Coming of Age During War

The diaries of Anne Frank, Hannah Senesh, and Magda Denes

Posted Dec 12, 2012

Most of us have read Anne Frank but what about Hannah Senesh or Magda Denes? In ninth grade, I was required to read The Diary of Anne Frank. What I remember probably says more about the 13-year-old I was than Anne’s diary.

I remember how she fought with her mother and her crush on Peter—normal developmental events for any 13-year-old girl like me or Anne. In those days, I kept my own diary. My entry says, “Diary of Anne Frank—boring.” While Anne Frank wasn’t nearly as entertaining as James Bond, I did learn about Nazis, WWII and her life in the hidden annex. And Anne’s story had a profound effect on me, one I would return to many times.

Later, as a college student backpacking in Europe, I made a special effort to visit the Frank family hideaway in Amsterdam. This small, narrow, dark space hidden behind a false wall brought Anne’s diary to life. Now, I could visualize the forced isolation, crowding, and hushed stillness; the fear of discovery accompanying each unfamiliar sound.

Years later, I returned to Anne’s diary as a college professor. This time for very different reasons. I was no longer a preteen required to read about Nazis, Jews, and World War II. This time, I was the teacher and teaching about adolescent development.

In Anne Frank’s diary, I found an exceptionally well-written personal account of a young woman coming of age. She explains the changes her body goes through, her changing moods, and her attraction to Peter. What’s more, she writes about these developmental milestones while closeted in a small space and surrounded by the horrors of war.

For a teacher of developmental psychology, this was the perfect nature-nurture conflict. How much of Anne’s angst was due to her biology and how much was due to her extreme living situation?

Still, I experienced one more profound event related to Anne’s life. Many years after WWII, in the 1990s, I was introduced to Miep Gies. Miep was one of the family friends who helped hide the Franks. She brought them food. She lied to the Nazis. And, when the Franks were deported, she found Anne’s diary. Then, she returned the diary to Anne’s father after the war. That evening as I shook Miep’s hand, her steely eyes penetrated my soul. I thought to myself, this was a woman who could lie to Nazis. She was a bold, heroic human who risked her life to save another. Furthermore, to Miep, she had done nothing extraordinary.

Though Anne becomes a personal friend to us by sharing her internal life, she is not unique. Millions of children have grown up in the midst of war. How does this tragic event shape their lives? Some wrote about it and their stories survive them. Two, in particular, are Hannah Senesh and Magda Denes. Both are Hungarian. Hannah came from a prosperous and educated Jewish Hungarian family. While comfortable, her diary reads like a struggle for identity. Who am I? Who will I become?

Hannah’s diary starts in 1934. She is 13 and living in Budapest. She writes about going to the opera, ice skating in the winter and vacationing at mountain lakes in the summer. Hannah discusses Dostoyevsky and Brahmas and writes poetry. She tells her diary about parties, friends, and boys. School grades and attending the synagogue consume her.

Still, all the time, she is searching for meaning. Hannah describes her restlessness, her eagerness to do something meaningful with her life. While on summer vacation, she writes “this aimless, completely idle, and unproductive existence is not for me.” As war approaches, Hannah writes about indescribably tense and uncertain days. They are all full of disbelief. Hitler, Chamberlain, and Mussolini are meeting. Jewish laws and quotas are enacted. The political situation is described as vacillating from dangerous to less dangerous on a daily basis.

Hannah is a brilliant girl. She should be heading for the university. Instead, she finds her mission in Zionism, agriculture and building a Jewish state. Hannah studies Hebrew and plans to immigrate to Palestine. She says people, events, and times have brought her to this. She is “immeasurably happy.” She has found an ideal, a goal and Zionism fills her life with meaning. But this is only the beginning of her tale.

Magda, too, begins life in comfort. Before the war, their household included a maid, a butler, a cook, a chauffeur, a governess housed in a huge apartment overlooking the Danube. Magda and her brother had every imaginable lesson from private tutors, from boxing and fencing to piano and English. One afternoon, her father took her to Gerbauds, the most fashionable restaurant in Budapest, and ordered her a chocolate drink, chocolate ice cream, and chocolate cake. When she objected, he said, “You are Daddy’s little bride. We do whatever you want. Taste each thing, then leave the rest.”

Magda, warm, humorous and frequently sarcastic wrote that they seemed rich but “cash was forever scarce.” About her father, Magda said emulating F. Scott Firzgerald was expensive particularly if one lacked talent. With war approaching, her father, who published an Anti-Nazi newspaper, sold everything to cover his debts and moved the family into her grandparents' two-room apartment. She said he left her and Hungary, fleeing the continent with a first-class passage to America and 45 new shirts.

Painfully poor and confined to two rooms with seven other people, Madga and her family descended into near starvation. They bickered frequently. Yet she writes warmly of the imaginary duels with her brother using chair legs for fencing. Her cousin, who taught her to read, her brother who cited poetry and told her Hungarian fables, and the private conferences sitting on the toilet in the bathroom are all expressed with warmth and humor. To Magda, her brother was the best part of her life.

In March 1944, the Germans entered Budapest. She was not yet 10 and her future was doomed. “Sometimes four nations rose against us simultaneously, bent on our destruction—the Germans and the Hungarians house-to-house, the British and the American from the air.” Finally, the Green Shirts stormed their building and they ran. They hid in attics and filthy urinals. Because she was a child, Magda was shuffled from attic to orphanage to country village. She felt abandoned.

Ultimately, she survived the war underground in dark, cold, wet, crowded and unsanitary conditions. But life was no better after the war. Budapest was rubble and there was no food. Her beloved brother had been marched into the Danube and shot in the head. Still, she survived to “bear witness” and share her experience.

I often ask myself, why am I so fascinated with this genre? This WWII displaced person genre? Part of it is the developmental psychologist in me. I wonder how does the brutality of war shapes a young person. Part of it is my own family heritage and fascination with history. And part of my interest is an appreciation for the internal experience of another.

But finally, what continues to draw me to these stories is the courage and strength of the human spirit. Everyone should read Anne Frank’s diary, Hannah Senesh’s diary, and Magda Denes’ Castles Burning.