Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Anne Frank's Diary

During a visit to Amsterdam in 2009, I toured the Anne Frank house and bought a copy of the famous diary. I knew Anne and her family were originally from Germany, so I assumed she'd written in German. I bought that version of the book, figuring I'd get the words straight out of her mouth. I later found she'd written in Dutch. Oops.

For 13 years, the book sat on my "to be read" pile. This month, I decided to take the plunge.

It's a wonderful book. Nailing down just what book it is is complicated, because there are multiple versions of the diary. In addition, different translators approach the job in different ways. I'll blog about those things separately. Here I want to focus on the content of the book.

As a preface, I'll note that the proper pronunciation for "Anne" isn't "Ann," but "Anna" (more or less). Watch interviews with people who knew her, e.g., her father and Hanneli Goslar, and you'll see what I mean. Anne Frank wrote one of the most significant books of the twentieth century. It and her fate have made her the face of the holocaust. Her name is easy to say. We should know how to say it.

The title of the English translation is "Diary of a Young Girl," and that does a good job of establishing appropriate expectations. It's not a book about the persecution of the Jews during the Nazi era. It's not a book about the holocaust. It's not a book about WWII. All those things play a role, and Anne writes about each of them. If you're looking for insights into those topics, you'll find them. But the essence of the book is the struggle of a girl in the passage from child to adult under unimaginable conditions.

Anne starts her diary on her thirteenth birthday, and what emerges is a portrait of a child who's exuberant, smart, and curious, but also strong-willed, sarcastic, and not as smart or experienced as she thinks she is. She doesn't get along with her mother. My favorite line from the book, in the entry for September 27, 1942, includes this classic teenager remark:

 Today I had a so-called "discussion" with mother...

I laughed out loud. You can almost see the eye-roll. This was far from the only place that got me laughing. Some of Anne's remarks are very, very funny.

It's good she had a sense of humor, because at the time she wrote that, it was the eighth week of sequestration for her and seven others in a hidden set of rooms in the building housing her father's business. The "secret annex" the eight of them lived in comprised only about 450 square feet. Anne's bedroom was 13 by 6 feet. She shared it with a 53-year-old man (a family friend). The windows were covered (to prevent outsiders from seeing them), so they couldn't see out. Much of the time, their single toilet could not be flushed, lest someone hear the water in the pipes. Sometimes the inhabitants of the annex could (carefully) visit other parts of the building, but the eight of them were stuck together most of the time. The men smoked constantly. If someone got on your nerves, there was no escape. If you had an argument, there was no escape. If you wanted to go somewhere and be alone, there was nowhere to go. Leaving the building was out of the question.

Try coming of age under those conditions. 

It's astonishing, then, that in a diary entry after three and a half additional months in hiding (January 13, 1943), Anne displays such empathy for the Amsterdammers on the outside:

We're quite fortunate. Luckier than millions of people. It's quiet and safe here. ... The children in this neighborhood run around in thin shirts and wooden shoes. They have no coats, no caps, no stockings and no one to help them. Gnawing on a carrot to still their hunger pangs, they walk from their cold houses through cold streets to an even colder classroom. Things have gotten so bad in Holland that hordes of children stop passersby in the streets to beg for a piece of bread.

She's still just 13, though. A few weeks later (March 10, 1943), she writes:

The guns were booming away until dawn. I still haven't gotten over my fear of planes and shooting, and I crawl into Father's bed nearly every night for comfort. I know it sounds childish, but wait till it happens to you!

Things get worse. The allies conduct air raids near Amsterdam. Anti-aircraft guns blaze. Bombs fall. It goes on for months. Anne remains terrified, but her sense of humor endures. June 2, 1944:

I ... have a brand-new prescription for gunfire jitters: When the shooting gets loud, proceed to the nearest wooden staircase. Run up and down a few times, making sure to stumble at least once. What with the scratches and the noise of running and falling, you won't even be able to hear the shooting, much less worry about it. Yours truly has put this magic formula to use, with great success!

Many of Anne's diary entries focus on how nobody really understands her and how she's always being treated unjustly. It's standard teenage angst, which is at once both unsurprising and surprising. She's a young teen, but you might think all the other things she's going through would crowd that out. They don't. 

1944 ushers in lovesick Anne. She sets her sights on literally the only boy in her world. January 6, 1944:

My longing for someone to talk to has become so unbearable that I somehow took it into my head to select Peter for this role.

