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Anne Frank
1929 - 1945

 


With a diary kept in a secret attic, she braved the Nazis and lent a searing voice to the fight for human dignity
By ROGER ROSENBLATT for Time Magazine
 


Along with everything else she came to represent, Anne Frank symbolized the power of a book. Because of the diary she kept between 1942 and 1944, in the secret upstairs annex of an Amsterdam warehouse where she and her family hid until the Nazis found them, she became the most memorable figure to emerge from World War II — besides Hitler, of course, who also proclaimed his life and his beliefs in a book. In a way, the Holocaust began with one book and ended with another. Yet it was Anne's that finally prevailed — a beneficent and complicated work outlasting a simple and evil one — and that secured to the world's embrace the second most famous child in history.

So stirring has been the effect of the solemn-eyed, cheerful, moody, funny, self-critical, other-critical teenager on those who have read her story that it became a test of ethics to ask a journalist, If you had proof the diary was a fraud, would you expose it? The point was that there are some stories the world so needs to believe that it would be profane to impair their influence. All the same, the Book of Anne has inspired a panoply of responses — plays, movies, documentaries, biographies, a critical edition of the diary — all in the service of understanding or imagining the girl or, in some cases, of putting her down.

"Who Owns Anne Frank?" asked novelist Cynthia Ozick, in an article that holds up the diary as a sacred text and condemns any tamperers. The passions the book ignites suggest that everyone owns Anne Frank, that she has risen above the Holocaust, Judaism, girlhood and even goodness and become a totemic figure of the modern world — the moral individual mind beset by the machinery of destruction, insisting on the right to live and question and hope for the future of human beings.

As particular as was the Nazi method of answering "the Jewish question," it also, if incidentally, presented a form of the archetypal modern predicament. When the Nazis invaded Holland, the Frank family, like all Jewish residents, became victims of a systematically constricting universe. First came laws that forbade Jews to enter into business contracts. Then books by Jews were burned. Then there were the so-called Aryan laws, affecting intermarriage. Then Jews were barred from parks, beaches, movies, libraries. By 1942 they had to wear yellow stars stitched to their outer garments. Then phone service was denied them, then bicycles. Trapped at last in their homes, they were "disappeared."

At which point Otto and Edith Frank, their two daughters Margot and Anne and the Van Pels family decided to disappear themselves, and for the two years until they were betrayed, to lead a life reduced to hidden rooms. But Anne had an instrument of freedom in an autograph book she had received for her 13th birthday. She wrote in an early entry, "I hope that you will be a great support and comfort to me." She had no idea how widely that support and comfort would extend, though her awareness of the power in her hands seemed to grow as time passed. One year before her death from typhus in the Bergen-Belsen camp, she wrote, "I want to be useful or give pleasure to people around me who yet don't really know me. I want to go on living even after my death!"

The reason for her immortality was basically literary. She was an extraordinarily good writer, for any age, and the quality of her work seemed a direct result of a ruthlessly honest disposition. Millions were moved by the purified version of her diary originally published by her father, but the recent critical, unexpurgated edition has moved millions more by disanointing her solely as an emblem of innocence. Anne's deep effect on readers comes from her being a normal, if gifted, teenager. She was curious about sex, doubtful about religion, caustic about her parents, irritable especially to herself; she believed she had been fitted with two contradictory souls.

All of this has made her more "useful," in her terms, as a recognizable human being. She was not simply born blessed with generosity; she struggled toward it by way of self-doubt, impatience, rage, ennui — all things that test the value of a mind. Readers enjoy quoting the diary's sweetest line — "I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are still truly good at heart" — -but the passage that follows is more revealing: "I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness; I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too; I can feel the sufferings of millions; and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty will end, and that peace and tranquillity will return again ... I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out."

Here is no childish optimism but rather a declaration of principles, a way of dealing practically with a world bent on destroying her. It is the cry of the Jew in the attic, but it is also the cry of the 20th century mind, of the refugee forced to wander in deserts of someone else's manufacture, of the invisible man who asserts his visibility. And the telling thing about her statement of "I am" is that it bears no traces of self-indulgence. In a late entry, she wondered, "Is it really good to follow almost entirely my own conscience?" In our time of holy self-expression, the idea that truth lies outside one's own troubles comes close to heresy, yet most people acknowledge its deep validity and admire the girl for it.

Indeed, they love her, which is to say they love the book. In her diary she showed the world not only how fine a person she was, but also how necessary it is to come to terms with one's own moral being, even — perhaps especially — when the context is horror. The diary suggests that the story of oneself is all that we have, and that it is worth a life to get it right.

It was interesting that the Franks' secret annex was concealed by a bookcase that swung away from an opening where steps led up to a hidden door. For a while, Anne was protected by books, and then the Nazis pushed them aside to get at a young girl. First you kill the books; then you kill the children. What they could not know is that she had already escaped.
 


