Anne Frank

The story of the young diarist.

Print this page Print this page

Reprinted with permission from The Yale Holocaust Encyclopedia (Yale University Press).

Anne Frank (1929-1945) was a German-Dutch Jewish girl whose diary of life in hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam is the best-known personal document associated with the Holocaust and one of the most widely read books of modern times. 

Born Anneliesse Marie in Frankfurt am Main on 12 June 1929, she was the second daughter of Otto Heinrich (1889-1980), a member of an assimilated, successful Frankfurt banking family that had suffered financial setbacks during the economic crises of the 1920's, and Edith Frank-Hollander (1890-1944), the daughter of a well-to-do manufacturer in Aachen.

Nazi Rise to Power

After the Nazis came to power in March 1933 and began to persecute the Jews, Otto Frank tried to protect his family and livelihood by moving to Amsterdam (a city he knew well), where he established an independent branch of Opekta Work, a firm that made pectin, a powdered fruit extract in jams and jellies. His wife and children joined him in the winter of 1933-34 and the Franks moved to an apartment on Merwedeplein, a quiet neighborhood in the south of the city.

anne frank holocaustIn the late 1930's, Anne and her sister Margot lived the conventional lives of upper middle-class Dutch children, attending a local Montessori school and socializing with a wide circle of friends; but after the Germans invaded Holland in May 1940 and began to restrict the economic and social activities of Jews, the girls were compelled to attend a segregated school (the Jewish Lyceum), and their father transferred overt control of Opekta and a subsidiary firm to Gentile co-workers.

He also began to make preparations to go into hiding in a sealed-off set of rooms behind his office and warehouse at 263 Prinsengracht.

In May 1942, Jews in Holland were ordered to wear yellow stars for instant identifications; and on 29 June plans were announced to deport all Jews to labor camps in Germany. On 6 July, the morning after Margot received a call-up notice, the Frank family and three friends (Hermann, Auguste, and Peter van Pels), fearing deportation and worse, moved into what became known as "the secret annex," or "Het Achterhuis" (the house behind). An acquaintance, the dentist Fritz Pfeffer, subsequently joined them there.

Anne's Diary

Earlier, on June 12, Anne started keeping a diary in an album she received as a gift from her parents for her thirteenth birthday, writing on the front page: "I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope that you will be a great source of comfort and support." The "you" was not on the diary itself but an imaginary friend, Kitty, to whom she described the daily lives of the incarcerated Jews and her own reactions to growing up in hiding.

During the early months of confinement, Anne wrote vividly about domestic routines and tensions (notably quarrels with her mother), teenage concerns, fear of discovery, longing for independence and freedom, and the stark accounts that reached her of the Nazi persecution of Jews in Amsterdam and elsewhere. As time passed, however, she also recorded with urgency, humor and beauty an expanding awareness of herself as a sexual, moral, political and philosophical being, and as a writer.

In March 1944, in her twenty-first month in hiding, she heard a broadcast from London in which the education minister of the Dutch government in exile urged his countrymen and women to keep accounts of what they endured under German occupation, and she decided to rewrite and edit her diary for publication after the war.

Recasting earlier passages, fictionalizing the names of the actual inhabitants, and sharpening her style, she produced an unfinished, but unfailingly interesting tale of fugitives in hiding, a bitter-sweet adolescent romance involving Peter, and a stirring psychological drama of a girl becoming a young woman. While sequestered, she also wrote a handful of short stories that were to appear in 1956 as Tales of the Secret Annex.

Deportation

On 4 August 1944, German and Dutch security police (tipped off by an unidentified informer) raided the secret annex and arrested the eight Jews who had been sheltered there for twenty-five months. Anne's original and revised diaries, scattered on the floors, were recovered that afternoon by Miep Gies and Bep Voskuijl, two of the Gentiles who had courageously kept the occupants alive (the others were Victor Kugler, Johannes Kleiman and Jan Gies).

The Franks, van Pels and Pfeffer were taken first to a local police station, then to the transit camp at Westerbork and finally in September to the extermination camp at Auschwitz Birkenau. Hermann van Pels and Edith Frank died there; Peter van Pels perished in Mauthausen, Fritz Pfeffer in Neuengamme, and Auguste van Pels most likely in or near Theresienstadt.

Anne and Margot were sent to Bergen-Belsen, where they died of typhus and starvation in March 1945, a few weeks before the liberation of the camps by the British and three months short of Anne's sixteenth birthday. Otto Frank, the only one of the group to survive, had been freed when Auschwitz was liberated by the Russian army in late January 1945. (See Willy Lindwer, The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank, 1991.)

After the War

After Otto Frank returned to Amsterdam in June 1945 and eventually learned that his daughters were dead, Miep Gies gave him Anne's diaries and exercise books. In the weeks that followed, he began copying out sections that might interest relatives and friends. Since parts of the diary existed in several versions, Frank served as editor as well as transcriber.

When others read his selections, they were convinced of the manuscript's unusual value both as a document of the war and an engrossing story of a lively young girl's maturation, and they urged Frank to seek a publisher. At first he thought the diary would attract little attention from outside the immediate family, but he was persuaded to allow friends to make inquiries.

In early April 1946 (after several Dutch firms turned it down), the Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool printed on its first page an eloquent article by the historian Jan Romein, praising the diary as a strikingly graphic account of daily life in wartime and a revelation of the "real hideousness of Fascism," which had destroyed the life of a talented, endearing young girl. Uitgeverji Contact published Het Achterhuis in an edition of 1,500 in June 1947, and it received uniformly positive reviews.

Publishers in other countries were at first skeptical that there would be a market for what some saw as the mundane jottings of a little Dutch girl and a bleak reminder of the recently ended war, but French and German translations appeared in 1950.

The turning point in the history of the diary was its remarkable reception in the United States in the summer of 1952. Thanks mainly to a brilliant review by the novelist Meyer Levin on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl (after having been rejected a dozen times) was an immediate best-seller, providing an intensely personal experience for tens-of-thousands of readers.

Adapted for the theater by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett in 1955, The Diary of Anne Frank induced tears in large audiences, many of whom felt as if one of the unknown Jewish dead in Europe had risen from a mass grave and taken on a distinctive identity. Honored by the Pulitzer prize and the Tony and Drama Critics awards, the play was soon staged in many other countries.

A film version by George Stevens in 1959 further popularized the heart-rending, yet in these versions, reassuring story of the child, her fate, and her book. In America a broad public found it easier to relate to a romantic rendering of the victimization of a real/fictional child than to the almost unimaginable number "six million." Dozens of translations followed and sales reached into the many millions.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Lawrence Graver

Lawrence Graver is Professor Emeritus at Williams College, and author of An Obsession with Anne Frank, and other books.