happy amid nature's beauty and simplicity. As long as this exists, and this should be forever, I know that there will be solace for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances. I firmly believe that nature can bring comfort to all who suffer."8
Passages like these provide a clue to the universal appeal to both younger and older readers of Anne Frank's Diary as a classic text about the Holocaust. They seem to offer concrete support for the welcome notion that in the midst of chaos, even the chaos of mass murder, the human imagination, to say nothing of other features of the self, can remain untainted by the enormity of the crime. While the diaries of other children immersed in the slaughter record tales of innocence corrupted by circumstances imposed on them by their oppressors, Anne Frank's account of her ordeal, despite scattered moments of genuine if limited vision into the darker reality, tells a story of innocence preserved. Her irrepressible enthusiasm for life triumphs over threats to her security, furnishing a template for managing those threats that can be transferred to her readers. The vast gulf between insight and foresight that is the hallmark of her narrative is nowhere more ironically revealed than in her entry after she discovers that her precious fountain pen has been burned in the oven together with the day's garbage: "I'm left with one consolation, small though it may be: my fountain pen was cremated, just as I would like to be someday!"9
Instead of asking what we can learn about the Holocaust from The Diary of a Young Girl, perhaps it would be useful to begin by inquiring what we cannot. Readers of the Diary learn little about the events leading up to the Frank family's departure from Germany, and less about the situation of Jews in Holland after the German occupation. They learn nothing about Dutch collaboration, or of efforts by the Dutch underground to hide and rescue Jews. (Since Otto Frank made his own arrangements for going into hiding, he did not need to involve members of the resistance.) They hear once or twice about roundups, but learn few details about deportations, from Holland or any other country in Europe. They learn nothing about the worker's strike in Amsterdam, after which Dutch non-Jews were sent to Mauthausen, where many of them died or were killed. They hear once about Westerbork, but do not know that it is a transit camp for Auschwitz or Majdanek, places no one in the attic had ever heard of. They learn nothing about ghettos, concentration camps, labor camps, deathcamps. They learn nothing about selections, starvation, exhaustion, and disease. They hear gassing mentioned twice, but if we had to depend on these two references to enhance our understanding of the extermination of European Jewry, the tabula rasa of our mind on this subject would be left nearly blank. And we hear nothing at all, except for one mention of the Führer, about the Nazi leaders and their minions who planned, organized, and executed the event we call the Holocaust.
So what are we left with? Anne Frank was not unaware of what was happening in Europe. On March 31, 1944, she writes: "Hungary has been occupied by German troops. There are still a million Jews living there; they too are doomed." But how is a fourteen-year-old girl in hiding to translate that ominous word "doomed" into a context of atrocity that would give it shape and meaning? She had neither the knowledge, the ability, nor the desire to do so. The next sentence in her Diary reads: "Nothing special is happening here. Today is Mr. van Daan's birthday." The juxtaposition of the impending murder and thus temporal end of the lives of more than three hundred thousand Hungarian Jews in Auschwitz—Anne Frank's figure was much too high—with the normal passage of time in the secret annex registered through the chronology of birthdays gives us a glimpse into the diarist's habit of shifting placidly from lethal themes to adolescent matters. The entry for the next day begins, "And yet everything is still so difficult. You do know what I mean, don't you? I long so much for him to kiss me, but that kiss is taking its own sweet time."10
In fact, one could argue that Anne Frank's Diary sanctions and indeed enacts in its very text a designed avoidance of the very experience it is reputed to grant us some exposure to. Anne herself wrestles with the need to take utterly seriously the details of what is going on "outside" that Mr. Dussell relates shortly after his arrival in the annex. She feels guilty sleeping in a warm bed while some of her dearest friends may be dropping from exhaustion. But she has a practical primer of advice for handling this disheartening information: "It won't do us or those outside any good if we continue to be as gloomy as we are now. And what would be the point of turning the Secret Annex into a Melancholy Annex?" She is simply too young to handle the finality of atrocity; she knows it is "a disgrace to be so cheerful," but she has a solution, and it is by no means certain that it reflects an age-related disposition: "am I supposed to spend the whole day crying? No, I can't do that. This gloom will pass."11
Readers of the Diary are encouraged to embrace this philosophy, a perfectly sensible and even admirable attitude for anyone seeking to recover from "normal" adversity. But the Holocaust is not an instance of normal adversity, and by applying to it the formula of "this gloom will pass," we identify with Anne's need to keep it from invading the other parts of her life, or of her imagination. Thus her work helps us to transcend what we have not yet encountered, nonetheless leaving behind a film of conviction that we have. Instead of reading it for its real virtue, as a gifted but youthful writer's precocious story of female adolescent yearning as it unfolds in the restricted setting of the secret annex, those who regard it as a valuable Holocaust text approach it with a reverence that has led, as we all know, to the near canonization of its author. This serves neither her reputation nor the cause of historical truth. If Anne Frank was a casualty of the Holocaust, her Diary is a casualty of the difficulty we still have in dealing with her post-Diary doom. The book is a victim of one of the worst features of American culture, the effort to force us to construe the reality of an event before we have experienced it, to confirm an agenda in advance in order to discourage us from raising disturbing questions that might subvert the tranquility of our response.
The model for construing Anne Frank's Diary was established early by Meyer Levin in the New York Times Book Review on June 15, 1952. The odd and still unexplained paradox is that unlike Anne Frank, Levin had not been sheltered from the worst details of the Holocaust. He knew exactly what it had meant for European Jewry. During the last week of World War II he had seen Ohrdruf, Buchenwald, and Bergen-Belsen shortly after they had been liberated by Allied forces, and he wrote about them then and later with a precision that did not invite his readers to decipher reality according to some theoretical affirmative agenda. Reporting from Buchenwald on May 2, 1945, Levin wrote:
All week I have been talking to Jews who survived the greatest mass murder in the history of mankind…. my mind, after this week, faintly reflects their minds. It is a composite image of trains running three-tracked into smoking crematoriums, of remote Polish villages whose mud ruts were filled with human bodies, of a German officer, playfully lining up a group of Jewish children until they were precisely one head behind the other and then putting a single bullet through the line [an extraordinary claim to anyone familiar with the laws of physical resistance], of a woman holding her baby aloft over her head while savage police dogs ripped her apart, and through every image I see the brown, earnest undeniable eyes of a survivor who tells me this, and over each image is stamped the ever-recurring line, "I saw it, I saw it with my own eyes."12
In spite of occasional exaggerations, the eyewitness testimonies that Meyer Levin sent back to readers in America refused to gloss over atrocity for the sake of minimizing its impact. In fact, he predicted that some day a literary talent would emerge equal to the challenge of conveying the enormity of what his journalist's pen could only sketchily represent.
Given Levin's oft-expressed fear of bearing false witness, of presenting the murder of European Jewry as anything other than the overwhelming evil it was, how can we account for his enthusiastic conclusion upon reading The Diary of a Young Girl that "Here, at last, was ‘the voice from the mass grave’ for which he had long been searching"?13 Seven years earlier, Levin had seen some of those mass graves, and heard the dreadful tales of those who had escaped them. Yet after less than a decade he was prepared to describe Anne Frank's Diary as a "classic" account of "a group of Jews waiting in fear of being taken by the Nazis." Although more than half of the Diary could have been written without the Holocaust ever having happened, in the sense that its "drama of puberty" (as Levin himself describes it), its sibling rivalry, conflicts with parents, adolescent romance, and awakening sexuality might have been enacted anywhere, in his Times review Meyer Levin invented for it a designation that has defined its reception up to the present: "Anne Frank's voice becomes the voice of six million vanished souls."14 Before our eyes a myth is being forged, because nothing could be further from Anne Frank's intention or her achievement. As any aspiring writer knows, the initial task is to create a personal voice that is different from any other, a distinctive tone and point of view that sets the author apart from dissimilar literary efforts.
Although Anne Frank's greatest accomplishment is the honesty and fidelity with which she records her emerging personality even when her admissions might embarrass her or those around her, including her family, and although Levin acknowledges this in his review, he feels compelled to create the impression that the Diary ranges more widely in its interests. He cites only one other Holocaust-related work for purposes of comparison with the Diary, John Hersey's novel of the Warsaw ghetto, The Wall. Although Hersey's novel has its limitations as a fictional narrative, at least it takes us inside the ghetto to dramatize some of the conflicts that unfolded there. Yet Levin is content to argue that "Anne Frank's diary probes far deeper than ‘The Wall’ into the core of human relations, and succeeds better than ‘The Wall’ in bringing an understanding of life under threat."15 Those familiar with the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to their death in Treblinka in the summer of 1942 and the courageous but catastrophic uprising the following spring, leading to the total destruction of the ghetto and the execution or deportation of its remaining inhabitants, will marvel at how much Levin had forgotten (and how easy it was for him to forget) about Holocaust atrocity when he wrote those lines.
For reasons we cannot explain today, in his review Levin decided to ignore the exceptional nature of the event whose consequences he had witnessed in 1945 and chose instead to universalize the experience by skirting the details of its horrors. In so doing, he devised a pattern for avoiding the Holocaust that remains a popular approach to the subject today. Of Anne's presumed account of "life under threat" he wrote: "And this quality brings it home to any family in the world today. Just as the Franks lived in momentary fear of the Gestapo's knock on their hidden door, so every family today lives in fear of the knock of war. Anne's diary is a great affirmative answer to the life-question of today, for she shows how ordinary people, within this ordeal, constantly hold to the greater human values."16 This is the illusion we need to hear: that in spite of atrocities like the Holocaust, and its many smaller-scale but equally vicious successors, the "greater human values"—whatever Levin might have meant by that empty piece of rhetoric—survive intact.
Levin ends his review with language that still clings like a burr to the flesh of much Holocaust response, invoking consolation rather than confrontation as the ultimate goal of that endeavor. Although he is candid enough to admit that "Hers was perhaps one of the bodies seen in the mass grave at Bergen-Belsen," he makes an easy transition from that grim image to the claim that she goes on living through her Diary, the kind of sentiment that "normalizes" death by casting it into the familiar frame of any memorial ceremony. Levin's concluding words in his review replace the finality of mass murder with the immortalizing possibilities of its aftermath: "this wise and wonderful young girl brings back a poignant delight in the infinite human spirit."17
Poignancy may be one reaction to the fate of Anne Frank, but there are others, and if we are to do justice to her talent, we need to acknowledge them. If we really believe that the journey from mass murder can end in a celebration of the human spirit, we can arrive at that point only by ignoring Anne Frank's increasing willingness to recognize the complex nature of her ordeal, especially in the final entries in her Diary. She would have rejected with scorn Levin's charge that she spoke for six million perished souls. She was not a representative victim, and certainly not a representative teenager. Her feminist instincts long before the birth of the movement set her apart from the average young girl of her time. Her insistence on being treated as "Anne-in-her-own right" rather than as the typical adolescent her father thought she was confirms how much the attempt to universalize her experience violates her independent spirit. Her shrewd summary of the reasons for the collapse of her relationship with Peter surprises us with its sophistication; she herself is a little shocked by her discovery that he is shallow, in thought and aspiration. We insult her special identity by "typifying" her; but we may unintentionally insult the special identity of those five to six million other souls by accepting Meyer Levin's opinion that she in any way represents or speaks for them.
One idea Anne Frank vigorously defended was what we might call the principle of multiple selves, the belief that several Anne Franks, some more authentic than others, inhabited the same body and the same mind. Without knowing how to elaborate on it, she defined the problem of facing the Holocaust that still haunts us today: "we're forced to think up a solution, though most of the time our solutions crumble when faced with the facts. It's difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality."18 The acuteness of this observation can be lost on those who continue to insist that the triumph of the spirit may redeem the problem of the defeat of the body in gas chambers and crematoria. The grim reality Anne Frank mentions surfaces occasionally in her comments, but not often enough to inspire her to examine how her notion of multiple private selves would function in the public sphere. That would be a post-Holocaust challenge, but she did not live long enough to meet it. In the meantime, she meditated on the split between her exuberant, cheerful, and joyful self and her deeper, finer, and more serious self. Her Diary ended before she was driven to reconsider how Westerbork, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, typhus, and starvation might have affected her theory of the divided self. Hence readers are left with the illusion that even after the Holocaust the two versions might easily be reconciled.
Anne Frank's Diary finishes with her wishing "to find a way to become what I'd like to be and what I could be if … if only there were no other people in the world." Unfortunately, there were many other people in the world, among them those who were determined to destroy her. Intermittently fearful as she was of those people, she could not begin to imagine how their efforts would sabotage her desire to become what she'd like to be. Nor can her Diary give the slightest hint of what her fate was to become. If we teach it without rectifying that omission, we abuse it, but I have never seen any edition of the text, at least in English, that tries to incorporate into it a vivid and accurate portrayal, beyond the mere facts, of events subsequent to the last entry. We need this for many reasons, not the least of which is the frequency with which the Diary continues to be read with blinkered eyes, perpetuating the myth that it remains a major source of information about the murder of European Jewry. When the "definitive" edition of the text was published in a new translation in 1995, the reviewer on the front page of The New York Times Book Review did not hesitate to call it "the single most compelling personal account of the Holocaust,"19 as if Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, to name only two, were amateur dabblers in comparison to the author of the Diary. This kind of mindless overspeak in regard to the Diary is among the severest abuses of its value. As early as 1946 one of its first "discoverers" wrote in a Dutch review that it embodied "all the hideousness of fascism, more so than all the evidence at Nuremberg put together."20 Anyone familiar with the atrocity film excerpts shown at the Nuremberg trials, to say nothing of the evidence presented there, must marvel at such extravagant and foolish claims. Thus there is a long and "respectable"—though maybe we should begin to call it disreputable—tradition of misjudging the content of the volume, and one has to work through the thick armor of that misjudgment in order to arrive at a fair estimate of the work's real merit.
I myself once wrote in a review of the "definitive" edition of the Diary: "if Anne Frank could return from among the murdered, she would be appalled at the misuse to which her journal entries had been put. Above all, her journey via Westerbork and Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen, where she died miserably of typhus and malnutrition, would have led her to regret writing the single, sentimental line by which she is most remembered, even by admirers who have never read the Diary" but only seen the play based on it.21 I mean the line about people being really good at heart. It seems obvious to me that the idealism of such a gifted writer would have suffered a wrenching jolt had she survived. But little can be taken for granted when the romantic imagination applies its maudlin energy to the fate of this girl. Alvin H. Rosenfeld has pointed out the ease with which "her death is either glossed over or given a hopeful, even beatific character. According to one popular version of her end," he continues, "Anne Frank went to her death with ‘a profound smile … of happiness and faith’; according to another, 'she died, peacefully, feeling that nothing bad was happening to her.’"22
Thanks to the research of Willy Lindwer, the culture of disregard prompting mirages like the ones I have just cited can be discredited. One woman who was with Anne in Auschwitz describes the conditions there: "We didn't always talk of sticking together. We were set against each other and the closest relatives would begrudge each other a few potato peels. That wasn't meanness. That was hunger or nakedness. You became dehumanized in spite of yourself."23 This was a milieu unfamiliar to the Anne of the Diary, and though it need not have dehumanized her, it certainly would have led her to modify the privileged view of human relations that the crowded but civilized climate in the secret annex had inspired. Two of the women Lindwer interviewed provide eyewitness accounts of Anne Frank's final days, and they should be imprinted on the minds of all who read or teach the Diary. The purpose is not to inflict pain, but to highlight one of the most unsettling truths of the event we call the Holocaust: how for Anne Frank and almost all of her fellow Jews the ultimate shape of the catastrophe eluded the prophetic instincts of the human imagination. These descriptions clarify the limits of foresight in her Diary, and invite us to ponder what her attitude might have been had she written her own memoir, her Night, her Survival in Auschwitz:
At a certain moment in the final days, Anne stood in front of me, wrapped in a blanket. She didn't have any more tears. Oh, we hadn't had tears for a long time. And she told me that she had such a horror of the lice and fleas in her clothes and that she had thrown all of her clothes away. It was the middle of winter and she was wrapped in one blanket. I gathered up everything I could find to give her, so that she was dressed again….
Terrible things happened. Two days later I went to look for the girls. Both of them were dead!24
The other account is more detailed:
The Frank girls were so emaciated. They looked terrible. They had little squabbles, caused by their illness, because it was clear that they had typhus. You could tell even if you had never had anything to … do with that before. Typhus was the hallmark of Bergen-Belsen. They had those hollowed-out faces, skin over bone. They were terribly cold. They had the least desirable places in the barracks, below, near the door, which was constantly opened and closed. You heard them constantly screaming, "Close the door, close the door," and the voices became weaker every day.
You could really see both of them dying, as well as others. But what was so sad, of course, was that those children were still so young. I always found it so horrible that as children, they had never really lived. They were indeed the youngest among us. The rest of us were all a bit older.
They showed the recognizable symptoms of typhus—that gradual wasting away, a sort of apathy, with occasional revivals, until they became so sick that there wasn't any hope. And their end came. I don't know which one was carried out earlier, Anne or Margot. Suddenly I didn't see them anymore, so I had to assume that they had died…. The dead were always carried outside, laid down in front of the barracks … At the time, I assumed that the bodies of the Frank girls had also been put down in front of the barracks. And then the heaps would be cleared away. A huge hole would be dug, and they were thrown into it. That I'm sure of. That must have been their fate, because that's what happened with other people. I don't have a single reason for assuming that it was any different for them than for the other women with us who died at the same time.25
The journey from "Anne-in-her-own-right" to an undifferentiated corpse in a mass grave at Bergen-Belsen marked a defeat for everything Anne Frank had hoped for and believed in. If we return now to some of her earlier convictions, both written within six months of her arrest, they leave a sour taste in our throat and draw a curtain of dismay over our imagination: "As long as [nature] exists, and that should be forever, I know that there will be solace for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances. I firmly believe that nature can bring comfort to all that suffer," or "Every day I feel myself maturing, I feel liberation drawing near, I feel the beauty of nature and the goodness of the people around me."26 This is in no way a censure of her talent or her personality, but a commentary on the culture of human disregard that extended to the sinister intentions of Nazi Germany, a "culture" that few of the potential victims could imagine. Anne Frank confirmed an impulse we still share when she protested that it was utterly impossible for her to build her life on "a foundation of chaos, suffering and death." But the history of the Holocaust tells how the Germans were busily assembling that foundation for the very people who could not bring themselves to believe in it. Those people might conjecture the worst, but this did not include the unthinkable. Having encountered it, who among them could repeat what Anne Frank had earlier written, "I have to laugh at the humorous side of the most dangerous moments"? Like most of them, she had been raised in a culture of mutual regard, not disregard, and she had to believe that even in the direst conditions, that bedrock of humane behavior would endure. She was utterly mistaken, but there is no hint of this in her Diary entries, even in her gloomiest moments. The Diary is one of the best examples we have of the failure of the imagination of disaster, a failure not to be blamed on its author but on the unprecedented cruelty of the Nazi regime, a cruelty that Western civilization was unable and unwilling to anticipate.
This kind of failure was recently ratified by the appearance in English of the diaries of Viktor Klemperer, a converted Jew from Dresden who was mar- ried to a Christian woman and thus was never deported. He kept a detailed account of his experiences in Germany throughout the war. The first volume ends on December 31, 1941, by which time the deathcamp at Chelmno was already in operation. Klemperer writes of the deportation to Lodz of the Jewish population, including members of his own family, from Berlin, Frankfurt, and other large German cities. We know, or should, that soon after their arrival most of these German Jews were sent to Chelmno, where they would be gassed in mobile killing vans on the way to the burial site. But Klemperer had no inkling of their fate; rather, he worried about how his ailing sister would manage in the cramped and alien environment of a foreign ghetto. The irony of his shortsightedness is a powerful antidote to some of his benign concerns, but only if we bring to the reading of his diary an intimate acquaintance with the circumstances that he was unable to imagine.
And the same must be said of Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl. The irony of her innocence is a compelling feature of the text, but only if we relentlessly measure what she did know against what she didn't. And in order to do that, we need to have an audience both wary and aware, wary of the excessive claims that have been made for her work and aware of the great gaps about the destruction of European Jewry that qualify her response. Indeed, after we acknowledge how much she didn't know, we are forced to wonder why her work has been canonized for so long. As a narrative of adolescence only peripherally concerned with the Holocaust it may have served a purpose, but perhaps it is time to abandon it and to turn to more adult fare, like the stories of Ida Fink or the novel by Carl Friedman called Nightfather. These texts are not suffused with terror and dread, nor do they drown us in unbearable chronicles of atrocity. They are accessible to younger readers, but they do not depend on the irony of exclusion for their impact. They contain sufficient evidence in their unfolding narratives to signal the presence of the unthinkable and its impact on the spirits of their youthful protagonists.
