Frozen in childhood
Roses from the Earth: The Biography of Anne Frank
Carol Ann Lee Viking, 297pp, £16.99
Like most of us, I was still at school the first time I read The Diary of a Young Girl - a true-life adventure story, with a hero the same age as me. The affinity I had with Anne Frank was one shared, I imagine, by many of her young readers: that of one child for another. The politics more or less passed me by, beyond the understanding that the Nazis were the bad guys and the Jews . . . well, it didn't seem to be much to do with Jewishness. To me, Anne was simply a child. Everychild. It could have been me (apart from the fact that I was born a gentile in Croydon in 1959, not a Jew in Frankfurt in 1929). I used to daydream about living in hiding. Death, at least the manner of it, wasn't an issue because the book itself drew to a close after the entry of 1 August 1944, with the words, "Anne's diary ends here". What a way to go: clean, painless, mysteriously heroic. Last year I read the diary again. While Anne's story still moved me, I was acutely aware by now of the wider circumstances; childlike identification had given way to political and moral outrage.
Anne Frank would have been 70 this year. Seventy. Hard to imagine. For most of us, she is immortalised as a feisty teenager on the cusp of a womanhood that was never to be fulfilled. The awful paradox is that the timing of her death has meant she is a child in perpetuity. And, as such, she has attained almost mythological status. Until now the diary has been the primary source of our knowledge of her life, an existence fossilised in two years in an Amsterdam annex. Details from early childhood and the months between capture and death were sketchy - the diary was, popularly, the start and finish point of our concept of Anne Frank.
But the biographers have been at work. The English historian, Carol Ann Lee, admits to being almost obsessively fascinated by Anne Frank since her own childhood. Her book includes a foreword by Buddy Elias, Anne's first cousin and president of the Anne Frank-Fonds, and is the only biography on sale in the museum shop at 263 Prinsengracht. Melissa Muller, a journalist and writer on childhood, boasts an afterword by Miep Gies, one of Anne's helpers. Both authors cite exclusive access to previously unpublished photographs, documents and letters. Whatever the relative merits of their claims to have produced the biography, it is clear that each book has been scrupulously researched. For younger readers, the Mirjam Pressler version would make an ideal biographical companion to the diary itself. Pressler, translator of the diary from Dutch to German, worked with Otto Frank to edit the recent definitive edition. Curiously, hers is the only biography to speculate as to whether Anne experienced her first orgasm during her time in the secret annex.
All three biographies are very readable - compulsively so, at times, as the appalling drama of the events they describe unfolds with novelistic tension. Without being dry or academic, Lee conveys the greater sense of authority - compared to Muller, her material is more coherently organised and better written, less prone to narrative flourishes to describe scenes potent enough to be told straight. It brought me to tears to read the passage in Roses from Earth in which Otto Frank, who had already lost his wife, discovers his daughters are also dead. For the first time I found myself identifying with Otto as well as Anne. This was his tragedy, too. He survived the war, but what worse experience can any parent endure than to outlive his or her own child?
What emerges from all of these accounts is a fuller, more accurate portrait of Anne herself, her family, the other Jews who shared their hiding place, and the team of helpers who protected them. A portrait, too, that puts an individual ordeal in its social, political and historical context. And none of the authors flinch, nor should they, from chronicling events after the arrest. Anne's diary ended here, but her life did not. Her final months - at a Dutch deportation camp, then at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen - are described in all their grotesque detail: malnutrition, hypothermia, illness, degradation, brutality and ultimately death from typhus at the age of 15, just weeks before Belsen's liberation.
The last time I visited Anne Frankhuis, the queue along Prinsengracht eased past hoardings transformed into a colourful mural by Amsterdam schoolchildren on the theme of the rights of the child. Each painting depicted a different right - protection, education, equality, freedom, self-expression, play, friendship, a homeland, the right to life, the right to grow up. It struck me that, in Anne Frank's case, the Nazis achieved a clean sweep in the denial, removal or abuse of these rights. With one crucial exception: self-expression. The diary, salvaged from the annex and now published in 60 languages, is testimony to a refusal to be silenced, even by death.
Italo Calvino, in If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, declared that "the ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death". Few stories epitomise this double-edged facet of the human condition more perfectly than Anne Frank's. Every line she wrote, from the most banal to the most profound, is freighted with the poignant knowledge that we are reading the words of a young girl on the verge of death. Yet we also know that she lives on through the very pages we hold in our hands. We allow ourselves to be consoled by this. Weeping over the fate of a vivacious teenager and aspiring writer; mourning her, as every dead child is mourned, because a life should be longer than that.
Hers is a personal tragedy; symbolically, perhaps the personal tragedy of our century. So we cling to the illusion of her immortality. And, if we are not vigilant, the emotive power of one Holocaust victim can deflect us from, rather than guide us towards, the politics of the six million. The personal and the political come as a package. A complete assessment of Anne Frank must recognise this, while ensuring that neither dimension obscures the other. The timely expansion of her life into biography reminds us that - uncomfortable as this may be in a world still beset by tribal, racial and religious conflicts - Anne Frank died because she was a Jew.
Martyn Bedford's latest novel, "The Houdini Girl" (Viking), is partly based in Amsterdam and includes a chapter set in Anne Frankhuis