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Anne Frank

June 12, 1929–1945

by Dina Porat, updated by Liat Steir-Livny
Last updated June 23, 2021

Perhaps the most famous child and most famous memoirist to have been a victim of World War II, the young Anne Frank (1929 – 1945) did not survive the Holocaust—but her diary did. With more than fifty language translations and more than thirty million copies sold, The Diary of Anne Frank today remains at the center of discussions of antisemitism, Holocaust memory, national guilt and responsibility, Jewish identity, acculturation, literature, drama, child psychology, and even historical revisionism, but above all, as the symbol of a young girl's belief in humankind's innate goodness and her hope for a better future.

Institution: Yad Vashem, Jerusalem.

In Brief

Anne Frank was one of the most iconic victims of the Holocaust. Her diary, written as a teenager from June 1942 to August 1944, describes her life hiding with her family and four other people in an Amsterdam attic. They were denounced on August 4, 1944. She was deported to Bergen-Belsen and perished in February 1945. Her father Otto survived and decided to publish her diary, which became one of the central stories of the Holocaust and human suffering. The diary has been represented in numerous cultural texts and discussed as a historical document from a literary perspective and from a feminist angle. Works have analyzed the diary’s Jewish features and its portrayal of Jewish life in Central and Western Europe, adolescents in wartime, and Anne’s potential as a promising writer.

Annelies Marie Frank, more commonly known as Anne Frank, is one of the most iconic figures of the millions of Holocaust victims. She wrote her diary from June 1942 (when she received it as a present on her thirteenth birthday) to August 1944. In the diary, she describes life in hiding in an Amsterdam attic before she was deported to Bergen-Belsen, where she perished. The diary has become one of the central symbols of the Holocaust and the sufferings of humanity.

Who was the girl who became so famous?

Annelies Marie Frank was born in Frankfurt, Germany, on June 12, 1929, to Edith (1900-1944) (née Holländer) and Otto Frank (1889-1980). Otto and his two brothers served in the German army in World War I. In 1933, after the Nazi party came to power, the Frank family moved to Amsterdam. For the first seven years, things were relatively quiet for the parents and their two daughters, Margot Betti (1926–1945) and her younger sister Anne, who attended the Montessori School until Germany invaded the Netherlands in May 1940.

In July 1942, when transports from the Westerbork transit camp to Auschwitz began, the family went into hiding, together with the van Pels family (two parents and their son Peter) and Fritz Pfeffer in an attic on 263 Prinsengracht Street in Amsterdam, the building that housed Otto’s business. For two years, from June 1942, when Anne was given the diary for her thirteenth birthday, until she was about fifteen, she wrote an entry nearly every day. The diary entries stopped abruptly when the hiding place was discovered on August 4, 1944.

On March 28, 1944, the spring before she was captured, Anne heard a broadcast from London on the Dutch underground Radio Oranje. The Education Minister of the Dutch government in exile, Gerrit Bolkestein, asked all citizens to preserve documents for posterity and, if possible, keep diaries, which would help to write history after the war and bring war criminals to justice. Anne decided to re-read her diary and make revisions while continuing to write new entries in the hope that it would bear witness.

On August 4, 1944, German and Dutch SS commandos led by SS Oberscharführer Karl Josef Silberbauer raided the hiding place. On September 3, 1944, all eight people in the attic were sent to Auschwitz on the last transport from Westerbork, which numbered about a thousand people. Edith Frank died of starvation in Auschwitz in early January 1945. Margot and Anne, who were transferred to Bergen-Belsen at the end of October 1944, died there in February-March 1945, during the typhus epidemic that killed thousands of prisoners. After the Liberation, Otto returned to Holland to discover, after a lengthy search, that he was the only one to have survived.

The identities of the people who helped the Frank family hide are well known, including people who worked for Otto Frank and were acquainted with him: Victor Kugler, Johannes Kleiman, Johan Voskuijl and his daughter Bep, Hermine Santrouschitz (Miep Gies) and her husband Jan Gies. However, the identity of the Dutch citizen who informed on the fugitives is uncertain and still controversial. Gies observed that the longer they hid, the less careful they were of leaving evidence that people were in the building after office hours. Passers-by may quite innocently have mentioned this fact in conversation, which could have been overheard by the wrong persons.