In one of her stories, no more than four pages long, Ida Fink describes a group of young Jewish girls about Anne Frank's age on a work detail in a forest clearing a few kilometers from the Polish shtetl where they live. On this particular day their work has been suspended while an aktion is taking place in the village. Because they are close to the railroad tracks, they are listening for the approaching train that will carry off members of their families to their doom. They are outdoors rather than in hiding, so the nature that Anne Frank longed for is very much present to their imagination—but with what a difference:
We lay on the grass, not saying a word, as if our voices could have drowned out the thundering of the train, which would pass near the edge of the forest, not far from where we were working. Only one girl was crying…. It was silent in the forest. There were no birds, but the smell of the trees and flowers was magnificent. We couldn't hear anything. There was nothing to hear. The silence was horrifying because we knew that there was shooting going on and people screaming and crying, that it was a slaughterhouse out there. But here there were bluebells, hazelwood, daisies, and other flowers, very pretty. Very colorful. That was what was so horrifying—just as horrifying as waiting for the thundering of the train, as horrifying as wondering whom they had taken.27
Such a passage helps us to understand the limitations of using Anne Frank's Diary as an entrée to the Holocaust experience. Her Diary does not invite us to consider whether, had she lived, she might have written afterward, "I feel the beauty of nature and the [evil] of the people around me." Instead, it encourages us to believe that she could have rescued her innocence and joie de vivre even after her journey into the blackness of darkness. Of course we can only speculate about the impact of that voyage on the sequel she would surely have written had she survived Bergen-Belsen. But we get a glimpse of the new feelings that it might have inspired from the words of one of the women who saw her die there: "Assimilating these experiences is very difficult. Actually, I never have…. If I had been able to assimilate it all, then it wouldn't be so difficult. We have learned to live with it and we have perhaps been able to put a little distance between what happened and the present. But it was such an unreal and such a catastrophic time in my life, that there is no question of its assimilation. A tiny movement, a small noise, or the smell of burned food—and I'm right back, where I was. You can talk about it, but no one can ever relieve you of it."28 In the absence of a sequel, we are left with the unfinished saga of Anne Frank's life and mind. In spite of her fears, the controlling premise of her Diary is that she will avoid deportation and whatever might lie beyond it. The nostalgia of preservation that fills its pages and comforts those who read it long after the event verifies a principle that seems to exert greater and greater force in our encounters with the Holocaust: that many of us seek and find the Holocaust we need. This is the real if unintended legacy of Anne Frank, and it bears with it an endur- ing danger: by embracing the need she fulfills, we may fail to identify and thus neglect the truths she did not know.
1.Lodz Ghetto: Inside a Community under Siege, comp. and ed. Alan Adelson and Robert Lapides (New York: Viking, 1989), 419-420.
2. Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl, ed. Otto H. Frank and Mirjam Pressler, trans. Susan Massotty (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 281.
3.Lodz Ghetto, 425.
5.Lodz Ghetto, 426.
6. Anne Frank, Diary, 196.
7. From "Diary of Janina Heshele," trans. Azriel Eisenberg, in Children in the Holocaust in World War II: Their Secret Diaries, ed. Laurel Holliday (New York: Pocket Books, 1995), 70-71.
8. Anne Frank, Diary, 196.
9. Ibid., 147.
10. Ibid., 246.
11. Ibid., 73-74.
14.New York Times Book Review (June 15, 1952), 1.
17. Ibid., 22.
18. Anne Frank, Diary, 332.
19. Patricia Hampl, New York Times Book Review (March 5, 1995), 1.
20. Jan Romein, Het Parool (April 3, 1946).
21.Forward (March 17, 1995), 1.
22. Alvin H. Rosenfeld, "Anne Frank—and Us: Finding the Right Words," Reconstruction, II, 2 (1993), 88.
23. Willy Lindwer, The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank, trans. Alison Meersschaert (New York: Pantheon, 1991), 63.
24. Ibid., 74.
25. Ibid., 104-105.
26. Anne Frank, Diary, 196, 281.
27. Ida Fink, A Scrap of Time and Other Stories, trans. Madeline Levine and Francine Prose (New York: Schocken, 1987), 32.
28. Lindwer, 84-85.
Irena Klepfisz (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Klepfisz, Irena. "Foreword." In Girl with Two Landscapes: The Wartime Diary of Lena Jedwab, 1941-1945, pp. xv-xxv. New York, N.Y.: Holmes & Meier, 2002.
[In the following essay, Klepfisz highlights the discrepancy between Jedwab's independent strength and her social naïveté as expressed in her diary, Girl with Two Landscapes: The Wartime Diary of Lena Jedwab, 1941-1945.]
As readers we are drawn to diaries and journals because they provide us with an uncensored rendering of a person's thoughts and feelings. No other genre affords us the opportunity to glimpse the unmediated and unguarded intellectual and emotional landscape of another human being. Diaries recorded during periods of crisis make special claim on us as both scholars and lay readers, for it is through such writing that we can view history as present rather than past, as experience rather than honed and sifted narrative.
The personal narratives of Jewish experiences during World War II were initially perhaps an exception. Following the war, there were decades of Jewish silence, a silence imposed as much by the survivors' unwillingness to speak as a reluctance by others to listen. There are complex reasons why this occurred. Relevant to us now is that this silence has been broken, and in the past twenty years we have been witness to an outpouring of publication of Holocaust and Jewish memoirs. For obvious reasons, diaries and journals are far fewer in number. The most prominent and one of the earliest—perhaps the pri- mary text of the Holocaust—is Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl. (It is interesting that the recent controversy surrounding this text centers precisely on the question of the degree to which its uncensored writing was tampered with by some of its champions.) Anne's story is now familiar to millions: the years of hiding in "The Annex" in Amsterdam to avoid Nazi deportation, the family tensions, her relations with others, adolescence, love, and above all, reflections on the world into which she was born. Through her youth and circumstances, Anne has come to represent—at least in popular American culture—the Jew as innocent, powerless victim, the artist who never had a chance to develop her talent.
Out of print for years (at least in the United States) are the diary and letters of another young woman, Hannah Senesh. A Hungarian teenager who eventually became an ardent Zionist and emigrated to Palestine, Hannah insisted on returning to Europe as a resistance fighter, where she was captured and executed by the Nazis. Her lack of recognition and popularity outside of Israel probably stems from the fact that unlike Anne's narrative, Hannah's could not be easily universalized (without her Zionist commitment it would make no sense), nor could it be promoted as one of female/Jewish victimhood. Despite her heroism, Hannah—who relinquished her safety—is not the girl protective Jewish parents automatically want their daughters to emulate.
Anne's and Hannah's diaries provide us with narratives of young women at the two extremes of Jewish experience between 1939 and 1945: passive resistance (by trying simply to survive) and active resistance (through exercising force). Clearly there are many other narratives whose experiences fall between these two, and we are fortunate that one of these has been preserved and is now available to both Yiddish and English readers: Girl with Two Landscapes: The Wartime Diary of Lena Jedwab, 1941-1945.
In order to begin to grasp the contribution that Lena's diary makes toward the literature of this period, it is important first to note some of the differences between Lena and the other two young women. Both Anne's and Hannah's roots are in Western Europe; their milieus are the middle-class, assimilated Jewish circles of Germany, Holland, and Hungary. As a result, their families encourage and are able to offer them a mainstream education. Anne's diary is written in Dutch; Hannah's diary and letters are mostly in Hungarian, though her later writings are also in Hebrew. Although they are not ashamed of being Jewish, both Anne and Hannah come to greater consciousness of their Jewishness as a result of the war and the persecution of Jews. For Hannah, the conversion to Zionism signals her overt acceptance of herself as a Jew. Finally, both—in very different ways—come under the control of the Nazis: Anne succumbs to typhus in Bergen-Belsen a few days before its liberation; Hannah is executed by a German firing squad while on a rescue mission.
Lena Jedwab is a very different girl, a different Jew, and she provides us with a narrative that hardly overlaps with those of Anne and Hannah. To begin with, her roots are in Eastern Europe; her native city is Bialystok, then part of Poland, where she is born into an extremely poor family. When she begins keeping her journal in 1941, she is fluent in Polish and almost so in Russian; yet she writes her diary in her native Yiddish, a language to which she has a strong emotional attachment and political commitment. Her Jewish identity—rooted in secular Yiddish culture—is thus not only a given, but something she wants to protect and guard against assimilation. In addition, the abject poverty of her family would have precluded any higher education; at one point she and her sister are sent to a special boarding school because her parents cannot afford to feed them at home. Later, she attends a Yiddish gymnazium, which is very rare for a girl from such a poor family. Like Anne and Hannah, she is an exceptionally gifted student. Unlike them, her education is also infused with a Marxist and socialist vision and a keen sense of political responsibility and purpose.
There are other major differences in Lena's circumstances that make her diary an invaluable document that broadens our knowledge of Jewish experiences during the war. Her journal covers the years between 1941 and 1945 in the Soviet Union. During this time, unlike Anne and Hannah, Lena is on her own, without parents to comfort her or against whom she can rebel. From the age of sixteen, when she is stranded in a summer camp for young Communist Pioneers, and for the next four years, Lena has no adults who love her and whom she can trust for daily advice or guidance in making life-changing decisions. Also, she never comes into direct contact with the Germans, following the war and the fate of the Jews of Bialystok through news reports and personal accounts of those with whom she comes in contact. At no time isolated specifically for her Jewishness (though she encounters enough anti-Semitism for a lifetime), she remains a "civilian" in a war-torn, collapsing, starving country, who—without any role models—must figure out a way to grow up and make herself self-sufficient. And she survives—together with her diary.
But even without these comparisons, there are numerous aspects of the diary that demand our attention, admiration, and affection for its author and her writing. First and foremost is Lena's intelligence and literary talent. Lena is a conscious writer. By that I mean that she is aware of the power of language and of the written word. At the age of sixteen, when the journal begins, she is trilingual, fluent in Polish and Yiddish and well on the way in Russian. From the beginning, her love of literature—and the theater—and her linguistic abilities are evidenced throughout her diary entries in the descriptions of her physical surroundings, whether the beauty of nature or the harsh conditions of her room; of the people with whom she comes into contact; and of her own feelings and thoughts. Throughout, she repeatedly refers to and cites from the works of major European writers such as Gorky, Tolstoy, Mickiewicz, Mayakowski, Turgenev, and Heine; and she seems as comfortable citing Psalm 137 in Polish as Heine's poetry in German. It is sometimes easy to forget that she is only a high school student. Her literary and linguistic talents are indeed astonishing.
Yet despite her European literary sophistication, it is the Yiddish language to which she gives the most thought and it is Yiddish that she commits herself to preserving. Yiddish is her mother's tongue and embodies her emotional connection to Jewish life and the Bialystok home she has lost. Where, she wonders, will she be able to find Yiddish books again? Writing her journal in Yiddish, encouraging other children and peers to continue speaking the language—despite the prohibition of the home's Jewish director (he thinks they'll never learn Russian if they continue speaking it)—represent her attempts to keep alive her Jewish roots and her Yiddish-speaking culture. At one point, when she comes across a story by the Yiddish writer I. L. Peretz in Russian, she translates it back as she goes along and "reads" it to the others in the original Yiddish.
So important is this language, this intimate connection to her Jewishness, that quite early in the diary Lena admits to feeling shame because she finds herself, not unnaturally, beginning to think in Russian. She understands, instinctively, the fragility of Yiddish—of any language for that matter—when not nurtured by daily use. And she understands the dependence of her own secular Jewish identity on Yiddish culture. When she leaves the children's home and moves to Moscow, she records that she has begun a story in Russian because there is no one to write for in Yiddish. Still, she doesn't give up the dream and makes plans to try to connect with the great actor and director Solomon Mikhoels and his Yiddish theater. And one of the last diary entries describes a visit to her friend's home in the Ukrainian town of Niezhin and her delight in encountering a Yiddish cultural group, who unfortunately admire her Yiddish "because few young people of my age now can speak like me or even know Yiddish literature."
Lena's interests are remarkably broad, and she is an ardent student who in her journal sometimes takes on the role of an adult or teacher, admonishing herself when she doesn't keep up with her studies or receives a grade lower than "excellent." Realizing that she cannot stay in the children's home forever, she decides to go to Moscow to study engineering. To do that, however, she must "skip" a year and meet course requirements for the tenth grade: these include physics, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, chemistry, German, literature, and history. She is, it is clear, exceptionally bright, but it is her determination and self-discipline, not her intelligence alone, that pull her through. With no one but herself to urge her on, the eighteen-year-old finally is accepted by Moscow's Bauman Technical Institute. Given the difficult circumstances at the children's home—her isolation, hunger, emotional instability during war, lack of guidance—Lena's achievement is remarkable indeed.
But Lena is not a machine. There are moments when she, like any teenager, must play hooky. Instead of getting up at four in the morning to cram, she finds "a better way":
I spent a whole day on the other bank of the Kama. I picked flowers and red berries, bathed! I didn't think about studying at all. Someone might call it a case of lightheadedness! But the weather is so beautiful, the sky light blue, the Kama cool. The boat rocks lightly in the water and I see a lovely spot, then golden stalks, a young walnut grove, bunches of flowers, and an abundance of juicy, red berries. Summer—the loveliest time of the year! A pity that I can't often spend time in such a palace of nature. It's so pleasant to be here now! Harebrained hothead, weak-willed creature, enough carrying on about the weather! You're satisfied, it's enough. Time to get busy with exams!
This entry is typical of the character and richness of the diary—Lena's awareness and detailed description of her surroundings, her responsiveness to and en- gagement with nature, her ability to appreciate and immerse herself in what is good at the moment, and her ability to parent herself by alternately allowing for indulgence and then imposing discipline.
Lena does get to Moscow not only because she meets the course requirements, but because she works and earns money for her upkeep. But once there, she finds no break in her physical and emotional hardships. In the children's home, she lost and broke her glasses, succumbed to various illnesses, suffered hunger. In Moscow, she never has enough money or food and finds schoolwork more difficult than before (she abandons engineering and goes on to the university). Though surrounded by acquaintances, she is constantly lonely and, in the most cruel twist of circumstance, she is seriously hurt in a tram accident.
But Lena insists and overcomes and moves toward adulthood. In the children's home, as a budding adolescent, she first begins to long for romantic involvements. Initially, though her body yearns for contact, she feels only disappointment in herself and in the boys around her when she feels sexually aroused but romantically alienated. "I like Volodya's external appearance, but I am repelled by his inner nature," she writes. It is only later in Moscow that she experiences her first love affair with the son of a former teacher and is forced to sort through, again by herself, the intricacies of her feelings.
In this most intimate area—sexuality—Lena seems more starkly alone, unable to trust anyone to help her understand herself and others. For example, she is aware at the home of a teacher's involvement with a nineteen-year-old girl and suspects that the director is having relations with some of the young women. This is, in part, confirmed when she secretly reads the Polish journal of another girl. (Later that day, she acts out her guilt over this transgression by breaking her glasses.) Our awareness today of the frequency of such abuse between older men and vulnerable girls, especially teenagers, enables us to fill in the gaps. But Lena cannot. She is a product of a socialist education and never considers her gender as limiting or her sex as frail. She dreams freely and sets her goals—whether in her studies or her physical work—an attitude totally in conformity with Marxist principles and Soviet policies toward women. However, she gives no hint in the diary of having been presented with an analysis of sexual politics. As a result, she remains most naïve in this area. And it is remarkable that she is able to teach and protect herself to the degree that she does.
I have stressed the absence of comforting, loving adults in Lena's life because I think it is one of the major themes of the journal and perhaps, because of her achievements, one easily overlooked. In fact, Lena refers to it frequently. During the years in which she keeps the journal, she is constantly searching for someone on whom she can rely, sometimes turning to teachers, at other times to the parents of friends; and throughout she has recurrent dreams of her mother, which re-create reunion, separation, and death in a variety of forms. For all her protestation about independence and self-reliance, she longs for the dependence that was permanently left behind in Bialystok and that she never finds again.
That she manages to survive physically, despite this enormous absence, is wonder enough. But the way she survives is perhaps even more remarkable. For Lena's journal is not only a record of external hardships and personal emotional struggles, it is a document of moral struggles as well. In almost all instances, especially during her years at the home in Karakulino, Lena's moral responses to her circumstances and her sensitivity to the complexities of her situation are shaped by her Marxist education. Lena is always grounded politically and socially—conscious of hierarchies, of the potential for abuse of power, and committed to the principle of fairness. Despite the extreme physical deprivations at the home, she participates in and organizes—well everything—academic discussions, theater productions, literary programs, the children's governing council, the local Young Communist organization, surprise birthday parties, holiday celebrations. Popular with other children (she is elected head of the council as well as the Communist group), she nevertheless must learn to negotiate a narrow path between her position as an academic and performance "star" and group leader (and therefore the object of envy) and her place as one of the people. Her awareness of her relationship to others enables her to achieve this balancing act amazingly well. She acquires many friends, and inevitably also some detractors. Among the latter is the director of the home with whom she has ongoing problems and sometimes clashes over issues of principle.
But for all the sophistication of her class analysis—she systematically documents the background, political commitment, and intellectual achievements of the students and adults around her—we are repeatedly reminded of her youth and inexperience. And it is this ongoing contrast between her naïveté and her worldliness that gives the journal much of its moral weight and poignancy. Lena herself is frequently uncomfortably aware of the discrepancies between her feelings and her socialist upbringing and between her education and the reality she encounters. For example, the peasants she meets when she works as a fuel supplier for agricultural machinery and to whose struggle she has been for years theoretically committed repel her, for the most part, by their anti-Semitism and crudeness. The eighteen-year-old Lena scolds herself for her reactions, but we have to admire her for not hiding them or trying to rationalize them. Even more admirable, given the degree to which they do mistreat her, is her ability to remind herself of what she has been taught and still believes to be true: the peasants have nothing and their prejudices are not innate but learned. Here is Lena "correcting" her attitude toward her co-workers after they've stolen her food, thrown mud at her, and cursed her for her Jewishness. "Sometimes I accuse the tractor drives of being coarse, crude, cruel. Yes, that's all true. But is it not possible to find the reasons that cause it? Is it really their fault? How could they be polite and good-natured when their lives are so hard and cruel?" That Lena can remember and hold on to this understanding despite her experiences embodies the specialness of her character and the strength of her socialist education.
Also moving is her ability to admit to the differences between the other workers and herself without leaping to a sense of superiority. She feels the intellectual chasm that exists between them, yet she also recognizes their strengths. When one of the workers is badly injured, she is stunned to see him working the next day. She realizes that for him there is no choice: his family needs the money. She goes on to make the following comparison: " … how many days and weeks would I, or some other ‘big-city intellectual,’ have been sick in bed and taken medicine? … when I consider these circumstances, I forgive them everything. Forgive them even for persecuting me as a Jew…. I am more and more convinced of how complicated life is and how false was the way I imagined it in my fantasy. Only now do I begin to recognize it." Moreover, her education and strong Marxist beliefs do not prevent her from seeing the miserable conditions in which the peasants live and from asking, "Where is the ‘merry, happy collective-farm life’?"
Lena's moral concerns, usually expressed through socialist principles, always play a part in determining her behavior toward and her judgments of others. When daily rations at the children's home frequently consisted of only a few grams of bread or watery soup, power struggles predictably manifested themselves through food distribution. Lena observes how the cook and group leaders often give themselves and their favorites more food than the official ration. In the diary, she expresses both anger and puzzlement over those who participate in such practices and refuses to ally herself with any individual just for the sake of obtaining more food. Indeed, she and some other student leaders sometimes refuse extra portions because it would be unfair to the other children.
Yet, for all her moral perceptions, Lena does not recognize the implications of her own attachments, including her acceptance of invitations by certain teachers who give her treats in their quarters, as possibly the same strategy for survival—manifested more indirectly—that others use more blatantly. This lack of awareness is evidenced by her lack of embarrassment in conveying the details of these episodes in the diary entries and her puzzlement over the envy of others. As a result, she dwells unselfconsciously on the pleasure she derives from being singled out by an adult as worthy of attention and affection, rather than on the rewards that such an association can bring. In looking for emotional nurturance, she willingly accepts material support, though even that is only momentary.
