The Holocaust and the Atomic Bomb: Fifty Years Later

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Anne Frank Revisited

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Yasmine Ergas (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Growing up Banished: A Reading of Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum," in Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars, edited by Margaret Randolph Higonnet and others, Yale University Press, 1987, pp. 84-95.

[In the essay below, Ergas compares the diaries of Etty Hillesum and Anne Frank, focusing on such themes as femininity, identity, and persecution.]

Memories help us live. Oddly, they need not be our own, seared as they are into the lives of those who were not there. Wars, for example: long after the bombing has stopped and the shell-shocked cities have been reconstructed, children learn to remember scenes of devastation they never witnessed. Persecution, too: age-old fears come to haunt generations born and bred in safety. Partly experienced and partly borrowed, memories are selective—mental notebooks we keep to honor the past, but equally to keep track of ourselves. "Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point," Joan Didion said of her jottings [in Slouching towards Bethlehem, 1981], and the same could well be said of what we choose to recall.

Diaries serve a double function, reminding both author and reader of a past self. Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum tracked their personal routes along transitory moments, and we in turn trace in their diaries the signposts to the present. Although the differences between then and now, between them and us, are enormous, these diaries still feed the memories of many today.

An Interrupted Life and The Diary of a Young Girl bear witness to life as it was lived in parallel to the Nazi concentration camps. They are not "camp" stories, permeated by the horrors of Auschwitz or Dachau. Instead, they tell of the attempt to maintain or construct normalcy in a rapidly bestializing civil society. From them we learn of persecution and war as they once intertwined with the processes of growing up female and Jewish.

What do they tell us? Synopses of such works are always difficult. For portrayals of the authors, let me refer you to the texts themselves. My intent is to unravel something of what they say about developing identities in the context of genocide. The diaries talk of maintaining individuality, forging personalities, coming to terms with femininity when persecution straitjackets its victims into a racial identity intended to be all-encompassing and all-defining. Although Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum repeatedly attempt to fashion and review their ways of being women, gender ultimately recedes to second place. As Nazism casts them, they must cast themselves: first and foremost as Jews.

These diaries speak, then, of the intersection of war and persecution. War is not for everyone the same. For persecuted groups, its contours are dictated by banishment. Their men and boys do not defend their countries at the front; they are not the nation's warriors. Their women and girls do not courageously nurse the wounded in battle, send their beloveds patriotic messages sealed with state approval, or otherwise join the country's effort. They may escape, resist, or submit. But they must always confront the condition of having been singled out—in this case, for annihilation.

Both young women, relatively affluent, of cultured milieux, and trapped in German-occupied Holland, Etty and Anne recorded the passages that led from individual lives to a collective fate. Etty Hillesum began writing first, at the age of twenty-seven. Her diaries, abridged by her Dutch publisher, were written between March, 1941, and October, 1942. The book also includes a few letters written later, up until her deportation on September 7, 1943. When Anne Frank...

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started her diary on June 14, 1942, Etty was close to ending her own. And by the time the Frank household was deported—on August 4, 1944—Etty has been dead in Auschwitz, eight months.

Their styles are very different. Anne receives a diary for her thirteenth birthday. Within a week the diary has acquired a name, Kitty, and been properly introduced, via Anne's descriptions, to the entire family. Kitty is Anne's confidante in a friendship initiated in freedom and continued in the cloistered captivity of the Achterhuis or Secret Annexe where the family, together with a colleague of Otto Frank's, Mr. Van Daan, his wife, and their adolescent son, Peter, find refuge. [In a footnote, Ergas adds: "Frank portrays Kitty's character in a short story written in hiding: see Anne Frank's Tales from the Secret Annexe, 1983."] (Some time after going into hiding, they invited Albert Dussel, a dentist of late middle age, to join them.) Notwithstanding occasional doubts, Anne possesses the "instinct for reality" that is the hallmark of a diary keeper. Everyday life is not too prosaic to be carefully recorded. She chronicles its details, patterning the day's events into a coherent narrative. The narrative is its own point, although it also often serves as the springboard for moral reflections, laying the foundations of Selbstbildung, of construction of the self or of self-improvement.

Etty hardly ever reports a day's events and never provides an introduction to her cast of characters. Like a diver going off the deep end, she plunges in with "Here goes, then." A series of reflections follows, written at all times of day and night. Etty is not addressing a paper standin for a best friend as she records impressions and feelings in a nervous reworking of her spiritual and moral self. Her diaries are written in the mode of annotations designed to evoke a full range of associations rather than to record each day's passing. "That may seem rather clumsily put, but I know what I mean," she comments after a particularly elliptical entry, making the point of her writing clear.

A variety of factors must have contributed to the two women's divergent approaches. The one conjures up her alter ego as an imaginary penpal, while the other seeks to fathom and reorder her innermost self. For Etty, turning inward is painful: "So many inhibitions," she remarks at the outset, "so much fear of letting go, of allowing things to pour out of me, and yet that is what I must do if I am ever to give my life a reasonable and satisfactory purpose. It is like the final, liberating scream that always sticks bashfully in your throat when you make love." For Anne, the diary is an immediate source of joy: "Now I must stop. Bye-bye, we're going to be great pals!" she ends her first entry.