Until the late 1990s, the main suspect was Willem van Maaren, who worked in the warehouse of the building where they were hidden. In the late 1990s, Austrian historian Melissa Müller claimed in her book Anne Frank: The Biography that the family was denounced by a young informant named Lena Hartog, who worked as a cleaner in a warehouse near the hiding place. In 2002, Carol Ann Lee, in her biography The Hidden Life of Otto Frank, placed responsibility for the discovery of the attic’s inhabitants on Anton (Tony) Ahlers, a known anti-Semite and a member of the Dutch Nazi party who systematically informed on Jews. Ahlers was Frank’s business partner and knew that his spice company had done business with the Wehrmacht at the beginning of the war. Frank evidently paid Ahlers hush money even before his family went into hiding. Afterwards, he paid him not to reveal to the Dutch government that he had done business with the Wehrmacht, and according to Lee, apparently continued to pay him off until Frank’s death in 1980.

In 2015, a biography of Dutch resistance activist Elisabeth “Bep” Voskuijl, Otto Frank’s young secretary (Elli Vossen in Anne Frank’s diary) who helped the Frank family was published. Authors Joop Van Wijk (Bep’s son) and the Flemish journalist Jeroen De Bruyn claimed that Nelly Voskuijl, Bep’s sister, denounced the people in the attic. Unlike her sister and father who assisted the Frank family, Nelly was apparently a Nazi collaborator.

A study published by the Anne Frank house in 2016 claimed that Anne Frank and the other people in the attic were not handed over to the authorities, but rather were caught by chance during a police raid in search of criminals in the house where they were hiding. This study also mentioned the possibility that the raid was part of an investigation aimed at locating Dutch people attempting to avoid the forced labor brigades in Germany, some of whom worked in Otto Frank’s company. However, the possibility of betrayal has never been ruled out. In 2018, Gerard Kramer, whose father was a member of the Dutch resistance movement, published De achtertuin van het Achterhuis (The Backyard of the Secret Wing), claiming that Ans van Dijk, a Dutch woman of Jewish descent who collaborated with the Nazi regime, denounced the family.

The Diary, its Publication, and its Success

After Otto returned from the camps, Gies gave him Anne’s diary. She had found it where it had been concealed in the attic and kept it, intending to give it back to Anne when she came home. After deep soul-searching, at the urging of close friends, and after making editorial omissions of his own, Otto Frank authorized the publication of a small first edition of 1,500 copies in Amsterdam in the summer of 1947, on a date close to Anne’s birthday. It was entitled Het Achterhuis (The Secret Annex), or literally “The Back House,” the name Anne herself had given to all her writings in the attic.

Initially the book attracted little attention. People wanted to forget the war and its sorrows. However, in 1952, after more hesitation on Otto’s part, a translation of the diary was published in the United States, with a foreword by Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1955, the play The Diary of Anne Frank, starring Susan Strasberg, opened on Broadway and became a hit. The 1959 film The Diary of Anne Frank (directed by George Stevens) was also widely successful. The Anne Frank House, where the family had hidden during the war, opened in 1960. Hundreds of thousands of visitors continue to tour the house every year.

Translated into more than 50 languages, the diary has sold more than 30 million copies all over the world. Streets and squares, coins and stamps bear Anne’s name, along with prizes, conventions, exhibits, memorials, schools, and youth institutions, in addition to films, plays, musicals, an opera, and a video diary series on YouTube that bring her diary to life. There has been extensive research into her character and her diary, the translations, and the way her story has been represented in the media. In the last few decades, a subversive genre has also emerged that deliberately violates the sanctity of Anne’s popular image through black humor, satire, and parody in jokes, internet memes, TV comedies, and various skits. This development is part of a more general iconoclastic trend in Holocaust humor in Western culture.

The Universalization of the Diary

Anne’s diary was first perceived simply as the story of a young Jewish girl during the Holocaust. Gradually, however, it became universalized, a symbol of the sufferings of humanity at large, which despite the pain, still believes in human values and the basic goodness of others.

The diary’s message became detached from the Holocaust, the death camps, and the Jewish people. Anne herself became a symbol of the aspirations of adolescents in general. Young people from all over the world saw Otto as a father figure and wrote to him to express their pain for the loss of his family but made little or no connection to the circumstances under which they died, his family’s Jewishness, or his national identity.

