The Girl in the Attic

Jenny Diski

I wonder if to be Jewish is to be by definition lonely in the world – not as a result of the history, but on account of the theology. If ardent young men attending the yeshiva have traditionally engaged each other in intense arguments nagging at the nicer points of interpreting the Torah, it is surely because the Jewish God is notorious for evading questions directed at him. Was there ever such a one for sliding out of an argument as Jahweh? The last time he responded to a direct question must have been when the blameless Job, suffering a foreshadowing of the 20th century with the loss of his children, his worldly goods and afflicted with all manner of physical ills, demanded – quite politely under the circumstances – to know why of his maker. ‘Where,’ boomed the Lord, ‘wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? ... Hath the rain a father? ... Out of whose womb came the ice? ... Canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook?’ All interesting questions, but not really to Job’s point. God does not seem to be a good communicator. Too busy with the overall scheme of things, perhaps. He’ll give out ten blanket rules, but he won’t tell you why your life seems to be so bloody difficult lately. The problem of the senior executive without the common touch. Catholicism seems to have understood the Almighty’s failing and provided its faithful with a bevy of more approachable under-managers, each with their own speciality, willing and able to intercede with on high on behalf of the baffled individual. A Catholic knows exactly who to apply to when hoping for better health, safe travel, release from drudgery or persecution. There is a saint for almost everything that ails you. For the Jews, however, there is only a single very busy, self-important and fractious God. So it seemed to me when I was young. I was troubled by the unreliability of prayer, rather as one feels anxious about sending important letters to large organisations.

Anne Frank is the only Jewish saint. I first read the diary of Anne Frank when I was about the same age as she was when she began to write it. She seemed to me perfectly to fit the bill as a possible intercessor. Perhaps, in the years after the war, young Jewish girls all over Europe discovered her as a saint all their own: someone to share the miseries of pre-adolescence, someone to turn to in times of aching solitariness within their raucous families, who would without doubt understand. She sounded so like oneself, and yet she was dead, which gave her a necessary gravitas. She may have personified the Holocaust for millions of adults – the diary is the most widely read non-fiction book after the Bible – but for me, aged 12 or 13, she simply told the story of what it is like to be 12 or 13 in a world where no one seems to be listening to you. Read the diary without hindsight (impossible for any adult, of course, but not so difficult when you are a child looking for a literary friend) and it is a masterly description of the sorrows and turmoil of any bright, raging, self-dramatising young girl. Read in this way, in the way I first read it, the sequestration becomes peripheral, the fear of capture secondary. ‘I don’t fit in with them’ is an early and continuous complaint that for me, at the time, quite overrode Anne Frank’s particular circumstances. Being locked in an attic in fear of one’s life was, to my mind, just another version of being trapped with the family. What counted was someone who looked not very different from me, saying precisely what was on my mind. Anne Frank, wanting to be a writer, precocious, isolated, furiously adolescent and angry with her family, was the point.

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