Castles in the Sand

When the waters rise, will our castles remain?

“I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.”

So often we gloss over quotes like these as inspirational yet kind of cheesy. Probably not this specific quote (due to its origin), but likely something with a similar basic sentiment can be found artistically written out on a wooden art piece somewhere in your house or office. It’s easy to sterilize the depth of words like these when we don’t really think about them.

This is probably the most famous quote from Anne Frank’s diary. Many people read the diary in middle school or high school while learning about World War II and the Holocaust. But that “many people” is dwindling, I think. I didn’t read it when I was in school, and recent discussions have led me to believe fewer and fewer kids are learning about the Holocaust in school. I actually read an article in The (not at all failing) New York Times today about that very thing.

For the past month I’ve had the privilege of working with some incredibly talented people to put together a stage show of The Diary of Anne Frank. For someone who did learn about the Holocaust but never read the original diary, the experience has been very moving. I’d known about the famous quote and the very basic gist of her story, but now get to place myself as much as I can into the character of Mr. Dussel and try to imagine the actual experience of hiding in a tiny annex with seven other people for two years. For the first time in my limited acting experience, I’m trying to portray a real person (although the character in the show is quite different from the real Fritz Pfeffer he represents due to storytelling reasons to make the play flow more efficiently).

While it would be offensive, irresponsible and simply false to claim I’m getting to know the fears and struggles endured by Pfeffer/Dussel and the rest, I am getting the tiniest fraction of a taste. And, to be honest, that’s more than enough.

I’ve been blessed to experience an upper-middle class upbringing in the United States of America as a straight white Christian male. While I have worked hard to achieve whatever I have, I am also fully willing to acknowledge the incredible privileges I’ve experienced on the way. The thought of going into hiding for fear of being dragged from my home and sent to a concentration camp is not something I can relate to.

I can’t even begin to imagine how these people endured two years in the conditions they faced. We only have to pretend for two hours at a time, and that is emotionally exhausting.

The final line of the show features Anne’s father Otto – the only one of the eight in the annex who survived the Holocaust – finding that most famous quote in the diary. He rereads it, reflects on it and admits simply, “she puts me to shame.” After making it through those experiences, he simply can’t identify with that sense of hope and faith in the goodness of humanity.

“…in spite of everything…”

While people tend to focus on the second half of the quote, that people are really good at heart, to me these four words are the most important. These are the ones we need to never forget. These are the ones we need to cling to and contextualize.

My idea of “in spite of everything” is weak, as I’ve faced very little genuine hardship in my life. And while everyone’s experiences have been different and some have absolutely been quite difficult, I dare say most of us are in a similar situation. So we owe it to Anne not to gloss over those words.

Those words aren’t about what we imagine as hardship. They are the reality she lived for more than two years: tiny living quarters shared by eight people, barely any food, no opportunity to leave the annex, the full knowledge that at any moment it could all end with their arrest. No child should have to face that; no human being of any age should have to face that.

That is the “everything” in spite of which she hopes.

I know a lot of people have no interest in seeing a show like this one, and I completely understand. Theatre is supposed to be a joyful escape. Why would you sit through something so sad? And to be honest, I might think similarly if not for my experience this past month.

Here’s why: because we forget so easily. Because 70 years is a long time, and we’re already seeing signs in our world today that the hate has not subsided and the lessons supposedly learned have faded from our memory. Because we owe it to Anne, to the other seven people in the annex, to the six million people murdered in the Holocaust.

Because while the story is sad, there’s hope. Because Anne still believed, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart. It’s our job to understand exactly what that means – to have that hope in spite of the “everything” she endured. And to commit ourselves to helping create a world that proves it true.

Because, like Otto, she puts us to shame. But while the show ends there, our world doesn’t. We don’t have to leave her words in the clichéd art pieces on the wall. We can carry that legacy forward into a world someday where a 15-year-old girl doesn’t have to believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.

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