Despite their differences, Anne and Etty share a propensity to harp on the limitations inherent in women's attitudes toward men and to set themselves on routes of less fettered freedom. For Anne, the captive community in which she lives provides the models from whom she fully intends to differ: her mother, Mrs. Van Daan, even her much-admired sister. The pettiness of their concerns strikes her, as does the triviality of their accomplishments. "If God lets me live," she exclaims in April, 1944, "I shall attain more than Mummy has ever done, I shall not remain insignificant." A few days earlier she remarked in a similar vein: "I want to get on; I can't imagine that I would have to lead the same sort of life as Mummy and Mrs. Van Daan and all the women who do their work and are forgotten." The road to significance leads, Anne thinks, through working "in the world and for mankind"; the road to life after death, she hopes, can be paved by writing. Femininity rarely threatens these aspirations: there are no obvious traces of female fear of success. [In a footnote, Ergas adds: "Nonetheless, describing Kitty, who 'wants to work in a factory, like those jolly chattering girls she sees passing by the window,' Anne does say, 'Kitty's mother always says that a girl doesn't get a husband if she's too clever, and that, Kitty thinks, would be just awful' (Anne Frank's Tales from the Secret Annexe)."] Just before scorning her mother's "insignificance," Anne affirms confidence in herself. "I know what I want, I have a goal, an opinion, I have a religion and love. Let me be myself and then I am satisfied. I know that I'm a woman, a woman with inward strength and plenty of courage."

Like Anne, Etty is impatient with the conventional bonds of womanhood. While also referring critically to her mother, she frequently proffers general comments on the "not at all simple … role of women," whose marks she recognizes in herself—unlike Anne. Passing "a beautiful, well-groomed, wholly feminine, albeit dull woman, I completely lose my poise. Then I feel that my intellect, my struggle, my suffering, are oppressive, ugly, unwomanly; then I, too, want to be beautiful and dull, a desirable plaything for a man." This desiring to be desired Etty dismisses as "only a primitive instinct." Reflecting on traditional feminine conditioning, she looks forward to an "essential emancipation of women." "We still have to be born as human beings, that is the great task that lies before us."

This want of emancipation notwithstanding, Etty's life-style seems largely unhampered by patriarchal constraints. Her reviewers often cite as indicators of her sexual liberty her dual involvement with her mentor, Speier, and Papa Han, her kindly and elderly landlord; and her entries allude to several earlier experiences. She pursued her psychological and spiritual liberation in tandem with her studies. Having already earned a degree in law at the University of Amsterdam, she enrolled in the Faculty of Slavonic Languages before turning to psychology. She lived in Papa Han's house with four friends, in an arrangement similar to that often found around university campuses today. The way to free femininity may have been arduous and uncharted, but it was open. So it appeared, at least, as described by Anne and Etty, upper-middle-class girls of "enlightened" and cultured backgrounds. But, while the future of women revealed avenues of possibility, that of the Jews appeared increasingly walled in by political foreclosures.

Branded as a special enemy in occupied lands, the Jews were sharply set off from their societies. As the racial laws were strengthened, demarcations became more rigid. Race prevailed as the ordering societal criterion. Yet Etty had been keeping a diary for six months before she talked of herself as a Jew, and even then the mention is more metaphorical than factual. On walking through south Amsterdam, she wrote, "I felt like an old Jew, wrapped up in a cloud. No doubt that's recorded somewhere in our mythology: a Jew moving along, wrapped up in a cloud." Over the course of many months, however, her Jewishness impinges on her sense of self at an accelerating pace, finally becoming the implicit referent when she says we. For Etty, "Jew"—once a seemingly marginal connotation—had been transformed into the ineluctable answer to the question "who am I?" In July, 1942, she wrote: "What is at stake is our impending destruction and annihilation, we can have no more illusions about that. They are out to destroy us completely, we must accept that and go on from there."

A fortnight earlier, Anne had introduced herself to the as yet unnamed Kitty. "Sketching in the brief story of my life," a sentence and a half sufficed for the family's vital statistics: her parents' ages at marriage, the births of her elder sister, Margot, and of herself. Immediately she launched into a description of their lives, "as we are Jewish." Friday evening dinners or Passover festivities do not ensue. Of the forty-five lines that Anne dedicates to this presentation, thirty are devoted to the Nazi racial laws and their repercussions. "As we are Jewish," Anne explains, the Franks had left Germany in 1933. But the rest of the family stayed behind, "so life was filled with anxiety." With the arrival of the Germans in Holland, "the sufferings of us Jews really began. Anti-Jewish decrees followed each other in quick succession," and she lists them. To be a Jew, a persecuted Jew, is an essential component of Anne's sense of self: it prescribes the coordinates by which she locates herself in the world.

Anne chafes against the racial yoke represented by the yellow star. "Surely the time will come when we are people again, and not just Jews," she writes well into 1944, longing not for the obliteration of Jewish identity but for the restoration of individuality. Etty invokes that time too, in a letter from Westerbrok. [In a footnote, Ergas notes that "Westerbrok was a 'transit camp' in the east Netherlands to which Jews were deported before being sent to other camps. For histories of the Netherlands during the Second World War focusing on policies toward the Jews, see J. Presser, The Destruction of the Dutch Jews, 1969; and Helen Fein, Accounting for Genocide: National Responses and Jewish Victimization during the Holocaust, 1979."] "The outside world probably thinks of us as a grey, uniform, suffering mass of Jews, and knows nothing of the gulfs and abysses and subtle differences that exist between us. They could never hope to understand." To understand, that is, how differences persist notwithstanding the iron rule of racial caste. [In a footnote, Ergas states: "The Nazis did differentiate. Etty's parents, for instance, fruitlessly hoped to be admitted to Barneveld, a temporary refuge for the privileged. Even at the camps particular powers and protection were given to some: kapos, entertainers, physicians, technicians. Ultimately, however, these distinctions only articulated and bolstered the general category of 'Jew.'"]

