The Red Diary
A cycle of narrative poems inspired by the diary of Anne Frank
by Margaret Gunning
Part one of four
by Margaret Gunning
Part one of four
To the memory of Anne Frank
I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
- Lamentations 3: 19 - 23
Very early on a summer morning, I had a long and strange dream about Anne Frank.
This came after what seemed like an eternity of dryness and lack of inspiration in my work, when the ground was so parched the flakes of earth curled under the sun. In the dream, I was incarcerated in a Nazi prison camp. I was very earnestly trying to put together a book of my own, a sort of diary, only it was being compiled according to a rigid set of specifications, many of which made no sense. I was (as it were) only following orders.
In this dream, I had a certain awareness that I would soon be executed, though I was not sure what I had done to deserve it. This caused me more resignation than fear. Then I was looking through the original of Anne Frank’s diary, only the pages were made of a very sheer, fragile, almost iridescent glass, and were full of photographs and ghostly, glowing images. There were no words. I said to someone beside me (perhaps a fellow prisoner), “This life means something, no matter how short. It stands for something, and it will be remembered. It is a lesson.”
Then I was actually standing in the presence of Anne Frank, small and dark and intense, exactly as she appeared in her famous photographs. Without speaking the words aloud, I asked her, “You know how this ends, don’t you?” She knew, and I knew that she knew, even though she did not say a word.
There was an extraordinary feeling of touching her essence, as if there were no real border between us, even though in this dream I was not myself, but a soldier, a man. The rest of the symbolism and puzzles of this dream remain a mystery, some riddle my psyche would rather I not resolve.
At about the same time, something unexpected happened: I began to see a lot of newspaper and magazine articles about Anne Frank, as the world marked the 60th anniversary of the discovery of her hiding place in
. She would have been 75
years old at the time I was writing, probably a mother and a grandmother, and
it is impossible for me to believe that her remarkable writing would have
stopped in her youth. This sense of
anniversary and of what might have been made the writing experience especially
poignant for me. Amsterdam
The strange vision I experienced on that summer morning was so vivid it affected me almost like an electric shock, forcing me to take a look at the extremes of human valour, humble self-revelation, sacrifice, art. . . all the things I admire and crave, yet fear that I lack. My immediate reaction was feeling that I was not worthy to write about this, that I had no claim on Anne Frank or anything she stood for; I am not a Jew, I don’t remember the war, and at the time of the dream, I had not read Anne’s diary for some thirty-five years, so my memories were hazy at best.
But something compelling was set in motion by this dream, and I did begin to write, even in the face of my doubt and fear. The dream also compelled me to re-read the diary, this time in the “definitive edition” of 1995, which includes a wealth of material not present in the carefully edited version I had read as a girl. It seems that the world is now ready to encounter a more human Anne, sometimes angry and critical (especially towards her mother), and always true to her name in her frankness about sexuality, spirituality and all the abiding mysteries of life.
Daily I would read a section of the diary, no more than twenty pages at a time, as more than that would have been overwhelming. Daily I struggled to respond in poetry to this astonishing document, so well written that it would be the envy of any mature professional writer. At the same time, I was reading biographical material from other sources to fill in the background. I also discovered the superb Oscar-winning documentary film Anne Frank Remembered, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in this compelling subject.
Through writing this long poem, I began to re-experience traumatic events in my own early life, and I had a decision to make as to whether to include them in the work. In the final analysis, I felt I had little choice, as the material kept presenting itself, more and more insistently. It was a creative risk I had to take, in spite of my continued struggle with an unresolveable dilemma: how dare I claim to have suffered in the face of the horrendous abyss of the Holocaust?
Though I did not completely lay this internal battle to rest, I did continue with my poetic response to Anne’s diary until it was completed to the best of my ability. Though much of the original dream remains a mystery to me, I believe it was a gift of sorts, as well as a creative spur. I was being asked, even invited, to take a deeper look at something powerful, something ultimate, perhaps even transformative. In the face of my own doubt and fear, I had to follow this bright red thread wherever it would lead me.
DREAM OF ANNE FRANK
when I opened your book of pages
a glass butterfly with manifold wings
I knew I had no pages
except according to directions
that made no sense: I was only following orders!
but you were there, a slip of a girl
a slice of pure meaning
and I wondered how I dared to look – knew
I was not worthy to look,
but had to look – could not avert my eyes,
as you could not avert your
steady brown gaze, those eyes that saw
to the core of so many things.
I was some sort of broken soldier
except I was on the wrong side,
always in the wrong. . . and commanded
to make a book that had no meaning,
according to illogic’s rules.
And I obeyed.
I always followed orders,
so that my book had no meaning
and no sense.
Your book shone like
gold teeth, like eyeglasses
in a heap,
frail hoarded visions,
all the images
of the millions
who can no longer see.
