Perspective: Reading the Diary of Anne Frank in Jail

BY the time I got to jail, the shock of the 18-day sentence was wearing off and reality started to set in.  The words my lawyer said to me as I was escorted out of the courtroom in handcuffs were ringing in my ears - “everything happens for a reason.” But still, I was locked up and thrown into maximum security for nothing more than a peaceful protest that happened over a year ago. Other water protectors arrested that day, October 22nd, had their charges dropped and I felt oddly singled out.  Despite the moral high ground that I held, it was a penetrating loss of control over my life - can’t eat what I want, can’t wear what what I want, can’t go where I want, can’t do what I want. But on the third day of the sentence, I was lucky to find something that burst the balloons I had inflated for my pity party; I found The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank.

For those of you who don’t know, in 1942, Anne Frank’s family went into hiding in Holland to escape the scourge of the Nazis.  The Franks found an attic to live in, and after two years living confined, they were finally caught, loaded on to trains, and sent to concentration camps to die a slow, painful, starving death. Most of the book is about their life up in the attic, their day-to-day survival and the perpetual threat of being found if they so much as raised a voice. Tensions between the family members ran high, making it emotionally as well as physically taxing, but they all still knew that as long as they weren’t in a concentration camp - being gassed, shot, or worked to exhaustion - that they were okay. 

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I too am Jewish and when I saw it, sitting dignified amongst the unreadable romance and dime-store detective novels, I realized for the first time, that I had indeed been put there for reason. Though I had always meant to read it, I never had, so there it was to meet me in my time of struggle. It showed me that my ancestors have endured pains far beyond any threshold I could conceive of and that whatever I have to deal with, whether I feel like I deserve it or not, I can get through it. While it is easy to complain about the dog food-grade meals, the perpetual surveillance, and an endless ocean of boredom, the Diary gave me a different perspective than I came in with - This is easy. This is nothing. I am alive and it’s not as bad as it would be if I was in a different country in a different era with a gold star pinned to my chest.  Certainly the Franks, all beautiful human beings at their core, did not deserve the fate that came to them.  And even through their suffering, they dealt with it with more dignity than one could imagine.

I do not say any of this to diminish the suffering that I felt in there. But before I go into depth about what my experience was like, I feel it’s right to acknowledge where it belongs on the spectrum of suffering. I, like many Native people I've talked to, am emboldened by the resilience of my ancestors, especially in moments when it seems like the world is falling apart.

Strange what truths dwell in the depths that seem the darkest.

Alex Simon