Anne Frank’s diary conveys a universal message in part because it ends before the discovery of the hiding place and the deportation of its occupants to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. There are no harsh descriptions of the sort written by other young Jewish men and women, especially from Eastern Europe. There are no ghettos or camps, no starvation or the loss of family members in Aktionen. The Germans are mentioned in the diary with hatred and are called “Those vile people … the cruelest monsters ever to stalk the Earth,” as Anne wrote on November 19, 1942. The attic’s occupants were aware of the Nazi crimes against humanity, including the camps and the gas chambers, from BBC radio broadcasts, but these descriptions do not take up a significant part of the diary, which centers mainly on the world of the attic’s inhabitants and their daily lives, and Anne’s rich inner world. Readers are not asked to cope with the atrocity itself, making the entries less distressing. The Holocaust is both present and absent. Certain adaptions of the diary minimize the presence of the Germans even more.

Anne’s transformation into a universal symbol and in some ways into an American teenager took place as early as the 1950s. In the foreword to the first 1952 American edition, Eleanor Roosevelt made this explicit: “These are the thoughts and expression of a young girl living under extraordinary conditions, and for this reason her diary tells us much about ourselves and about our own children. And for this reason, too, I felt how close we all are to Anne’s experience, how very much involved we are in her short life and in the entire world.” Roosevelt made no reference to Jews or to Anne’s Jewishness, to the way her brief life ended, or to the Holocaust, thus distanced the diary from Jews and the Holocaust by referring to human trauma in general.

Otto Frank himself supported the diary’s universality. For example, a theatrical adaptation of the diary written in 1952 by the Jewish-American author Meyer Levin (1905–1981) was rejected because, as the publisher told Otto Frank, it was too Jewish, an assessment to which Otto Frank acquiesced. Frank wrote to Levin: “I always said that … it was not a Jewish book […] so please do not make it into a Jewish play.” In their quarrel over the right to produce the play, which ended up in court, Levin argued that his play was rejected because he himself was Jewish, a Zionist, and socialist, and because his family originally came from Eastern Europe, whereas Otto Frank and his lawyer were originally from Germany; i.e., they were assimilated Jews, devoid of Jewish national feeling, who saw Nazism as an accident that had befallen their Germany. The 1955 hit Broadway play was written by two non-Jewish playwrights, Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich. It was more universal and strikingly less anti-German than Levin’s script. Some literary critics and film historians have suggested that the diary, which presents Anne as an impressive human figure who clings to liberal-democratic values, highlighted American Jews’ desire to assimilate into the culture of the country that took them in.

In the 1959 Hollywood film, sections from the diary that express deep Jewish feeling were also omitted. An example is the deleted entry, dated April 11, 1944: “Who has set us apart from all the rest? … It’s God who has made us the way we are, but it’s also God who will lift us up again. In the eyes of the world, we’re doomed, but if, after all this suffering, there are still Jews left, the Jewish people will be held as an example to the world. Who knows, maybe our religion will teach the world and all the people in it about goodness, and that’s the reason, the only reason, we have to suffer. We can never be just Dutch or just English or whatever, we will always be Jews as well. And we’ll have to keep on being Jews, but then, we’ll want to be.”

On July 15, 1944, three weeks before the hiding place was discovered, Anne wrote, “It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” This statement elicits enormous admiration for Anne as a person and for her diary to this day.

Researchers and Jewish thinkers such as Bruno Bettelheim (1903–1990), Lawrence Langer, Art Spiegelman, Richard Bernstein, and Cynthia Ozick have been forceful in opposing adaptations of the diary. Their prime argument is that the famous statement in which Anne expresses her belief in the goodness of others, which appears at the end of the 1955 play and the 1959 movie based on the diary (even though the diary did not end with this statement), can be misconstrued as suggesting that Auschwitz did not exist at all. It may be read as implying that all people are good, or that Anne's statement is a variant on a Christian blessing promising God’s mercy to all regardless of their sins. This interpretation makes it easier to dismiss the horrors of the Holocaust, if not to deny it outright.

Although forgiving and comforting adaptations continue to be published, the Jewishness of the heroine has also reemerged. For example, in December 1997, when a new adaptation of the diary by Wendy Kesselman (b. 1940) was performed on Broadway, it restored Anne’s Jewish identity and her hatred of the Germans, and also explicitly depicted the Germans themselves, who burst onto the stage at the end of the play to drag away the attic’s inhabitants. The status of Jews in the United States at the end of the 1990s was completely different from that of the 1950s. In the world of identity politics, it was natural, if not politically correct, to highlight Anne’s Jewish background. At the same time, Anne continues to be a universal symbol. In January 1999, 50 years after the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights, Kofi Annan, the secretary-general of the United Nations, called upon all world leaders to sign a declaration of peace, friendship, conflict resolution, and a better future worldwide bearing Anne Frank’s name.