Collective identities imply common destinies. As the Nazi persecution intensified, the futures Anne and Etty envisaged changed. In April, 1942, Etty could anticipate the day when, chancing upon an anemone preserved in the pages of her diary, she would remember Speier's fifty-fifth birthday. [In a footnote, Ergas explains: "Speier, a Jewish psychochirologist, had moved to Amsterdam from Germany. Etty began as his patient, worked temporarily as his secretary, and remained devoted to him until his death. He, however, was engaged to a young woman in London, and, although emotionally involved with Etty, remained 'faithful to her [his fiancée] above everything else.'"] Looking back upon this happy moment of her youth, she would then be, Etty foresaw, a matron who had attained a clearly imagined moment of the future. That future represented a personal development woven from the idiosyncratic yearnings of an aspiring writer endowed with intense spiritualist tendencies and strong passions. "I am sure," she wrote in the early summer, "that one day I shall go to the East." But within a matter of weeks the prospect of walking through Japanese landscapes had faded. The future was reduced to the question of survival or death as persecution crystallized the awareness that reordered experience, the anticipation of imminent mass murder. On "July 3, 1942, Friday evening, 8:30" she describes the rupture that has sundered her life's apparent continuities. "Yes, I am still at the same desk, but it seems to me that I am going to have to draw a line under everything and continue in a different tone." "Every day I shall put my papers in order and every day I shall say farewell."

Anne undergoes a similar transition. In the summer of 1944 the young girl who "did so want to grow into a real young woman" senses her impending doom and recalls her obligations. "I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out," she reminds herself, having stared disaster in the face. "I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness. I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the suffering of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right." Months earlier, she had equated the time when it would "all come right" with survival and testimony. In April she had written: "If we bear all this suffering and if there are still Jews left, when it is over, then Jews instead of being doomed will be held up as an example." Distinguishing herself from Margot, who wished to be a midwife in Palestine, Anne dreamed that May of a year in Paris and one in London, learning languages and studying the history of art, seeing "beautiful dresses" and "doing all kinds of exciting things." Hopes of an individual, lighthearted future remained, hostage of an uncertain collective fate.

The leaden quality of that fate contrasted sharply with the possibilities feminine identity seemed to hold in store. Reading Anne and Etty it seems, however, that persecution provided a greater impetus to searches that stretched Jewish spirituality than to social experiments that yielded transformative models of femininity. Bound to a hunted community at once racial and religious, Anne and Etty seek the transcendental meaning that can endow their lives with reason, value, and significance. In a novel written in hiding, Anne grapples with the divisiveness of race. The tale of Cady—who appears in many ways indistinguishable from her narrator—breaks off in grief when the heroine's friend Mary is deported. "'Mary, forgive me, come back.' Cady no longer knew what to say or think. For this misery she saw so clearly before her eyes there were no words … she saw a troop of armed brutes … and in among them, helpless and alone, Mary, Mary who was the same as she was" [Anne Frank's Tales from the Secret Annexe].

Anne's fiction echoes her diary. On November 26, 1943, she dreamed of her deported school friend, Lies. Lies's imploring gaze mesmerized Anne, now anguished and incapable of offering help, wracked by grief and an emotion we term today "survivor's guilt." [In a footnote, Ergas adds: "For a succinct discussion of survivor's guilt, see Robert J. Lifton, 'The Concept of the Survivor,' in Survivors, Victims, and Perpetrators: Essays on the Nazi Holocaust, ed. Joel E. Dimsdale, 1980."] Like Anne in her dream, Cady ranks among the privileged. But between them there is an important distinction: Cady is a Christian. As Anne's double on the other side of the racial divide, she incarnates a pedagogy of the persecuted. A Christian emphasizing anti-Semitism's savagery, she epitomizes the moral stance Anne must have recognized in the Christian friends on whose unfaltering loyalty the Secret Annexe depended. Anne became conscious of the growing precariousness of such a stance when the news of spreading, virulent Dutch anti-Semitism reached the family's refuge. Insisting that "one must always look at things from both sides," she tried to explain to Kitty the alleged behavior of those Jews who, by betraying resistance secrets or otherwise acting wrongly, had incurred the wrath of the Germans on the Netherlands. Anne did look at things from both sides, through Cady: as a Jew taking on the persona of a Christian and as a Christian seeing herself in the person of a Jew. [In a footnote, Ergas continues: "Pleading for understanding toward individual Germans, Etty insisted that they were also suffering. Of 'that kosher German soldier with his bag of carrots and cauliflowers at the kiosk' who had told her friend Lies that 'she reminded him of the late rabbi's daughter whom he had nursed on her deathbed for days and nights on end,' Etty says: 'I knew at once: I shall have to pray for this German soldier … German soldiers suffer as well. There are no frontiers between suffering people, and we must pray for them all.'"]

Strikingly, in this only fictional piece to mention Jews, Anne does not clearly identify as one herself. Here the Tales and the Diary differ: with the exception of Cady's story, Anne refrains from literary forays into the matter of her own race. But, although no one ever utters a kiddush, religiosity surfaces throughout fables and short stories animated by Anne's psychological twins: fairies, elves, bears, and little girls. Belief in God repeatedly issues from their voyages in search of self. "In the field, amid the flowers, beneath the darkening sky, Krista is content. Gone is fatigue … the little girl dreams and thinks only of the bliss of having, each day, this short while alone with God and nature." The first-person protagonist of "Fear" comes to a similar conclusion. Having fled her city home in the midst of violent bombings, she finally rests in the countryside. Later, when war is over, fear appears as "a sickness for which there is only one remedy … look at nature and see that God is much closer than most people think." Locked into the Secret Annexe, Anne could not indulge longings for nature and personal space. The claustrophobic world of confinement forced the quest for meaning—and identity—inward.

Exploring spirituality introspectively and untrammeled by religious observance, Anne developed beliefs at most loosely related to Judaism. Embracing practices and systems of signification proper to Christianity, Etty even more evidently strained the limits of her received religion. The morning of Good Friday, 1942, she recounts having knelt in prayer and recalls the bathroom's "rough coconut matting." Hesitantly, she confesses to success, for the struggle to bow down in prayer has long engaged her and is central to the allegory she has been weaving, the tale of "the girl who could not kneel." In October of that year she equates kneeling with prayer. Her story, she says, is strange: "the girl who could not kneel. Or its variation: the girl who could not pray." Like her practices, her beliefs assume Christian tonalities. "I have broken my body like bread and shared it out among men. And why not, they were hungry and had gone without for so long," the last diary entry notes before her sacrificial closing words: "We should be willing to act as balm for all wounds." The Christian hues of her faith notwithstanding, Etty never disavows Judaism, nor does she dwell on its potential conflicts with her spiritual trajectory. On the contrary, referring to her love for Speier she exclaimed at the end of April, 1942, "I am so glad that he is a Jew and I a Jewess."

