Michael Dowdy is a poet, critic, essayist, and editor. His books include a collection of poems, Urbilly (Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award, 2017); a study of Latinx poetry, Broken Souths: Latina/o Poetic Responses to Neoliberalism and Globalization (University of Arizona Press, 2013); and, as coeditor with Claudia Rankine, a critical anthology, American Poets in the 21st Century: Poetics of Social Engagement (Wesleyan University Press, 2018). He teaches at the University of South Carolina.
That summer, more than other hot seasons, I read of loss and survival. I began by surrendering to Myriam Moscona’s Onioncloth. In mesmerizing prose, the Jewish-Mexican writer meditates on the time-travels of Ladino, the endangered language of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, then again from Europe in the 1930s and 40s.
One haunting passage introduces the Ladino expression Me vaya kapará por ti, which means something like, “I’ll take on all of the bad so that nothing may happen to you.” Because this speech act is so intimate, so uncompromising in its insistence on total sacrifice for another person, Moscona advises that it should be reserved for one’s child or a “blood” or “soul relative.”
Those words ran around my head all summer like the canal ring circling Amsterdam. I intoned the saying as a prayer while my partner S and I biked with A, our six-year old daughter, the short distance from our Airbnb to the Anne Frank House. “Just pedal,” I said to A as she climbed onto our rented tandem. Relieved she wouldn’t have to brake or steer along the busy canals, I whispered, I’ll take on all of the bad so that nothing may happen to you.
Before traveling to Europe, A, S, and I read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. At bedtime, we lay together in A’s bed listening to the audio book. Full of ornate wood carvings, the bed had belonged to the namesake A, A’s great-grandmother, whose parents brought it over from Germany in the 1910s. Curled up in our German heirloom, AF’s “voice” reminded us: “Terrible things are happening outside.”
“Isn’t she too young?” A’s grandmother objected when she learned of our reading and the upcoming trip. She was worried that A wouldn’t understand. If she had heard A ask, “Are Nazis alive today? Do they want the Wall?” she would’ve been concerned that she would.
Later that summer, I gave myself to The Grave on the Wall. In lucid prose, the Japanese-American writer Brandon Shimoda excavates the life of his grandfather—a photographer who was incarcerated at Fort Missoula—by dwelling within the dual inheritances of the internment of Japanese-Americans and the atomic bombings of Japan. At the memorial museum in Nagasaki, he watches a looping video of a child survivor’s testimony as an adult. “Dead outside the museum, alive inside,” he writes of the now deceased woman, “she has become two people, each separated from the other.”
This describes AF, but in reverse: dead inside the museum, alive outside. Inside, the AF who perished, emaciated, in a freezing open sewer, the AF whose words raged against fascism. Outside, the AF whose diary won’t let her rest, who’s recklessly identified with an ahistorical girlhood, whose life is trafficked to teenagers as distilled Resilience. Outside, the portrait haunting the top shelf of a Food Lion magazine rack on the first day of 2020 as A and I shopped for salves for our stomach bugs. The side-by-side Centennial Legends magazines titled Donald Trump and Anne Frank paired prophecy and revelation. Under his scowl, a prophetic “First Look at the Second Term”; beside her smile, “Who Betrayed Her? Finally, the Truth Revealed.”
The Anne Frank House welcomes one million visitors each year. AF was one of the approximately one million Jewish children murdered by the Nazis. I don’t know what to make of this symmetry, but I know now, given the messiness of my experience in the attic, that I’d like to take back my impulse toward the tidy equivalence.
Back home from Amsterdam, I googled “Anne Frank.” 348 million hits rose from the screen like shrunken sarcophagi. “Anne Frank House” returned 108 million portals. “Bergen-Belsen,” where AF died of typhoid, approached 3 million. How, in this hecatomb, could any writer elude a bad take? I struggled against the current, telling myself NO, until my watery foothold gave way.
A modernist glass box on Prinsengracht seals the canal house, and the attic (“the secret annex”) where AF and her family lived for two years, into a translucent cocoon. We’d arrived from Berlin, which was in the midst of a brutalizing heatwave, and before that Wittenberg, where we’d stumbled into Germany’s annual Children’s Day celebration, to A’s delight. There, one day each year is devoted to the child’s reign, as if in fractional recompense for a murderous history. That summer, aboard our only child vessel, every day was Children’s Day.