In reading these entries, however, we never feel that Lena is being hypocritical. For me, one of the diary's most significant aspects lies in watching Lena work out moral issues and dilemmas. The fact that this adolescent devotes such an enormous amount of emotional and intellectual energy in sifting through moral questions makes the diary an invaluable document of human struggle in times of extreme distress. Repeatedly we are reminded that Lena is a girl trying to leap from the adolescent world of contemplating theory into the adult world of action and consequences, and that she is trying to do so without any sympathetic guide. Maturity and sixty years of hindsight enable us to know what Lena at eighteen in the 1940s does not: that moral purity is almost impossible to maintain. Compromises are inevitable, and, as readers, we never condemn her precisely because Lena is so morally focused and because she is always so vigilant that her behavior not deteriorate into a struggle solely focused on survival.
As reflected in her journal, Lena has grace, wit, enormous intelligence, and an astonishing enthusiasm and thirst for education and for finding beauty in nature and art. She is a thoroughly social individual who yearns and actively searches for permanent attachments and affection. She is also a writer who seeks the solitude of her journal to express the pain of overwhelming loss and hardship brought on by the war around her. Her gift in evoking these sometimes contradictory aspects of her own personality, in revealing details of the hardships endured by many Jews and Russians, and in persistently articulating her moral and Marxist consciousness make Lena's journal a literary treasure. It should be read alongside the writings of Anne Frank and Hannah Senesh for a deeper, more complex view of the experience of Jewish youth during World War II and for a more nuanced understanding of individual suffering and willed achievement.
Norman J. Williamson and Angela E. Williamson (essay date spring 1984)
SOURCE: Williamson, Norman J., and Angela E. Williamson. "Mamie Pickering's Reading, Part One: The Role of Books in the Social Life of a Late Victorian Child." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 9, no. 1 (spring 1984): 3-6.
[In the following essay, Williamson and Williamson study, through the nineteenth-century diaries of Mamie Pickering, the role that books and reading had upon a representative child of the Victorian era.]
Editor's Note: In 1980, Norman Williamson presented the Mamie Pickering Thomson collection to the University of Winnipeg Library. The collection consists of the textbooks used in a school near Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, fifty miles west of Winnipeg, from its founding in the eighteen eighties through the nineteen thirties, and the diaries of Mamie Pickering Thomson, who first attended the school as a student, later taught at it, and then sent her own children to it. The books and diaries had been given to Mr. Williamson, a freelance researcher, by Mr. Fred Thomson, Mamie's son. Mamie's diary contains a detailed record both of the books she read and how she obtained them; its earliest entries offer a revealing look at the place literature occupied in a fairly typical small-town North American childhood of the latter years of the last century. In the following article, Norman and Angela Williamson discuss how Mamie obtained her books, and what they meant to her and to the community she lived in. A second article, to appear in a later Quarterly, discusses the specific books Mamie read in 1893.***
When the thirteen-year-old Mamie Pickering began her diary in 1893, the town of Portage la Prairie, Manitoba was deep in the grip of a recession. The bubble had burst after a boom of land speculation, brought about by the arrival of the railway in 1880, had led the overenthusiastic town fathers to extend the boundaries and legally turn the small town into a city. In fact, Portage was primarily a typical rural community, providing services to neighboring farmers. Although there were a few people who considered themselves to be "society people," the town was dominated by its large middle class—one of whom was Mamie's father.
A journeyman cabinetmaker, Joseph Pickering had thought to establish himself in his trade. When the business failed to materialize, he had taken a position as wooden water tower builder with the M & N Railway Co. Then he was laid off as a regular employee, and had to do the same work under short-term contracts with the railway. The Pickerings were forced to give up their home in town in 1892, they moved into an older house just across the town boundary line.
But in spite of the ravages of recession, the value of the middle class remained intact. Their children were taught that all things in the universe could and should be judged to be either right or wrong, and all personal action was directed by a strict code of propriety. Regardless of the present financial circumstances of the family, children were admonished to act and dress like ladies and gentlemen.
For the most part, Mamie and her circle of friends had learned the lesson well. If any doubt arose in Mamie's mind about the propriety of an object or action, her mother always made the final judgment. For example, when Mamie and her friend, the indomitable Ollie [Olive Oswald], were far out of town on a walk, Mamie could not bring herself to join Ollie in wading in a pool: "Ollie got stuck and got her shoes and stockings wet and dirty so she took them off and went barefoot. I would have loved to do the same but fears of mamma's anger kept me from it and to cap it all she would have let me do it" (19/6/93). Before we become too critical of Mamie's deference to her mother's discipline, we must remember that, a year earlier, Mamie had been severely ill with a pneumatic disorder. The parental discipline we see here and elsewhere was never indiscriminate, always rooted in practical considerations.
In any case, the need for parental permission when the issue was cloudy extended to Mamie's reading habits: "at dinner I asked mamma if she would let us [Ollie and herself] read the Old Ladies Journals upstairs and she said yes. I had not thought that she would but I was glad of the permission" (15/4/93).
Mamie recorded what she read from day to day in her diary. She often included comments on the article or piece of fiction she had read, and she also provided details on how she came by her reading material. For these reasons, her diary provides a vivid picture of the reading habits of Mamie and her contemporaries, in Portage la Prairie and, presumably, in similar small communities across North America. This essay deals with the references Mamie makes to books and reading in the first "book" of her diary, which covers January 23 to August 1, 1893.
The diary begins, "I am Mamie Pickering, a girl thirteen years of age" (23/1/93). Most of the entries describe the normal activities of a late Victorian female adolescent. Indeed, most are ageless: "I helped with the housework this morning and loafed this afternoon and evening. I read a little, played a little, wrote a little and worried the dog. Nothing satisfied me" (6/2/93). " … Laura had gone to the store when I got there so I went to meet her. We played ‘muggins’ when we got back. It is great fun. Then we went out and played baseball. We let some of the west end boys join us so we had a good game. Bob Telfer is fearfully shy though" (29/4/93). Not all her experiences with Laura were good ones: "Laura is rather queer. She was friendly enough with me until Jess came then it was all Jess. It's mean. I left them after awhile and Aggie Bannerman joined me" (1/4/93). But since this incident occurred before the other, we can tell that Mamie quickly forgot these lapses in propriety. She had a generous heart.
Although she seems like a normal girl, Mamie was not attending school in 1893. While Mamie herself does not indicate them, a number of factors contributed to her absence. First, she was recovering from her pneumatic illness. Second, there was the disruptive nature of the family's problems. Third, school attendance was not then compulsory. Finally, Mamie had managed to far outstrip her peers academically. In 1890, she had been in Standard five. By January 10, 1891, she had moved from Standard six to seven. Then on July 11, of the same year she progressed from Standard eight to the senior room. Finally on July 6, 1892, her teacher presented her as a candidate for the Third Class certificate, the first of the three levels of Post-standard education. Had she taken that examination and passed she would have been, at the age of twelve, qualified to teach in the province of Manitoba. She did not take the exam, and in January of 1893 she is at home: "My what a monotonous life we do lead out here. School was very exciting compared with it" (8/2/93).
What this circumstance did to her reading patterns is apparent in the diary. She read more periodicals than her peers did during the winter months. She also read the novels available to her much more quickly, taking, on the average, two days to complete each of them. But her limited access to books meant that she could not actually read more books than her peers did.
In 1893, Portage la Prairie had no "public" library. Some of the company offices, such as the M and N Railroad Co., had secular libraries. But these were for the exclusive use of their employees, so the source of the "library," as library books were called by the girls, was the Sabbath libraries of the Protestant churches. In the case of Mamie's circle of friends the churches were the Baptist, the Methodist and the Presbyterian. Mamie herself was Baptist. The novels in these libraries were of a kind; the "Pansy" books, for instance, appeared in all of them, and there is no record of them containing the sort of children's "classics" we might expect.
The procedure for obtaining a library book at the Baptist Church was usually as follows: Each book in the library had its own number. The books were divided into age gradation divisions. A child chose books from the division considered appropriate. The child knew the books available by means of lists, or, as was more often the case, from recommendations by friends. Upon entering the church on Sunday, before the service, the child returned the book previously borrowed to the librarian, along with a card with a list of six alternative numbers. For instance, Mamie says, "I took back ‘Julia Reid’ and got ‘Parramore Children.’ I have read it before and don't care for it an awful lot. None of the six numbers that I had down were in the library I suppose" (26/3/93).
The church library was relatively small, and as can be seen, the child's choices might not be available. At such times Mamie voiced her disappointment: "I took back the ‘Prism’ and got ‘Eric’ I read it not long ago so I only skipped [through] it. I'll tell her [the librarian] I want the books on my card not something I have read over and over" (21/5/93). Then, when the same thing happened two weeks in a row, Mamie was definitely upset: "I took back ‘Eric’ and got ‘The Upward Path’ I have read it too. I'd like to kick that blooming librarian for giving me it and old Silas [the Deacon] for marching us out so quickly that you don't get a chance to change it" (28/5/93).
Mamie was not always so displeased when she was given a book she had read before. Far from it: " … borrowed ‘A King's Daughter’ I have read it before but it will stand re-reading" (21/3/93). She also wrote: " … read ‘Six Girls’ in my chatterbox and a few other stories. I never get tired of reading ‘Six Girls’ they are so lovely, especially Kate" (5/2/93). Also: "Papa was downtown and brought home my library book from Ollie Oswalds. It was Ester Reid and I enjoyed looking over it this evening very much, I have read it before" (26/1/93).
Why, then, was Mamie so upset with the system? Her feelings are hidden in that earlier "I suppose." Mamie suspects that the librarian may not be looking long enough to see if any of her choices are actually available. At one point in the diary she says, suspiciously, "Mary Riddler was in her place as librarian and I guess she has found out how to do it all right" (19/3/93).
If the child attended the Sunday School classes after the service there was not the same need to rush. Mamie did attend these classes when the weather was warm enough. She found this method of obtaining the "library" much more to her liking: "Then Miss Riddler called me over to choose my book. I took a long time so I enjoyed myself very well" (7/5/93).
In spite of Mamie's occasional irritation, the system was a success as far as the church community was concerned. It gave that community extensive control over what its youth read, since, in general terms, the church library was the only source the children ordinarily had to books outside the family circle. In specific terms, the community could even control the child's selection within the Sabbath library.
Within the community as a whole the decision as to the "right" of a child to read a specific book was in the hands of the child's parents—usually, but not exclusively, the mother, who based decisions about what might be appropriate more on maturity than on numerical age. When Mamie strikes out into Bulwer Lytton's works she notes in the diary: "I hope I like them Mamma is doubtful" (22/4/93). But there are no obstacles placed in Mamie's way and she plows through a number of the works.
It was understood by all members of the community that it was the responsibility of the young person to obtain permission to read anything out of the ordinary. Thus, as noted earlier, Mamie got permission to read the adult women's periodicals, which she had not expected. She also asked for, and received, permission to read the secular novel How He Won Her.
It was a gentle system, and in general, it appears to have worked. That is not to say that the usual Victorian pornography was not available at the livery barns and salesmen's hotels near the railway station. In fact it was. But in Portage la Prairie, the church-going middle class, while divided into two warring factions by politics, were joined in an overwhelming moral majority on the matter of smut. As one resident with a long memory told us, "They kept the like of that trash far from the light of day."
The lending of personal books among friends was never hindered. In most cases it was encouraged. Thus we find: "Borrowed a book from Ollie called ‘Isabel's Secret’" (6/3/93) and "I loaned Ollie ‘The Cricket on the Hearth’ and ‘Mrs. Solomon Smith Looking On’" (19/6/93). On the other hand, the second-hand exchange of library books was officially frowned upon, since at its worst, such uncontrolled circulation could have led to the reading of unsuitable books. Nevertheless, as this exchange system was the method by which the children from different congregations read the novels in each other's Sabbath libraries, it was generally tolerated within the circle of friends when the mothers knew about it. For example, in the following entry Mamie and Ollie were Baptist, while Lizzie Ross was Presbyterian: ‘I borrowed Josiah Allen's Wife Samantha at the Centennial from Lizzie Ross. Ollie had it [Meaning Ollie had borrowed it in the past and had told Mamie about it] so I went in and asked Lizzie Ross if she would loan it" (23/3/93). Later Mamie would ask Lizzie to return another book to the Presbyterian library: "I wrote a note to Lizzie Ross asking her to return it [Paston's Sketches] to the Presbyterian library" (5/5/93).
In order to get a better view of this exchange process at work we must follow it over a number of weeks. While there were also other exchanges of novels dur- ing the same period, all the books referred to in what follows are Sabbath library books. On February 26, a Sunday, Mamie returned Shadows and received Echoing and Re-Echoing. The next Sunday was March 5 and there was no exchange. We can presume she returned Echoing and Re-Echoing on the 12th, as she received Julia Reid. She finished this book the next day. On the 18th she lent Julia Reid to Hattie Ormond. On the 19th, a Sunday, there was no exchange. On the 21st Mamie commented in the diary: "Ollie has ‘Leslie Soldthewaite's Life.’ I shall borrow that as soon as she is finished reading it" (21/3/93). She then borrowed Josiah Allen's Wife from Lizzie Ross on-the 23rd of March. On the 25th Hattie returned Julia Reid to Mamie with a note explaining why a second exchange of the book with Ollie had not occurred. The next day, Sunday March 26, Julia Reid went back to the Sabbath library and Mamie received Parramore Children. On the 31st she gave Josiah Allen's Wife to Ollie, who was to give it back to Lizzie Ross. The following Sunday was taken up by a blizzard. The Parramore Children was returned the next Sunday.
From time to time the systems of interchange broke down and someone got into trouble. It was usually someone like Olive Oswald. Mamie was somewhat stuffy, and it took the tomboy exuberance of Ollie to free her from her inhibition: "Ollie stayed home this afternoon. She threw dishwater all around for I wanted to dry the dishes and she would not let me. Then she wanted me to dry them and I would not. I got the broom and then the fight began. It was not disastrous though" (14/2/93). Once in awhile, Mamie's father brought her a book from the M and N library. When Laura Carr tried to borrow the book we find: "Laura saw my book [the secular How He Won Her] and asked if I would loan it. I told her I couldn't Papa would not let me I knew, and then I told her about ‘Vineta’ and the fearful scrape Ollie got into over it" (4/5/93). It is not clear if Ollie broke the rules on lending an M and N library book or the like, or if she loaned a book like Vincta to someone who did not have permission to read it. Perhaps she was not supposed to read it herself. Whatever the indiscretion, it generally came to light, and immediately became common knowledge by means of that vast guardian of social conservativism—the afternoon tea circuit.
In spite of the social dangers, the clandestine exchange system was such a vital purveyor of social intercourse for the young people that it was guaranteed survival. The tension such exchanges created added something to the personal commitment inherent in the acts of giving and of trusting.
In Mamie's world everything on God's earth had its rightful place—its "home." Even books had homes. She borrowed A King's Daughter from a friend, probably Mandie Treleavan. Later she wrote: "I took home ‘The King's Daughter’ and took down the recipe for Spanish Bun and the pieces [crazy quilt blocks] I promised Ollie" (29/3/93). Mamie's idea of "home" provides a key to understanding the milieu in which her mind was being trained. She and her contemporaries, both male and female, were being prepared by the community to participate in what it considered to be a proper marriage. The ideal marriage was one between a well-read woman trained in domestic skills, with the personality and ability to be a thoughtful and entertaining hostess, and a kind, considerate and honorable professional or businessman. Even at age thirteen Mamie had a good grasp of the ideal. She comments on a girl's recent marriage to a store clerk: "She is only eighteen I don't think she has made a very brilliant match" (29/4/93). This is an ironic view in retrospect, for Mamie will marry for love and far below her parents' expectations.
One of the first truly intimate contacts between a young man and woman was often the lending of a personal book. This type of contact was sanctified by the community, and accepted as a proper prelude to more formal courting if the relationship blossomed. At Mamie's age, the same exchange, sanctioned by the parents of both individuals, was considered to be part of the training process: a way to learn propriety in dealings with the opposite sex. Within the circle of families who were friends of the Pickerings at that time, the mothers clearly expected that Mamie would eventually marry one of the Ormond, Burns or Hudson boys. All of them were destined to become successful professional or businessmen. Some of them even achieved national prominence. Within the circle, the mothers encouraged proper relationships: "Mrs. Ormond told me that Horace would loan me any of Bulver Lytton's works I would like" (22/4/93).
An interesting role in adolescent female society was played by many of the eldest unmarried daughters in a family. These females were addressed with the prefix "Miss": "I learned that Eva Butler has married Charlie Hall. Syp is Miss Butler now" (15/2/93). Having achieved that prefix Syp was, if of age, the most eligible of the girls in the family. The eligible Misses, particularly if they had attained some status in church circles or were school teachers, were expected to provide guidance to the less mature females, including suggestions for reading. The position of these young women in the hearts of the younger girls can be seen in this entry: "Lillie Carter was in the post. She is attending the Normal and looks quite dignified" (6/3/93). Should these models of decorum slip, let it be ever so minor an indiscretion or a true tumble, the reaction is awe: "Ollie tells me that Effie Brown is around the streets as large as life and twice as natural wearing a light grey dress and bright blue bow on her auburn curls. My, I should think she would keep close to home and wear dark clothes and a thick veil" (8/4/93).
These Misses were in a glorious never-never land of freedom—after Papa and before husband. They were viewed by the community as ladies-in-waiting—for that proper marriage. It was a high point of tension in a woman's life, and it was portrayed by the experiences of many of the characters in the novels of the Sabbath library. As we will show in the second part of this discussion, the Reid sisters and their peers in the "Pansy" novels are an excellent example of this pattern. Above all, these young women were expected to remain cool to all romance that did not clearly indicate that it was a prelude to legal domesticity.
In Mamie's life Miss Dale plays an important role. Mamie held many positions on the children's organizations in the Baptist Church and Miss Dale was her mentor. For Mamie's age group, an invitation to tea with one of these ladies or the loan of a book was a sign of approaching maturity and responsibility; nevertheless, the thirteen-year-old Mamie was far from appreciative of an invitation to tea: "we went to see Miss Dale. It was an awfully dull visit" (6/3/93). Later in Mamie's life Miss Dale did lend her one of Dickens's novels. We do not know which one.
Young women continued to play this role in the church community well into the twentieth century. A number of our more mature lady friends in the Portage community can recall with affection the names and the personal histories of the "Misses" of their adolescent years, even to the titles of books loaned or given by these women.
Mothers within the community also sometimes offered the loan of books from their own libraries. When they did so, it was a sign of approval of the recipient's upbringing. To trust something of one's few personal possessions into the hands of a child was to believe in the skill of the parent: "Mrs. Oswald loaned me a book ‘Lady Betty's Governess,’ I read it this evening when Papa and Mamma were at church" (18/6/93).
One of the means by which children gave proof of their educational progress was by reading aloud to their parents. There was more to this than a mere test of skill, and the diary clearly indicates that such reading was part of the affectionate relationship between Mamie and her Papa and Mamma. For the most part, the reading was from articles in the newspaper. It was something she recalled with pleasure when she had children of her own. This oral reading was especially important when her father was away working for any length of time: "It is a terrible blizzard. One of the worst of the season. We did not get up till noon and have only had two meals today and now we are going to bed early because we have not much wood. I sewed a button on my jacket, Mamma finished making the pickled red cabbage and made the Tick to send to Papa, I wrote a letter to him. I read Mamma another story in ‘Divers Women,’ and she read one herself" (12/4/93).
Oral reading as a social function occurred casually among friends, as did music. At more formal social events, oral readings and recitations were "given" by local talent. The oral rendering of literature reached a professional level in Portage la Prairie with visiting authors, like the poetess Pauline Johnson. As it was Mamie's habit to "give" music, there is no reference to her reading at gatherings.
For Mamie and her friends, reading, particularly "stuff" about fictional characters, was not just a pleasure in itself, but grist for their conversation mill: "Ollie and I had lots of fun. I told her the story of ‘Pomeroy Abbey’ I loaned Ollie one of the Argosy we have" (11/2/93). Mamie thought of the serials that ran in the periodicals of her day the same way today's female teenagers think of the popular soaps of television. Her reading sometimes even affected her dreams: "Last night I read ‘Shadowed Forth’ in the Argosy just before I went to bed and the consequence was I didn't go to sleep till after twelve o'clock, woke up several times and slept miserably when I did sleep" (3/2/93). And there is also this cryptic comment: " … spent the rest of the evening in reading the People's Home Journal. It had some nice stories in it but not suitable to read if you want to go to sleep quickly and have desent (sic) dreams" (15/4/93).
Such comments show that reading was an important part of Mamie's life—a source of entertainment as well as a complex symbol of the place she held in her society.
The Books Mamie Read, January through August, 1893
Abbot, Lyman. A Layman's Story; or, the Experiences of John Laicus and his wife in a country parish. New York, 1873.
Bulwer, Edward, First Baron Lytton. The Last of the Barons. The Last of the Tribunes. A Strange Story.
