Anne Frank, and her sister, Margot, are believed to have died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen sometime in late February or early March, 1945, just a few months before the camp was liberated by Allied forces.
During lockdown, I found myself re-reading many books I’d previously enjoyed, for knowing how a story concluded seemed to calm my apprehensions during those fear-filled days. And so, sorting through boxes of old paperbacks stored beneath my bed, I came across a worn, battered copy of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.
Almost reverently, I fingered the pages, now yellowed, some separating from the spine, of this much-loved book. I had first encountered The Diary as a 12-year-old, when a condensed version had been included in my older brother’s English literature textbook. He’d been given the obsolete textbook to bring home at the close of school, and I, reading at a skill level well above my age, browsed the book over one long summer, reading the condensed version of Anne’s diary again and again, fascinated with it.
Later, scraping together enough money—it cost me two weeks’ allowance–I purchased my own paperback copy of The Diary. It was this tattered, disintegrating book that I now found, lovingly stored for over 50 years amongst my mysteries and science fiction novels.
I did not need to re-read it. I had read it so often over my lifetime that I could quote whole passages with complete accuracy. I knew the inhabitants of The Secret Annex better than most of my family members; I had mourned their deaths more strongly than those of acquaintances.
But updated editions of Anne’s diary had been published, I knew, which contained passages that Otto Frank had deemed unsuitable for inclusion when the book was originally issued. So I clicked up a search engine to see what I could learn about more recent editions of The Diary.
I laughed to learn that a whole page of “dirty” jokes had been found hidden beneath the endpapers of Anne’s diary. I was saddened to think that Otto Frank had read, and then edited out, her speculations on his lack of love for his wife. I discovered neo-Nazi hate groups and Holocaust deniers claiming that Anne’s diary was fraudulent, and scholarly articles also questioning its authenticity.
But then I stumbled across a startling article from 1997 which contended that it would have been better had Anne Frank’s diary been destroyed. Because Anne did not survive Bergen-Belsen to continue her writing career, with a description of its unimaginable horrors as the heart of her existence—because others, including her own father, had taken from her diary a message of hope and a transcendent belief in the innate goodness of humanity (despite her remarks, also, of our urge to destruction and utter madness)—because people had disseminated, through plays and movies, their own concept of the person Anne was, and the beliefs she held–for these reasons, and more, the author of the article believed that it would have been best if Anne’s words had never seen the light of day. The message of a young girl penning the description of her days in hiding diminished the tragic end of Anne’s life, the author contended; eclipsed the frightful vision of her dying of typhus at Bergen-Belsen, lying on straw, covered in lice and fleas.
Miep Gies, one of the protectors of the little group in the Secret Annex, was quoted as commenting that, if she had read the diary before handing it over to Otto Frank, she would have had to destroy it. But Ms. Gies’ comments were related only to the fact that Anne’s diary named every person connected with the succor of that little group of Jews. It might have dangerously compromised all of them. However, Miep Gies neither read nor destroyed Anne’s diary. And I do not believe that was an accident. Anne’s words were meant to survive.
Despite the fact that Anne’s diary closes prior to the horrific end of her personal story, I have never since encountered an edition which did not include the ghastly memories of the Holocaust survivors who recalled her. That Anne was no longer alive to write it does not alter the final chapter of her narrative, nor keep readers from knowing the truth.
Nor have I ever, in the dozen and more times I read Anne’s diary, failed to note her misery, her terror, and her acknowledgement of the evil, as well as the good, of humanity.
People take from my essays what they will; they define “me” according to what they have read of my writings. That the “me” they know has, quite likely, little or nothing to do with who and what I am means nothing. Not one of us truly knows another human being, not even our own spouses and children. But that does not indicate that I should never have written, nor that I should have failed to open up my words to public view, knowing, accepting, that I might often be misconstrued or misunderstood.
People take from the diary of Anne Frank not just what they desire, but what they need. And that is, I believe, good and right. For in doing so, they fulfill her wish: “I want to go on living even after my death.”
If you enjoyed this essay, you might also like, “The End of the Story”, from July 6, 2018, and located in the Archives.