While the grip of racial Jewishness tightened, its hold as an organized religion weakened. Practice was largely impossible. The Franks, who took a menorah into hiding, complemented Chanukah candle-lightings with Christmas celebrations. Perhaps privileged Dutch and German Jews like Etty or Anne were already too distant from the Jewish religious tradition to perpetuate it in such trying conditions and on their own. And yet, Anne's father oversaw her nightly prayers. Many factors must have fashioned their spiritualities. Certainly, persecuted Jews found innumerable solutions to the question all were asking: "God Almighty, what are You doing to us?" The words escaped Etty in Westerbrok.

Somehow, every Jew had to find an answer. And every answer found remained that of a Jew. No matter how apostate individual Jews' beliefs, the Nazi persecution had established the supremacy of descent over faith in the definition of the Jewish community. [In a footnote, Ergas states: "Anti-Semitic persecutions have not always been based on race: the Spanish Inquisition, for instance, focused on beliefs. At that time, as the history of the Marranos shows, conversion provided an escape."] For all her spiritual trespassing into Christian domains, Etty, like Anne, stayed within that community. In the practical activity of evolving beliefs, with untold others they explored possible religiosities of the unobservant Jew.

By contrast, persecution provided Anne and Etty with few opportunities for the practical remodeling of their identities as women. Where soldiers are drawn from populations neatly cleaved along lines of gender, age, and health, when war leads ablebodied men to battle and leaves all others at home, persecuted groups are promiscuously amassed into communities of fear. Nazi anti-Semitism did not emancipate Jewish women. Slave labor cannot be equated with enlistment for factory jobs or other patriotic—and remunerative—tasks. For Jewish women, barriers affecting labor-force participation were not lifted. They were not called upon to occupy posts men left vacant. They were not integrated into labor organizations. They did not axiomatically gain special powers over their households, head communities and families, bring in vital wages, reorganize living arrangements, support dependents. They were not awarded childcare services, nutrition programs, widows' pensions. They were not extolled by ideologies that elevated their status while catalyzing their support. In their struggles to survive extermination, Jewish women often found themselves alone, responsible for the shelter of others, or otherwise pivotal to collective moral and material economies. Nazism undid the patriarchal family as it ripped apart the fabric of Jewish life. But gender roles were not systematically rewoven by women darning the holes that men's absences opened. War befits women, some have argued, pitching bellicose Minervas and triumphant Nikes against romantic portrayals of pacifist Geas. At a minimum, they claim, war has benefited women in the twentieth century and in the West. Yet neither economically nor socially nor politically did the Nazi war reallocate power to Jewish women.

Persecution brought Etty a new job as a clerical employee of the Jewish Council, with its attendant emotional responsibilities toward the deportees with whom she worked and lived at Westerbrok. Lowly as her position may have been in the Council's hierarchy, it conferred petty powers and offered her temporary security. But it also tainted her with the guilt of collaboration and of that, too, she was sporadically aware. Before entering into this Nazi-created employment, Etty had worked, earned money, and overseen her own living arrangements. As a woman, under Nazism, she never gained; as a Jew, she only lost.

Anne lost too. Like others in hiding or attempting escape, the Franks lived within a drastically narrowed circle of social relations. Here familial or quasi-familial bonds strengthened into clandestine enclaves of solidarity. With everyone's safety at the mercy of the others' fealty and sense of responsibility, a general flattening of social status ensued. The Secret Annexe housed an extended ménage that partially reshuffled gender roles. Otto Frank and Mr. Van Daan peeled potatoes alongside their wives: testimony more to the loss of their external, head-of-the-household functions than to their wives' elevation. However, many other tasks retained their conventional gender markings. Protection, for example, remained a manly duty. [In a footnote, Ergas adds: "The permanence of conventional gender roles is clear in Anne's description of the Annexe's response to an attempted burglary."] Peeling potatoes and protecting the household need not clash, and in the Annexe clandestine life restricted role-playing and the potential for role conflict.

In this context of limited activity, there were few occasions for Anne to realize her emancipatory desires. Her diary and short stories provided writing practice, an informal apprenticeship for the career she wished to undertake. Lessons, from math to shorthand, broadened the scope of her abilities. Her mother proved a source of frustration and rivalry, her father of affection, Mrs. Van Daan of contempt, and Albert Dussel of irritation. With Peter, the Van Daans' adolescent son, she navigated through a sentimental journey clouded by parental disapproval. Yet all these elements spurring Anne's development pale by comparison to her world before confinement or even to the war-ridden world of her non-Jewish peers. Stripped of every right, amid the debris of their decimated milieux, Anne and Etty were killed. Women, but most of all Jews, on every possible count for them Nazism and war entailed losing.

As the persecuted resist the progressive diminishment of self, they struggle against the temporal scansions that are imposed upon them. They do not walk in step with the drumbeat of battles and bombs. For persecution proceeds at its own pace, and the persecuted are mobilized not to the call of the nation but to the cumulation of special prohibitions and obligations. [In a footnote, Ergas adds: "Persecution marches in uneasy synchrony with war. The Wehrmacht complained bitterly that extermination policies drained the German military effort. See Saul Friedlander, Reflections of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death, 1984. For a synthetic discussion of the economic, administrative, and psychological obstacles the Nazis had to overcome in implementing their extermination policies, see Raul Hilberg, 'The Nature of the Process,' in Dimsdale, ed., Survivors."] Some, like Anne and her family, meticulously plan for invasion. For over a year, the Franks stocked food, clothes, and furniture in the Secret Annexe. Or, like Etty, they tenaciously cling to everyday life. "I cannot take in how beautiful the jasmine is," she wrote on July 1, 1942, "but there is no need to. It is enough simply to believe in miracles in the 20th century. And I do, even though the lice will be eating me up in Poland before long." Others join the Resistance, engaging their oppressors in armed struggle. No matter which stance they take, persecution, more than war, orders their public experience.

