May 30, 2021

Shafts of Light, V: Anne Frank

Passage: Psalm 118

A Song of Victory
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    his steadfast love endures forever!

Out of my distress I called on the Lord;
    the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place.
With the Lord on my side I do not fear.
    What can mortals do to me?
The Lord is on my side to help me;
    I shall look in triumph on those who hate me.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord
    than to put confidence in mortals.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord
    than to put confidence in princes.

All nations surrounded me;
    in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side;
    in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
They surrounded me like bees;
    they blazed like a fire of thorns;
    in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
I was pushed hard, so that I was falling,
    but the Lord helped me.
The Lord is my strength and my might;
    he has become my salvation.

If you are feeling a little constricted and claustrophobic after 15 months locked down at home, you will feel better about your plight if you read The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank. You probably already read it in middle school; read it again.

You probably know that Anne was born in Frankfort but fled Nazi persecution in Germany with her family at the age of four and lived most of her life in Amsterdam.

When her older sister Margot was summoned to a cattle car for transport to a labor camp, the Frank family went into hiding at a clandestine apartment above her father’s warehouse. Otto Frank manufactured and distributed pectin, a key ingredient in strawberry jam.

The original title of Anne’s diary was Het Achterhuis in Dutch; The Secret Annex in English. If you have been to Amsterdam, you have visited the Anne Frank House and have seen the revolving bookcase which concealed the entrance to the Secret Annex. It’s right out of a spy novel; it IS a spy novel.

The Frank family moved into the Secret Annex in July of 1942 and stayed there for 25 months, until August of 1944, when they were discovered, arrested, and shipped like cattle to Auschwitz and later Bergen-Belsen.

Historians have spent the last 75 years trying to figure out who betrayed Anne to the Gestapo but have not been successful. The bounty on a Jew at the time was about $2, but remember that there were eight Jews hiding in the Secret Annex, every Christian in Amsterdam was starving in 1944, and $16 will buy you a lot of groceries. It’s possible that no one betrayed them; maybe the Gestapo just stumbled upon the family by accident.

Anne died at Bergen-Belsen in a typhus epidemic that killed 17,000 other prisoners in February of 1945, about six weeks before His Majesty’s Armed Forces liberated the camp in April. Anne was 15 years old. Anne’s mother starved to death at Auschwitz, and her sister Margot died with her of typhus at Bergen-Belsen. Anne’s father Otto was the only Frank to survive the war.

Otto’s secretary Miep Gies, who’d delivered food, news, and encouragement to the Franks for 25 months at the risk of her own life, returned to the Annex after the Gestapo left and found page after page of Anne’s handwriting littering the floor. She collected them and put them in a desk drawer until she could return them to Anne.

When she could not return them to Anne, she gave them to Otto, who eventually published one of the most important books of the twentieth century. When Mr. Rogers says, “Look for the helpers,” he really means “Look for someone like Miep Gies.”

Why do we preach these sermons about the Shafts of Light in our Malott Chapel, and why do you read books like Letter from Birmingham Jail and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison and Diary of a Young Girl?

It’s because they sharpen our virtue, no? They make us finer neighbors and citizens.  It is impossible to read these books and emerge unchanged. The contrast in these books between the virtuous and the vile just could not be any starker. The lives of Miep Gies and the other helpers are just LIT UP with kindness and courage, while the Nazis just seethe with hideous malice.

You know what struck me while reading Anne’s Diary? It’s the Nazi’s monomaniacal focus on what they called The Jewish Problem, which was not only EVIL; it was also STUPID.

Anne Frank hides in the Annex from July of 1942 till August of 1944. What’s happening all around Amsterdam in that time frame? The German Empire is just crumbling before the eyes of the entire world.

The Russians crush the Germans at Stalingrad. Eisenhower and Montgomery defeat Rommel in North Africa. The Allies invade first Italy and then France, on D-Day, June 6, 1944, eight weeks before the Franks are discovered and arrested. B-17's are mercilessly bombing German cities.

