Anne Frank’s brilliant and complex Diary of a Young Girl (1947; definitive edition 1995) has the power to engage the reader’s deepest sympathy. It has been translated into more than sixty languages and has sold more than thirty million copies to adults and children around the world. As she moved towards self-awareness and maturity, Anne spontaneously and intuitively incorporated several kinds of books in her Diary. It belongs with the works of precocious writers, with the diaries of young girls, with accounts of the accelerated development of wise children, and with narratives of people hiding from oppressive authority and affirming their independent existence while threatened with death. Placing her Diary in the context of these literary genres illuminates the meaning of her book.
The works of the most precocious writers include Daisy Ashford’s popular The Young Visiters (1919), which she wrote when she was only nine years old; Rudyard Kipling’s journalistic sketches in the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore, India, which began to appear when he was sixteen; the poems of Thomas Chatterton, William Wordsworth’s ‘marvelous boy’, who committed suicide at seventeen; the two French novels of Raymond Radiguet, who died of typhoid at nineteen; and the poems of Arthur Rimbaud, the most influential French poet of the nineteenth century, who renounced his career, at the peak of his powers, at the age of twenty. But no fifteen-year-old author in history ever wrote as well as Anne Frank.
The Portuguese Diary of a Young Girl (1942) was translated by the American poet Elizabeth Bishop as The Diary of Helena Morley (1957). Helena (1880-1970), whose real name was Alice Dayrell, was the daughter of a British mining engineer and a Brazilian mother. She grew up in the remote town of Diamantina, two hundred miles north of Belo Horizonte, in the state of Minas Gerais. Helena kept her diary from 1893 to 1895 at exactly the same age – thirteen to fifteen – as Anne Frank, who kept her diary from 1942 to 1944.
The settings and circumstances of the two girls were very different. Helena, a Catholic and poor student, roamed the wilds of the Brazilian highlands. Anne, Jewish and an excellent student, was confined to a small Secret Annex. As a writer, Helena was more naive and childlike, and did not revise her work. Anne, more sophisticated and dramatic, especially when her life was in danger, made extensive revisions. Helena’s Diary, alluding to her grandmother’s legacy, ends positively by noting, ‘We shan’t suffer for the lack of the necessities any longer’. Anne’s Diary inevitably ends with a sense of foreboding. Like Jean-Paul Sartre’s assertion in No Exit (1944), ‘Hell is other people’, Anne concludes: ‘if only there were no other people in the world.’ Helena, a grande dame, lived to be ninety; Anne, still a child, died at fifteen.
But the two young diarists also had a good deal in common. Both extrovert, clever and resourceful girls, isolated outsiders in their communities, recorded closely observed details about themselves and their constricted family life, and described their awakening consciousness and growth into maturity. According to Bishop, Helena’s lively, idiomatic language was (like Anne’s), ‘fresh, sad, funny, and eternally true’. Both girls were threatened by dangerous thieves in their neighborhood. Both were show- offs and saucy to grown-ups; they loved Hollywood movie stars; and they worried about their food, tattered clothing and physical appearance. Both adored their distant grandmothers, but were bored, irritated and often enraged by their immediate families. Like Anne, Helena wrote that everyone always repeats ‘the same stories, all the time’, that when a relative ‘has a toothache she drives the whole household crazy’, and, with justified self-pity, ‘It’s my fate that everyone who loves me makes my life miserable’. Neither girl, for very different reasons, wrote anything besides their diaries, and both diaries became major works in Brazilian and in Dutch literature.
Anne’s Diary is closer in style and mood to the Journal of the Russian painter Marie Bashkirtseff (1858-84). She was transplanted to France, began to write when she was thirteen and died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-five. Like Anne, Marie was attractive, gifted and eager for fame. She felt the flowering of her talent just before her early death: ‘I have the desire, if not the hope, of staying on this earth by whatever means possible. If I don’t die young, I hope to become a great artist. If I do, I want my journal to be published. It cannot fail to be interesting.’ While Anne, though often depressed and terrified, hoped – somehow – to survive, Marie knew that her disease was fatal. In the last year of her life she wrote: ‘I may linger for a while, but I am doomed. … Here it is at last, then, the end of all my miseries! So many aspirations, so many hopes, so many plans – to die … at the threshold of everything.’ Both Marie and Anne had contentious passages suppressed by their parents.