Cornell, Sarah G. Carl's Home. Boston, 1867.
Davis, Mrs. Carol E. K. The Upward Path. Boston, 1876.
Divers Women. (another unknown; may be Diver's Women.)
Farrar, Frederick William. Eric; or, Little by Little. New York, 1877.
Fleming, George. How He Won Her. New York, 1887.
"Grahame, Nellie." Broken Pitchers. Philadelphia, 1887.
Guernsey, Lucy Ellen. Lady Betty's Governess. New York, 1877.
Holley, Marietta. Josiah Allen's Wife as a P. A. and P. I. Samantha at the Centennial. Hartford, 1877.
"Huntington, Faye." Echoing and Re-echoing. Boston, 1878.
Isabel's Secret. (By the author of Story of a Happy Little Girl.) New York, 1884.
Nails Driven Home. (Author unknown). Boston, 1875.
"Pansy." Ester Ried, or, Asleep and Awake. Cincinatti and Philadelphia, 1870.
"Pansy." Julia Ried. Boston and Cincinnati, 1870.
"Pansy." Wise and Otherwise. Cincinatti, 1872.
Reid, Capt. Mayne. The Wood Rangers; or, the Trappers of Sonora. New York, 1860.
Roe, E. Payson. Knight of the XIX Century. New York, 1890.
Ruth Erskine's Crosses. (author unknown.)
Scarborough, Mildred. Parramore Children. Philadelphia, 1886. Up in the Clouds. (Author unknown.)
Walton, Mrs. O. F. Shadows: Scenes and Incidents in the Life of an Old Arm-chair. Boston, 1884.
In Addition, Mamie Read the Following Serials:
"His Heiress," Saturday Night.
"Pomeroy Abbey," Argosy.
"Timothy's Quest," Northern Messenger.
"Elliston's Christmas," Lady's World.
"The Cloveridge Mystery," Lady's World.
She Also Read These Short Stories:
"A Terrible Wedding Trip," Chamber's Journal.
"Walter's World," Chamber's Journal.
"Six Girls," Chatterbox.
She mentions these periodicals: The Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday Night, Delineator, Witness, North West Baptist, Missionary Link, Argosy, Canadian Baptist, Union Signal, Heatherstone, The Household Pilot, Northern Messenger, Ladies' Home Journal, Ladies' Pictorial Weekly, Lady's World, Girl's Own Annual.
It should be pointed out that Mamie provided only titles in her diary. We thank Allison Sproul, of the University of Winnipeg interlibrary loan office, and Wendy Scott, of the Reference and Bibliography Section, National Library of Canada, for assistance in identifying authors and dates of publication. The university of Winnipeg Library is interested in purchasing copies of any of the books Mamie read; direct inquiries to Perry Nodelman, Department of English, University of Winnipeg.
Angela E. Williamson and Norman J. Williamson (essay date summer 1984)
SOURCE: Williamson, Angela E., and Norman J. Williamson. "Mamie Pickering's Reading, Part Two: Girlhood Literature, A Phenomenon of Nineteenth-Century Children's Literature." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 9, no. 2 (summer 1984): 54-9.
[In the following essay, Williamson and Williamson use Mamie Pickering's 1893 diaries as a means of reviewing the girlhood reading materials of Victorian children as well as their potential impact upon their readers.]
Mamie Pickering began her diary the year she was thirteen, in 1893, and continued to keep it throughout her lifetime, into her sixth decade. Amidst other events of her daily life she diligently recorded what she read, and often made notations about what she liked or disliked in her reading. These notations are seldom lengthy; but the ones Mamie made in her 1893 diary provide valuable insight into children's literature when they are understood in the larger context of the girl's life.
As a late nineteenth-century middle-class child, Mary Louise (Mamie) Pickering had been born into a lifetime of girlhood. Girlhood was exclusive to females, but not to childhood and not necessarily to the middle classes; it had its roots in the mystique of the sisterhood of all women. Its archetypal center was motherhood. The nineteenth century middle classes, however, developed their own particular version of girlhood, the ideals of which coincided with the ideals of their social class.
The female of the middle classes naturally passed through biological stages. As they are found in the literature and portrayed in Mamie's diary they were; infant, child, virgin, wife/mother or virgin, grandmother or virgin. But regardless of what stage an individual might be in, she was always a girl. This was understood and voiced in the periodical The Girl's Own Paper. In volume fifteen for example, we are shown a picture of a virgin waiting for her paper. Mamie's copy of The Girl's Own Annual (Vol. Thirteen) is even more specific. In an article entitled "Whispers To Our Wedded Girls" the Annual tells us: "We write for Christian girls—for Christian wives."
When one has read a number of the works cited by Mamie it becomes clear that much of what she was reading was distinctly girlhood literature. While it was primarily written for adolescent girls and certainly read by Mamie and her peers, as her diary attests, the material has many characteristics distinct from what we consider to be the characteristics of children's literature. For one thing, the material was read by females much older than thirteen. Mamie, who owned volume thirteen of The Girl's Own Annual in 1893, was given another volume after she was married. Further, our interviews with women who were young in the early years of this century show that the "Pansy" novels were read by women of middle age. On the other hand, a girl was given her first Girl's Own Annual at age ten or eleven, or, as one informant put it, long before she learned to use whiskey and black pepper for cramps.
Girlhood literature served the reality of nineteenth century middle-class girlhood by asserting the moral ascendancy of its ideals. The practical purpose of the literature was to teach the girl child by means of distinctive role models, particularly those of virgin and wife. These literary lessons were expected to augment the practical experience provided by the sisters of girlhood. Mamie's range of female interrelationships far exceeded the experience of a present day thirteen year old girl; the nineteenth century sisterhood did not hold with generation gaps, and the odds were that an average household held at one time or another all stages of girlhood under a single roof. Outside their home environment, Mamie and her peers played with girls three or more years younger than themselves, in the role of "little mother," and had tea and "chatted" with older virgins, wives and grandmothers with equal regularity. They were expected to play the roles of guest, mother's helper or hostess with equal astuteness, and to share in church work and the domestic chores of the house. All this was viewed carefully by the sisterhood and considered over tea.
The literature read by Mamie in 1893 can be categorized as either secular or church literature. We must point out, however, that even much of the secular material, like The Girl's Own Annual, made claim to being "Christian." Therefore, the church literature is that material with distinct relationship to a particular denomination. As we might expect, Mamie read secular material and Baptist church literature. But because of the interchange system which spread church literature through community peer groups, Mamie also read church literature of other denominations.
In the realm of secular literature the common denominator was the children's annuals, primarily The Chatterbox and The Girl's Own and The Boy's Own. For Mamie's age group, The Chatterbox still held an important place. She tells us that she "read ‘Six Girls’ in my Chatterbox and a few other stories I never get tired of reading ‘Six Girls.’ They are all so lovely especially Kate." Mamie also regularly read secular periodicals intended for adults, including The Lady's World, The Argosy, Ladies Home Journal, Ladies Pictorial Weekly, The Free Press (Winnipeg) and Saturday Night (Toronto). Of these periodicals it was the variety paper, Saturday Night, which would have provided Mamie with the broadest portrayal of middle class culture in Canada, the July 1, 1893 issue of that paper contained a picture entitled "Portrait of a Toronto Lady."
Mamie also read, with equal regularity, the church periodicals of the day, including The Northern Messenger, The Union Signal, The North West Baptist, The Missionary Link and The Canadian Baptist. As Mamie belonged to the Baptist Church, we considered the periodicals of that church from the period to discover if they were also purveyors of girlhood literature. We found serials by Annie Swan in the January 1891 issue of The Canadian Missionary Link and a "Pansy" serial running in the March 1892 issue. Further, we found that The Canadian Baptist offered the "Pansy" books for sale from the Baptist Book Room in Toronto, and that the Baptist Church approved and encouraged the reading of The Girl's Own Paper by offering it as a premium for new subscriptions to The Canadian Baptist.
This brings us to the Sabbath novels, the subject of most of the comments made by Mamie in her diary. While Mamie did mention lending one of the recognizable children's classics, The Cricket on the Hearth, to a friend, the books she read consisted of "popular fiction" as opposed to "literature," this in spite of a direct appeal from The Girl's Own to read otherwise. In an article by Mrs. Molesworth entitled "On the Use and Abuse of Fiction," the Annual extols the literary works of Bronte, Dickens, Scott, Austen, and Trollope, none of whom appear on Mamie's reading list. If Mamie and her friends can be considered typical of her day, and there is no evidence that they were not, then it seems that the choice of the Pansy books by the church libraries was a matter of necessity. If the girls must read "popular" novels, let them be "good" popular novels.
For Mamie, character was the important element in any story. The vast majority of her comments on literature are about the personalities and their interrelationships. Mamie expected the plot to portray those relationships. She did not like the novel Up in the Clouds, she tells us "It was all about flying and ballooning so I did not like it." Not that Mamie did not "like" adventure stories. On the contrary she found the boy's book The Woodrangers, "a magnificent story" and enjoyed The Last of the Barons and How He Won Her. But these all contain distinct and interesting characters, while Up in the Clouds concentrates on the action.
It is therefore understandable that Mamie enjoyed the Sabbath library books with their well-developed role models. In the "Pansy" books, for example, character and personal relationships are at the heart of the story.
The novels read by Mamie and her friends contain few characters of their own age. These girls were reading stories about people, primarily women, older than themselves. In fact, these novels used representatives of all ages of girlhood to portray the ideals of middle class society.
The Infant in Girlhood Literature
While the infant was often used in girl's literature to portray the ideal of parenting, it had another extremely important role—that of sacrificial lamb. The death of an innocent did much to bring a wandering spirit back to the straight and narrow. The child's death brings greater understanding to the parent. An excellent example is provided in the "Pansy" book Wise and Otherwise, where both parents are transformed. First the mother:
Then occurred one of those wondrous miracles which grace is quietly accomplishing through this world; at least the lookers-on noticed it for the first time. The child-wife and child-mother, who had yielded all her life to whatever influence possessed her most strongly at the time, looked upon the beautiful face of her dead idol, and was quiet and controlled.
Notice the emphasis on the mother's previous lack of maturity. She has lost this child as a lesson to accept the responsibility of her role. A baby is not a toy to play with but a person to mold. She has learned seriousness and earnestness and now understands her Christian duty. She will not make the same mistake again.
The Father, a preacher, had not sought to use the child to become a better minister. He too must learn the lesson of a loving God and turn once more to duty:
He [God] sent an angel into our household to help me, but I made an idol of it and called it mine. Often, I think, when I knelt to pray I worshipped at my boy's cradle instead of lifting my thoughts higher. Then the Father in heaven looked on me in pity and took my darling away.
Mamie made dutiful journeys to "observe" the new infants in her community. She however was still indifferent to their immediate importance. She tells us she "put on a wrap and hat, gloves, muff and storm collar, and Mandie and I went over to see Mrs. Druert's baby. It is a queer looking specimen.
The Girlchild in Girlhood Literature
The key duty of children as portrayed in the novels of girlhood is learning. They were expected to attend to their school studies, as did Isabel and Rose in Isabel's Secret and to do so with the enthusiasm and earnestness of Daisy in Jessie M. Barker's "Daisy's Dream." The lack of an education is portrayed as being tantamount to increasing the insecurity of the girl's future. In Isabel's Secret, when Mary Rivers is removed from school because her father died the response is "Poor little girl! And you don't know what is to become of her?"
The pureness of the girlchild, Isabel for example, is portrayed in her earnestness. Because of this pureness of her nature she is capable of retrieving the male from ruin. Isabel saves young Philip from his waywardness.
Mamie did not like Isabel. She tells us "Rose is kind of nice the others ain't very great," and, "I finished reading ‘Isabel's Secret’ today. It was no good." If Mamie liked Rose it was because she was less "perfect" and more human than Isabel and the others. Of another character in a different novel Mamie noted, "She was an awfully bad girl so full of mischief and all kinds of naughtiness but she gets good. I don't like that." This comment and others in the diary make it clear that Mamie and her friends understood that amelioration was a possibility, indeed a necessity, but that metamorphosis was as unbelievable as sainthood.
The girlchild was expected to be the little mother when necessary, and look after her younger brothers and sisters. It is this lesson that Beatrix, the upper class girl, must learn in the Girl's Own story "Lady Beatrix's Stepmother." She is shown in direct contrast to Edith Becket, her middle-class school mate. The epitome of the little mother is Isabel in Isabel's Secret. Indeed, the entire book revolves around this theme, and at the climax Isabel sacrifices herself to save her sister, as a mother would.
The girlchild, like the infant, is in a minority among the characters in the works read by Mamie. It was the next stage, the virgin, that appealed to her and her friends the most.
The Virgin in Girlhood Literature
It was understood in girlhood literature that virginhood was a possible alternative to becoming a wife and mother. Mamie's Girl's Own Annual contains an article entitled "Some Happy Spinsters." But in the novels, spinster's are seldom to be found among the characters, other than in the vague form of elderly housekeepers and the like; the model for the virgin is the young, eligible, but still unmarried women, with an average age of eighteen.
The novels portray this stage as a time of joy, trial and triumph, when a girl added independent experience to the lessons learned in childhood. The primal lesson to be learned in virginhood was the most critical, and as the virgin had to experience the process as she lived it, it was the most dangerous. It was the ability to recognize a suitable male for a husband. This is always a factor in the Sabbath novels like the "Pansy" series.
But while Mamie merely "liked" the more sedate suitable males of the Sabbath novels, her romantic bent led her to the secular character of the "King Maker" Warwick, and his brother Montagu in Bulwer Lytton's The Last of the Barons: "Warwick owed his popularity to his own large, open, daring, and lavish nature. The subtler Montagu sought to win, by care and pains, what the other obtained without an effort." Of these characters Mamie wrote enthusiastically: "Earl Warwick is splendid. There is not one in the whole to be in any way compared with him but his brother Lord Montagu." Mamie also enjoyed the secular character Goldsborough in How He Won Her because, as she put it, he was "so brave and firm." This character captured his lover and rode off with her into the mountains. A sharp contract, one might say, to the various doctors and ministers who were the heroes of the Sabbath novels. We are compelled to consider the comment of one of our informants, Miss Chapman, a voracious reader in her youth during the first decade of the twentieth century who said that she read what was available. Voracious readers themselves, Mamie and her friends also read what was available—which was the novels of the Sabbath libraries. Given the occasional opportunity to read the secular romances, they read them, and Mamie's comments make it clear that she preferred the characters in such novels.
The central theme of the "Pansy novels, and the Sabbath novels in general, is courtship and marriage. The title character in Julia Ried explains the relationship of that theme in the novels to the reader:
Just here I have paused, pen in hand, and thought whether or not, since this history of part of my life was destined to be used as a Sabbath-school book, it would be well for me to write herein some of the thoughts that filled my heart that night, and some of the incidents that followed. It seems to be quite generally believed that a Sabbath-school book should utterly ignore two great questions that have to do with human hearts: love and marriage. I never was able to understand why. Certainly young misses of sixteen think of these matters; even those who attend Sabbath-school and draw Sabbath-school books, think of them, I believe, a great deal more than is well for them. I'm sure I did. Why should I, then, in giving to these young ladies the story of a piece of my life, in the sincere hope that it may help them to avoid my blunders and causes of failure and unhappiness, why should I be very plain and frank as regards other subjects, and quite silent in this, merely in the fear that some critic will criticize my story for having broached in it the awful and forbidden subject? I will tell my story truthfully, without the fear of a critic before my eyes.
The clearly defined role models of the virgin in the novels prepared the reader for this process of courtship and marriage. Proper dress was the uniform and one of the visible characteristics of the virgin. The ideal of proper dress was bound up in the middleclass ethic of goodness. In the novels, character could be detected by dress. In Isabel's Secret we are led to understand, for example, that the poor old woman is good because she is "very tidily dressed." We also know that Mr. Forbes in "Pansy's" Wise and Otherwise is reformed because he is "tastefully dressed. The visible social stratification portrayed in women's dress is justified in "Pansy's" Twenty Minutes Late:
suppose … wealthy people … should appear … dressed in calico, how long would it be before the price of calico, or gingham, for that matter, or any stuff which they would make fashionable in that way, would increase in price so that the hardest thing … poor people could do would be to buy it?
It was understood that in the natural state of things the rich wore silk and the poor wore calico. To have it otherwise was to break God's law of economics. Finally we know that Susan (Smutty Sue) Meade of the Girls Own story "Sackcloth and Ashes" is in danger of ruin because of her messy clothes, and we know that Sadie Reid of "Pansy's" Ester Ried is redeemable because she is willing to lend her best silk dress.
The Girl's Own Annual provided samples of proper dress in the column "Frocks and Gowns for the Month." Although the girlchild was portrayed from time to time, the models and the clothes were predominantly those of the virgin. Mamie recorded her own interest in attire in ways quite similar to the characters of the novels she read. Julia Ried, for example, noted that she "sprang up, hurried myself into my brown alpaca dress, gloves, hat, and the like, and scampered down stairs." Mamie tells us that she "went to church alone again, wearing my white leghorn hat, oxford tie, shoes, black silk gauntlets, pink shambia dress, cream cotton blouse and parasol."
But these sedate portrayals of girlhood attire are a far cry from the seductive image created by the attire of the women in boy's novels like Mayne Reid's The Wood Rangers:
A silken scarf covered her head, permitting the thick plaits of her dark hair to shine through its translucent texture, and just encircling the outline of her oval face. This scarf, hanging down below the waist, but half-concealed her white rounded arms, and only partially hindered the view of a figure of the most elegantly voluptuous tournure. Around her waist another scarf of bright scarlet formed a sort of cincture or belt, leaving its long fringed ends to hang over the skirt of her silken robe, and blending its colours with those of the light veil that fell down from her shoulders.
The contrast between the boy's and girl's novels reflects the ironic position held by the middleclass women of the day. She was expected to compete with the flaring eyes and scarlet clothes of the male-oriented image of romance by offering cool domesticity. This irony was particularly painful to the women of North America, where dark-eyed Irish shop girls abounded and the Indian women still lurked beyond the edges of the towns. This threat of the wild woman was taken seriously in the literature of the nineteenth century. Gilbert Parker, an author acceptable to The Canadian Baptist which ran his work in the June 22, 1893 issue, wrote an entire novel, The Translation of a Savage, about this problem.
With his contrast in mind it is interesting to note the emphasis placed in the "natural" beauty of the white virgin. In The Girl's Own the archetypal model is a picture in Volume Fifteen entitled "Perfect Girlhood—Strength and Beauty." The virgin did not use artificial makeup, although scented creams and perfume were allowed. Two natural assets were used by the virgin to enhance her beauty: her hair, and more importantly, her eyes. Over and over in Mamie's Annual we find pictures of the virgins, and always the eyes are enhanced, always big, soulful and innocent. They are like the angelic innocent eyes of the girlchild Isabel of Isabel's Secret. Abbie, the angelic virgin in Julia Ried, also has these eyes. It is in those mirrors of the soul that the virgin displays both her childlike innocence and the depth of her ability to love, not as the child, but as the woman. It is therefore considered appropriate that Nelly, the girl who "thinks" about her beauty in Isabel's Secret, should be struck blind for her vanity.
The key to this and other lessons provided by the loving kindness of God was that in girlhood one must remain disinterested. The beauty, clothes and compliments were to be considered a matter of duty. In the tenets of girlhood disinterest portrayed the middleclass woman's self control. As it was considered difficult for the "emotional" female to achieve this reasonableness, it was understood that Christianity would help her. A male character in Julia Ried comments: "having no Christian principle to sustain her, perhaps it is not to be wondered at that she gives free rein to her feelings."
Coolness was an invaluable asset to the virgin, especially in her relationship with eligible males. The novels read by Mamie did not portray a society where a girl's "emotional mistake" led to pregnancy. In the Sabbath novels that mistake was letting a man know of her "affection" for him before he proposed. This was a major Faux pas if he did not intend to propose.
As we follow Julia Ried through her relationship with Sayles her mistakes are pointed out to us. Indeed, early in the novel we are given a hint of the problems to come: "Mr. Sayles was a well-dressed, gentlemanly young man, with a handsome face, and manner which could easily be made fascinating." As the novel progresses the theme of fantasy continues: "Mr. Sayles had been spending the evening with us, and had but just left. The spell being broken, I was in haste to get to my room … "
Julia is caught up in her own illusion and she expects a proposal from Sayles. Instead, he has proposed and has been accepted by Abbie. However, "tragedy" is avoided because Julia has kept her coolness and Sayles was not aware of her interest.
Interestingly, Mamie wished Julia had married Sayles. Once more Mamie preferred the less than perfect Julia to the too-good-to-be-true Abbie.