How could you know at fourteen
what we lose when we age, the clarity
that saw through surface grumpiness,
bad smells, bad temper
to shining selves in a war for integrity.
Shut away, you blossomed.
Impossible. Impossible that you could
bring forth such clarity, such an account:
you were only telling what you saw,
but you said everything, held nothing back.
Such hard truth. Such audacity.
Destroyed: yes, snuffed out
by other humans; will my mind ever
comprehend the reeling contradiction?
Is this why I despise myself?
What sort of Nazi am I, that tramples the
Is forgiveness impossible
in being on the wrong side?
Can I shut up the yammering Hitler in my
My dreams are grimy newsreels
of pompous oppression
and silently shrieking crowds
that fall into lockstep,
the fresh-faced, wholesome youth
who gaze up smiling
at the face of their saviour.
Anne floats above all. Freed.
Not held to this earth,
this place of pain.
But we needed her. We needed her to stay.
Her vacancy is like the cavity of a
We will miss her forever.
My heart slowly turns
and I am eviscerated,
my body an empty cavity
through which a raw wind blows.
I am not a Jew
But I never knew her.
She was never mine.
What claim do I have on her?
I am not a Jew.
On the wrong side. The other.
Not the one who saved.
Not the one who redeemed.
I would not hide a Jew.
I would not risk that shadow in my house.
My heart skulked, scurried like rats.
My neighbor left a loaf of bread on the doorstep
daily until the famine was over.
I kept the bread for myself: shooting Jewish dogs
in the head.
My soul writhes.
There was no other.
I was the Jew.
But I could not see.
But I could not see.
You appeared to me
quite early in the morning,
and for all the world
it was as if I was looking at you
straight and clear
as you were in life,
small and dark and neat,
graceful as a young tree,
with a charming smile and a dimple,
and a brain like chain-lightning.
Such small frail shoulders to support
so many millions,
the fragments of hope,
just enough to carry on.
For these words, these words,
I will live another day,
I will not end this,
twist though my heart might
all meaning flown away.
One small pure flame of integrity
will sustain my life, will carry me through
and impossible night.
You said so much
about life in captivity.
You said so much about proximity
forced by circumstance
and forces of history
meted out in matchsticks, daily bread
and bickering over the least of things.
Bread, and soldiers
and marching steps
and radio broadcasts that crackled with static
you must have known where you were
even as young as you were,
that someone had to do it,
to bear witness to the dailiness, the strain,
the tiny flashes
of inextinguishable joy.
What gave you such steadiness? I quail before you.
My head spins in astonishment.
Life had not taught you that you couldn’t;
and so you could, and did.
Barely in your teens, your gift was full-blown;
you knew you were doing the work.
And what is more, you had the valour
and the persistence
to keep getting up in the morning
to face all those people
who got on your nerves
who barely comprehended you
(even if they loved you),
who could not tell you anything,
offer any hope, any sense of a way,
a way back to life in full.
The overpowering tectonic forces of history
molded you, matured you
before your time,
forced like a rare orchid
into rich bloom
in a stifling corner.
A certain fearlessness
though the grownups must have been
paralyzed with anxiety,
barely able to sleep or work or make love
in the shadow of unspeakable fear.
Was it your youth, your spirit,
was your courage so much greater,
or did your daily words, your task,
put the heart in you
while the others sank
It is a holy document.
One would expect a grand binding
of leather and gold,
or parchment paper with gilt edges,
but instead it’s a jolly little thing,
gaily covered in red-and-green plaid
with a lock and key for privacy.
An ordinary girl’s diary, a birthday
present, a potential, a book of pages,
and for you, with such a gift,
Kitty, you called it, and it looks like a Kitty
in a bright stylish coat,
fun and flirtatious,
tossing her dark hair, light and careless of heart.
And the early entries
are all about bicycle rides,
and testing out your power
as a woman,
though even in this time of freedom,
you felt the menace closing in.
Jews must wear a yellow star,
must badge themselves
with this symbol so strangely beautiful,
two triangles, a double trine of fire,
a requirement, a signal, a delineation,
a branding of otherness,
of look, look, I am a Jew, I cannot hide
what I am,
I must wear it all the time on my breast
right next to my heart
so the enemy can watch me,
can keep his eyes on me,
and use my own symbol of power
Jews must wear a yellow star,
Jews cannot go out at night,
Jews cannot visit with Christians,
Jews must not go to the market
in the day time. . .
and on and on, the restrictions,
closing in like a hand.
Inside this bright plaid coat
yet walks with light step, defiant.
Like klezmer music,
a light spirit is ultimate resistance,
a refusal to be bowed.
And so you sat and wrote: Dear Kitty.
And this girlish, kittenish companion
caught all your thoughts, received your days.
She sat and listened.
She was fascinated with you.
You focused down, you became absorbed,
and you wrote what you saw.