Anne’s Diary combines the portrayal of a clear-sighted and precociously wise child – like the eponymous heroine in Henry James’ What Maisie Knew (1897) and Flora in The Turn of the Screw (1898) – with the personal development and new imaginative awareness in Thomas Mann’s ‘Tonio Kröger’ (1903) and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). Comparing her pre-war and wartime existences, she observed, ‘When I was at home, my life was filled with sunshine. Then, in the middle of 1942, everything changed overnight. … The Anne Frank who enjoyed that heavenly existence was completely different from the one who has grown wise within these walls. … Even though I’m only fourteen, I know what I want, I know who’s right and who’s wrong. I have my own opinions, ideas and principles, and though it may sound odd coming from a teenager, I feel I’m more of a person than a child – I feel I’m completely independent of others’. Though she lacked experience and knowledge, Anne knew she was more intelligent than the doltish adults – Dussel and Petronella van Daan (to use their fictitious names in her Diary) – who criticised her, demeaned her and ordered her around. The Diary provided a safety valve that settled scores when Anne could not confront her adversaries directly.
Deprived of a normal childhood and forced into maturity by violent events, Anne was granted a brief respite between her pre-war happiness and her horrible death. As her body and mind changed with astonishing and sometimes alarming rapidity, she became more critical of and hostile to the seven people who shared her increasingly difficult confinement: her parents Otto and Edith, Otto’s business partner Hermann van Daan and his wife Petronella, the dentist Albert Dussel, Anne’s sister Margot and Peter van Daan, both three years older than her. At the same time, she became interested in and conquered, fell in love with (‘I’m half crazy with desire for him’) and was soon disillusioned with the inarticulate and intellectually limited Peter van Daan.
Discussions of Anne’s Diary usually focus on how keenly she observed domestic life in the Secret Annex. But she also charted the major events of the war; and the progress of the war ran parallel to her own emotional and intellectual development. In this way she was forced, or forced herself, to mature. Though cut off from normal existence, the Franks had an illegal radio, and Anne was remarkably well informed by the BBC’s announcers and by the stirring speeches of Winston Churchill. The family’s protectors, working in Otto Frank’s old office below the Secret Annex, also provided essential information. Anne knew about the English exile of the Dutch royal family, the increasing acts of sabotage against the Nazis in Holland, the arrests of Dutch Jews and deportations to the gas chambers in Poland. She knew exactly what might happen to her family if their hiding place was discovered. From terrifying personal experience she was also aware that British planes flew over Holland to bomb northern Germany, and records that several aviators were shot down and either captured or executed. She mentions the Allied landings in Casablanca, Algiers and Tunis; the victory at Stalingrad (a major turning point of the war); the fall of Mussolini; the British landing at Naples; the battle of Cassino; the fall of Rome; the advances on the Russian front; the capture of the Crimea and Vitebsk; the D-Day invasion of Normandy (her first reference to Eisenhower and the American army); the seizure of Cherbourg and the Cotentin peninsula; and the heartening attempt to assassinate Hitler. Each advance brought hope of the long-awaited final victory. Few adolescents see themselves so closely connected to contemporary history. Anne’s awareness that her own survival depended on the success of the Allies kept her constantly alert to the latest news.
Anne’s Diary is in a class by itself, but the superb, little-known memoir In Hiding: The Life of Manuel Cortes (1972), as told to Ronald Fraser, resembles it in important ways. After the Spanish Civil War Cortes, the Socialist mayor of Mijas in Andalusia, was threatened with certain execution by the fascists and forced to hide in his wife’s house for thirty years. (I knew Cortes when I lived in the next village in the 1970s.) When
he became ill, his wife simulated his symptoms and procured his medicine. When his daughter got married, he watched the festivities through a crack in the door. The dynamics of his secret family life, the constant danger of discovery and his courage under threat of death were very like Anne’s. Like Anne, he had never committed a crime and was entirely innocent. But Cortes was finally pardoned and survived his long ordeal.
Anne’s father, Otto Frank, foresaw the Nazi threat to the Jews and left Frankfurt for Amsterdam after Hitler took power in 1933. But he did not foresee the German invasion of Holland, which had been neutral in World War I and in 1918 had provided refuge for the deposed German Kaiser. Otto provided furnishings, clothing and food in the hundred-square-foot Secret Annex – high above the street yet psychologically underground – and took his family into hiding when Margot was suddenly called for duty in a labour camp. He still regarded Anne as a child and, surprisingly insensitive to her physical and emotional changes during the turmoil of puberty, made her share a tiny room with a stranger. He could have put Dussel, the middle-aged dentist, with the young Peter van Daan and allowed Anne to have the attic room.