Susan Meade in "Sack Cloth and Ashes" makes a fool of herself over Parry Clinton and the result is literally the sack cloth and ashes of working in a rag mill in the slums. And she is not reunited with her mother until the last pages of the story.
Education continued to be important for the virgin. She was expected to be literate in a cultivated way. In the following exchange in Julia Ried, Julia is speaking to Frank Hooper, who has recently been forced to work in a factory. It is Julia who opens the exchange:
"And after all," I said, somewhat hesitatingly, "they [the factory girls] are not quite your company. I mean you can not enjoy their society exactly."
"No," she answered, promptly; "we are not congenial perhaps—that is, I have received a good education and enjoy it, and they have not and don't care for it. But they are nice, good girls for all that, and I enjoy their society quite as well as I do Mrs. Shoddy's, for instance, who lives in a palace on Regent Street, and uses worse grammar than any of them do.
Further, we know Susan Meade is sinking morally because "in speech and manners she was a changed girl."
Not only was the virgin expected to be cultivated, she was also expected to have the domestic skills. Mamie's copy of The Girl's Own Annual contains articles on how to cook fish, sweeping, washing, window cleaning and the management of fires. The novel Ester Ried raises the realm of domesticity to an exalted religious position: "the pantry and kitchen were to be her battlefield, and a whole host of old temptations and trails were there to be met and vanquished."
Whether in the kitchen or parlor, a girl's Christian duty was in sharp contrast to a boy's Christian duty as it was portrayed in the boy's novel The Wood Rangers: "‘These marks,’ said he, ‘are the scores I keep of the savages that have fallen by my rifle. They themselves keep count by the number of scalps; but this, you see, is more Christian and decent.’"
The Sabbath novels also portrayed the conversion of the virgin to the Christian faith. Here the imperative of coolness continued to prevail. The conversions were not the "enthusiastic" emotional outbursts of the camp meeting. Most conversions of girlhood literature convey the sanctity of perfection through suffering. But more often than not the suffering is vicarious, as it is the pain and death of a loved one that brings the virgin to Christ. The entire novel Ester Ried is about the conversion of Sadie Reid. As in most of these novels we are given early hints to the true intent of the character. In the case of Ester we are told she is destined to "a robe, harp and crown." When she knows she is to die, Ester hopes that her coffin will convert Sadie and of course it does. But it is the conversion of Julia Ried which best portrays the cool nature of the conversion.
I recognized Dr. Douglass' voice, and the prayer he offered was such an one as I had never heard before. I read when I was a child the story of Bunyan's Pilgrim. I remember at the time being greatly impressed with the scene wherein his pack dropped off and left him free. I thought of it that evening. I felt that I could realize something of Christian's feeling. The burden was gone. A sinner I felt myself. Oh, I knew that more fully, more plainly than I had ever know it in my life before. But I was a sinner forgiven. My Savior held my hand.
Now we come to the highest duties of all for the virgin. Her success in these determined her claim to girlhood. These duties were her struggle against alcohol and "scepticism" in the male. The novels recognize that within each man lurked the "beast." E. R. Roe in the preface to A Knight of the Nineteenth Century noted,
He best deserves a Knightly crest,
Who slays the evils that infest
His soul within.
In the novels Mamie read, the virgin was expected to bring the beast in hand by means of her "winning ways." Of those women who abdicate their duty Roe states: "I think multitudes [of men] are permitted to go to destruction because women are so unattractive, so absorbed in themselves and their nerves." This same idea is placed in a more Christian context by Abbie in Julia Ried:
We are talking of influence, Mr. Sayles—Christian influence. Isn't it true that every person with whom we come in contact influences us, more or less, and, if the person be a Christian, educates us in that direction?
Thus armed with her feminine wiles the virgin attacked alcohol. In the Sabbath novels, the spectre of the young drunk who dies in a debauch and breaks his mother's heart, as does young Willie in Josiah Allen's Wife, is the example of the failure of women. Young Sayles in Julia Ried is the example of middleclass manhood on the same road. He gets drunk on a date with Julia but she fails to handle the situation. We are led to understand that it is due to her inadequacy that she loses Sayles to Abbie. Marriages, such as Abbie's or Jennie Adams' in Wise and Otherwise, are the reward for a job well done.
But an even more hazardous duty was the conversion of the infidel—the skeptic who questioned the middleclass Christian philosophy. The archetypal infidel is portrayed by Dr. Douglas in Ester Ried. The infidel always has a target of his own. In this case Douglas's target is the youthful virgin Sadie Reid:
Something troubled the Doctor [Dr. Van Anden] to-night; his usually grave face was tinged with sadness. Presently he arose and paced with slow measured tread up and down the room.
"I ought to have done it," he said at last. "I ought to have told her mother that he [Dr. Douglas] was in many ways an unsafe companion for Sadie, especially in this matter; he is a very cautious, guarded, fascinating skeptic—all the more fascinating because he will be careful not to shock her taste with any boldly-spoken errors. I should have warned them—how came I to shrink so miserably from my duty? What mattered it that they would be likely to ascribe a wrong motive to my caution?
Note that the good Dr. Van Anden has amorous intentions as far as Sadie is concerned himself, and for his Christian piety and concern he wins her.
The eighteen nineties was a decade of economic recessions. During the period many middleclass women faced the necessity of manual labour to stay alive. The character Frank Hooper provided a model that showed the reader that even in a box factory the tenets of girlhood need not be lost. Further, should they be temporarily misplaced, Susan Meade proved that they can be regained. But Mamie's diary from 1898 gives us a vivid picture of the reality of a girl caught in the recession of the eighteen nineties. During that year a girl who had been attending school in Portage la Prarie failed her exams. With the opportunities opened by education lost she was forced to hire out as a servant on a farm in the district where Mamie was then teaching. Her dreams shattered, the girl became more and more despondent. She finally committed suicide by taking strichynine.
This brings us to the greatest of all ironies concerning the role of the pure and Christian virgin. Not only did she have to uphold all these duties and hold to the morays of girlhood, she had to eat and keep a roof over her head at the same time. There was no problem if the man in the virgin's life—her father—was, first, alive, and second, did his duty. If the father was dead or defaulted in his duty, then the virgin was expected to do for herself and remain, at the same time, pure in mind and body.
The anxiety of a woman's lack of security is a constant theme in the novels. Sybill Warner in The Last of the Barons is lost because her father fails in his duty. Laura in A Knight of the Nineteenth Century loses her security when Arnot, who she trusted, squanders her money. It is Sibyll who crys out, "it is a sad thing to be poor." Mamie pitied her.
Cognizant of the need for employment under the economic circumstances, Mamie's Girl's Own Annual provided a series by S. F. A. Caulfeild entitled "New Employments for Girls," which provided suggestions for jobs of "a strictly feminine and suitable character." They included dressmaking, millinery, landscape photography, market gardening, and jam making. The Girl's Own also contains the stories of the virgin without money who must seek for herself, as does Flora, who must seek her fortune in London at aged seventeen. In fact, most of the characters like Julia Ried who are thus thrust out into the world are in their late teens. They were therefore within an age range that Mamie and her friends could relate very strongly to.
Among the girls thrown out upon the world by circumstance the one Mamie responded to was Frank Hooper. The character of Frank Hooper is somewhat unorthodox for a "Pansy" character. For one thing she tended to sit in an unorthodox manner. In that age a virgin did not place her bum where it might attract attention: "Frank came back and perched herself on a giant stack of pasteboard." When confronted by Julia Reid, Frank faces her head on:
"Frank, why don't you go to prayer meeting any more?"
The cool gray eyes seemed to be searching me through and through, while Frank composedly swung her heels against the pasteboard.
It was the open nature of this character that appealed to Mamie. She appeared more "modern," like the women of the romance How He Won Her. Mamie was estatic when, as she tells us, she "got hold of" How He Won Her. The characters of this romance were the type Mamie liked. Above all they out-stripped the bounds of the role of virgin. There was Albert who dies in a war—a "good death" usually reserved for men. Elfie, "who was a little fury and Britomarte who was so brave that "she disguises herself as a boy and joins the army so that she can be near Justin Rosenthal, her lover. She marries him after the war. She is known as Captain Wing. In every case we have virgins who do what boys get to do in boy's literature. Mamie and her girlfriends loved it all. Of course those characters that survived did the right thing in the end and got married. Mamie's excitement at it all literally bursts from the diary.
In the struggle to survive, the women in the novels sometimes face male opposition. As the Sabbath novels were intended to reinforce the middleclass ideals, they also reinforced the underlying struggle of women for equality, as they understood it. In that they echoed The Girl's Own Paper. In "Pansy's" Echoing and Re-echoing, a woman, Mrs. Coville, attempts to establish herself in business. Mr. Cramer, to whom she appealed for help in the matter, tells her: "But you ought not to undertake it. It is not a woman's place." Miss Rachel [however] was not discouraged," and found a man to help Mrs. Coville. The condemnation of Cramer is that as a middleclass Christian he has failed in his duty.
The Role of Wife/Mother In Girlhood Literature
Upon becoming a mother, a girl had two key duties to perform: to raise the next generation of the middleclass and to continue her lifelong battle for Christianity. In girlhood literature a great deal of interest was taken in the raising of male children. In The Girl's Own article "Our Brothers—in training for Husbands" the mother to be is told that "While yet a little bare-legged boy he should be watched in the companionship of his sisters, and any overbearing treatment of them should be, so to say, nipped in the bud." In the novels emphasis was placed on the dire consequences of a mother's failure. In A Knight of the Nineteenth Century, E. P. Roe directly blames Haldane's unsuitability as a husband for Laura on the fact that he had been raised to be selfish by his mother. Taking another tactic, Eric or Little by Little proves that a boarding school is no substitute for a mother's guidance, and in the end, Eric's mother looses him. The undercurrent in Lady Betty's Governess, which was written by an American about the Puritan era in England, is the inability of the upper-class to rule because their mothers have no understanding of the duties of motherhood.
Of the second duty of the wife/mother Abbie best voices the Sabbath novel's portrayal of that role:
But, oh! Julia, to think that his wife could not have the joy of thinking that she led him to Jesus.
The great triumph of many characters of the novels is to bring their husbands to the church on a Sunday.
The Grandmother in Girlhood Literature
The grandmother character may or may not herself have grandchildren. It is of little consequence to her role as wise woman. She is presented in The Girl's Own Paper in the grannie corners; various matronly ladies of the petty aristocracy of England or even a middle-aged woman. She is the conveyer of girlhood wisdom and experience.
The most interesting example of such a character found in the books read by Mamie, and in this case her mother, was that of Samantha in Marietta Hol- ley's Josiah Allen's Wife as a P.A. and P.I. Samantha at the Centennial. There is little doubt in our minds that this book was one of the most brilliant pieces of propaganda for women's rights written in the nineteenth century. The author uses the least offensive of women—the grandmother—the archetypal conveyer of girlhood wisdom. She then camouflages that "wisdom" with the humor of Samantha's rustic speech and atrocious grammar. This process probably allowed the book to be read in homes where a suffrage tract might have instigated a traumatic domestic confrontation.
Samantha, Josiah Allen's wife, is P.A.—Promiscuous Advisor in the cause of right—and she states quite clearly that she is "standin up for wimmen." The advice she gives is down to earth and lacks the idealistic perfection of most of the Sabbath novels:
The first years in married life is a precarious time, making the best of it. A dretful curious, strange, precarious time; and if ever a woman wants a free room for meditation and prayer, it is then; and likewise the same with the man.
Nor does Samantha avoid the matter of the sexual nature of male and female relationships. She takes sexuality and women's rights back to old Abraham of the Bible:
I'll bet a cent I could have convinced Abraham that he was doin' a cowardly and ungenerous act by Hagar. But then I wasn't there; I didn't live neighbor to 'em. And I persume Sarah kep' at him all the time; kep a tewin' at him about her; kep' him awake at nights a twittin' him about her, and askin' him to start her off. I persume Sarah acted meaner than pusly.
Given that old Sarah was such a bitch, Samantha suggests the unsuggestable—dump the woman and live with Hagar: "… I say with the poet,—that what is sass for the goose, ort to be sass for the gander—and if she is drove off into the desert, you ort to lock arms with her and go too!"
This is heady stuff to find in a Sabbath library. The author appears to be suggesting either divorce and/or a common law relationship, both contrary to middle-class mores. But Samantha was viewing the situation from the woman Hagar's point of view, something seldom done in Christian circles, even today. But Samantha does not stop with the men, she gets after the women too:
"Wimmen are to blame sister Minkley," says I. "As a rule the female sect wink at men's sins, but not a wink can you ever git out of them about our sins. Not a wink. We have got to toe the mark in morals, and we ort to make them toe the mark. And if we did, we should rise 25 cents in the estimation of every good man, and every mean one too, for they cant respect us now …
It is "widder Doodle" who portrays the type of women who allow men to dominate her:
"Oh!" says she, [widder Doodle] "when I think how I used to raise sweet corn in my garden, and how Mr. Doodle would sit out on the back stoop and read to me them beautiful arguments ag'inst wimmen's rights, when I was a hoein' it; and how he would enjoy eatin it when I'd cook it, …
But before we decide that Samantha was a precursor of the "women's lib" movement, we should consider what Samantha had to say about that. Upon hearing a female lecturer condemning men Samantha gives her this advice:
Sister, what is the use of your runnin' men so?" says I, mildly, "is it only a tirin' yourself; you never will catch 'em, and put the halter of truth onto 'em, while you are a runnin' 'em so fearfully; it makes 'em skittish and baulky.
Samantha, like all the other women in the Sabbath novels, understood that the struggle for equality (having the same status), as the struggle against the infidel and alcoholism, would be won with the same rational coolness/warmness. Therefore, we can see that even Samantha fitted those ideals of girlhood.
The role models in girlhood literature did, we believe, reflect the reality of the middleclass ideals of the age. They gave the girls recognizable attributes in themselves and others, and helped them achieve a feeling of belonging in a world full of ironic contradiction and often devoid of security. They gave them something to achieve in their lives, and tried to give them hope in what they all knew could be the most mundane of existences. At the same time they tried to encourage some to battle on to broaden the possibilities of that existence, but always remembering how tentative a woman's security was. In the nineteenth century, inheritance was the major source of security to a woman. That, or marriage. Without either, there was the factory or the brothel. Better the factory than the brothel, better a good marriage than the factory—that was the message of girlhood literature. But it was not an absolute. Always there was hope for amelioration. That too was the message of girlhood literature.
Did the role models influence Mamie and her friends? Well, to the best of our knowledge none of the mothers of these girls held a professional position. In contrast, we know the following of the life histories of Mamie and her friends. Mamie did not marry one of the Ormond or Hudson boys (all of whom went on to successful professional careers) as was expected; instead she taught school and then married a farmer of moderate means. Lizzie Ross also married a farmer. Aggie Bannerman never married but taught school all her life. Harriet Ormond took up mission work and married a minister. Frankie Ormond never married, but became a prominent school principal and edited text books. Ella Garland never married. First she taught music and then turned to nursing. She was matron of Flushing Hospital, New York. Ollie Oswald taught school for a while and then married a rancher and moved to the last frontier in the Peace River country.
A list of the books Mamie read in 1893 appears with part one of this article (Quarterly, Spring 1983). The following is a 1st of the specific editions we consulted.
The Girl's Own Annual 13. This is the specific Girl's Own Mamie owned; her copy forms part of the Mamie Pickering Thomson Collection at the University of Winnipeg. Items referred to in the article include: Jessie M. Barker, "Daisy's Dream: a story of the Earth and its Sculptors," 33; Sarah Tytler, "A Lonely Lassie," 36; "Watching the Sunbeam" 209; "The Student," 360; "I must confess unto myself," 424; Ruth Lamb, "Sackcloth and Ashes," 433; Mrs. Molesworth, "On the Use and Abuse of Fiction," 452; A Middle-aged Woman, "Whispers to Our Wedded Girls," 651; "Summer," 753.
Holley, Marietta. Josiah Allen's Wife as a P.A. and P.I. Samantha at the Centennial. Designed as a bright and shining light … Hartford, Conn.: American Publishing Co., 1887.
Isabel's Secret, by the author of Story of a happy little girl. New York: Thos. Nelson & Sons, 1871.
"Pansy." Ester Ried, or, Asleep and Awake. Cincinnati: Western Tract and Book Society, 1870.
———. Julia Ried: sequel to Ester Ried. Boston: D. Lothrop & Co., and Cincinnati: Western Tract and Book Society, 1870.
———. Twenty Minutes Late. Toronto: William Briggs, 1893.
———. (Mrs. Isabella I. M. Alden). Wise and Otherwise; sequel to "King's Daughter". Cincinnati: Western Tract Society, 1872.
———. (Faye Huntington). Echoing and Re-Echoing. London: George Routledge and Sons, n.d.
"Captain Reid" (Mayne Reid). The Wood Rangers; or, the Trappers of Sonora. New York: Carelton, 1875.
Roe, E. P. A Knight of the Nineteenth Century. New York: Peter Fenelon Collier and Son, 1900.
Katie Van Sluys (essay date January 2003)
SOURCE: Van Sluys, Katie. "Writing and Identity Construction: A Young Author's Life in Transition." Language Arts 80, no. 3 (January 2003): 176-84.
[In the following essay, Van Sluys examines the diaristic writings of an eight-year-old immigrant from Poland in his study of how children's personal writing reflects their developing identities.]
Wera sat on the log seat designated for the presenting author and explained her piece, My Trew Live [My True Life], to her class. Drawing from her current reading of the Little House on the Prairie novels and letters from Wilder's (1976) life as a writer, she explained that she wanted to share her life through writing just like Laura. "I don't remember everything about my life," she commented, "but movies and pictures help me remember." The eight-year-old author read to her captive audience from the pages of her written draft, "It was the werst time of my live. Because I had to move to Uonitid State of Amarka."
Wera's memoir of her life in transition between Poland and the United States grew over the following six weeks as she worked and shared her piece with her classmates and preservice teachers in her Authors Circle. Wera's experiences and relationships made public through her writing reflect perspectives of who she was and is for herself and for her reading audience.
I met Wera in the fall of her second-grade year when I worked in her primary K-2 classroom as a researcher. I entered the classroom to investigate chil- dren's writing processes and conversations in Authors Circles with young writers and preservice elementary teachers who were in an undergraduate language arts course. In my regular visits to her classroom during Writing Workshop, I watched and sometimes worked with the young writers as they worked recursively through the various stages of the authoring cycle (Short, Harste, & Burke, 1996). Field notes, copies of written drafts, audiotaped discussions, and interviews contributed to Wera's story and the stories of other child authors in her class. Wera also read my writing about her experiences to corroborate the accuracy of my story, commenting "that it sounds like a newspaper, only it's about me" and that it was indeed her life story.
As an accomplished young writer, Wera spent her school days writing in her multiage classroom with her six-, seven-, and eight-year-old friends. Children in this classroom read often, participated in a daily writing workshop, and conducted inquiry projects. Learning meant taking risks, talking with others throughout the learning process, and valuing each other's work and being. Wera wrote her own stories as well as co-authored pieces with writing friends. Wera, Andrea, and Daryelle spent many writing workshops developing chapters for their own "Junie B. Jones" book. Other days, she and Daryelle traded writing pages for leprechaun stories or created informative, worldly texts such as their Cedar River book—writing that drew from media attention focused on dying fish and pollutants in a local river.
But one day in early March, I learned more about Wera, her life, and how she used writing to construct who she was in her classroom and larger social worlds. Wera read a piece in progress—My True Life—about her move from Poland and her extended family, getting ready for school, entering her new classroom, struggling through recess, and experiencing the challenges of learning English. Wera's writing is the basis for the narrative I construct in this article, using metaphors from theater to build three scenes. Each scene is constructed from Wera's writings as they chronologically unfold through the pages of three sources of writing she authored during second and third grade: her memoir My True Life written during her second-grade year, her at-home summer journal written between her second and third grade, and her third-grade writing notebook. Through these written performances we see a young girl not only navigating life in transition by writing about her experiences, but using her life experiences, her understandings of what it means to write, and various writing contexts to define who she is within her social worlds. I examine Wera's use of social and cultural knowledge and experiences for the building of a self in the opening scene focused on her memoir, My True Life. The second section moves to her at-home writing and looks at writing as a tool for constructing identity. The final scene considers the learning environments and how Wera navigated these environments to write and construct her identity. Following the three scenes, I reflect on what Wera's story might mean for literacy, learning, and classroom spaces that invite and value resources children bring with them to school.
