Magazine article Foreign Policy

Girl, Emulated: Why There Can Never Be Another Anne Frank

Magazine article Foreign Policy

Girl, Emulated: Why There Can Never Be Another Anne Frank

Article excerpt

Last summer, as Israeli bombs and rockets exploded outside her home in Gaza, a 16-year-old Palestinian girl named Farah Baker began live-tweeting to document the war unfolding around her. Her communiques ranged from the sad ("I miss my friends") to the heartbreaking ("A child martyred and many wounded"). By the time the SO-day conflict subsided, Baker had become an international media sensation, attracting hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when she called herself the Anne Frank of Gaza, her reference was picked up by sources ranging from Salt Lake City's Deseret News to Al Jazeera.

Thus Baker became the latest in a succession of young women--Zlata Filipovic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ma Yan of China, and Hadiya of Iraq--whose anguished and often incisive dispatches from imperiled regions have inspired comparisons to the Jewish girl who wrote her remarkable journal from the "secret annex" above a spice warehouse in Amsterdam. Doubtless more Anne Franks have arisen in other embattled places in the decades since Frank's diary was first published in the Netherlands in 1947. And all of these diarists serve an important purpose: They compel readers to remember that somewhere children are living through calamity or, in some cases, not living through it.

The diaries in question were produced under wildly diverse circumstances. Frank remained unknown to the world during her lifetime. By contrast, the discovery of Ma's diary by a French journalist in 2001 brought the girl publicity and tuition funds for her and other children in her remote village of Zhangjiashu in northern China; Filipovic's publishers, also French, pulled strings in 1993 to evacuate her and her family to Paris; and Baker helped focus the world's attention on Gaza's urgent plight, though she and her family did not receive aid.

The contrast between Baker and Frank is particularly stark: While Frank wrote in hiding, untouched by the gaze of the global media, Baker was engaged with-- and responsive to--an interactive, instantaneous international readership. Baker herself has evoked Anne Frank's name as a form of shorthand to help her Twitter followers understand her mission. But the comparison, whether made by Baker or others, is an inaccurate one.

To put a writer in a category such as "the Anne Frank of" here or there is to deny that writer's individual voice. No one says he's "the Shakespeare of Belgian theater" or "the Hemingway of Poughkeepsie" or "the Philip Roth of China" because it is understood that there is only one Hemingway, one Shakespeare, one Roth. But because Anne Frank was a girl, and because she was young, she is everygirl--anygirl who documents suffering. The generic Anne Frank also occupies a particular sexual niche: the virgin martyr, a young romantic, given to crushes.

But Frank was neither a species, a generic person, nor a brand. Whereas Baker wants to become a lawyer and Filipovic is now a film producer, Frank wanted to be a writer. Indeed, her diary is the work of a very particular writer working under very particular circumstances--importantly, under the circumstances best suited to the development of an author. Although the Nazis and their Dutch collaborators were actively killing and rounding up Jews, and though the Franks lived in constant fear, they were not under active siege; they inhabited a sort of prison in which the adults tried to create for the children a simulacrum of normal life. …

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