Without telling us the punchlines, Dutch researchers announced this week the discovery of four dirty jokes papered over in Anne Frank’s diary.
I taught the diary as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi two decades ago, curious from the start why it was on the curriculum. My students faced a lifetime of grinding poverty, endemic corruption, and a grab bag of diseases. HIV/AIDS ravaged the country with a prevalence close to 40%.
Before cracking the cover, I wondered: How did these challenges compare to Anne’s years in hiding to avoid Nazi capture? How could her experience possibly connect with that of my students?
The answer: Literature prevails because the particularities of time, place, and circumstance are subordinate to the general nature of humanity.
Providence Secondary School, where I taught for two years, is an all-girls school established by the Catholic Church in the wet, fertile land around the Mulanje massif. I had relatively small classes—55 to a group, each girl a desk of her own—and an elite category of student.
They were smart and funny and lively and connected quickly with their peer from half a century earlier. Anne’s movie star collection, check. Anne’s difficulties with her sister, check. Anne’s lack of privacy, snarky observations, even her keen self-awareness and introspection: check, check, and check.
But it was Anne’s relationship with Peter, most of all, that kept my students on the edge of their seats. Anne is 13-15 years old during her concealment, charged years of development and burgeoning curiosity. She’s confined with a boy 16-18. Intimacy is inevitable.
I don’t recall now the exact passages that stirred my students’ imagination. I just remember the close, hot classroom steaming over. I remember the quick, loud reactions in Chichewa at some passages and the heightened silence at others as they focused on what they read, wrestling with what they thought they understood—does she mean… that? The voice of a young girl becoming a woman, just as they were.
Anne brought a fun, witty, intelligent voice into our lives. I’d like to know what her concealed jokes might have been. My students would have appreciated reading those jokes, too.
Won’t the Dutch researchers please unveil the jokes, and let that voice from so long ago—a voice at once innocent yet daring—ring out just a little louder again?