Scene I: Using Life Knowledge and Experiences in Building of Self
Life as event presumes selves that are performers…. [T]he relation between me and the other must be shaped into a coherent performance and thus the architectonic activity of authorship, which is the building of a text, parallels the activity of human existence which is the building of a self.
(Bahktin as cited in Clark & Holquist, 1984, p. 64)
We constantly negotiate relationships as actors in the world. We create texts through our writing, talk, and movements that communicate who we are to ourselves and others. Viewing culture as living, la cultura vivida (Moll, 2000), who we are in relationship to others, is part of a complex web of lived experiences, relationships within our social worlds, and tools to represent ourselves in day-to-day and moment-to-moment living. Our actions and interactions, as part of la cultura vivida, are situated in social and cultural contexts informed by factors such as history, race, gender, ethnicity, language, and social class. A girl who works quietly at her table in the classroom, chatters energetically when among friends on the playground, and denies her ability to speak multiple languages among newcomers, makes decisions about who she is in each situation from her history of gendered, classed, racial, and linguistic life experiences.
Each decision and move contributes to the making and remaking of ourselves and of our culture (Nieto, 1999; Ovando & Collier, 1998). In negotiating who we are, we consider our audience before speaking or writing, we use others' words in making our own meanings, we become part of all we have me—in other words we live life as a conversation between ourselves and others (Bakhtin, 1994).
To this conversation, we bring our funds of knowledge (Moll, 1992, 2000)—the skills, knowledge, and relationships used in our daily living. Cultural re- sources, past experiences, relationships, and languages all contribute to these funds. Funds of knowledge become the material resources we use to construct our texts and ourselves (hooks, 1994; Nieto, 1999; Moll, 1992, 2000).
In classrooms where students lead writerly lives through writing workshops, they select their own topics and confer about their work throughout the process. Children draw upon available resources as they compose written texts, spoken conversation, and non-verbal actions (Dyson, 1989, 1993). To forge friendships, they may write about scorpions, video game characters, or spring flowers to position themselves as "someone who likes the same thing," as a neighboring writing friend. The text produced is as much about, if not more about, "who I am in relationship to you."
Within texts, we use language from particular experiences in new contexts to convey meaning specific to the text itself and to share with others how we envision ourselves as participants in a particular setting. A native English-speaking child who says, "Just wait un momento," may try her developing Spanish vocabulary as she works to befriend a newcomer to the United States and the classroom community. Living in these moment-to-moment interactions with others, we draw from various linguistic resources to bring ourselves into conversations and communities and define who we are within the dialogue (Bakhtin, 1994; Wertsch, 1991) and culture. Child writers often weave the worlds of Pokémon, the latest Disney movie, or Junie B. Jones into the texts they produce through deliberate language choices. Other children employ language in constructing who they are by intermingling other languages within English texts when writing about their weekend at la casa de mi tía [my aunt's house] or la oruga [the caterpillar] that just kept eating.
In authoring texts and selves, authors may use words that intentionally position themselves through language as speakers of another language, someone with experiences and histories unlike the others in their company, or someone who wants to be a friend. Our life knowledge, experiences, and negotiated relationships provide a foundation for building an identity, for stating who we are or might become.
Wera's Memoir—My Trew Live
Wera seemed to use My True Life to build an identity in her social and cultural worlds. An image of herself emerged both in the process of reflecting on her lived experiences and in the writing of the actual text. After the opening passages of saying goodbye to family and leaving Poland, Wera wrote, "My sister and I was very exeitit to have a new house … Magda and I were jouping all ofer are room …" [My sister and I was very excited to have a new house … Magda and I were jumping all over our room …"]
Throughout the memoir, Wera held tightly to her family relationships as she wrote about enjoying phone conversations with Grandma, shopping with her mom, living with her aunt, and seeking out her sister on the playground when no one wanted to play. She later used her name to identify herself as Polish. In retelling an early classroom episode, she wrote, "He called me /W/-era. My mom said it's /V/-era not /W/-era." She further wove her Polish identity into her memoir using the Polish words dzien dobry, in telling a story about her teacher asking her and her mom how to say and write "good morning." Later in detailing the events of her first day, Wera described her early confusion in the classroom.
Writing about her first-grade experience from her perspective as a second grader, Wera used difference to define herself in relation to others. She wrote about her initial experiences not understanding English, about not having friends, and about her important family relationships. Responding to peers in the early drafting stages of My True Life, she fielded questions on how she felt about moving from Poland to the United States and her expectations for living in America. She also engaged in a classroom conversation about how people come to learn other languages. "[In thinking about moving to America], I thought about happy things and what it might be like. I thought about big buildings." as she had seen in pictures of New York and Chicago. "I thought they [her new friends] would all speak Polish." Wera worked to publish the first chapters of this piece, but to use her words, her "life wasn't finished," and neither was the piece.
Almost a full year from the beginning draft of My True Life, she returned to her previous multiage primary classroom as a guest reader during a memoir genre study. Following a stream of "I remember" talk about their shared histories of writing together, Wera read her memoir and talked about the embarrassment of her first word, bathroom, being able to write only her name, and crying on the playground. Responding to class questions, she told stories of learning English at home and school, of differences in alphabetic systems, and she talked about her relationship with her grandmother in response to a child's questions.
Wera: I talk to my Grandma every Sunday. Everything she asks, I answer yes or no. I don't know much Polish [anymore].
Child: What if you move back?
Wera: That's what I worry about … but, maybe we'll stay …
Through the lines of Wera's talk and writing, we see her situated within complex cultural worlds. She reflects on the struggle of leaving family behind and the mixed emotions about arriving in the United States. She uses her funds of knowledge to create written texts and tell stories to her classmates. Through her language stories, interwoven Polish words, and attention to her memories of learning English, she appears to position herself as someone who knows another language, someone who has since learned to navigate school, someone still connected with a family far away and a Polish identity. Through this textual performance, she seems to use her life knowledge and experiences to bring herself into the classroom culture, shape who she is in relation to others, and identify herself as a young girl living within the realms of multiple cultural worlds.
Scene II: Writing as a Tool for Identity Construction
In classrooms that live learning through authoring and inquiry cycles (Short, Harste, & Burke, 1996; Bomer, 1995), children are invited to draw from their life experiences to create texts that reflect their perspectives and constructions of meaning. Memoir, as "a memory from an author's life that is crafted into a piece of writing that can exist in different forms" (Arnberg, 1999, p. 15), is one option for writing lived experiences and "has everything to do with rendering the ordinariness of our lives so that it becomes significant" (Calkins, 1991, p. 169). It calls on the writer to sift through the past and weave experiences into present-day conversations. It challenges the writer to make moments important and "to discover memories that no one talks about" (Calkins, 1991, p. 177) in order to understand how these memories shape who we are. Through exploring personal histories and rendering these histories public through writing, memoir further connects the lived experiences of writers with their readers. In a classroom context, readers are often members of the writer's class; hence these shared experiences speak to who the writer is and possibly wants to be in the classroom community. Hicks (2001) conceives of schooling as an "opportunity for children to experience new identities and new ways of engaging with social and textual worlds" (p. 221). Within these worlds, writing may become a powerful tool in trying on new identities.
Wera's At-Home Journal Writing
Growing from rich classroom writing experiences in her primary multiage classroom, Wera had become a confident, accomplished writer. She seemed to be a writer who used writing as a tool to reflect on her life while shaping her identity between school and family. In the summer following second grade and her initial writing of My True Life, she continued to tell her story and mark the changes in her shifting identity in her summer writing journal—a journal that she had "begged her mother for," explaining that "she just had to have one!"
"Today is June 2 … and I was very sick. I am very sad that I left school. I love school and it is my favorite thing" opens the episodes shared in her summer writing journal. Not long after the opening, she wrote about anticipating the latest Britney Spears CD, while noting that this was her "favorite singer in the whole wide world, except my favorite one in Poland." We see a Wera who appears to have taken on aspects of U.S. pop culture and at the same time maintains links with her Polish identity. Her summer writing continued with snippets of family happenings such as preparing for vacation and summer activities woven between episodes that relate her excitement and anticipation of school and school friends. And, "in case you were wondering," at the top of page three she wrote, "My name is Wera. In Engleche my name is Vera …," again returning to her name both to mark her identity and to hold on to a story that she considers important to who she is.
This piece of at-home writing grew as Wera began her third-grade year in a new classroom. As the school year started, much of her writing took on an "all about friends" focus.
Chapter 2: All the Fun. The first day of school was so fun! Daryelle is in the same class as I am. My friend from my neighborhood is the same class too! So I have friends!…. November 29. We got new seating charts. I sit where my best friend used to sit. Did I mention that Daryelle is not my best friend anymore. My new best friend is Katherine. Well, Daryelle and I aren't best friends but we are friends, and with that I will survive.
As the piece continued, she wrote about her mom's new friend who had children, which meant more friends for Wera and her sister. Using writing as a tool for thinking and constructing personal meaning, Wera again seemed to identify herself as someone connected to Poland, someone who knew about being eight years old in the United States, and someone who had friends.
Scene III: Learning Spaces That Honor Difference
Children living in the workshop spaces advocated by Calkins (1994), Graves (1994), Short, Harste, and Burke (1996), and Bomer (1995) move recursively between uninterrupted opportunities to read, write, and inquire; share their thinking and talk with others about growing pieces; choose genres that support the stories they have to tell; and eventually publish meaningful writing to be shared with authentic audiences. In these environments students learn not only a broad range of literacy skills but also what it means to be a literate person, to write for authentic communicative purposes, and to live as a member of a larger social world.
Understanding teaching and learning as social and cultural activities, teachers contribute to the creation of classroom environments and make decisions that guide interactions. Classroom environments and teaching decisions reflect beliefs about learning and difference. Classrooms may be constructed as places where students are visibly invited to use their knowledge and lives as tools for learning or places where students are offered multiple means for meaning making including reading, writing, and talking in multiple languages, using technology as a learning tool, and representing meaning through art (Albers, 2001; Gutiérrez, Baquedano-López, & Alvarez, 2001). In one such classroom, Berzins (Laliberty & Berzins, 2000) tells the story of children writing in her classroom using both cultural and linguistic resources as starting points for learning. She honors and builds on students' language skills by offering opportunities to write and talk in English and Spanish. Within responsive teaching contexts, such as I observed in Wera's primary classroom, difference and diversity were transformed into assets for learning.
Gee (1990) points out the importance of creating learning environments where students begin with their lives and move between the borderlands of school and home cultures, exploring otherness and difference as tools for change and understanding. Difference becomes a site for conversation. When children wonder how people learn other languages or "why we only speak English," these questions become places to interrogate diversity and language. In classrooms using writing to engage in dialogue with others who speak from different histories, locations, and experiences, authors and audience members are invited to move through these permeable borderlands that define who they are individually and collectively (Anzaldúa, 1987; Giroux, 1993). Through discussion, children begin to understand that as classmates they share some life experiences, but as they move between home and school cultures their lives vary. Within spaces that honor children's cultural experiences, writing may be a tool for identity construction (McCarthey, 2001).
As Wera moved into third grade, she transitioned into a new classroom. This transition marked a change in her school writing. In conversations and interactions with her teacher, peers, and others at school she continued to identify herself as moving between cultural worlds. For much of the school year, her classroom writing was not a place for Wera to explore difference or who she was to herself and others.
Wera's Third-Grade Writing
Writing in third grade began with journal prompts and later involved what Wera called "paragraph writing." Journal writing took place daily, following a prompt written on the chalkboard, such as "If I were president, I would …" Paragraph writing, which began later in the year, meant following a writing recipe to construct a series of paragraphs on a given topic. According to Wera, topic sentences such as "I like leprechauns" would be appropriate to open a paragraph about leprechauns. Wera expressed her frustration with classroom writing and her dislike for prompted writing exercises, saying she could not "write from my life."
Wera's at-home writing continued to allow her to draw from the wells of her life experiences to create text. In an April conversation during her third-grade year, when asked what she was working on in her writing, she immediately recounted a tale of her at-home efforts to publish The Trouble with Toothpaste. First, she explained that she didn't quite know why, but she had written things about "the little girl [Wera] in the story" that had not really happened in the way she had told them. Then, there were words she needed to fix, and her toothpaste illustrations looked nothing like she'd intended. As she continued her talk she made it clear that in revisiting this piece it was obvious to her that the story needed revision. Wera seemed to carry her understandings of the authoring cycle as she continued this meaningful at-home writing project that was growing from writing started in second grade. The writing work she was engaged in, revision for publication, was a different sort of work than that required for prompted journal entries.
As the year progressed, her third-grade class abandoned the prompted journal writing. "[We] don't do that anymore. I don't know why," she commented, but she supposed that it had something to do with not having time. Concurrent with this change was a new writing opportunity—notebooks open to student choice. Notebook writing was not regularly offered, but Wera used her notebook to bridge the continued story of her life from the pages of her at-home journal with the early entries in her school notebook and also continued her at-home writing.
Wera opened her new school notebook writing with "My Family" and "Poland," two chapters that she considered part of her larger life memoir. She continued to write snippets that seemed to define the importance of her familial relationships, connections with her cultural history, relationships with her school friends, and her continued navigations between cultural worlds. In her most recent writings, she opened with a Clifford-like introduction, "Hi, my name is Wera _____ _____," including a greeting and her full name. She wrote about her "closest family," their apartment, shared family events, and family facts including her suspicion that her sister had more friends than she did. In this piece, she wrote about loving her family, despite the fact that her sister was sometimes a "nightmare sister," and said that she loved life "so far." In her second entry, titled "Poland," she again incorporated her name and wrote, "Poland is where I come from".
She briefly retold some of the opening of My True Life by talking about leaving her family behind and being sad to leave Poland, possibly in hopes of securing this story in her memory as a significant life event. She then shifted into a writing mode that made use of "third-grade language." She described Poland as "very, very, very COOL." The piece ended when Wera wrote that she "want[s] to go back to Poland. To tell you the truth, You should go to Poland…. [as] Poland is very COOL!"
Wera used notebooks as a window of opportunity to bring herself back into her writing. She squeezed her life story into the space offered by this new, yet unpredictable, writing venue. Through the two chapters written in her third-grade writing notebook, she appeared to recall experiences important to her, reflect her knowledge of "peer talk," and position herself as a writer with different experiences as a member of a close family, a well-liked and included third grader, and a person moving between cultural worlds.
In a later extended conversation about this piece, she openly talked about her writing and spun extended stories from the sentences that lined the pages of her third-grade writing notebook—stories about ice skating for the first time in America, arriving at the airport, her cat, school life in Poland, and bedtime stories in Polish and English that her mom used to read to her every single night. She then read "I love my life" from the notebook pages and elaborated through spoken words:
I have a wonderful family and great friends so far … I'm lucky. Sometimes I think that I'm still here [and] it is all a dream, and I just want to wake up and see what it is really like. [If I woke up, I'd be] in Poland, in my bed. It can't be a dream. How would I know how to speak English?
Her talk evolved into images of her return to Poland:
and we're going to build a house in my Grandma's garden…. We can leave our house and go to our Grandma's, and my mom wouldn't care. It would be awesome. We could get a dog then…. I can just imagine that dog …
Just as she can imagine the dog, Wera's mind was alive with a future life—a life in which she imagined eventually moving back to Poland, a life in which she intends to follow in the footsteps of Laura Ingalls Wilder and become an author or maybe a teacher. In her more recent readings about Laura, she learned that Laura wrote so that "children understand what is behind what they see; what it is that made America the way they know it." And in her mind, she was writing about "America, the way I know it," and in the process she was writing about who she was in the larger script of life.
Learning from Wera's Story
As students navigate between learning moments, classrooms, and their larger social worlds, they reshape who they are through interactions with others. Texts become tools for refiguring boundaries, entering new worlds, and building identities. Wera's story offers a living example of a child negotiating a place for herself between cultures. Early in school, she experienced learning environments that helped form a solid foundation for what it means to write as well as to draw from lived experiences and knowledge to shape texts. She learned how writing is a process and can be a tool for thinking, reflecting, and exploring who she is in the world. Her K-2 multiage classroom teacher viewed literacy as more than just decoding/encoding words on a page; it meant reading the world (Freire & Macedo, 1994), talking about experiences, and building relationships through literacy practices. Wera used this foundation to build a social identity that did not abandon one culture in exchange for another.
In moving beyond Wera's story, we see school personnel and politicians rushing to construct the identity of a successful student. State standards are defined. Programmed instruction is mandated. Schooling is reduced to accumulating lists of essential knowledge within imposed timetables. Standardized tests are administered in the name of defining what it means to be the successful American student—a definition that neglects the rich histories, resources, and tools that students, as cultural beings, bring to their school experiences. This definition fails to look beyond technical "skills" of literacy to what it means to participate as a citizen in a culturally complex world. This singular definition reflects the inability to see real children living in real classroom spaces (Ohanian, 1999).
If we look to classrooms that begin with students, construct learning opportunities that open conversations to discuss difference, and recognize the complexities of living, thinking, and acting in the 21st century, we see diverse stories of school success. To imagine and enact school learning in this way, we must first make use of wider definitions of literacy. The writing workshop and authoring cycle take the perspective of learning as a life process. Writing work in such contexts means beginning with the known and moving recursively between steps of the process to create writing that shows the world who the author is and is becoming. From a critical perspective, literacy is a form of cultural citizenship (Giroux, 1993), which implies the need to understand positioning within the world as well as possibilities for acting within the world. Literacy is inseparable from living (Calkins, 1991). Literacy can be seen as agency—opening spaces, giving voice, using difference as an opportunity for dialogue, and writing different narratives (Giroux, 1993). From this perspective, classrooms have the potential to be places in which teachers and students, as cultural beings, use literacy as a tool to construct relationships, share experiences, and create meaning in multiple cultural worlds.
"Every child has a story to tell and within that story is the secret to him or her as a learner" (Kohl, 1995, p. 115). Classrooms that begin with children's lives create spaces where children such as Wera write from the life that surrounds them, construct significant texts, and tell stories that invoke history, culture, and difference. And in telling the stories of their "trew lives" they explore not only who they are but also who they might become.
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Graves, D. (1994). A Fresh Look at Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
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Jennifer Sinor (essay date 2005)
SOURCE: Sinor, Jennifer. "The Life Writing of a Military Child." In Arms and the Self: War, the Military, and Autobiographical Writing, edited by Alex Vernon, pp. 236-56. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2005.
[In the following essay, Sinor returns to her childhood diaries in an analysis of how the military lifestyle affects the adolescent development of children of servicemen.]
The trajectory of recent scholarship about personal narratives of war and the military has shown that while soldiers' stories are important, they are not the only ones. The recovery of women's war stories, in particular, has provided a more complicated picture of military service, moving our attention away from tales of death and sacrifice to the more mundane, to what a life writer in Margaret Higonnet's collection calls the "backwash" of war.1 The testimony of nurses, female machinists, female soldiers, and female journalists provides, as Diane Fessler suggests, a "counterpoint" to the chronicles of the "male warrior."2 Higonnet's recent collection of women writers of World War I includes women from all over the world, from different educational backgrounds, from different races, and from different classes. Such a broad spectrum of women writing about their experience of war in powerful and compelling ways—some witnessed publicly for the first time ever—certainly calls into question how narrowly we can cast our net when determining the boundaries of military life writing. These "counterpoints" demonstrate that military experience is an experience shared by many more than those who carry the guns and expand the boundaries of what (and who) counts when compiling military autobiography.3
Having said that, though, gaps in military life writing continue to exist. These gaps include single-authored narratives by military wives, by children from other countries left behind by American soldier-fathers, and narratives by gay servicemen, as well as those by civilian contractors, who are playing increasingly greater roles in military operations. By far, one of the largest gaps is writing by and about military children.
At first, perhaps, such a gap may seem quite appropriate. After all, children of U.S. military personnel do not fight wars. They do not readily appear to be the bearers of war stories and would fail miserably as witnesses with firsthand war experience. They have not enlisted, and they do not fight, train, test, shoot, order, strategize, or deploy. It is for this very reason that their stories need to be told. They do not choose to serve, yet their lives, often from birth, are conscribed by both the possibility and the paraphernalia of war. They may not see, hear, feel, or taste war, but their entire lives are lived under its threat. To suggest they have no war stories is to ignore the costs necessary for war.
The absence of military children as subjects within the military system as well as in current scholarship duplicates their demographic absence, a gap Mary Edwards Wertsch measures when she describes "military brats" as "America's most invisible minority."4 In history, in the military, and in academic research, they are unaccounted for. When considered at all, the children of military personnel are most often subsumed under the umbrella of "the military family." Both within the military itself and within scholarship, military children are often viewed as "an extension of the father."5 Literally and metaphorically, children are not deemed separate individuals with unique experiences deserving attention. In addition, any professional attention given them is often framed in terms of securing "a strong, deployable military force," again placing the emphasis not on the child but on the father/soldier/fleet.6 Because of their doubly disenfranchised status as both military dependents and as children, they are rarely given status as individuals and, more importantly, are never viewed as complicated subjects with conflicting desires and needs.
