27 March 2015

Anne Frank

There was a play last evening. My dear friend and colleague, Tami, directed a performance of the play And then they came for me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank. The play represents an account of the life of Eva Schloss and her family during the Holocaust. Schloss and her mother survived Birkenau, but her father and brother died on the forced march from Auschwitz days before its liberation. Eva became (by default and in Anne Frank’s absence) Anne’s stepsister—after the war Schloss’s mother married Otto Frank, the only member of that family to survive the Nazi horror.  Anne is a Jewish icon of no less prominence I think than Moses. Her diary has been and will continue to be read by millions of people speaking myriad tongues; she is the subject of countless academic and [inspirational] papers. She figures prominently as trope in Philip Roth’s novel, The Ghost Writer, in which Nathan Zuckerman fantasizes that the girl sleeping upstairs at the home of his hero is Anne Frank, and that they fall in love and he brings her home to his parents. “Look Mom, I have found the perfect Jewish girl.” What parent could criticize this choice for a bride? Ellen Feldman’s novel, The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank is an account of Peter Van Pels based on his relationship with Anne gleaned from the diaries, and speculating on the life he might have lived had he survived the camps. Anne is in the public eye continuously.
Chapter 19 of Deuteronomy begins with the ritual of the red heifer (a chukkat—a commandment without explanation or even rationale), and then the following chapters of the weekly portion tells the story of the failure of Moses, Aaron and Miriam to gain entrance to the Promised Land after their forty years of wandering. After all of those years in the wilderness—forty years— after all that they had suffered and endured, after all that time wandering, and after all that they had accomplished, Miriam, and Aaron and Moses are denied access to the Promised Land. First Miriam dies, and then Moses and Aaron are told that neither of them will be permitted to enter Israel. It is a long way to go, I think, without ever arriving. The Grateful Dead seem to speak to the experience of Moses, Aaron and Miriam when they sing, “Such a long, long time to be gone and a short time to be there.” Though we never hear Moses and Aaron and Miriam ever wonder when they are going to be there, they at least know that they are going somewhere. But to have traveled almost to the destination and then to be denied access to it, well, that just seems too ironic. I wonder how one defines a life that never arrives at a destination.  At the end of their lives, Moses, Miriam and Aaron will not sit comfortably by the pool and reminisce nostalgically about their lives; they will not say, ‘Well, it was tough going, but now, look, it was worth the trouble.” Indeed, only Aaron has anyone to pass things to—after his death, Aaron’s son, Eleazar, assumes the sacred vestments and the role of high priest. But, Miriam and Moses not only have no one to pass things on to, they have nothing to pass on. These three have struggled for the past forty years—Aaron and Miriam had never even lived in the palace and been raised as royalty¾and now, having come almost to the end, they are denied resolution, denied completion, denied final satisfaction. How can they answer to their lives?
            Robert Pirsig wrote that it was the sides of the mountain that sustained life, but that it was the peak that defined the sides. There must be some idea of an end to define the means. Ends do change, and means change along with the change of ends, but means and ends exist in a relationship. It is a cliché to say it is not the destination but the journey that is important. I think it is a cliché because unless we are headed somewhere, unless there is a destination, a peak to define the travels, well, then there is no journey but only aimless wandering. Perhaps it was this that led the people wandering in the wilderness to grumbling: oh, they might have known they were headed towards the Promised Land, but as do children, they immediately wanted to know “Are we almost there?” And they complained, “We’re hungry!” “I’m thirsty!” “Are we there yet?” “I have to go to the bathroom!” A failed journey is a journey that doesn’t arrive at a destination; not to arrive at the destination is to remain on a journey, but if you aren’t headed anywhere, then all the wandering is not a journey—it is just aimless wandering. For the hoboes, for Kerouac and the Beats, for the hippies of the 1960s, it wasn’t aimless wandering in which they engaged; it was the experience of the road. But after four hundred years of slavery, well, perhaps the Israelites could be excused for their abhorrence of the road and with their impatience to arrive. Aren’t we there yet?         
            I think often of Anne Frank, who, too, did not enter any promised land after spending twenty five months of wandering, albeit, in the sedentary confines of the Secret Annex. After 25 months in the Secret Annex, living a life in conditions so horrific that they exceed my capacity to comprehend, her life ended of typhus at Bergen-Belsen. We turn the page of the diary—ah, but we know the destination here—we read, “Anne’s diary ends here.” What was all of her suffering for, I asked myself. The incredible, almost inhuman discomfort, the perpetual terror of being discovered, the experience of an excruciating, horrible claustrophobia defies my ability to conceptualize it. That hiding which was supposed to be a journey, but where did it lead? What was it for? Only to exit into the stench of the camps and the horrible issue of smoke from the chimneys of the crematoria. When I consider Anne, my grief overwhelms me. How to answer for the twenty-five months journey in the Secret Annex? For what purpose? I remain dumb.