Persecution imposes its measure on personal time, too. Anne divided life into before, during, and after hiding. Memory reigned over "before." Routines provided a modicum of activity to make time pass in the present. Her passion for Peter, like the radio broadcasts announcing the war's events, anticipated a time to come "after." Ultimately, writing for both Etty and Anne bridged the time of persecution and that which followed, transforming their diaries from tools of authorial apprenticeship into testimonials to the present and instruments of its transcendence. Etty kept her diary to remain her "own witness, marking well everything that happens in this world." She was determined to "know this century of ours inside and out" and describe it. Finally, her diary condensed her aspirations, the legacy she bequeathed in fulfillment of a promise made in the summer of 1942, when she vowed: "When I have survived it all, I shall write stories about these times that will be like faint brush strokes against the great wordless background of God, Life, Death, Suffering, and Eternity." Anne, too, planned a testimonial, hoping "to publish a book entitled Het Achterhuis after the war"—the book her diary became.

Tales of persecution are crucial to the European memory of World War II. It is a memory periodically fanned by the celebrations of antifascist resistances (where they existed), national holidays, the capture or escape of a Nazi war criminal. And by a few, enduring testimonies. Such testimonies are provided by the Diary of Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum's An Interrupted Life. Like many memoirs of war, they bespeak a remote "other" path to, or through, adulthood: one produced by fragments of past normalities as they shatter into conflict and loss. But, unlike war literature at large, these memoirs evoke the specific horrors of anti-Semitic persecution four decades ago. Their protagonists have become emblematic of the journey through banishment and exile that so frequently ended in death. Their words resonate today, and not simply because they left lessons about our possible tomorrows. Rather, they resonate because we remember, and what we remember colors who we are.

Sylvia Patterson Iskander (essay date Summer 1991)

SOURCE: "Anne Frank's Autobiographical Style," in Children's Literature Association Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 78-81.

[In the following essay, Iskander examines Frank's style, noting its relation to the classic tenets of biography developed by Samuel Johnson and James Boswell.]

Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl, originally entitled Het Achterhuis (The Secret Annex), presents a self portrait that captivates most readers initially because of their foreknowledge of the tragic conclusion of this young girl's life and the other horrors of the Holocaust. Subsequently, Anne's revelation of her unique personality and her unusual circumstances rivet readers to the Diary, proclaiming it a classic. [In an endnote, Iskander states: "Anne's diary is unique, even though other diaries exist from World War II. The others are either written by diarists older than teenagers, such as twenty-seven-year old Etty Hillesum's An Interrupted Life (about her life in Amsterdam from 1941 to 1943), or they are not yet available in English. Still others recollect life as a teenager, such as Jack Eisner's The Survivor (about his teen years in Warsaw), but these were either written, or revised, years after the war."] An examination of Anne's writing techniques reveals, in addition, a thoroughly professional style, which also contributes significantly to the book's merit. Anne's style, in fact, is so unusual for a thirteen to fifteen-year-old that her authorship has been questioned. Extensive hand-writing analysis, however, has verified the Diary's authenticity. Although sometimes censored for its politics or ideology, its attitude toward adults, and its revelation of sexual maturation, the Diary, if excised only slightly as Otto Frank, Anne's father, has indicated and if accurately translated, is an achievement of rare and precious worth.

The complete, unexpurgated Diary, now available in Dutch, appeared in English for the first time published by Doubleday in June, 1989. I believe that it reveals more of her autobiographical talent, for Anneliese Marie Frank employed many and varied techniques, some acquired, no doubt, from her own reading. Under her father's tutelage, Anne studied several excellent histories and biographies, which probably influenced her style; she specifically mentions in the Diary: Karl Brandi's The Emperor Charles V, Zsolt Harsányi's biographies of Galileo and Franz Liszt, Karl Tschuppik's Maria Theresa, and others. Her reading—of books originally published in English, German, French, Hungarian, Swedish, as well as Dutch, of myths and legends, popular young-adult novels, articles on psychology, movie and theater magazines, a young people's annual, plays, and even the Bible—impressed Anne, whose assimulation of them with her own intuition enabled her to create her remarkable journalistic style.

Anne cannot be compared as a theorist to the eighteenth-century English masters of biography and autobiography, Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, whose innovations in the field established the still-current criteria, but she actually utilized most of their theories about style, perhaps absorbing them from the biographies that she read. Whether she developed her style on her own or from her reading of European writers following in the Johnson/Boswell tradition, we may never know. One possible explanation, however, is that she absorbed much of this tradition through her reading of Professor Brandi's biography of Emperor Charles V, over which he labored forty years while at Göttingen University in Germany. Göttingen, founded by George II of England and Hanover in 1734, certainly contained by the early twentieth century, most of Johnson's and Boswell's works, for its collection has long been noted for its rich English holdings. Brandi emulates Johnson's ideas in including not just the significant events, but also the minutiae of his subject's daily life; his stated goal is to paint not a hero's portrait, but a man's with frailties and virtues.

Anne also emulates the eighteenth-century biographers in various ways; her introspective method, for one, reveals her ability to view herself as an outsider, her awareness of a prospective audience, her desire to be a writer, and her abundant possession of the autobiographer's primary prerequisite: knowledge of self. Though sometimes confused by her own conflicting emotions, typical of the teen years, she possesses a relentless interest, curiosity, and objectivity which provoke her to examine her own activities and thoughts intimately, an examination which places her diary among the best of this century's with the distinction of being the most translated Dutch book.

