The power of words – Anne Frank’s 70-year echo

I’ve been told more than once that I have an unusual desk at work. I can’t lie about this—I try to make it stand out with my books, photos and knick-knacks. I mean, how often would you see a Theodore Roosevelt action figure, a Chris Farley bobblehead, a plaque of John F. Kennedy, and pictures of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Harry S. Truman and in the same place?

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Well, I feel this eclectic mix represents what I value or symbolizes the traits I wish to emulate at work and in my life. But, given the complaint of a potential eye sore, if I had to keep just one item by my desk, it’d be a simple postcard I got 12 years ago that has a special meaning to me.

It’s an illustration of Anne Frank, sporting a yellow star while writing in her diary, with her signature and the following excerpt from her world-renowned diary: “…in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

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The card came from the Holocaust Museum and Memorial at Washington, D.C, which I visited in March 2003. At the time, I was a high school student with my family stationed in Germany. I’ve found a mixture of hope and solace in reading that statement, written by Frank in the most trying circumstances July 15, 1944, just weeks from their eventual capture by Axis forces.

Now that I’m stationed in Germany, I’m glad I had the opportunity to go to Amsterdam July 5, 2014, as part of the 52nd Force Support Squadron’s Information, Tickets and Travel tour, to see Anne Frank’s House and a nearby statue in her memory. While preparing for this trip, I re-examined the significance of this card and statement, particularly nearing the 70th anniversary of when she wrote it.

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Like many of you, I first learned about Frank in elementary school. My fourth-grade teacher, Mr. DiJohn, used his lectures to paint these sweeping images of troop movements across Europe as well as details about the deals made and broken by national leaders as the war unfolded.

Who needed “Star Wars,” Saturday morning cartoons or comic books? We’d learn about Allied heroes like Chester Nimitz, Audie Murphy and Dwight Eisenhower as they were pitted against villains like Hitler, Tojo and Mussolini. Those sessions were captivating to me and my fellow 10 year olds’ active imaginations, and we couldn’t wait to hear how the war would unfold.

But our collective attention truly focused when Mr. DiJohn shifted gears, moving from grand-scale international battle outlines to talking about one Jewish girl and her family in Amsterdam. It was the classic macro vs. micro approach to highlighting a conflict that made any narrative so compelling – “here’s the story of the War from a kid’s perspective – a kid like me?!”

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Now, I’m not Jewish nor am I a girl, but those traits never diluted how her life story about how war can transform anyone, even if they’re not a soldier. Reading excerpts from her diary and watching the film about her family’s ordeal stuck with us longer than reciting battle dates or country’s leaders. She was a kid, just like us, who displayed courage and optimism in hard times not through bullets or brutality but through her words in a journal.

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The Holocaust is a heavy subject to teach children at any age. We knew the Axis powers were evil — we just had no idea how much until we read from her stories of fear of potentially going to a concentration camp. We didn’t grasp appreciation of extravagances we took for granted until reading how excited she was to receive things like slices of cheese and jam for holiday presents instead of 16-bit video game consoles (hey, I was in the fourth grade in 1994).

While we’ve increased our video game capabilities since 1944 and 1994, we’ve also expanded our outlets to broadcast our innermost thoughts. Now that I’m going to be 30 soon and work as a photojournalist for the Air Force, I wonder how Anne Frank’s story would have fared in an age of social media, with Tweets and blogs and status updates?

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Or, in an age of #Selfies aimed at getting a multitude of “likes” and celebrity relationship statuses absorbing so much attention, would her thoughts about hiding in fear and feelings for fellow housemate Peter have carried less meaning? Furthermore, would anyone have paid attention to her in the current cacophony of celebrity-driven drivel?

But even though it was 70 years ago and before our technological terms, Anne Frank had one key qualification to demand anyone’s attention today: She was being herself.

She was hopeful even when she had every reason not to be. She reserved that notion for all people — I assume even the people who created the conditions forcing her family into hiding.

She shared her feelings on family, faith and equality not as a platform for a social movement, but as a reaffirmation to herself of what she believed in and what she would work for if she was given a chance.

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Sadly, she wasn’t able to achieve her dream. She was captured, sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and died there sometime in March 1945—just days before its liberation by the Allied forces. But her words lived on as an example for others on how they could make the most of their lives with the power of words and ideals — the very same notions that she chose to believe “in spite of everything.”

Interestingly, she stated if she lived past the war that she wanted to be a journalist. And, in re-reading her diary ahead of my trip to Amsterdam, my mind went back to that classroom lecture with Mr. DiJohn and my class.

Then it hit me. Subconsciously, I realized from reading about her aspirations when I was 10 I formed mine as a writer one day, too.

I like to think that Anne’s favorite book would have been the same as mine: a blank one. While bearing nothing but empty pages, they serve as ones we can write our thoughts and dreams. Whether anyone else reads them doesn’t matter – but if they do, the words should speak about the writer as much as they do on their own.

While seeing her statue and former home, I realized that we may try to build legacies that outlast our lifetimes … in the end, it’s something more simple, like our words, that last forever.

Our words matter — let them stand for something, but let it be for something good.

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The sentence from “The Diary of a Young Girl” is used with approval from the Anne Frank House. No copyright infringement intended. To learn more about the Anne Frank House, www.annefrank.org. For more information on the 52nd FSS trips, visit www.52fss.com.

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One Response to The power of words – Anne Frank’s 70-year echo

  1. Gregory Simon says:

    Joe,

    Like a beautifully contrasting colors and strokes of a Van Goch, your personal reflection and powerful words were a great respite from a busy and hectic day. Especially as Hamas and Israel are warring (among others), May Anne Frank’s spirit and faith act as a reminder of compassion. In Germany, they say “Die Klugen geben immer nach.”

    On a side note, being in IT, I sometimes wonder if we are compromising quantity for quality. Is there a limit in being connected?

    Can imagine your German experience is quite different the second time around as an adult. Continue success with your journey. Schoen geschrieben. v/r, Greg (Stef’s Dad)