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Deep Survival: Anne Frank’s Extraordinary Act of Survival

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Anne’s  Great Act

How a young girl hiding in an attic, writing in her journal, transcended what it means to survive.

Text by Contributing Editor Laurence Gonzales, author of the books Everyday Survival and Deep Survival; Illustration by Marc Yankus

If she had lived, Anne Frank would have turned 80 this June. Hers was an extraordinary act of survival, in which the process of living was far more important than the outcome. Her Diary of a Young Girl, published after her death, reminds us that in some cases survival is not simply a matter of how long you live, but how well you live.

Frank’s birthday is a good time to contemplate what it means, really, to survive.
The word is derived from the Latin supervivere, a combination of super (over) and vivere (to live). While the common translation of supervivere is “to outlive,” Frank’s diary suggests that supervivere means something infinitely richer. Her story describes survival as an act of grace under pressure—super-living, you could call it.

When Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1942, the Franks, along with the van Pels family, hid from the Nazis on the top two floors of the Amsterdam office building where Anne’s father, Otto Frank, once worked. They called the space the Annex. The two families had to get used to an entirely new way of living, where at any moment they could be discovered and killed. Anne worked hard at establishing a normal life under such remarkable circumstances, and in her effort we find a true survivor.

Frank saw her captivity as a chance to face “the difficult task of improving [her]self,” and as she worked steadily through the days and weeks, she “discovered an inner happiness underneath [her] superficial and cheerful exterior.” Directed action is always essential to this sort of super-living. There must be a purpose. For Frank, it was her diary. It kept her going and gave meaning, direction, and coherence to an otherwise insane existence.

She rejoiced in life, as long-term survivors always do. “We live in a paradise compared to the Jews who aren’t in hiding,” she wrote. She drank in the beauty of the natural world, looking out the windows at the sky and writing, “I firmly believe that nature can bring comfort to all who suffer.” And, like so many wilderness survivors, Frank had a sense of humor that sustained her. At one point she wrote up a “Prospectus and Guide to the Secret Annex,” as if it were a resort, advertising it as “open all year round.” She described the diet as “low fat.” Their food was running out, and Frank had begun to starve, yet she was still making jokes. In her very last entry, she talks of her “ability to appreciate the lighter side of things.”

Frank recognized the reality of her situation, she could see her own impending doom, and yet she was determined to go on with her life. She exhibited a classic ability to survive through surrender. Survival by surrender means accepting the fact that you might die, while simultaneously embracing, and trying to extend, the life you have. It means letting go of the outcome and engaging in the process of living. “I see the Annex as if we were a patch of blue sky surrounded by menacing black clouds. The perfectly round spot on which we’re standing is still safe, but the clouds are moving in on us.”
Frank’s message is strikingly similar to those of Holocaust survivors. Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist, was imprisoned in Auschwitz and studied its internees. Those who made it through, he wrote, “were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom.” Primo Levi, an Italian chemist, also wrote about his Auschwitz experiences. In the midst of the unspeakable horror around him, Levi, like Frank, maintained his inner core: “We must not become beasts. . . . We must polish our shoes, not because the regulation states it, but for dignity and propriety.” Levi was able to tease out from the background ugliness what was good and beautiful. One morning the sun came up after a freezing night, and he rejoiced in the wonder of “eternal puddles, on which a rainbow veil of petroleum trembles.” Both he and Frank understood the concept that a life condemned but not yet finished can be exquisitely rich and rewarding. To live that way is to live fully to the end, no matter when that end might come.

There are many voices to hear among survivors, but most are of mature adults. I love Frank’s because she was just a child, yet even as the adults in the Annex were squabbling among themselves and becoming careless, Frank remained wise. Her mother advised her to think of all the suffering in the world and to be thankful. Frank’s advice to herself was to “think of all the beauty.” She had her moments of weakness too: “All I really want is to be an honest-to-goodness teenager!” she wrote.

And, despite all that was working against her, she succeeded. She lived like a teenager, right down to her own self-doubt, but also found opportunity in adversity. As she put it, “Beauty remains, even in misfortune.” Reflecting on her previous life as a pampered middle-class kid, she wrote, “It’s a good thing that, at the height of my glory, I was suddenly plunged into reality. . . . I look back at that Anne Frank as a pleasant, amusing, but superficial girl, who has nothing to do with me.”

She had undergone the transformation that is characteristic of the survival journey, and as the end approached, she lay in bed at night reflecting on “the world, nature and the tremendous beauty of everything, all that splendor. . . . A person who has courage and faith will never die in misery!”

On August 4, 1944, the Annex was raided and everyone was taken away to the death camps. Frank was 15 years old. Three months earlier she had written, “After the war I’d like to publish a book called The Secret Annex. . . . My diary can serve as the basis.” And: “My greatest wish is to be a journalist, and later on, a famous writer.” One of her last entries reads, “It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe. . . .”

Frank realized her dream. By keeping a journal, by trusting the process that she had learned so well, she became a famous writer. And in that special type of survival, one that no one could take away, she truly lived a super-life.