Although Anne "assimilate[s] external events," such as news of the war, in the Diary, her most unusual characteristic is her ability to view life as an outsider; for example, she speaks of her younger self on 7 March 1944, as "a different Anne who has grown wise within these walls"; she says, "that Anne [was] an amusing, but very superficial girl, who has nothing to do with the Anne of today"; and she continues, "I look upon my life up till the New Year, as it were, through a powerful magnifying glass." Her introspection is evident also on 7 May 1944, when she has been chastised by her father; she comments, "It's right that for once I've been taken down from my inaccessible pedestal, that my pride has been shaken a bit, for I was becoming much too taken up with myself again. What Miss Anne does is by no means always right!" This young woman admits to knowing her own faults (14 June 1944) "better than anyone, [she says] but the difference is that I also know that I want to improve, shall improve, and have already improved a great deal." This statement is perhaps self-justification, perhaps a sincere attempt to present herself in a better light for the implied reader.

Doubtless Anne had a view of posterity reading her diary. On 29 July 1943, she writes in a postscript to her journal entry, "Will the reader take into consideration that when this story was written [about Mrs. Van Daan's bad qualities] the writer had not cooled down from her fury!" Her awareness of potential readers is again divulged when she cross references a dream about Peter Wessel. In the 28 April 1944 entry, she urges herself or the implied reader to see "the beginning of January" for her first account of the dream. Further, her creation of Kitty, a stylistic stroke of genius, was influenced, I believe, by the epistolary style in the first book of Cissy van Marxveldt's Joop ter Heul series; Anne says on 20 June 1942, "I want this diary to be my friend, and I shall call my friend Kitty." Joop, in the opening book of van Marxveldt's still popular series of adolescent novels, also writes to a fictitious friend "Net," and another in her school club is named "Kitty." Anne's imaginary correspondent is more than just a name for her diary; this "friend" presumably is a pseudo-interviewer; for example, the 6 April 1944 entry commences with this address to Kitty: "You asked me what my hobbies and interests were, so I want to reply." Later she suggests to "Kits" that her diary with all its nonsense should be entitled "The unbosomings of an ugly duckling." Regardless of title, Anne's awareness of audience extended even to a desire to publish her diary after the war. The version, unexpurgated by her father, from which a few excerpts were published in English prior to 1989 reveal Anne's adherence to Johnson's and Boswell's repugnance for panegyric in biography. Otto Frank, perhaps not less aware than Anne of the audience's need for absolute truth in autobiography, was, however, more aware of the invasion of privacy of persons still living.

Anne incorporates many other autobiographical techniques expounded by Samuel Johnson and aptly illustrated by James Boswell. She not only adheres to Johnson's dictum that the autobiographer is the best biographer because he possesses knowledge of self, but also her diary provides evidence of Johnson's beliefs as stated in The Rambler, No. 60, that any man is a fit subject for biography, that no detail is too minute to be included, and that biography should be didactic. To these dicta in his immortal Life of Johnson, Boswell added the results of his own phenomenal memory, his ability at recreating conversation and depicting dramatic scenes, his strong sense of personal pride, and his great confidence in his writing ability.

All of these qualities and characteristics describe Anne as well. Her knowledge of self is evident to herself and to others as she questions her identity, like all teens, when she ponders her attractiveness to boys, her writing ability, and even her chances for surviving the war. No detail is too small for inclusion; for example, Anne's reading of Nico van Suchtelen's tale of a young girl from a small town, entitled Eva's Youth, in which Eva's monthly period is openly discussed may have been the impetus for her frank revelations about her budding sexuality. Anne enumerates other details, such as her birthday gifts, the food eaten on numerous occasions, even the order of the bathroom queue. In regard to the didactic purpose of autobiography, Anne's strong desire for peace and freedom evince in the reader a profound sense of injustice for Anne and the members of the Annex and a sense of horror for the atrocities of the Holocaust; the moral lessons are evident to the reader, even though Anne may not always have been conscious of them as she wrote.

Like Boswell, Anne recreates actual or at least typical conversations, sets dramatic scenes, and describes the various personalities in the Annex trying to live together harmoniously, such as the following brief but discerning description, which she labels, "the views of the five grownups":

Mrs. Van Daan: "This job as queen of the kitchen lost its attraction a long time ago. It's dull to sit and do nothing, so I go back to my cooking again…. Nothing but ingratitude and rude remarks do I get in return for my services. I am always the black sheep, always the guilty one. Moreover, according to me, very little progress is being made in the war; in the end the Germans will still win. I'm afraid we're going to starve, and if I'm in a bad mood I scold everyone."

Mr. Van Daan: "I must smoke and smoke and smoke, and then the food, the political situation, and Keril's moods don't seem so bad. Keril is a darling wife."…

Mrs. Frank: "Food is not very important, but I would love a slice of rye bread now, I feel so terribly hungry. If I were Mrs. Van Daan I would have put a stop to Mr. Van Daan's everlasting smoking a long time ago. But now I must definitely have a cigarette, because my nerves are getting the better of me. The English make a lot of mistakes, but still the war is progressing. I must have a chat and be thankful I'm not in Poland."

Mr. Frank: "Everything's all right. I don't require anything. Take it easy, we've ample time. Give me my potatoes and then I will keep my mouth shut. Put some of my rations on one side for Elli. The political situation is very promising. I'm extremely optimistic!"

Mr. Dussel: "I must get my task for today, every thing must be finished on time. Political situation 'outschtänding' and it is 'eempossible' that we'll be caught."

These thumbnail sketches describing the five adults in the Annex are a tribute to Anne's ability to capture in a few lines the essence of the characters with their differing and conflicting personalities.