Peter is more than three years older than Anne, who by that time is 14. Anne's sister, Margot, is about the same age as Peter, but Margot is quiet and reserved. Anne is anything but. Her diary entries from January through March are filled with thoughts and hopes and dreams of Peter, Peter, Peter! It gets to be a bit much. Finally on April 16, 1944, we seem to get what Anne's been waiting for:

Remember yesterday's date, since it was a red-letter day for me. Isn't it an important day for every girl when she gets her first kiss?

Check your modern sensibilities at the door. The kiss in question is on the cheek.  (Well, half on the cheek and half on the ear.) Their lips don't meet for 12 more days, and if anything more serious than that ever takes place, it's not in the diary. 

Anne wins the boy, but her ardor cools. He won't become the confidante she yearns for. July 15, 1944:

We talked about the most private  things, but we haven't yet touched upon the things closest to my heart. ... I never broach the subjects I long to bring out into the open. I forced Peter, more than he realizes, to get close to me, and now he's holding on for dear life. ... I soon realized he could never be a kindred spirit...

It's sad for both of them, but by then, lovesick Anne has given way to introspective Anne. She's wrestling with the tension between her introverted but pure, good, and serious self and the superficial, extroverted, flippant persona she displays to the world. Her final diary entry--August 1, 1944--agonizes over the problem of displacing this persona in favor of her purer, deeper self:

A voice within me is sobbing, "You see, that's what's become of you. You're surrounded by negative opinions, dismayed looks and mocking faces, people who dislike you, and all because you don't listen to the advice of your own better half." Believe me, I'd like to listen, but it doesn't work, because if I'm quiet and serious, everyone thinks I'm putting on a new act... [They] berate me for being in a bad mood, until I just can't keep it up anymore... I ... finally end up turning my heart inside out, the bad part on the outside and the good part on the inside, and keep trying to find a way to become what I'd like to be and what I could be...

That's the last paragraph in the book. It's a downbeat ending, but it's an artificial one. Anne didn't decide to stop writing. Instead, three days later, Anne and the others were discovered, arrested, and, eventually, sent to Auschwitz. By the end of the war, only Anne's father was alive.

When the diary ends, Anne is barely 15. She's grappling with weighty, adult issues (inner self vs outer self, identifying who you want to be, figuring out how to be that), but at heart, she still is and wants to be a schoolgirl. In various entries, she writes of her long-term goal to be a successful writer, but when, on June 6, 1944, the allied invasion they've been expecting for at least 16 months finally materializes, the hope she expresses is that of a student: "Maybe...I can even to back to school in September or October."

It's Anne's diary and it's her story, but eight people don't hide themselves for more than two years. Without the genuinely heroic actions of their six "helpers," there would have been no food, no clothing, no soap, no tobacco, no newspapers or magazines, no library books, no mail, no correspondence courses, and no conversations with people in the outside world. As the war drags on and resources become scarcer, the helpers find it increasingly difficult to feed eight mouths that aren't supposed to exist. The black market fills the void, but trafficking there is as illegal as hiding Jews. The diary opened my eyes to the essential and dangerous work performed by Dutch "helpers."

Anne, her family, and her other fellows-in-hiding were deported to Germany on September 3, 1944. Along with 1,011 other Jews, they were on the last train from Westerbork transit camp to Auschwitz. It's natural to wonder what would have happened to Anne and those who hid with her had they not been caught on August 4 or if they hadn't made that last train. My sense is that their prospects would not have improved much. Amsterdam remained under German control for eight more months, and the Nazis engineered a famine over the winter of 1944-45 that led to the death of more than 20,000 Netherlanders.

Anne Frank's life story is tragic and upsetting and centered on death. Her diary is quite different. It's tragic and angsty, but it's also insightful and funny, and all about life. It makes you wish you'd known Anne personally. It makes you feel a bit like you did.


Pranav Sharma said...

Thanks for writing this. Just watched a movie based on this diary on Amazon Prime and I was moved. Will be reading the diary now.

Thara said...


I saw the diary in English lessons at school in late 2003 for the very first time. I was nearly eight years old nearly nine at the time when I first heard her diary being read to us in class by the English teacher. I was in year three. I think we read a abridged version but I’m not sure. It is best described as a moving historical text. The first time I heard it being read out loud I didn’t really understand everything that had happened or why.

After reading the critical edition at twelve, a few years later I understood more about deportation and the sad events on the day of the arrest in question. The critical edition is the version best for historical research while the definitive edition is recommended for casual readers. You can grab a copy online. It is a very good read. I remember receiving another copy on my twelfth birthday sixteen years ago.