The Authenticity of the Diary and Holocaust Denial

It was Otto Frank himself who unintentionally began what would be a process of undermining the authenticity of Anne’s diary. Before the publication of the first edition, he deleted sections in which Anne wrote about her physical maturation, her love for Peter van Pels, the quarrels between members of her family, the squabbles that erupted in the close quarters where they lived for two years, and the characteristics and appearances of the people in the attic. In 1947, any mention of sex or even immature adolescent infatuations was still taboo. Otto Frank was from a conservative German family of the interwar period, and the loss of his wife and daughters was still too fresh for him to include episodes that might tarnish their memory, even though they were human and what Anne wrote about was natural in any family. After further reflection, he left pages containing some of the harsher texts with a close friend. These pages were only published close to Anne’s seventieth birthday, in June 1999, when several new biographies came out.

A neighbor and acquaintance of the Frank girls later said that Anne was extremely talented but also harsh, rebellious, and sharp-tongued, whereas her parents were easygoing people and Margot was an excellent and much-liked pupil. Another childhood friend gave similar accounts of the family’s personalities, describing Anne as acquisitive, self-centered, and very sexual. A series of accounts, interviews, and biographies that appeared mainly in the 1980s and 1990s describe Anne and the other fugitives in a more complex manner than in the diary.

The question of authenticity was also fueled by differences in the translations. For example, in Germany, a translation was published that, with Otto Frank’s assent, omitted all anti-German sentiment. As a result, the diary’s German edition did not accuse the Germans as a people or as a nation. Reading this version, anyone who felt guilt could relate to it on an individual level. By contrast, in Israel, Levin’s play was performed in 1966 to resounding though short-lived success. In 1960s Israel, one quarter of Israelis were Holocaust survivors, thus, Anne’s statement about people being good at heart, which served as the Hollywood production’s final syrupy line, required a different response. In the adaptation of Levin’s play in Israel, when Anne tells her father that she still believes in people, he replies: “I don’t know, my child. I don’t know.”

Anne and the diary’s authenticity have been attacked with increasing sharpness by Holocaust deniers. This controversy has had ramifications not only for the diary, but also for Anne’s character and nationality. At the end of the 1950s, after the diary was translated into English and the play earned rave reviews, extreme right wingers in Germany attacked its authenticity. In the mid-1970s, leading Holocaust deniers, such as Richard Verall and David Irving in Britain and Arthur Butz in the United States, challenged its authenticity as a way to deny the existence of the Holocaust. Toward the end of the 1970s, as he had done since 1958, Otto Frank took French Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson, together with Siegfried Verbeke of Belgium, to court in Germany in a series of four trials where they tried but failed to undermine the truth of the diary.

Holocaust deniers have also attempted to spread the lie that the symbolism of Anne as a persecuted child helped establish and finance the State of Israel. They falsely claim that her diary is used as a political tool by world Jewry to undermine the Palestinians’ right to a state and that its distribution is an exemplary lesson in how to circulate propaganda throughout the world.

Otto Frank dedicated his life to his daughter’s legacy. In his will, he left the diary to the Netherlands State Institute for War Documentation and the diary’s copyright to the Anne Frank Fund in Basel, which has been administered by the Frank family since Otto’s death in 1980. In 1981, the Institute submitted the diary to a Dutch government laboratory for an examination. In 1986, the Netherlands State Institute published a critical edition of the diary that checked the wording of the diary and examined the handwriting, the type of paper, and the ink. This edition, later termed “The Definitive Edition,” is the longest and the most complete and today is used for research purposes and for comparison with other, less complete editions.

In the early 1990s, the Anne Frank Trust, with the aid of other Dutch organizations, sued Faurisson and Verbeke, who claimed in their 1992 book that Otto Frank wrote the diary. Finally, in 1998, after the diary underwent extensive technical and graphological examinations for the third time, an Amsterdam court ruled unequivocally for its authenticity and made denying it a criminal offense. These trials, which fomented public debate for years, also led to explicit legislation in the 1990s against Holocaust denial in seven European countries.

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Porat, Dina and Liat Steir-Livny. "Anne Frank." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 23 June 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 4, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/frank-anne>.