In contrast, another scene depicts the kind-hearted Peter and the realistic Anne in a conversation typical of teenagers everywhere, interesting because it lacks the sophistication of the earlier description. Anne's writing style here matches the girl herself as she faces her boyfriend: immature, somewhat argumentative, a bit unsure:

Peter so often used to say, "Do laugh, Anne!" This struck me as odd, and I asked, "Why must I always laugh?"

"Because I like it; you get such dimples in your cheeks when you laugh; how do they come, actually?"

"I was born with them. I've got one in my chin too. That's my only beauty!"

"Of course not, that's not true."

"Yes, it is, I know quite well that I'm not a beauty; I never have been and never shall be."

"I don't agree at all, I think you're pretty."

"That's not true."

"If I say so, then you can take it from me it is."

Anne exhibits a lack of confidence in her beauty when flirting with Peter and in her fear that she will never achieve her life-long dream to go to Hollywood; yet she exhibits a strong sense of confidence in her writing ability and her critical faculties. She says on 4 April 1944: "I know that I can write, a couple of my stories are good, my descriptions of the 'Secret Annexe' are humorous, there's a lot in my diary that speaks, but—whether I have real talent remains to be seen…. I am the best and sharpest critic of my own work. I know myself what is and what is not well written…. I want to go on living even after my death! And therefore I am grateful to God for giving me this gift, this possibility of developing myself and of writing, of expressing all that is in me…. [W]ill I ever be able to write anything great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer? I hope so, oh, I hope so very much." Her self-criticism and her desire for publication, perhaps encouraged by Dutch Minister Bolkesteim's appeal on 28 March 1944 over Radio Orange (the Dutch government's radio exiled to London) for diaries and letters written during the war, may have been the impetus for her to begin revising the Diary for later publication; these revisions on single sheets of paper, rather than the orange plaid diary proper, formed the basis for the first publication.

Other techniques Anne employed are, to coin Samuel Richardson's phrase, "writing to the moment," creating a sense of immediacy; for example, she apologizes to Kitty saying "that my style is not up to standard today. I have just written down what came into my head." She skips days even up to a month if nothing eventful happens, showing her selectivity of detail; she tells Kitty, "I have deserted you for a whole month, but honestly, there is so little news here that I can't find amusing things to tell every day," a statement that also reveals her awareness of potential audience.

Anne's presentation of a typical day in her life suggests her objectivity and her awareness of an overall view of life in the Annex; her descriptions of people, such as Peter, events, ideas, fears, hopes, reveal the best in Anne's style. She says of Peter, "When he lies with his head on his arm with his eyes closed, then he is still a child; when he plays with Boche [the cat], he is loving; when he carries potatoes or anything heavy, then he is strong; when he goes and watches the shooting, or looks for burglars in the darkness, then he is brave; and when he is so awkward and clumsy, then he is just a pet." Anne's ability to summarize salient points, such as the rules for Jews in Amsterdam, the rules under which the group in the Secret Annex lived, or even the summary of Anne's life itself about six months before she was arrested by the Green Police and taken to Westerbork, Auschwitz, and finally Bergen-Belson, is proof of her objectivity, both toward herself and others.

These stylistic techniques, coupled with the poignancy of the death of such a talented young fifteen-year-old girl and the horrors of the Holocaust, have justified the sale of over fifteen million copies, the book's translation into more than fifty languages, the play, film, and ballet based on the Diary, the Chagall lithograph and Pieter d'Hont statue, the 1978 exhibition in Japan and the exhibition "Anne Frank in the World, 1929–1945," which toured the United States in the late 1980s, the conversion of the home in Amsterdam to the Anne Frank Museum with its half a million visitors annually, the establishment of the Anne Frank Foundation in the Netherlands with its New York branch, the publication of Anne's other writings in a collection entitled Tales from the Secret Annex, and, last but not least, the enduring interest in Anne Frank and her writing.

Patricia Hampl (review date 5 March 1995)

SOURCE: "The Whole Anne Frank," in The New York Times Book Review, March 5, 1995, pp. 1, 21.

[Hampl is an American educator, poet, and memoirist. In the following review, she comments on the new edition of Anne Frank's Diary and discusses the book's publication history.]

On Tuesday, March 28, 1944, Gerrit Bolkestein, Education Minister of the Dutch Government in exile, delivered a radio message from London urging his war-weary countrymen to collect "vast quantities of simple, everyday material" as part of the historical record of the Nazi occupation.

"History cannot be written on the basis of official decisions and documents alone," he said. "If our descendants are to understand fully what we as a nation have had to endure and overcome during these years, then what we really need are ordinary documents—a diary, letters."

In her diary the next day, Anne Frank mentions this broadcast, which she and her family heard on a clandestine radio in their Amsterdam hiding place. "Ten years after the war," she writes on March 29, "people would find it very amusing to read how we lived, what we ate and what we talked about as Jews in hiding."

The word "amusing" reads strangely now, chillingly. But her extraordinary commitment to the immediacy of individual experience in the face of crushing circumstance is precisely what has made Anne Frank's Diary [now titled The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition]—since the first edition of the book appeared in the Netherlands in 1947—the single most compelling personal account of the Holocaust (an account now augmented by this "Definitive Edition," published on the 50th anniversary of her death in Bergen-Belsen and containing entries not present in the earlier standard version).

Bolkestein's broadcast galvanized Anne Frank, or perhaps ignited an idea she already had: her diary, at first a private confidante, now struck her as a source for a book. "I'd like to publish a book called 'The Secret Annex,'" she writes on May 11, 1944. "It remains to be seen whether I'll succeed, but my diary can serve as the basis." She immediately set about organizing the diary entries, giving the residents of the "Secret Annex" pseudonyms like characters in a novel, rearranging passages for better narrative effect.

