August 30, 2017

Lessons from Anne Frank & George Orwell: Why we must be Responsible for Writing our own History.

“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth.” ~ George Orwell, 1984


On a recent family trip to Amsterdam, my two teenage daughters, my husband, and I toured the Anne Frank House.

This is the actual house where Anne and her family lived and hid in the annex for a year before they were found, arrested, and deported to a concentration camp. She died, likely only a few weeks before Bergen-Belsen, the camp where she was held at the time, was liberated.

According to the official website, approximately 1.2 million people visit the Anne Frank House each year. Though at least 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, it is often Anne’s story about the horror of the times that speaks directly to our hearts far better than any history book ever has or could.

If we added to this number those who have read her famous diary, the number of people who have been inspired by her words and her story is unimaginable. There is something about a personal story that tugs at us more than any history book of facts and timelines could ever do.

Our presenter for the tour referred to Anne’s story as the “small story.” The small story included the events that took place within Anne’s family, from her birth to the time of her diary being published by her father, Otto Frank.

This was set apart from what the presenter referred to as “the big story.” This was the story of Germany itself, from the rise of Hitler to his defeat by the Allies in 1945. She used “big story” and “small story” like bookmarks as she flipped back and forth, elegantly and eloquently, between the two timelines.

At the end of her presentation, she said, “I’m sure most of you would like to know who betrayed Anne and her family, yes?”

We all nodded, eager to know who would do such a horrific thing.

“Yes,” she said, “that is our most popular question. But while there are many theories, no one knows for sure.”

She went on, though, to tell us that Anne’s father, who worked to get her diary published, was asked this same question. The father’s reply? It didn’t so much matter who disclosed their location to the Germans, he had answered. In his way of thinking, if there had been just one person responsible, all the blame for what happened to Anne could be conveniently laid at their feet.

Instead, Otto warned that we must remember that the blame for what happened to Anne—and the death of millions of other Jewish people, not to mention all the millions of military and civilian deaths due to the war—lies squarely at the feet of humanity as a whole.

To drive her point home, the presenter held up a thick, heavy book.

She said, “You know the story of Anne. But in this book are the names of all the people who were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust.”

Turning it so we could see, she flipped through the pages. The print was fine. The names went on, page after page, telling a different kind of history, one that to me spoke of silence, quiet complicity, and a stunning lack of humanity.

Thinking about the writing and telling of history is something I’ve pondered ever since I first read George Orwell’s frighteningly prophetic book, 1984. Upon my first read, the story seemed entertaining, if outlandish. Now, I can’t help but compare the book’s fictional events—for example, the hiring of staff to rewrite newspapers so that the leaders could never be proven to have said or done anything wrong— to our mind-numbing-yet-shocking present-day reality.

Today, our president makes up events that never happened, as do his staff.

This administration will conflate, separate, cobble, and repeat these stories over and over again as if by doing so, they become true. In some circles, and for some stories—such as voter fraud—this is working. While all administrations play with the truth to some degree, there is more confusion, lies, distortions, (and probably more kompromat) than we might ever know in this one.

So, if the president cannot be trusted to speak the truth, then the next in line to deserve our trust would be journalists, scientists, reporters, and various topical experts. But those in power have deemed these institutions partisan, writing them off as “fake news.”

According to a May 2017 poll by The Hill, nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that mainstream media does in fact publish fake news. These people choose not to believe these experts’ words, experiments, data, or intentions if they aren’t in line with what they want to hear or already believe.

This is a horribly dangerous phenomenon.

Then, I thought, thank God we can still place our trust in books to tell the objective truth. But I couldn’t help but wonder who writes the history books, and—oh, how I hate thinking this way—who pays their salary. Yes, I have become (slightly) cynical.

My curiosity led to a web search. Sadly, I found little to appease my mind about the process of history book writing, and more to add to my concerns. First, to address the big story—I found an excerpt from a 2010 article by Slate, entitled “Who gets to Write Public-School History Books.”

“Anyone can write and publish a textbook, but before it gets handed out to public-school students, the book’s content would have to be approved by several review committees. As long as the textbook is deemed to meet state-specified guidelines and cover the subject matter with accuracy and coherence, the author’s pedigree can be of secondary importance. Textbook publishing is typically a collective endeavor, anyway. Publishers often contract with a handful of freelancers who have knowledge about specific subject areas. There’s no particular qualification required for these freelancers: Anyone with a Ph.D. in a relevant field might be acceptable, for example, but so would a high school teacher with a decent writing sample. In general, the publisher hires a more distinguished scholar as the main editor, who oversees the project and has final say over the content.”

But who forms those committees? And what do they hope to gain? And what does “accuracy and coherence” mean today? Curious minds want to know.

My cynicism was not appeased.

Then, I found this small story, published on Cracked, from a woman who did write these books:

“Turns out textbooks aren’t just written by laymen; they’re written by laymen who don’t give a sh*t about the subject. Once I worked on a textbook about Canadian accounting. Not even Canadian accountants give a sh*t about Canadian accounting. The problem is that the experts generally have more interesting stuff to do than write basic, tedious textbooks on the subject. Low-level textbook writing isn’t exactly glamorous work. The company that hired me to write textbooks (for enormous, major publishers!) did so for exactly one reason: I have a B.A. in English. That’s it. End of requirements. And I wasn’t a special case.”

My search, one that I hoped would reassure me, led only to increasing cynicism.

But cynicism is not necessarily a bad thing—at least not if something grows out of it.

For me, I can feel this “growing” happening. I feel inspired by Anne, and the gift of her being all these years later. I, too, want to write my small story, as honestly and regularly as I can, particularly as it relates to the events unfolding at this time. I want my fears, concerns, and hopes documented. I don’t want my children’s children’s children to wonder what I thought, what I did, what I stood for.

But then I think: what if we all started writing down our small stories? What if each of us took out something to write on—something that will last long after we’re gone—and then grabbed a dark pen, or a colored pencil, or a Sharpie, or a computer mouse. What does it matter if we consider ourselves a writer or not?

This is bigger than writing credentials. Our words could possibly be a part of the makeup of history for future generations to read. It’s possible that they might even be more valuable to someone—more honest and heartfelt—than your average high school history book.

There is something about a personal story that pulls us and tugs at us more than any history book of facts and timelines could ever do. Just ask anyone who has read Anne Frank’s diary or visited her home in Amsterdam.

So let us all begin. Today. Tonight.

Or how about right now.



Author: Keri Mangis
Image: Rae Allen/FlickrWikimedia
Editor: Nicole Cameron
Copy Editor: Callie Rushton
Social Editor: Catherine Monkman

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