Back home, I read “Who Owns Anne Frank?,” a New Yorker essay written in 1997 by the Jewish-American writer Cynthia Ozick. Ozick asks whether AF’s diary, which has been misread, distorted, and appropriated to dubious ends, would have been better off destroyed. Her provocative take preferred horrors unknown to known, the loss of language to the language of the lost. “An explosive document aimed directly at the future,” Ozick called the diary. Aimed at all of us who’d have ten-thousand bad takes at our browsing fingertips.
Inside her house, my adjectives failed. Devastating. Then, my adverbs. Expertly curated. The quotes from AF’s diary on the wall plaques sparsely excerpted. The transit cards, the expulsion records, the maps and postcards austerely displayed. Was the Anne Frank House presenting AF as a unique figure or as representative of the Holocaust? Or both at once? Inside and out, the siren song of the second-person empathy imperative: Put yourself in her shoes. Imagine yourself living here. Are there conditions under which these bad takes, their grasping language, have the power to move not just individuals but the structure of things?
As that summer dragged on I did not reread—despite the house’s magnetic material artifacts—what the Jewish-German philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote during his exile from Nazi Germany in the 1930s about the “aura” of irreplaceable objects. Between the bedroom and “The Diary Room,” as the ephemera of a life—postcards, magazine clippings, the neat script of AF’s writings—jostled my insides, I wanted, for once, to stop reading. I wanted to rage with my fists.
Back home, googling “Hutto detention center” returned 83,000 hits. “The T. Don Hutto Residential Center,” the ICE prison informed me, “is a guarded, fenced-in, multi-purpose center currently used to detain non-US citizens awaiting the outcome of their immigration status.” I read with alarm these euphemistic somersaults over the electrified walls of our carceral language. I shut the screen and reread the Undocupoets, the collective of poets without papers. Rather than read the ex-Border Patrol agent’s acclaimed memoir, I scanned the maps of detention centers, the lower 48 colonized by pin drops. Under every pin, children caged, their wrists numbered.
The sacred aura of the Anne Frank House flickers in the crowds. The obedient queueing, the handing over of backpacks, the diligent single-file climbing of narrow stairwells, the stop-and-start of bodies across cramped thresholds. Everywhere, van-loads of kids, busloads of adolescents. Inside, their giddy behavior largely unmodified from canal-side. The “identification with” AF, as Ozick wrote, forecloses all readings of the diary other than the hopeful. In this take, AF’s words and example, her two years of captivity holding out for a future, helps us live in these or any trying times. Did our audio-book evenings reinforce this bad take? For A, did the voice actor’s American accent bring AF “to life”? “At any time of night and day,” we heard her solemnly report, “poor helpless people are being dragged out of their homes.”
All summer, I read A’s writings. Lists of sleepover activities, birthday party invitees, items to pack for her first sleep-away camp. Notes and stories. Captions to her drawings. Names of her animals. Letters to friends, to her grandmother, to her parents. I read phonetic spellings, backward letters, questions for the fairies that visited her bedroom that summer. Notes left beneath her fairy door detailing her trip to AF’s house in Amsterdam. Her desire to fly so strong, she pled for wings. Dear Maybelle and Pudge, I cant wate for Jerminny will you be around?
Reading A’s writings, my impulse to tattoo across my abdomen I’ll take on all of the bad so that nothing may happen to you grew relentless. It was gravity, drug, and undertow, a vise squeezing my torso. Inside that father belly, I lived all summer long. The only writing I didn’t read was A’s diary, whose key she trusted to me, knowing I’d never lose it.
Of the eight people who endured the “secret annex” for two years, AF’s father, Otto Frank, was the only one to survive the extermination camps. When he found the diaries, he was shocked at his daughter’s eloquence, at her insight, anger, and, not least of all, sexuality. It’s not surprising that a man wouldn’t consider a teenage girl, even his own daughter, a thinking being. Otto learned, after living for two years in intimate proximity to her, that AF had a brilliant inner life that had been totally inaccessible to him.