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Anne Frank (1929-1945) achieved world fame after her death from typhus in March 1945 in the Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen through the publication of her diary in which she described the lives of eight Jews in hiding in the city of Amsterdam between June 1942 and August 1944.

Anne Frank was born on June 12, 1929, in Frankfurt, Germany. Her father, Otto, was the son of wealthy parents. He attended the classical gymnasium and served as a lieutenant of the German army in World War I. Following the loss of his parent's fortune during the 1920s' inflation in Germany, he was able to establish himself as a businessman in Frankfurt specializing in banking and in the promotion of name brands. Anne's mother also came from a well-to-do family. Anne had a close and warm relationship with her father and a more distant one with her mother. Anne's sister Margot, a pretty and feminine girl, was born in 1926 and also died in Bergen-Belsen.

Following the Nazi takeover of Germany in January 1933, the Frank's emigrated to Amsterdam, Holland, where Otto Frank became the managing director of a food company with a warehouse and office on the Prinsengracht, one of the city's canal/streets. Anne attended the Montessori school in Amsterdam. When the Nazis occupied Holland in May 1940 they began to institute anti-Jewish regulations which forced Anne to leave her school and to attend a Jewish secondary school. Jews were forced to wear the yellow Jewish star of David, and deportation of Jews from Holland to the Auschwitz extermination camp commenced. Margot received an order to report for deportation in early July 1942. Otto Frank, who had prepared for this eventuality by setting up a hiding place for his family, decided that the time had come. He moved his family into the hidden rear portion of the warehouse where he had prepared two apartments. He was joined there by Mr. van Daan, a co-worker, with his wife and 16-year-old son Peter. Eventually an eighth person joined them, an elderly Jewish dentist named Dussel.

The friends of the hidden Jews who worked in the office of the firm, Mr. Koophuis, Victor Kraler, Miep (de Jong) van Santen, Henk van Santen, and Elli Vossen, supplied them with food, black market ration cards, and other necessities. They were quiet during the day when the normal business of the firm was conducted downstairs. Life for the hidden began in the late day and evening hours.

Following a denunciation, probably by another member of the firm or by a night-time burglar, the police discovered the hidden persons and arrested them and their helpers. The helpers were held by the Gestapo for a period and some were sentenced to forced labor. The Franks, van Daans, and Dussel were transported to the Dutch transit camp Wersterbork and from there to the extermination camp Auschwitz. It was the last major transport of Jews from Holland. When the Russians threatened to conquer the camp, Margot and Anne Frank were sent to Bergen Belsen where they perished. Of the eight Jews who were in hiding, only Otto Frank survived. (He died in 1980.)

Although Anne wrote a few short stories and started on a novel during her period in hiding, her most important literary achievement was a diary of the events taking place in Prinsengracht. When the German police raided the hiding place they scattered the pages of the diary on the floor. They were collected by Elli Vossen and Miep van Santen and handed to Otto Frank upon his return to Amsterdam.

The diary was forcefully written and tells the story of the living together of the eight persons in the Achterhuis, or the hidden back part of the house, in Prinsengracht. This was often done in a humorous way, displaying considerable talent of observation, originality, and description. Anne was well able to convey to the reader the fears about discovery and the hopes about an end to the war. She described the quarrels between the older van Daans and of the van Daans and the dentist, which often ended in the latter's refusal to further communicate with the van Daans for a week.

Anne's diary, originally published as Het Achterhuis, will be valuable to many readers for various reasons. Not the least of these is the story of a young girl growing up under the confining conditions on the Prinsengracht. She described the generation gap between the adults and their silly quarrels and how they tended to combine their forces in castigating her for all sorts of shortcomings. She told about her somewhat distant relationship with her mother and the close one with her father.

Her special attention was given to a budding puppy love with Peter van Daan. The harmless affair ended soon because it was difficult to maintain in the confined space of the hiding place and because she had a talk with her father who suggested ending the affair. But mainly it was because she was intellectually and emotionally the superior of Peter, a nice but rather colorless boy.

A good part of the chronologically-arranged diary entries, all addressed to a Kitty, are concerned with food, its preparation, hygiene, birthday parties and presents, and educating children in such adverse conditions. The cheerfulness of Anne's writing in such dangerous circumstances, as well as her sensitivity and talent to describe difficult circumstances and the tragedy of her short life, made her diary an instant success. The book was translated into over 30 languages, and a pocket book edition in Germany alone sold 900,000 copies, while several million copies of a United States publication of the diary were sold.

Today the house in Prinsengracht is an international youth center known as the Anne Frank House. There are Anne Frank centers devoted to her memory in several places, including Philadelphia and New York City.


 

 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 10 December, 2008