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12 June 2019

How Anne Frank’s collected works reveal the girl behind the legend

The diarist has been mythologised as a brave witness to evil, but it’s as an ordinary teenager growing into maturity that she speaks most forcefully to us today.

By Rachel Holmes

“I simply can’t stand Mother.” It’s not an unusual outburst from a teenager. The same girl listed as her hobbies: “First of all: writing. But I don’t really think of that as a hobby.” Next come genealogical charts, history, Greek and Roman mythology, film stars and family photographs. “I’m crazy about reading and books. I adore the history of the arts, especially where it concerns writers, poets and painters; musicians may come later… I enjoy… other school subjects, but history’s my favourite!”

At 6.45am on 12 June 1942, 13-year-old Anne Frank, eager for her birthday presents, rushed down the stairs to be greeted by the cat rubbing against her legs. The best-loved gift was a diary. Anne’s writing was no hobby: it kept her spirit alive. She wrote in Dutch, her second language. The young German Jewish girl did not live to see 16. In August 1944, after more than two years in hiding, the Franks were discovered and deported to Nazi death camps. Anne’s father, Otto, was the only survivor.

We think we know Anne Frank. But only now for the first time, 74 years after her death in Bergen-Belsen in early 1945, can we read in English the independently authenticated original versions of her famous diary (known as versions A and B) as well as previously unpublished letters, essays, short stories, notebooks, dreams, reminiscences, her Egypt scrapbook and other fragments. These are augmented by family photographs and contextual essays by scholars. Authorised by the Anne Frank Foundation, this new edition addresses recent challenges to their copyright, which – some argue – has expired.

What is it to have the collected work of a 15-year-old? In this case it is a testament to the evil and suffering inflicted on millions. It is a living act of resistance against fascism, now once again on the march. In this time of historical revisionism, where Holocaust denial and resurgent anti-Semitism rage worldwide and the last of those who can tell their own Holocaust tales are dying, it is more vital than ever to revisit Anne Frank. These records – voices and artefacts – live and continue to speak against denialism and against renascent fascism.

Annelies Marie, known as Anne, was the younger daughter of Otto and Edith Frank, born in June 1929 in Frankfurt, where she spent the first four years of her life. Upper-middle-class Jews, the Franks lived through first the effects of the First World War and then the rise of National Socialism and Hitler’s attacks on Jews – the road to the Holocaust. Fleeing fascism, the family migrated to Amsterdam, where Otto founded the Dutch franchise of Opteka, a European pectin and spice company, with no Jewish staff. Anne arrived in Amsterdam in the spring of 1934, attending Montessori schools and quickly learning Dutch, like her elder sister Margot. She was an outstanding student. When she was ten, Germany attacked Poland and the Second World War broke out. Nine months later the Nazis crossed the border into the Netherlands and swiftly occupied the entire country.

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Otto re-registered and rebranded the company in the name of Victor Kugler to prevent its confiscation as a Jewish business. Assisted by friends and colleagues, he remained secretly in charge. In the summer of 1942, when Anne got her diary, her sister Margot received a “summons” for young Jews – notification of their transport to a labour camp.

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Otto and Hermann van Pels had anticipated escalation and prepared a hiding place with room for both families. A business partner who became a friend, the chain-smoking, affable and politically knowledgeable van Pels and his family became leading characters in Anne’s life and diary. Otto’s secretary, Miep Gies, along with Johannes Kleiman, Victor Kugler, Bep Voskuijl, Jan Gies and Johan Voskuijl, made up the team of helpers who concealed them.

The Franks and the Van Pels moved into the annexe on Prinsengracht 263-267. Accessed by a movable bookcase, the hiding place comprised six cramped rooms. The bathroom was a windowless closet with just a sink. This, and the separate lavatory, could only be used during limited designated times. Anne and Margot shared a bedroom-study, and this allowed Anne some peace and privacy to write. Here the two families with their three teenagers (the Van Pels had a young son called Peter, who became Anne’s first love), attempted to sustain a normal routine. After a while they extended sanctuary to a friend, Fritz Pfeffer, a dentist, who like so many others desperately needed to hide.


Anne felt suffocated by the small space and wrote more and more – her diary, a play, short stories, essays and dream fragments. In the chronicle her accelerated maturity is evident in a swift change from relatively callow teenager to deeply thoughtful and empathic prisoner within months. “I’ve stopped looking at all the discussions and arguments from my family’s biased point of view,” she wrote. “I want to take a fresh look at things and form my own opinion, not just ape my parents… I’ll take every opportunity to speak openly to Mrs van D about our many differences and not be afraid…” In March 1944 the inhabitants of the annexe listened to a radio broadcast in which Gerrit Bolkestein, a minister of the Dutch government exiled in London, urged citizens to preserve private papers so their descendants would be able to understand what the Dutch endured during the war. This broadcast inspired Anne to start editing her diary with a view to publication.

Supported by Gentile friends and employees, the eight inhabitants of the annexe stayed concealed for two years. Anne’s last entry is dated 1 August 1944. The kindness of others had sustained them and yet on 4 August the worst happened: the Gestapo raided the premises and the families were arrested and deported to Westerbork transit camp. Historical debate continues to this day over the identity of the informers and alternative theories have been proposed as to how they were discovered. This book, in absolutely no doubt that the Franks were denounced, focuses rather on the arrest and fate of the families, placing foremost responsibility for the death of Anne and six million Jews like her with the Nazis, their collaborators and apologists for fascism.