As a result, we know very little about the experience of military children and even less about their own self-representation. In general, the military child is afforded only two subject positions within the scholarship. These roles—either victim or warrior—represent military children in static, one-dimensional ways. The first role, one supported by social scientists like Don M. Lagrone and writers like Pat Conroy and Mary Edwards Wertsch, suggests that the military child is a victim of the "military family syndrome." Authoritarian fathers, repeated geographical displacement, alienation from the civilian world, and the rule-bound life of the military work to build what Wertsch terms "the Fortress," generating psychological legacies military children bear for the rest of their lives. In these studies, the military is something children must recover from. Such a view can give very little agency or control to children in terms of how they resist or reproduce the cultural scripts that surround them, a failing that characterizes much of the research about marginalized subjects.
The second role afforded to military brats in current scholarship, and one predictably perpetuated by researchers who work for the military (for example, Jensen, Hunter, and Kaslow), is that the military offers exciting and unique opportunities to children, opportunities that make them healthier and better able to cope with the real world. Adult military children themselves often reproduce the image of child as warrior. In Mary R. Truscott's Brats: Children of the American Military Speak Out, most of the adult military brats she interviewed see military children as "aggressive, outgoing, resilient, and well adjusted."7 The great majority are thankful for the experience and claim hardship has made them stronger. Of the outcome of a military upbringing, one states, "I have no fear."8
In these studies, military children overcome what would initially appear as obstacles (frequent relocation, deployed parents, etc.) to demonstrate remarkable flexibility and responsibility from an early age. They eventually outstrip their civilian counterparts in terms of psychological adjustment, claiming that they have "come out ahead, in spite of and because of [their] background."9 These warriors, when faced with adversity, rise to the occasion. However, what goes unnamed in these analyses—indeed, the knowledge that haunts these studies—is the fact that these children, unlike civilians, are raised in a culture whose explicit purpose is armed defense. In this line of research, the context in which military children are raised is virtually neutralized.
The concern here is not the validity of the evidence that military children are either "weaker" or "healthier" than their civilian counterparts but the fact that these are the only two positions afforded military children. Neither representation is complicated or convincing. The main reason that these pictures of military childhood are so one-dimensional and static is that they often rely on secondhand or removed evidence. Much of the work by scholars both inside and outside the military relies on information gathered from parents, health care providers, hospital records, or adult military brats, not military children themselves. There is very little attempt made to interact directly with those being studied. In the rare case study or memoir-fictional account, military childhood is accessed only through the eyes of adult military children. Both Wertsch and Truscott rely on interviews with adults who have "survived" the military. Writers like Pat Conroy (The Great Santini) and Elizabeth Berg (Durable Goods) must recreate the drama of the military childhood through memory. Few studies capture how the military child represents her self and her experiences as a military child.10
Even when working directly with military children, research is difficult and complicated. Nancy Ryan-Wegner, whose own research with military children was compromised by too few participants, notes that military parents are hesitant to allow their children "to think about war and what it means to their family."11 They appear less willing than civilian parents to allow researchers access to their children. In addition, my experience in working with military children suggests that it is difficult for an "outsider" to gain access to this population. Wertsch and Truscott have extensive connections to the military, providing a ready pool of research subjects. Truscott, in particular, comes from a long line of military officers, several of whom have themselves written books about the military (Dress Gray, for example). Because it is difficult for an "outsider" to gain access, most of the work on military children, including Ryan-Wegner's, is partially or solely supported by the Department of Defense. In addition, military children often relocate, making extended research difficult. Last and most significant, acknowledging the complicated position of the military child and the cost of their service would demand an examination of our own complicity in the formation of that position. We would have to assume partial responsibility for the less visible outcomes of being a military superpower.
Rather than rely on the stories told by adult military children or on research conducted within the military, an examination of military children's life writing brings us as close as possible to the sights and sounds of duty. It provides what Samuel Hynes means when he stresses the narrowness and fallibility of statistics and calls instead for "the personal witness" of those who serve.12 Life writing documents a life in progress—regardless of whether the text is a note left on the kitchen table, a full-length autobiography, or a diary kept during adolescence. How an individual makes a text offers one opportunity—though not a transparent one—to examine how she manufactures her world. Texts that might illuminate the world of the military child include diaries, scrapbooks, school assignments, notes, lists, letters, and creative writing. While each of these texts obviously follows certain generic conventions (for example, a story written for school is not the same kind of text as a note written to a friend), they also share important commonalties. Not only do they inscribe a moment in a life, but they are written within the powerful context of military childhood, and they bear evidence of that context.
By examining the work the military child conducts while still within "the fortress," we can begin to understand the experience of one of the most invisible members of military service, the experience of one conscripted by birth. Such an examination begins with an understanding that while these children do not fight in combat, their daily lives are nevertheless marked by war.
Military childhood is spent in paradox, where the extraordinary passes as the ordinary. It is lived within a system dedicated to rendering as ordinary the act of making and preparing for war, with the result that one does not question sacrifices made for defense. That the paraphernalia and possibility of war becomes as commonplace as a stop sign produces "ordinary trauma." At first such a term may seem like an oxymoron—after all, as Judith Herman writes, "traumatic events are extraordinary not because they occur rarely, but rather because they overwhelm the ordinary human adaptation to life."13 Discussions of acute psychological trauma focus on acts of atrocity and natural disasters. Enormous, extraordinary, awful events like rape, incest, abuse, and battle unmake individuals, forever. These can be one-time cataclysmic events or cases of chronic trauma. In either instance, the sheer enormity of the event pulls trauma from the realm of the everyday and places it in the extraordinary.14 However, what sets ordinary trauma apart from acute psychological trauma is not simply its nonextraordinary status, but that it passes as ordinary. The active and ongoing construction of ordinary trauma makes it invisible. Those within the context of ordinary trauma do not and cannot perceive the extraordinariness of their situation, because to them it is unexceptional.
Ordinary trauma merges with everything else in our lives that passes unnoticed, unmarked, and unnamed. That does not mean that our modern world has not made us all, in some way or another, "survivors" of trauma.15 Charles Anderson and Marian MacCurdy suggest, in the introduction to their edited collection Writing and Healing, that "even witnesses" to a traumatic event can suffer acute psychological trauma.16 They list two world wars, the spread of HIV, the Challenger disaster, and the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma as part of an "apparently endless succession of virtual and actual encounters with great traumatic potential."17 To this list, of course, we could add September 11, the most recent shuttle disaster, the Columbine shootings, and the ongoing war on terrorism. But the apparent endlessness of traumatic events and the expansion of PTSD (post-traumatic-stress disorder) to include witnesses as well as participants is not ordinary trauma. Anything newsworthy, noteworthy, or exceptional cannot be mundane. Ordinary trauma, on the other hand, accounts for the extraordinary events and possibilities that are masked as ordinary. For the military child, the possibility of war is so ordinary that it receives no notice.
Ordinary trauma illuminates, among other things, why the current research on military children is so misleading. To ask a military child about her experience of war is like asking a civilian child about her experience with breakfast cereal. No anxiety that the military child experiences about the possibility of war, a possibility lived every day of her life, will register, because it, like the milk she drinks in the morning, is her ordinary—more importantly, even, it is with great effort made to be ordinary by the military scripts that abound. The paraphernalia of war—missiles, guns, tanks—are as common as fire hydrants or shrubbery. Sandboxes sit upon bomb shelters. Fathers can be deployed without notice. Antiterrorist explosives fill the neighborhood speed bumps. Guard gates let you in or keep you out. Dependents go on submarine cruises and feel the reverberations of torpedo slugs sounding through their chests.
In the same way that the endless succession of traumatic events in our modern world does not amount to ordinary trauma, to say that military childhood is lived within the context of ordinary trauma is not to say that the experience of military childhood is synonymous with acute psychological trauma. While certainly some military children experience acute psychological trauma from abuse or neglect, the most recent research suggests that this percentage is not any higher than that of civilian children who are abused or neglected.
Being a military child does not equate with being in a war.18 Yet the experience of the military child rests somewhere between the extraordinary experience of being in battle and the "ordinary" experience of civilian children, for whom war is typically both abstract and remote. Unlike their parents, who have preservice memories that act as counternarratives to which they can compare the military experience, military children have no touchstones outside their lives in service. For the military child, the possibility of war is the only ordinary reference, even as it also remains staggering. The fact that war is a concrete, immediate possibility (one that parents prepare for every day) throws the shadow of the battlefield across the daily experiences of children from military homes, moving their everyday experience more surely toward the pole of trauma.
In defining ordinary trauma there is a middle space that is not squarely inside conventional definitions of trauma or clearly outside it. Likewise, it is a space that is neither ordinary nor wholly extraordinary. In current trauma theory, the insistence on the sheer extraordinariness of trauma (in contrast to the ordinariness of the rest of experience) means that a memory or experience is either ordinary, and therefore narratable, or atrocious and therefore outside language. In these discussions nothing exists in between. There is no continuum of experiences, where memories range between the unknown and the narrated. Space does not exist for thinking about an experience that is articulated as ordinary but bears close connection to the extraordinary.
How the possibility of war gets constructed by the military, and by the military child, as ordinary is at the center of ordinary trauma, as well as the center of this essay. As argued elsewhere, the ordinary, while unmarked and unnoticed, is nevertheless rhetorically constructed and ordered.19 Not only will the life writing of a military child duplicate this paradox but, in fact, her work as a writer will perpetuate it—reproducing, to a greater and lesser extent, the message she receives that this missile, like this mailbox, is simply a thing on the side of the road.
In recent years the fields of life writing and trauma studies have moved closer together. For reasons that will become apparent below, life writing is productive for locating something that is seemingly without location—traumatic memory. It is equally productive for evidencing ordinary trauma. Defining the connection between trauma (both ordinary and acute) and life writing begins with understanding the conventional definition of trauma. The study of trauma has been slow in coming. In 1980 PTSD was institutionally defined, and hence validated, by the American Psychiatric Association as a psychological reality.20 For years, soldiers had been diagnosed as "shell shocked" when they returned from war and had trouble integrating their experiences on the battlefield with domestic life. The APA's acknowledgement finally gave these soldiers' experience legitimacy. It is worth noting that the first professional recognition of the inexpressibility of traumatic memory came in the wake of the Vietnam War. War and the resulting inability to integrate its experience into everyday life become a definitive example of trauma.
Trauma, from the Greek for "wound," can be both a physical wound or psychological shock that has lasting effect. The shock is so great that, Suzette Henke writes, it forever "threatens the integrity of the body."21 In that way, trauma is a totalizing experience. The one who has been traumatized can no longer experience the world except through his or her wound. But trauma totalizes in another way as well: it is endless. Cathy Caruth writes that it is an "event that one cannot leave behind."22 Similarly, Dori Laub says of Holocaust survivors that they "bear witness not just to a history that has not ended, but, specifically, to the historical occurrence of an event that, in effect, does not end."23
Sigmund Freud was one of the first researchers to document and study the totalizing effects of trauma. His qualitative analyses of women in the late nineteenth century opened the door for the often episodic work that would follow. From the very start, what was most clear and perplexing about working with survivors of trauma was the paradoxical nature of traumatic memory. While survivors often cannot recall the traumatic event at all, they constantly revisit the event through repeated images, ritual action, icons, or dreams. In this way, the event is both known (because it keeps recurring) and not known (because it is inaccessible).
Recently, physiological psychologists have learned that traumatic memory is stored in the brain differently than ordinary memory, shedding light on the paradoxical nature of trauma. Marian MacCurdy suggests in "From Trauma to Writing" that unlike ordinary memory, which is stored in verbal, linear ways in our brain and is therefore fully assimilated into the ongoing narrative of our lives, traumatic memory is stored in the amygdala, a more "primitive" part of our brain that stores experience as image rather than language. The memory, then, not held in language, is linguistically inaccessible, is not known in any conscious, meaningful way by the survivor. While psychologists may disagree about what counts as trauma and what recovery involves, they agree that a defining principle of trauma is the fact that the sheer force, the immediacy of the experience (rape, battle, abuse, car accident) and how the brain registers that experience ensures that its effects are not experienced at the time. Instead, the event arrives belatedly to form what Herman calls an "indelible image."24 Survivors return again and again to the event via these images, trying to establish meaning by reliving the trauma. Possessed by something that they cannot name, they remain haunted.
Breaking this cycle requires the aid of an outsider, a witness, someone to help bring the experience into language. Shoshana Felman writes, referring to Freud's work, that "it takes two to witness the unconscious."25 Bringing the experience into language orders the memory, assimilates it, and makes it known. For Freud, such healing happens in therapy, through what he calls the "talking cure," where the therapist helps the survivor, through word associations or hypnosis, eventually to name what haunts him or her. Shoshana Felman suggests that artists can serve as mediators, that they can through the visual arts, literature, and film serve as vehicles for healing. Most recent is theoretical work suggesting that writing itself is therapy—that survivors can heal themselves through the writing process.26 What is even more interesting is that recovery through narrative, almost by definition, must happen in the field of life writing, the genre of writing in which the narrator represents, and re-represents, herself in relation to her world. Suzette Henke suggests that life writing heals because the autobiographical act of telling "mimics the scene" of psychoanalysis.27 The writer becomes, through revision, both the analyst and the analysand.
Traumatic memory, stored in images or icons, is prenarrative. It exists as fragments. In logotherapy or scriptotherapy, theories of narrative recovery, survivors of trauma begin to order the experience into a narrative that, Charles Anderson writes, "holds the possibility of meaning and therefore wholeness."28 What was formerly unknown, static, frozen, and totalizing becomes not only known but something that can be revised and therefore drafted, multiplied, changed, and reseen. Revision is a key part of narrative recovery.29 Writers gain power by complicating the self, seeing themselves at the locus of multiple discourses and no longer frozen in one moment. By taking charge of their self-representation, they ultimately gain power over that which formerly imprisoned them. T. R. Johnson writes, "Writing that heals is often writing in which the writer names, describes, and takes control of the experiences in which the writer's powers of naming and controlling have been explicitly annihilated" (86). Johnson focuses our attention on the intricate relationship between writing and healing—the manipulation and control of both language and self-representation. Johnson's work causes us to look for traces of agency in what a writer is doing even when the writing might typically pass unnoticed, even when we do not see "trauma," even when we know that the writing does not tell a story, let alone a war story, but feel it is saying something about the removes of war.
Life writing, then, is text and healer, testimony and witness, record and recovery. It documents trauma, and it heals. The tendency, however, is to focus on extraordinary accounts of naming and healing, where writers testify to acute psychological trauma. Most recent books that seek the intersection between trauma and life writing examine famous, literary authors, whose writing and trauma are both extraordinary.30 Such a focus parallels our desire to read extraordinary and literary examples of life writing in general. In doing so, we miss much. The "backwash" of war, like the "backwash" of everyday experience itself, is not found in these texts.
Ordinary trauma registers in ordinary ways. To understand how the extraordinary passes as the ordinary, to understand the work undertaken by institutions (specifically, here, the military) and individuals to ensure that the context of ordinary trauma is maintained, to understand what makes such trauma both powerful and insidious, we must look at ordinary writing. Only as a writer distills experience into text can we see the close relationship between the two. Only then will the ordinary writing of a military child testify to the efforts to reproduce the message that all is well.
The Diary of a Military Child
It is a haunting experience to come upon the diary you kept as a child. The diarist, like the grandparent you never visited, feels both familiar and strange. On the floor of my parent's attic, amid dust motes flocking to a nearby light, I read the cramped, penciled writing of a ten-year-old girl that was me. The entries are sporadic, fraught with resolutions to be a more consistent diary keeper, and plagued with misspellings and inventive grammar. In terms of factual content, I certainly recognize myself at ten, eleven, and twelve struggling with recurrent military relocations between the Pentagon and Pearl Harbor and with the onset of adolescence. Names of familiar friends appear: Karen, Stacy, Lisa. These are the friends with whom I played, fought, and built tree forts. On the last page of the diary, they come together along with others to form a list of names and addresses. It is my attempt to keep track of those the military has asked that I leave behind. Two names appear without addresses: Suzette and Kate. It is not that I did not know where they live. Rather, it is that at the time of this diary I had not left them yet. By recording their names, I prepared literally and emotionally for the fact that in a year or so they too would be left behind. They entered both my diary and my life as an inscribed absence.
With daily entries often stretching across decades, diaries provide the closest approximation of the "metaphor of the self," becoming, as Suzanne Bunkers writes, "the most authentic form of autobiography."31 Felicity Nussbaum notes that the diurnal form allows the contradictions of selves to exist on the page. By recording the daily, by simply writing on the page, the diarist creates both a continuous sense of self (what Nussbaum calls "an enabling fiction of a coherent or continuous identity") and a discontinuous, changing self (I am not the same as I was yesterday).32 To read the diary as life writing, as writing that documents moments in life, allows us to see the making of a self and the making of a text. The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing argues that how a diarist, or any writer, orders that text—what she chooses to "order in" and what she chooses to "order out"—tells us a great deal about writer, culture, text. Like literary life writing (memoir, diary literature, and autobiography), ordinary writing, the kind of writing that litters our lives and is most often disregarded or tossed out, equally documents the tenuous making (and remaking) of experience. Ordinary diaries, specifically, document that making on a daily basis, taking the measure of self and experience. While we often overlook the diaries by the not so famous because they tend to be boring, bare, and plain, when we learn to read them, we find a document that literally vibrates with the extraordinary work required for both identity and text formation.
I turn to the diary I kept as a military child to begin to sketch the possibilities of reading life writing produced in the context of ordinary trauma. By examining the self-representation of a military child and military childhood, we can see the work undertaken by both institutions and individuals to reproduce as ordinary the extraordinariness of war. To this end, I look at three entries from my early teenage years, moments that lay, not insignificantly, in the midst of a series of moves and at the height of a nuclear mania in the United States. Clearly, the goal here is not an in-depth exploration of my diary or diaries in general but rather to suggest a place to begin to articulate how ordinary trauma is inscribed on the page.
In many ways, my diary is like any adolescent diary in the way that, as Suzanne Bunkers writes, "structure, spelling, and punctuation are fluid and changeable" and topics addressed range from "writing about daily events" to "relationships and feelings."33 The entries, like those of many contemporary young diarists, are short, periodic, and not given to elaboration. I make no claims that my diary is structurally any different from other adolescent diaries. What I do claim is that while all diarists undertake the challenge of distilling experience into text, the lens through which I articulate my experience is one shaped by military scripts demanding that the extraordinary context of my Cold War childhood and the hardships that resulted from military service were in no way extraordinary. I claim, in other words, evidence of ordinary trauma.
My military service began in the midst of the Vietnam War—the reason my father entered the service—and ended a year after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. It was, then, dominated by the Cold War, nuclear deterrence, military buildup, and the Reagan years. Like all military childhoods, it was both typical and unique. We moved repeatedly but not as often as others. My dad wore a uniform every day of my childhood but did not carry a gun. We lived in military housing but never actually on a base. I am like and unlike the millions of other military children. When I meet other military brats or read about their childhoods, I am struck by the familiarity of the experiences, a familiarity that appears often at the level of language. For someone who has no home, these intersections become the closest I have to roots.
When I was growing up, my father always responded to those who asked us about home by saying that we were gypsies. The word would curl from his lips draped in colorful scarves and gold hoop earrings. The gypsy life was romantic, daring, and bold; it made me proud to think I was too. Military life—the moves, the losses, the relocations—was what I was taught to call "an adventure."34 Yet the diaries I find in the attic, the two I kept irregularly as a child, are not wound with the colorful and the exotic but rather with fear and sadness. While I easily remember the events that are named—the camping trips and going to the mall—in reading my diary it is the anxiety that sounds most clearly. While for years I too called myself a gypsy, my diary is an exploration of loss.
The first diary, a tiny blue book entitled "My Diary" in which I inscribed my friends in terms of their absence, was kept from the ages of ten to fourteen. It is empty more than filled, marked mostly by entries in which I account for giant gaps in time. The second diary, the one kept throughout high school, is much more regular and, not surprisingly, longer. It is in this diary that sadness and anxiety are named more openly. While I still spend much of my time recording the daily events of school and work, there are many moments when I write, "My parents have been talking about moving. I don't think I want to but what do I know. I feel so lost most of the time. I can feel myself slipping into a world of blackness where nothing exists." Meeting these words for the first time in twenty years, my desire is to console this girl, comfort her. She is and is not me.
