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Are We Worthy of Anne Frank's Faith?


Miami. -- With butchers stealing gold from the jaw teeth of corpses and peeling off human skin for use as lampshades.

With flakes of ash that once were women and men spewing from the smokestacks of mass crematoria and infants being tossed live from third-story windows.

With hunger, privation and fear gnawing the joy from her soul, and with all the world at war, she wrote: " . . . in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart."

Sometimes, I think it's the most troubling thing anyone has ever said. Sometimes, the distance between what we are and what that statement presumes us to be seems so vast as to be uncrossable.

I just reread "Diary of a Young Girl" for the first time in years. In it, Anne Frank -- 50 years dead -- is flightier than I remember, all petulant self-absorption and quicksilver moods. And yet, also, a child of aching sensitivity and serious thought.

"In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart."

That statement, written during the two years the teen-ager and her family hid from the Nazi regime bent on destroying them, has become an emblem of faith and resilience. As if, in the hope and courage of one child, we might find our own. Yet, the statement still troubles me, and I find the reason difficult to put into words.

If you're a parent, perhaps you've had the experience of being watched by adoring young eyes that think the world of you. Eyes that think you larger than life, smarter than Einstein, stronger than Hercules. Eyes that flatter, humble and ennoble you. There is nothing you wouldn't do to be worthy of those eyes, to keep them from seeing how ordinary you really are.

That's more or less how I feel about what Anne Frank said. I fear she thinks us greater than we are. I fear we are not worthy of the adoration of her eyes.

And I fear that she is wrong about how good we are. I fear it because I have seen corpses tumble over a cliff in Rwanda and dam a muddy creek below. Fear it because of an "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Fear it because of Anne herself. Because I look into her face -- the deep-set eyes, the shy smile -- and realize that they never became old. I cannot even "imagine" them old.

I fear because sometimes we are so woefully incapable of learning.

She feared. And yet . . . "In spite of everything I still believe people are really good at heart."

Foolish child. Too naive and faith-filled to surrender her spirit to the bestial cruelty of nations and men. And so, in the end, her faith is more than a simple inspiration to those of us who survive her. It's a burden on our pessimism, a stubborn challenge to our world-weary angst. It reposes more confidence in you than you want or need or even know how to handle.

But you have no choice in the matter -- one seldom does with children. So you do what you have to do.

Teach the lessons and pray the prayers. Tell the truths and shame the devils. Push back the long shadows cast by ignorance and fear. Remember the child whose faith braced her even as the inferno of war scoured the world.

And dream a day when it would be unthinkable to gaze into the eyes of a child and see flames reflected there.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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