When Anne goes into hiding, V-E Day is still almost three years away, but it is the beginning of the end, or as Churchill put it: “This is not the end; it is not even the beginning of the end; but it might be the end of the beginning.”[1]

He said that in November 1942. Didn’t the Germans have more pressing problems than the Jews? And yet till the bitter end, they’re rounding up Jews and shipping them like cattle across the entire length and breadth of Holland, Germany, and Poland.

This is what happens when we are blinded and crippled by our pinched, petty, parochial, parsimonious prejudices.  If the Germans had welcomed all those Jewish luminaries in the 1930's and made use of their genius, instead of chasing them out and sending them around the world, they might have won the war: Albert Einstein, Max Born, Enrico Fermi, Sigmund Freud, Mark Chagall, Arnold Schoenberg, Henry Kissinger.

Psalm 118 says, “Out of my distress, I called on the Lord, and the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place.” Set me in a BROAD place. In other words, “I felt smothered in a tiny hiding place, and I cried to the Lord, and the Lord lifted me up out of my cramped, constricted, claustrophobic confinement, and set me free on a broad, spacious, expansive horizon.”

God has done just that for the likes of you and me. We called to the Lord out of our distress, and the Lord set us in a BROAD place. God has given us these three almost miraculous vaccines, so here we are, back together again. You can wear a mask if you want to, but you don’t have to.

Sadly, God never delivered Anne Frank and her family to that broad place, to that precious freedom, but there’s still hope for us. We will pray that God will deliver us from the narrow place of our own unworthy enmities and into the broad place of generous welcome, gracious hospitality, and wide friendships.

On Memorial Day Weekend, we will remember Anne Frank and say “Never again.” On Memorial Day Weekend, we will remember what happened in Tulsa 100 years ago this weekend and say “Never again.” Never again for African Americans. Never again for Jewish Americans. Never again for Asian Americans. Never again for Muslim Americans. Never again.

Anne Frank was just an ordinary teenager, in love for the first time, with all the attendant raptures and misadventures, yet one writer said, “One voice speaks for six million—the voice not of a poet or a sage but of an ordinary little girl.”[2]

Common consensus has it that this little’s girl’s diary is a sharper indictment of Nazism “than all the evidence at Nuremberg put together.”[3]

Nelson Mandela read Anne’s diary while he was in prison on Robben Island. He compared Anne’s witness to Anti-Semitism to his own war against apartheid. He said, “Because these beliefs are patently false, and because they were, and always will be, challenged by the likes of Anne Frank, they are bound to fail.”[4]

Anne Frank was an ordinary teenager and Miep Gies was an ordinary Dutch secretary and housewife, but she did what she could; she did what God asked of her. She is on the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem.

In 1997, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands knighted her into the Order of Orange-Nassau. An asteroid between Mars and Jupiter is named for her: Asteroid 99949 Miepgies. Even there, she catches and reflects the light of the sun and shines.

She was embarrassed by all this adulation and refused to consider herself a hero. She said, “I stand at the end of the long, long line of good Dutch people who did what they had to do and more—much more—during those dark and terrible times years ago, but always like yesterday in the hearts of those of us who bear witness.”[5]

Ordinary people, just like you and I. So we confront this stark, urgent choice: the broad, expansive, spacious place of gentle mercy, unflinching courage, and sweeping, inclusive hospitality; or the cramped and narrow space of unseemly hostilities.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”[6]

[1]Winston Churchill, The Lord Mayor's Luncheon, "The End of the Beginning," November 10, 1942.

[2]Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg, quoted in the wikipedia entry “Anne Frank.”

[3]Adapted from Jan Romein, who published the article about the diary that led to its publication as a book, quoted in the wikipedia entry “Anne Frank.”

[4]Nelson Mandela, (15 August 1994). "Address by President Nelson Mandela at the Johannesburg opening of the Anne Frank exhibition at the Museum Africa".

[5]Quoted by Richard Goldstein, “Miep Gies, Protector of Anne Frank, Dies at 100,” The New York Times, January 12, 2010.

[6]Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day,” House of Light (Boston: Beacon Press, 1990), p. 60.

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