This past summer, my wife Robin and I spent a few short days in Amsterdam en route from Italy to Israel. (I know, wrong way, but that’s a long story). It was impossible to take advantage of everything that that great city has to offer, but of course, as Jews who care and remember, we could not be there without visiting the Anne Frank House.
Anne’s iconic diary is required reading in virtually every school in the world, and it’s been many decades since I first encountered her harrowing, poignant retelling of what her life was like in hiding from the Nazis. As we visited the (very) little house where she and her parents hid with another family, I was struck by exactly how small and cramped it was. The attic that they utilized was up a narrow flight of stairs, and the room that she shared with a boy about her age was truly tiny.
Everything about it was small, uncomfortable, and defied belief that people could actually live like they lived for so long without going completely crazy.
And oh yes — they lived in mortal dread of being discovered. They couldn’t make any noise during the daylight hours, and they lived in constant terror. They surely couldn’t go outside for fear of being discovered. They couldn’t do much of anything. And, of course, they had no TV or internet. They couldn’t see or hear the faces of friends and family whom they loved on FaceTime or Zoom, or watch movies on Netflix or play video games.
And they never knew which day might be their last before someone leaked their secret hiding place to the Nazis, ultimately leading to their deaths.
Under these extreme conditions, they persevered for a very long time. Anne channeled her boredom and frustration into her writing, and with her diary, left us all a precious reminder of what the human spirit is capable of, even in extremis. Replicas of her diary are for in the gift shop there. I actually bought a few copies to bring home, hoping to inspire some gifted students to write about their lives.
Over these past weeks, with America under lockdown and with social distancing the order of the day, I have seen more that I can tolerate of people saying how we cannot or will not endure the current coronavirus challenge. Their strategy is either to ignore the threat, like the completely, incomprehensibly stupid Spring Breakers on the beach in Clearwater, Fla. Or to bemoan the trials of this period — “I can’t host dinner parties, and I love hosting dinner parties.” Or, perhaps most disturbing, going out and arming oneself to the teeth with the newest shotgun in case all civil order breaks down and we truly enter a dystopian era. There are very long lines to buy guns in New York State.
If we really want to feel sorry for some folks, I’d vote for the parents who are home with children who don’t understand why they can’t live their lives as they always do and are climbing the walls. Or the medical personnel who can’t get the proper protective clothing they need and deserve and are forced to care for corona patients in ways that virtually guarantee that they will get sick. Or the elderly who are alone, frail and terrified. Or the local mayors and governors who can’t seem to convince our bizarre president that we are in danger of becoming like Italy. I feel most sorry for these people. We all should, and we should be moved to do what we can to help them.
But let’s not feel sorry for ourselves, and allow ourselves to wallow in how awful our situation is. That little house in Amsterdam, and the teenage girl who lived there, should remind us of what it really means to be “sheltering in place.”
Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens and a Jewish Week blogger.