Anne Frank revisited
70 years ago this week, Anne Frank started keeping a diary. Now it has been read by countless children, including ANNA CAREY, who has just re-read it as an adult
SEVENTY YEARS AGO, on June 12th 1942, a bright young girl in Amsterdam received a cloth-bound diary for her 13th birthday. Anne Frank immediately started confiding in its pages, writing about her birthday party, about her parents and about daily life for a young German-born Jewish girl in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands.
A few weeks later that life vanished when Anne, her parents, Otto and Edith, and her sister, Margot, were forced into hiding. They moved into a secret set of rooms above Otto’s former business, along with four fellow German Jewish exiles, the Van Pels family (called Van Daan in Anne’s diary) and a dentist called Fritz Pfeffer (referred to as Albert Dussel). They would stay there, in five small rooms, for two years.
Although Anne started writing the diary spontaneously, in March 1944 an exiled politican’s radio plea for Dutch people to write about the occupation inspired her to change her approach. She decided she would one day publish the diary as a book, which she would call Het Achterhuis (The House Behind), and carefully went back over her earlier entries, rewriting and refining them.
But in August 1944 the eight Jews were betrayed and taken to Auschwitz.
All but her father died in the camps; Anne died in Bergen Belsen a few weeks before its liberation. When Otto eventually reached Amsterdam after the war, his former helper Miep Gies gave him Anne’s diaries, which she had carefully hidden. He decided to share them with the world, editing the version we read today from both the original and revised versions of the diary. (He removed some passages relating to his wife and to sexuality, which were restored to the “definitive edition” in the 1990s.) The result, mostly based on Anne’s revisions, was published in the Netherlands in 1947; British and American editions followed in 1952.
The book wasn’t an immediate hit in Britain, but it became a sensation in the US thanks to a glowing New York Times review. A Broadway adaptation followed several years later, despite Otto’s misgivings, and was also a huge hit. But it sentimentalised Anne’s story while de-emphasising her anger, her creativity and her family’s Jewishness. Over the years Anne was gradually transformed from a real, complicated girl who took her writing very seriously into a sugary symbol: of hope, of goodness, of the triumph of the human spirit.
Anne was not only a young woman with complex views and opinions; she was also a writer with serious creative ambitions. Francine Prose’s brilliant book Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Aftermath (Atlantic Books) celebrates Anne the writer, and shows how carefully Frank polished her text.
But Prose says that when her book was published, last year, she “discovered how resistant people were to this idea. It wasn’t just that they didn’t know; they didn’t want to know, and they didn’t like it at all. Some people have the idea of this purely spontaneous little girl scribbling away. The idea that she was a conscious artist, wanting to be published and read, interferes with that cherished idea.”
The book’s image as touching but unsophisticated, an artefact rather than a conscious work of art, may come from the fact that since the 1950s most of its readers first encountered it as children. But reading Anne’s diary as an adult is a very different experience. I first read it in 1987, when I was 11; I know this because, like many readers before and since, as soon as I read it I started writing a diary, copying Anne’s epistolary style.
As a child, I loved Anne and was fascinated and moved by her experiences. When I recently reread the diary, I was more conscious of Anne’s literary skill. I also found the book much more harrowing at 36.
When I last read the book, Anne was a little bit older than I was. She seemed quite grown up, but now she seems incredibly young. I always knew Anne died at Belsen, but knowing that as a child is not the same as knowing that as an adult who has seen footage of Belsen’s mass graves, and who has read the heartbreaking eye-witness accounts of Anne’s last days, covered in lice, feverish with typhoid.
For millions of readers Anne’s story has, as Prose says, taken the Holocaust “out of the impossible statistics and made it real”. Despite some critics’ frustration at privileged American teens claiming kinship with a girl who spent her last few years hiding and her last few months in an earthly hell, many of Anne’s concerns in the diary really are universal: her anger at her mother, her frustrations, her dreams of romance, her longing to write for a living.
As Prose says, “It’s important to know that what happened to her happened to a human being like the people who are reading. And some of the things that happened to her didn’t happen to the people reading, and it’s important to remember that as well.”