Treated like a child but expected to behave like an adult, Anne was subjected to a series of terrifying torments, threats and dangers. She had close and irritating contact with seven other people, whose petty quarrels blew up into major conflicts and whose sudden shifts of mood resembled the behaviour of adolescent cliques. Anne had an uneasy rivalry with her exemplary older sister – a sort of ‘Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded’. Constantly picked on by the grown-ups, she craved a real friend who would provide true understanding and love. The little chatterbox had to be absolutely silent during the day when workers were in the building, and lacked normal privacy when bathing and using the toilet. She not only suffered from poor food and illness, but was also terrified by several break-ins and burglaries in the office, and by air raids and fires. She experienced hopeless passivity and psychological anguish, uncertainty and fear, alternation between hope and despair. She was constantly afraid of arousing suspicion that would inevitably lead to betrayal and arrest, deportation and death. There was no possibility of escape and no emergency plan, for Jews had no place to go if they were forced out of hiding. Their hiding place, once a refuge, became a trap. All this was compounded by a cruel sense of injustice: she suffered merely because she was a Jew. Anne hoped to live; her readers knew she would die. But she spoke for thousands and thousands of child victims who did not keep a diary.
When the people and governments actively resisted Nazi policies in occupied Denmark and Bulgaria, there were no mass arrests and deportations to the extermination camps. Most of the Jews in those two countries survived the war. In Holland, by contrast, where the authorities cooperated with the Gestapo, almost the whole Jewish population was deported. Of a hundred and forty thousand Dutch Jews, fewer than thirty- five thousand survived – the lowest survival rate of any country in Western Europe.
If Anne had been able to hide for only a month longer, Hitler’s best-known victim might have survived the war. After hiding for twenty-five months, she was arrested on 4 August 1944, nine months before the liberation of Holland. On 3 September she was sent on the very last train from Holland to Auschwitz. In October 1944 she was transferred from Poland to Bergen- Belsen, near Hannover, three months before the liberation of Auschwitz. She died in March 1945, only one month before the liberation of Bergen- Belsen. Emaciated and ragged, tormented by fleas and lice, ulcerated and febrile, the frail and sensitive child saw her sister die. Separated from her parents and believing them dead (Otto survived), she lost her will to live. She died of typhus, a more prolonged and even more agonising death than by cyanide gas. Both Jew and German, Anne was born and died in Germany, and was buried with thousands of other corpses in an unmarked mass grave. As a German woman remarked, with unintentional irony, after seeing the stage version of the Diary, ‘that girl at least should have been allowed to live’.
Anne Frank’s literary reputation was inevitably enhanced by her early death, as well as her photogenic smile and cute cleft chin. She was also sensitive, intelligent and charming. Though Anne had to wear a defensive
mask, and noted the difference between her inner and outer selves – she directed one to the Diary, the other to the people in the Secret Annex – her character is the most appealing part of the Diary. She was brave and honest, inquisitive and perceptive, self-aware and analytical, and uncommonly talented as a writer.
Despite her grim situation, Anne has a keen sense of humour. She sees through the pretentiousness and absurdity of the adults, the naïveté of Peter and the goody-goody quality of Margot. Peter was fond of using foreign words without knowing what they meant. Unable to flush the toilet during the day, he put up a notice warning the others about the unpleasant odour: ‘RSVP – gas!’ Their worn-out clothes also had a comic aspect: ‘Mama’s corset snapped today and is beyond repair, while Margot is wearing a bra that’s two sizes too small.’ The audible demise of the girdle reveals both the need for conventional dress and the difficulty of keeping up appearances in the Secret Annex, while the inadequate Büstenhalter suggests Margot’s discomfort as well as Anne’s impending inheritance.
The vignette of Petronella van Daan worrying about cooking her soup and food while being tormented by Dussel, the in-house dentist, has a Chaplinesque quality:
After a lengthy examination … Dussel began to scrape out a cavity. But Mrs. van D. had no intention of letting him. She flailed her arms and legs until Dussel finally let go of his probe and … it remained stuck in Mrs. van D.’s tooth. That really did it! Mrs. van D. lashed out wildly in all directions, cried (as much as you can with an instrument like that in your mouth), tried to remove it, but only managed to push it in even farther. … After a great deal of squirming, kicking, screaming and shouting, Mrs. van D. finally managed to yank the thing out, and Mr. Dussel went on with his work as if nothing had happened.
Anne felt a gratifying Schadenfreude when watching the intensely irritating woman lose control of her body – and dignity – and be reduced to the level of a squealing infant. Anne suffered a similar indignity when she caught the flu and was unwillingly examined by the dentist:
The worst part was when Mr. Dussel decided to play doctor and laid his pomaded head on my bare chest to listen to the sounds. Not only did his hair tickle, but I was embarrassed, even though he went to school thirty years ago and does have some kind of medical degree. Why should he lay his head on my heart? After all, he’s not my boyfriend! For that matter, he wouldn’t be able to tell a healthy sound from an unhealthy one. He’d have to have his ears cleaned first, since he’s becoming alarmingly hard of hearing.