On 3 September all eight were on the last transport from Westerbork to Auschwitz. The men remained together. Hermann van Pels was the first to be murdered. His son Peter was forced on a death march, reaching the Mauthausen camp and dying there. Otto was the only one liberated from Auschwitz by the Red Army, on 27 January 1945. Edith, Margot and Anne were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Edith died there from hunger and illness on 6 January 1945. Margot and Anne were moved to Bergen-Belsen, where sometime at the end of February or early March, both contracted typhus and died around a month before the British arrived.

Miep Gies, Otto’s secretary, rescued Anne’s diary and papers from the wreckage of the Nazi raid and kept them hidden, unread, until Otto returned after the war. Otto retreated to his former office to read, as he later said, the work of a daughter he had never really known. Among the many surprises he discovered was that Anne wanted her diaries to be published, and had started revising and editing, using them as raw material for a book she called Het Achterhuis, “The Annexe”. This was the manuscript on coloured paper. Hoping strangers might one day read her book, Anne removed intimate reflections on her sexuality, body and infatuation with Peter van Pels. Most importantly, she introduced the literary device of framing the diary account as “letters to Kitty”, her imaginary friend and confidante, believing this would allow readers a more direct and personal connection with the author.

Otto dedicated himself to getting his daughter’s work published, first in the Netherlands in 1947, then Germany in 1950 and shortly after in France. Publication in America and Britain proved a longer struggle. Major publishing houses considered it to be too narrowly focused, too domestic, too adolescent, too Jewish and too boring; and above all, too likely to remind readers of the war they desperately wished to forget. Saved from the reject pile in the Paris office of Doubleday by young assistant Judith Jones, later a legendary editor at Knopf, it was finally published in the US and UK in 1952, on what would have been Anne’s 23rd birthday. In the New Yorker, Janet Flanner noted the popularity of a book by “a precocious, talented little Frankfurt Jewess”. Have the adolescent scribblings of young Wasp men ever been quite so trivialised?

Torn apart: the Frank family – Anne (second right), her sister Margot, father Otto and mother Edith


Sixty-seven years on from the diary’s first publication in English, Bloomsbury is releasing this complete edition, including essential historical background and biography. This is an astonishing volume contextualising the significance of writing for Anne’s spiritual and practical survival, and inscribing her words in time. “I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those who I’ve never met,” she wrote. “I want to go on living even after my death! And that’s why I’m grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and to express all inside me!” Anne’s voice echoes from the annexe, years after she took her last breath.

In 1962 Hannah Arendt commented that adoration of Anne Frank was a form of “cheap sentimentality at the expense of great catastrophe”. (The Hebrew name for the Holocaust, Shoah, translates as catastrophe.) This edition offers a very different image to the mythicised Anne, including commentary on political changes that become increasingly pronounced as she experiences history unfolding.

It contains profound reflections on the practice of writing: as self-knowledge, as bearing witness, as recording a voice that is inevitably going to die prematurely. Anne reflects on her bodily cycles, her first period, and monitors her changes from young girl to woman. She writes about her sexual desire for women – passages struck from earlier editions. Together with her evolving sexuality, we come to learn of Anne’s incipient feminism, determined free spirit and scepticism about “so-called interesting men… whose faces are all but glowing with conceit”. She questions the gender relations around her and dreams of visiting Paris and London after the war to learn art history and languages. And her resilience is constant: “No matter what I’m doing, I can’t help thinking about those who are gone. I catch myself laughing and remember it’s a disgrace to be cheerful. But am I supposed to spend the whole day crying? No, I can’t do that. This gloom will pass.”

Anne Frank’s legacy has often been rose-tinted into a narrative of the budding humanitarian, of endless compassion despite living in inhuman conditions, at the expense of foregrounding the realities about which she writes. Arendt’s critique, arguing that mythologising Frank effaces the actuality of the Holocaust, gains a new perspective from this volume, out of which a far more complete view of Anne emerges.

It is her raw humanity that punches Anne’s modern reader in the gut: her ordinariness, her bad temper, her worries about her body, romantic daydreaming and the future. But crucially, her steady, observing voice – providing facts and political commentary, as well as first-hand, uncensored human responses to the outburst of evil – is essential at this time when awareness of Anne Frank’s story and the Holocaust more generally are imperilled. Rising levels of anti-Semitic hate crimes have been reported across Europe. Recent polls repeatedly demonstrate shocking levels of Holocaust denial and ignorance. The 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue massacre was the deadliest attack on Jewish people in the US to date.

Since Anne wrote her last diary entry, millions of young people around the world have raised their voices. Her legacy lives on. A then seven-year-old Syrian girl, Bana al-Abed, who amassed 200,000 Twitter followers while documenting her family’s struggle to survive in war-ravaged Aleppo, was called a modern-day Anne Frank. The Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi was imprisoned for resisting heavily armed soldiers and compared to Frank by the Israeli writer Yehonatan Geffen. The young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg demands that adults recognise climate catastrophe. Connecting these struggles, the Anne Frank Youth Network, run by the Foundation, supports young people challenging discrimination, prejudice and racism through education, including young Palestinian women.

What birthday wish can we offer a writer who would have been 90 this year? “So onwards and upwards, with renewed spirits, it’ll all work out, because I’m determined to write!” Re-reading Anne Frank grants her wish to be remembered, as one of the six million Jewish voices silenced by the Holocaust. She speaks, still, to the present, “What is done cannot be undone, but one can prevent it happening again.” l

This review is dedicated to the memory of Annemarie (Miriam) Posner (1917-2015)


Anne Frank: The Collected Works
Edited by Mirjam Pressler, Translated by Susan Massotty
Bloomsbury Continuum, 752pp, £50