Back home, I read multiple takes on Otto’s selective editing of the diary, his woeful stewardship of AF’s life and writings. The fluttering father belly I dragged through the Anne Frank House insisted, against so much evidence to the contrary, that the museum is as much a parable about the father-daughter relationship as it is about anything else, either specifically (the Holocaust) or conceptually (good and evil). A video recorded in the late 1970s, playing on loop in the Diary Room, concludes with Otto saying, “no parent ever really knows their children.” I regret to report: this cliché hit me like a ton of bricks.
On the lips of this daughter’s father, I’ll take on all of the bad toes the reflecting pool of patriarchy. Yet, just after A’s gone to bed, or as I drop her at school or camp, the phrase’s undertow pulls me into the depths. In those sinking moments, is any measure of my locution outside of history? Can I secure a future, if not a past, in my utterance?
For too long, AF has taken on all of the bad of a bloody century. But she never said to the children of a future that was brutally foreclosed to her, I’ll take on all of the bad so that nothing may happen to you. We are not, in Moscona’s words, AF’s “blood relatives.” Were any of us, or all of us, that summer, her “soul relatives”? If so, do we betray her each time we utter her name as a spell against our forgetting or complicity? If I’d opened the Anne Frank magazine at Food Lion would I have seen own my face in its advertisements?
My thoughts float back to when three-year old A began asking from her car seat, “What if I die tomorrow? How would you feel?” Then, my stumbling answers confused tenses, as if I were learning a new language in which I could only speak in the present tense. Now, I wish I’d had the Ladino expression in my back pocket.
Some bad takes are provisional: halting, awkward steps on the path to good ones. Some deemed good turn bad. Some judged bad come good. Some are like graves. Some are well intentioned, others booby-trapped with malice. Some, the worst of all, are death blows. Which is mine? Inside the attic, A and AF merged. Undone, I fell into the identification trap. A “loved” AF, I loved A. I am a father. She is a daughter. Though we are not Jewish, though we have papers and privilege, the horrors amassed in a flash of lost children. The concentration camps of Europe merged into the detention centers for Central American migrants. Gestapo raids in Amsterdam became ICE raids in Mississippi.
I couldn’t tell AF’s words about her time from those concerning ours: “Families are torn apart; men, women and children are separated. Children come home from school to find that their parents have disappeared.” I lost track of time and space. Or, space lost in time, I lost sight of A in her historical specificity, her herness there in the summer of 2019. I raged against appeals to “civility” and other bad takes. I vowed to abolish ICE, to throw myself into the streets. But, in an instant, there in her house, all those allegiances and promised acts fell away. All I could feel was my father belly, bloated and hungry and full of flightless birds beating their useless wings against its leaky walls.
Inside, I got separated from S and A, who surged in the crowds, propelled by A’s energy. Alone in the din, I was struck by the steep ascent to AF’s not-so-secret annex. When I left the Diary Room and entered the space—part-archive, part-shrine, part-café—where the representations of AF’s story are displayed, A ran to me, ignoring the walls of posters, playbills, and book jackets, oblivious to the trip-and-bump hazards of the buoyant crowd. “What took you so long Daddy?” she asked, excited. “Mommy and I have been waiting for hours,” her sense of time warped by the needs of her body. Then, seeing my streaming tears for the first time in her life, she climbed into my arms, moved by the instinct to comfort: “It’s okay Daddy, why were the Nazis so bad, why were the Nazis so bad?” I had no answer, only a tense. “Are,” I whispered, “are.”
That summer, I read and nodded with something like finality as Ozick gave Otto Frank the business: “Fatherhood does not confer surrogacy.” Nor does it confer knowledge or the right to know. I don’t speak for A, and I don’t need to know her fully. I’d simply like to be present in her presence, to learn from her, to reside in our mysteriousness to each other, to be available when I’m needed, to be invited along for what I hope will be her very long ride.
When we left the Anne Frank House on bicycles, we glided through the hectic Western Canal Ring in route to the quiet cobbles of Amsterdam-Noord. Because I was wobbly and indecisive on the clogged canal streets, I took, with relief, the one-seater. S, the stronger, more intrepid rider, piloted the tandem. As A pedaled furiously in rhythm with her, I rode alone behind them, trembling at their every brake and turn, skilled and confident as they were.