The incongruity of ‘play doctor’, his foppish ‘pomaded head’ and her ‘bare chest’ is both excruciating and amusing. Anne slyly transforms the pretentious quack into a romantic swain. In any case, as she knows all too well, her roommate’s ears are clogged and he is half-deaf.
Anne’s analysis of the defects in her parents’ marriage and in her mother’s character suggests an additional strain in her life. Her father does not ask her mother’s opinion nor confide in her about important matters. Intensely idealistic about marriage, Anne notes their lack of real passion: ‘Father’s not in love. He kisses her the way he kisses us. He never holds her up as an example, because he can’t. He looks at her teasingly, or mockingly, but never lovingly.’ Anne’s refusal to allow her mother, instead of her father, to listen to her nightly prayers, reveals her hostility and provokes a serious quarrel. After her tearful mother confesses, ‘I can’t make you love me!’ Anne, honest as always, regrets yet justifies her behaviour: ‘how mean it was of me to reject her so cruelly, but I also knew that I was incapable of answering her any other way. I can’t be a hypocrite and pray with her when I don’t feel like it. It just doesn’t work that way.’
Anne’s descriptions of the external world reflect her inner turmoil and depression: ‘The atmosphere is stifling, sluggish, leaden. Outside, you don’t hear a single bird, and a deathly oppressive silence hangs over the house and clings to me as if it were going to drag me into the deepest regions of the underworld.’ She had been studying classical mythology,
and this passage suggests Eurydice’s descent into Hades without the possibility of rescue by Orpheus. But her forced sequestration has also made her more responsive to the natural world, glimpsed through the attic window, as if the sky had been created for her private pleasure. In a lyrical passage she writes, ‘The dark, rainy evening, the wind, the racing clouds, had me spellbound; it was the first time in a year and a half that I’d seen the night face to face’.
No one read Anne’s Diary until Otto returned to Amsterdam after the war. Though she hoped to publish it some day, Anne is remarkably honest and illuminating about her body and discusses sexual details, even with Peter, which would have made most adolescents squirm with embarrassment. She mentions menstruation, which coincides with her sexual awakening and desire, and exclaims, ‘Oh, I long to get my period – then I’ll really be grown up’. When her period comes, as she is longing to be kissed by Peter, she feels ‘in spite of all the pain, discomfort and mess, that I’m carrying around a sweet secret. So even though it’s a nuisance, in a certain way I’m always looking forward to the time when I’ll feel that secret inside me once again’. Desperately seeking an emotional outlet, Anne remembers a time when her bold sexual suggestion and rejection by a close friend became a moment of ecstasy: ‘I had asked her whether, as proof of our friendship, we could touch each other’s breasts. Jacque refused. I also had a terrible desire to kiss her, which I did. Every time I see a female nude, such as the Venus in my art history book, I go into ecstasy.’
Anne’s mother had told her about periods when she was eleven, but feigned ignorance when asked to explain the function of the clitoris. Though the details of sexual life were mysterious, Anne was pleased to discover the great truth by herself: ‘My own intuition told me what a man and a woman do when they’re together; it seemed like a crazy idea at first, but when Jacque confirmed it, I was proud of myself for having figured it out!’ She gives an anatomically precise description of the female genitals and, with sweet innocence, concludes that the vaginal ‘hole’s so small I can hardly imagine how a man could get in there, much less how a baby could come out’.
Danger was always present and Anne’s intensely active imagination inspired some eerie foreshadowing of her fate in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. She observes, ‘perhaps the day will come when I’m left alone more than I’d like!’ She self-reflectively dreams of a friend who was deported, ‘dressed in rags, her face thin and worn. She looked at me with such sadness and reproach’ and seemed to say, ‘Help me, help me, rescue me from this hell!’ When Anne’s precious fountain pen is accidentally burned in the fireplace, she is ‘left with one consolation, small though it may be: my fountain pen was cremated, just as I would like to be someday!’ This incineration, ironically, was the fate of many Dutch Jews. Despite all her suffering, Anne finally realised her idealistic goal, and became a voice from the grave: ‘my greatest wish is to be a journalist, and later on, a famous writer. … If God lets me live, I’ll achieve more than Mother ever did, I’ll make my voice heard, I’ll go out into the world and work for mankind.’ Like a burnt-out star, her light, though extinct, continues to shine.