The first entry that I will look at is one of the final entries from the small blue diary, written when I was fourteen, in the fall of 1983. My family had just moved back to the mainland from Hawaii, a route I would replicate no less than three times in my life as a military dependent. In the throes of starting both a new school and high school, I write:
October 5, 1983
Life is hard right now. I have no friends. I miss my old ones. I probably can't get contact lens and I feel very low at times. I enjoy talking to God and should do it more. I think there may be a nuclear war which we will deserve because the world is falling apart.
In many ways, this could be read as a typical entry in an adolescent's diary. There is no overt evidence, other than the reference to moving, that this diary is one kept by a military child; the worries expressed are not atypical among adolescents. What is significant, though, and what causes me to pause, is the way in which the extraordinary possibility of nuclear war is embedded within the ordinary, to the point where nuclear war is nearly unmarked in the entry. The entry is not about either getting contact lenses before the start of school or about the promise of nuclear war—it is about both. The two concerns are rhetorical equals. Neither receives extended attention or commentary. Neither is made more or less significant than the other. Neither is marked the unusual. Within the laundry list of the daily, it seems both will appear.
The appearance of the extraordinary and the ordinary side by side in my diary is not surprising, given the way they met in my life. At any moment, as things go in the military, one may be asked to die. Like its warships, the entire military community floats in a steady state of readiness. Coming and going from the base and from our house we would note the DefCon (Defense Condition) chart posted at the gate, alerting us to the level of readiness. Most of the time we were in an "Alpha" state; latitude was generally shown at the gates into the housing communities. If I forgot my ID card and the guard recognized me, chances were he would let me go home. When we hit level Charlie (due to violence in the Middle East or an act of terrorism somewhere in the world), my family would be asked to get out of our car at the gate. The guards then searched the family minivan with flash- lights, sliding mirrors mounted on wheels underneath the chassis to look for bombs. We might be returning home from the movies.
This was my daily experience. I could not make it from school to home without considering the possibility of war, if never on a conscious level.35 The regulations, the procedures, the discipline were all part of the ongoing readiness. Orders by commanding officers to their sailors to shine the brass on their ships were discipline measures taken in preparation for the time when the order would be to stay behind and protect the retreat. At least that was what my dad said when I would ask about the yelling and the screaming I saw on base, the soldiers humping, the barbed-wired brig. He would carefully explain how in time of war—bombs exploding, people dying, smoke, and debris—an officer had to know that any order would be followed without question. The discipline to die.
My duty as a military dependent was to help maintain the community necessary to ensure that an eighteen-year-old from Mississippi would, without questions, sacrifice his life. That he would respond only, "Sir, yes sir." To ensure that response, we painted the walls in our houses white, kept the lawn trim, and flew the flag on all major holidays. To ensure his response, I spent great emotional energy in the eleventh grade defending the Strategic Defense Initiative and the nuclear option. I would sit at the dinner table and tell my father what I had heard that day from the teacher and students in my Global Relations class. He would tell me exactly how to respond, what to say to those communists who did not understand. Sitting in class the following day, my father's words would pour from me—Star Wars, Mutually Assured Destruction, Nuclear Deterrence. With all my body, I would argue for war to the point of tears.
It was more than a child learning her views from her parents. It was a script, a vocabulary that I was given to translate the evidence around me—absent fathers playing war games at the bottom of the sea, neighborhood buildings with corrugated exteriors designed to prevent spying—into the ordinary. Dinner-table conversations, centered on world events, the threat of communism, and nuclear weapons, became a place where the rhetorical work of ordinary trauma was learned and tested, to be reproduced later in my diary. It all blurred together: eating the casserole my mother had made, kicking my younger brother under the table, and articulating the importance of first-strike capability. The certainty of war was everywhere. It thrummed steadily beneath my days, like a steady breeze off the ocean, unnoticed until it ceases. Hunched over my diary late at night, worrying about a new school or about my appearance, war appears like a comma or a breath.
The veneer of ordinariness—on a military base or in the diary of a military child—is the result of a great deal of work. The mistake in reading any writing that registers ordinary trauma, and indeed ordinary writing in general, is to see the "ordinariness" of the writing as somehow not constructed, simply because it is not constructed in literary and storied ways. It appears uneventful and plain only because we forget that what initially appears ordinary is actively constructed as such. For the military child, it is constructed by a writer schooled in upholding paradox. I write:
April 23, 1984
When will the time come when I'm no longer depressed? Do I just use the move as an excuse to be depressed? Am I being too particular in choosing my friends? I wish these and more answers could be answered. I hate to blow up at my brothers. It makes me feel awful. Any little thing seems to make me fly into a rage. It also always seems like my dad is putting us kids down in front of others just for a laugh. I know this isn't true, but it seems like it. I am really beginning to hate how people look down on me. I get it at school, home and from friends. They all seem not to respect me as a person, only an image or object that is theirs to do what they want with. I know it is not that bad. So why do I make it seem like it is? I wish someone would answer these questions.
The above entry comes from the blank book I kept as a diary in high school. I am fifteen. Reading this entry, I remember how hard that time in my life was. We had lived in Virginia for about six months, my dad working at the Pentagon, between two tours of duty in Hawaii. I had few friends and still felt a stranger in a school of over two thousand students. Yet in my writing I do not allow my life to be hard. In fact, I work toward the opposite effect. I work to make that which is exceptional into that which is ordinary. By neutralizing the enormity of my circumstances, by scolding myself for "using" the move as an excuse, I attempt to ensure rhetorically that the extraordinary, the potentially traumatic, remains ordinary. In effect, I reproduce the messages around me. Any attempt to mark my experience as something other than ordinary, as something capable of making me depressed, is rhetorically met by state- ments that my situation is "not as bad as it seems," self-accusations that I am trying to "make it seem" worse. I work against the impermissible and allow myself no justifiable room to be sad, scared, or lonely.
The attempt is not completely successful. In the effort to render all as ordinary, there are moments of slippage, moments where I consider the possibility that my experience is far from ordinary, even though I work to inscribe it as such. Twice in this entry I wish for outside answers to my questions, indicating that my depression may have real, though unknown, causes, that I am not just making things harder than they seem. In the plea at the beginning and end of the entry, I read the need for someone to legitimate my experiences, to say that the self-inscribed ordinary in my life is far from ordinary. The questions themselves—the very act of asking questions—tends toward resistance of the military scripts surrounding me. Even as I work hard to replicate the paradox of ordinary trauma, to reinscribe the paradox into the pages of my diary, I allow a small space to question my position as military child, the "object" that others "do what they want with."
Unlike the first entry, in which I contain the extraordinary possibility of war within the ordinary of the day, in this entry I deny the existence of anything extraordinary altogether. It is a tactic I use again and again in the diary. For example, only a week prior to the above entry I write: "I am very depressed, but you can't really tell what that is. Actually it's a reasoning fallacy." Here again, I name something extraordinary but quickly discount its status as such, relying literally on the rhetorical terms that I have learned in my ninth-grade speech class. My feelings, I write, suffer from "vagueness as Mrs. Phillips says." To be depressed is a fallacy, an inappropriate and incorrect way of viewing my situation.
What is too enormous to handle is either rhetorically controlled or left unnamed. Overwhelming loss and the seeming objectification of my body haunt the above entry. The work is to make everything ordinary, correct my misperceptions, get back in line. In the third and final entry, the extraordinary is named more explicitly, though still veiled behind the slant of metaphor.
In this last entry I am sixteen. We have moved back to Hawaii very suddenly, two weeks into my junior year of high school. A newly appointed admiral wanted my father as his legal advisor. My mom had left to visit her mother who was ill, and I had the responsibility of "packing out" the entire house while my dad finished at work. Back in Hawaii, we lived in a hotel for three months because no housing was available. I shared a room with my two brothers. Dinner was often bologna sandwiches or whatever could be grilled at the park next to the hotel. The new school I had begun attending had already been in session for weeks when I arrived. Because I missed school pictures in both schools, my junior year would go undocumented. The friends I had made—the ones I blamed myself for not trying hard enough to make—remained in Virginia. I write:
The knife sliced through the dew-kissed skin. Piercing the hardened gourd. The watermelon surrendered to the steel blade—raped. The inner secrets harshly exposed, the innocent flesh melting the callous air—sting. Again the knife clearly glides, once a unified body now separate entities. The cool juices run crazily down the shell—escape. The knife drips guiltily with blood. The pulp glimmers in the boring sun—violated. Again the knife, again the blood. Over and over—it is done.
There is no reason given for this entry's atypical, creative form. Without the specificity of a date, it signifies all of March, all of spring, all of my days. I read the entry and recoil at the violent images and language used to describe a very ordinary event. The mundane act of cutting a watermelon becomes equated with rape at knifepoint. Were this kind of violent image absent from the rest of my diary, I would dismiss it as a creative whim. Yet this is not the only time that I move into horrible fictions in my diary. In the same way that my concern over nuclear war is registered again and again, such short, violent pieces collapsing the extraordinary into the ordinary appear often. There is a piece, for example, that describes the suicide of a small boy by hanging, but it concentrates on the shoestrings that dangle to the floor. Unlike the first two passages, where the extraordinary passes as ordinary, here the ordinary becomes transformed into the extraordinary. War and the everyday are not only equalized. They are indistinguishable.
It is the rawness of both the writing and the image in the entry about the watermelon that most startles me when I read it: flesh, pulp, juice, blood. The action is syntactically isolated and rhetorically heightened by dashes. In this way, the verbs, the acts, claim their own space: raped, sting, escape, violated. The watermelon—that staple July Fourth fruit—is acted upon.
Not only do I, as the diarist, not appear, but no agent appears. Rather, the knife acts alone. No one is to blame for this abuse. The fact that the watermelon is acted on by an invisible force echoes not only the position of the military child, forced to uproot constantly, but the position of the population faced with a missile launch. The image figures a loss of control and the inability to name what or who is acting. The body eventually yields to the force.
In this final entry, the ordinary is made extraordinary and, therefore, comes closest to literally naming trauma. While my body and my position ghost the passage, I appear only as a watermelon, a common thing. My own presence is a well-rehearsed absence. Although the language and approach is unusual in comparison to much of my diary, the experience of being acted upon is commonplace, as is the fact that such action is violent.
It is difficult to describe to anyone outside the military the paradox of military childhood how hard you work to uphold the fact that your life is no different from anyone else's, no matter how many weapons abound around you. As one military brat has said of the experience, "In retrospect, it's a really ideal environment for a child. That's what I remember about the Army, aside from the other crazy part of it, the ‘kill, kill.’"36 How to rectify the ideal with the "kill, kill"? How to relocate once again and have it be okay? How to feel safe in your yard but have that safety ensured by force? How to tell yourself day after day after day that all of this—the uniforms, the guns, the nuclear submarines, the bomb shelters, the deployed fathers, the playing of Taps, the rules and regulations, the missiles and the tanks, the chain of command, the discipline to die, and the need for an arsenal that will destroy the world ten times over—that all of this is as ordinary as rain?
As a child I could not have articulated this paradox. It was my ordinary. There was nothing else. But I reproduced it in my writing. Less often, I resisted it. In those moments, when I questioned whether this was indeed "normal," I created some room for myself. I was neither warrior nor victim, but there were costs to my service, just as there are other hidden costs to being a military superpower. What I will claim is my ownership of the war story I tell here. For while my diary entries do not and cannot claim status as testimony, my understanding of my experience does testify to the paradox of military childhood and to the legacy of ordinary trauma.
1. Margaret R. Higonnet, ed., Lines of Fire: Women Writers of World War I (New York: Plume, 1999), xxi.
2. Diane Burke Fessler, No Time for Fear: Voices of American Military Nurses in World War II (East Lansing: Michigan State Univ. Press, 1996), 1.
3. There are others who are naming the reaches of war. In particular, Susan Griffin's powerful and personal book A Chorus of Stones documents the civilian cost of being a military superpower. The voices of those at home, those who waited for their husbands or fathers to return, can be heard in books like Love and Duty, by Ben and Anne Purcell; Snake's Daughter: The Roads in and out of War, by Gail Gilberg; and The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War, by Louise Steinman. Even military memoirs—like Faith of My Fathers by John McCain and The Autobiography of Lewis B. Puller,—that focus on the experiences of soldiers and officers do give passing attention to those at home.
4. Mary Edwards Wertsch, Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood inside the Fortress (New York: Harmony, 1991), xii.
5. Don M Lagrone, "The Military Family Syndrome," American Journal of Psychiatry 135 (Sept. 1978): 1041. Although outdated, Lagrone's study continues to play a key role in the professional discussion surrounding military children. Most of the research in the wake of his study is in response to his diagnosis of the military family syndrome. He is consistently cited in work on military children, and the syndrome is revisited several times. See, for example, Peter S. Jensen, Stephen N. Xenakis, Perry Wolf, and Michael Bain, "The ‘Military Family Syndrome’ Revisited," The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 179 (1991): 102-7; and Nancy A. Ryan-Wegner, "Impact of the Threat of War on Children in Military Families," American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 71 (April 2001). Last, while the military continues to be made up of mostly men, more and more women are the sponsors in military families. See Seth Stern, "New Worry: Kids with Both Parents in Combat," Christian Science Monitor 93 (Oct. 2001). The point is not that the child is subsumed by the father necessarily but that the child is subsumed at all.
6. Lindsay B. Paden and Laurence J. Pezor, "Uniforms and Youth: The Military Child and His or Her Family," The Military Family in Peace and War, ed. Florence W. Kaslow (New York: Springer, 1993), 21. There are suggestions that the military is beginning to pay more attention to all military dependents but in particular to the health and well-being of military children. For example, the U.S. Army declared 1984 "The Year of the Military Child" and 1985 "The Year of the Military Family." More importantly, there have been increases in the numbers of family services provided to military families.
7. Mary R. Truscott, Brats: Children of the American Military Speak Out (New York: Dutton, 1989), 230.
8. Ibid., 216.
9. Ibid., 208.
10. Arguing "the need for further research from children's perspectives," nurse and social scientist Nancy A. Ryan-Wegner, qtd. ibid., 236, attempts to fill the absence by studying children who are currently in the military. In this case, though, the conclusion that she draws—that a military childhood lived under the threat of war creates resilient and adaptive individuals who are no more anxious about war than their civilian counterparts—does little to complicate the picture of military childhood.
11. Ibid., 243.
12. Samuel Hynes, The Soldiers' Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War (New York: Penguin, 1997), 229.
13. Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery (New York: Basic, 1992), 32.
14. Though, as Herman points out, with cases of sexual and domestic abuse the sheer numbers indicate that the experience, far from extraordinary, is all too commonplace.
15. Charles Anderson and Marian M. MacCurdy, eds., Writing and Healing: Towards an Informed Practice (Urbana, Ill.: NCTE, 2000), 5.
16. Ibid., 4.
17. Ibid., 5.
18. Statistics exist for the increased number of cases of post-traumatic-stress disorder in wartime children. For example, PTSD increased 87 percent in children who lived through the Iraqi assault on its Kurdish population in the 1970s and 1980s. See A. Ahmad, M. A. Sofi, V. Sundelin-Wahlsten, and A.-L. von Knorring, "Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Children after the Military Operation ‘Anfal’ in Iraqi Kurdistan," European Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 9 (Apr. 2000). Although Derek Hudson and Kenneth Miller trace the dramatic rise in birth defects in children born to servicemen who fought in the Gulf War, for the most part military childhood is not directly affected by the battlefield. Hudson and Miller, "The Tiny Victims of Desert Storm," Life 18 (Nov. 1995): 46-59.
19. See my The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing: Annie Ray's Diary (Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa Press, 2002).
20. Anderson and MacCurdy, Writing and Healing, 3.
21. Suzette Henke, Shattered Subjects: Trauma and Testimony in Women's Life-Writing (New York: St. Martin's, 1998), xii.
23. Dori Laub, "Bearing Witness or the Vicissitudes of Listening," in Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, ed. Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub (New York: Routledge, 1992), 67.
24. Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 166.
25. Shoshana Felman, "Education and Crisis, or the Vicissitudes of Teaching," in Testimony, ed. Felman and Laub, 15.
26. See, especially, Anderson and MacCurdy, Writing and Healing, as well as Henke, Shattered Subjects.
27. Henke, Shattered Subjects, xii.
28. Charles M. Anderson, with Karen Holt and Patty McGady, "Suture, Stigma, and the Pages that Heal," in Writing and Healing, ed. Anderson and MacCurdy, 57-58. Discussions of writing as healing may appear to reify the notion of an essential self by using words like "self," "integration," and "wholeness." Nothing could be farther from the truth. Traumatic memory freezes one moment by refusing to assimilate it. Healing occurs only in revision, in multiplying possible selves, possible stories, possible outcomes. Likewise, it is important to remem- ber that telling the trauma story is crucial in narrative recovery not because the story is "the truth" but because a story is told at all.
29. See Tilly Warnock, "Language and Literature as ‘Equipment for Living’: Revision as a Life Skill," in Writing and Healing, ed. Anderson and MacCurdy, 34-57; Anderson, Holt, and McGady, "Suture, Stigma, and the Pages that Heal"; and T. R. Johnson, "Writing as Healing and the Rhetorical Tradition," in Writing and Healing, ed. Anderson and MacCurdy, 85-114.
30. See, for example, Leigh Gilmore, The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 2001).
31. Suzanne Bunkers, "What Do Women Really Mean? Thoughts on Women's Diaries and Lives," in The Intimate Critique, ed. Diane P. Freedman, Olivia Frey, and Frances Murphy Zauhar (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1993), 211.
32. Felicity A. Nussbaum, "Towards Conceptualizing Diary," in Studies in Autobiography, ed. James Olney (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), 134.
33. Bunkers, ed., Diaries of Girls and Women: A Midwestern American Sampler (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2001), 41.
34. Truscott, Brats, 209. Military children speak about their experiences in scripted ways. Like recovering alcoholics or the religiously converted, military children tell—or at least begin to tell—the same stories. See, specifically, Robyn Warhol and Helena Michie, "Twelve-Step Teleology: Narratives of Recovery/Recovery as Narrative," in Getting a Life: Everyday Uses of Autobiography, ed. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1996), 327-50; and Smith and Watson, Getting a Life, in general. For example, many of the military brats in Truscott's book (who grew up during the Vietnam War) speak specifically of the adaptability that the military taught them or the adventure of moving, often calling themselves "gypsies" (229). For years, I used the same language to negate the hardships of repeated relocation. The military children that I interviewed in the summer of 2000 (children who had lived through the Persian Gulf War) often began talking about their experiences with similar language, citing increased adaptability and the love of adventure.
35. As one military brat in Truscott's book says in reference to learning as a child that a plane carrying nuclear weapons had made an emergency landing on a nearby runway, this was the "day-to-day stuff. It didn't shock me at the time or upset me," Brats, 24.
36. Ibid., 16.
Caplan, Nigel A. "Revisiting the Diary: Rereading Anne Frank's Rewriting." Lion and the Unicorn 28, no. 1 (January 2004): 77-95.
Examines Anne Frank's later revisions to her diaries.
Chiarello, Barbara. "The Utopian Space of a Nightmare: The Diary of Anne Frank." Literature of the Holocaust (2004): 153-69.
Suggests that The Diary of Anne Frank invokes aspects of utopian literature despite being a work born of the Holocaust.
Goldstein, Judith. "Anne Frank: The Redemptive Myth." Partisan Review 70, no. 1 (winter 2003): 16-23.
Argues the true message of The Diary of Anne Frank has been misconstrued over time.
Hoff, Benjamin. "Magical Opal Whiteley." In The Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow: The Rediscovered Diary of Opal Whiteley, presented by Benjamin Hoff, pp. 1-66. New York, N.Y.: Ticknor & Fields, 1986.
Bio-critical study into the authenticity and critical value of Whiteley's best-selling diary from the early twentieth century.
Kesterberg, Judith S. "Diary of an Adolescent Girl." In The Last Witness: The Child Survivor of the Holocaust, by Judith S. Kesterberg and Ira Brenner, pp. 79-106. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press, Inc., 1996.
Psychological study of a Krakow, Poland wartime diary written by a teenaged girl.
Langer, Lawrence L. "One Life Lost." In The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak: Five Notebooks from the Lodz Ghetto, edited by Alan Adelson, pp. 3-15. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Asserts that diaries like The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak allow readers the opportunity to construct a fully realized image of the tragic human toll stemming from the Holocaust.
Vice, Sue. "Present-Time Narration: The Holocaust Diaries of Children and Teenagers." In Children Writing the Holocaust, pp. 118-40. Basingstroke, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Detailed study of Holocaust diaries by a variety of children and teens throughout Europe.