She was still engaged in this work when the hiding place was raided by the Gestapo on Aug. 4, 1944. Miep Gies, one of the office employees in the Frank spice and pectin firm who had been protecting the Jews hidden above the office, gathered all the diary notebooks and papers left in disarray by the Gestapo. She hid them in her desk for the rest of the war. After Anne's father, Otto Frank, returned to Amsterdam late in 1945, Miep Gies returned all the papers to him. He was the sole survivor of the eight people who had sheltered together for over two years in the annex.

Anne Frank had been keeping her diary since June 12, 1942, the day her parents gave her a red-and-white plaid notebook for her 13th birthday. Less than a month later the diary went with her into hiding.

From the first, she addressed the notebook as a trusted girlfriend: "I'll begin from the moment I got you, the moment I saw you lying on the table among my other birthday presents." A few days later this anonymous "you" becomes the imaginary "Kitty," and the entries turn into letters, giving the diary the intimacy and vivacity of a developing friendship. The growing relationship, of course, is with her own emerging self. As John Berryman said, the Diary has at its core a subject "even more mysterious and fundamental than St. Augustine's" in his classic Confessions: namely, "the conversion of a child into a person."

Otto Frank, in preparing the first edition of the diary, was compelled, partly by his own sense of discretion and partly by the space limitations imposed on him by the original Dutch publisher, to limit the book. The restored entries, constituting, according to the publisher, 30 percent more material, do not alter our basic sense of Anne Frank, but they do give greater texture and nuance—and punch—to some of the hallmark concerns of the diary.

There are more searching passages about her erotic feelings and her urgent curiosity about sexuality, more emphatic distancing from her dignified but apparently critical mother. None of these new entries, however, surpass the urgency shown in the standard version about the need to accomplish real work as a woman: "I can't imagine having to live like Mother, Mrs. van Daan and all the women who go about their work and are then forgotten," she writes on April 5, 1944. "I need to have something besides a husband and children to devote myself to!… I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I've never met. I want to go on living even after my death!"

The new material also includes sketches of short stories she was writing in the Secret Annex. The additions are not always whole entries or complete new letters to Kitty. Sometimes passages of only a few lines are set in a text already familiar. But the effect underscores the acuity of Anne Frank's eye, the keen relish of her descriptive powers. In one of her habitual reviews of the "inmates" of the annex, she regards the fussy dentist Dussel with the coolness of a practiced novelist: "One of my Sunday morning ordeals is having to lie in bed and look at Dussel's back when he's praying…. A praying Dussel is a terrible sight to behold."

Even her transports over her first kiss, with Peter van Daan, the son of the family sharing the Franks' hiding space, are subject to her mordant observation: "Oh, it was so wonderful. I could hardly talk, my pleasure was too intense; he caressed my cheek and arm, a bit clumsily." Only a born writer would snap that clear-eyed "a bit clumsily" into place, along with the body's first rhapsodic shiver of delight.

In 1986, a "Critical Edition" of the Diary was published that meticulously presented Anne's original diary (designated by its editors diary a), the version she was working on for her proposed book "The Secret Annex" (diary b), and the edition her father eventually published and which all the world has come to know (diary c). This monumental task included as well exhaustive scientific examination of the original documents to prove what should never have been questioned in the first place: that this is indeed the work of a girl named Anne Frank who lived and eventually died as she prophetically sensed she would: "I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions."

The earlier "Critical Edition" is the book for research, but this "Definitive Edition," smoothly translated anew by Susan Massotty, is the reader's edition, unencumbered by notes, with only the barest afterword to conclude the story that Anne Frank was unable to finish herself.

The Diary, now 50 years old, remains astonishing and excruciating. It is a work almost sick with terror and tension, even as it performs its miracle of lucidity.

On Feb. 12, 1944, Anne Frank writes Kitty, "I feel as if I were about to explode…. I walk from one room to another, breathe through the crack in the window frame…. I think spring is inside me." The crack in the window frame was her purchase on the world: she put her nose to it and drew in life.

It is uncanny how, reading the Diary, one falls into escape fantasies for Anne Frank and the inhabitants of the Secret Annex. No wonder that in his 1979 novel The Ghost Writer, Philip Roth sustains an entire section devoted to a detailed fabrication about how, after all, Anne Frank survived, how she came to America, how she lives among us still in disguise. It is unthinkable and disorienting to know that this life was crushed.

All that remains is this diary, evidence of her ferocious appetite for life. It gnaws at us still.

Merle Rubin (review date 15 March 1995)

SOURCE: "Anne Frank, More Comprehensively," in The Christian Science Monitor, March 15, 1995, p. 14.

[In the review below, Rubin describes Anne Frank's Diary as a "prototype for the sufferings of millions of European Jews."]

Anne Frank was not a survivor, to borrow a term over-used in present-day parlance. She was born in Germany in 1929, fled with her family to the Netherlands at the age of four, and was flushed out of the secret annex where they had hidden for two years to die in a concentration camp in 1945, a few months short of her 16th birthday. Yet, as even the most cursory reading of her diary amply demonstrates, she had all of the qualities that are supposed to characterize survivorship: intelligence, courage, honesty, compassion, resilience, resourcefulness, and a good sense of humor.

Anne Frank hoped to become a writer. In the spring of 1944, after hearing a radio broadcast of the Dutch government-in-exile about the importance of letters and diaries as documents, she began revising and expanding her own diary to provide a broader picture of the times. Anne's father, Otto Frank, the only member of the immediate family to survive the camps, recovered the diary after the war and from her two versions prepared a third.

Some passages from the manuscripts were omitted: comments Otto Frank deemed disrespectful to his late wife, critical remarks about others whose feelings might be hurt, and some of Anne's direct references to sexual matters, such as menstruation and birth control.

First published in 1947, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl became an international bestseller, a prizewinning play, and a film. In 1986, the Netherlands State Institute for War Documentation prepared a new "critical" edition of the diary. Over 700 pages long, it presents the three parallel texts (Anne's first version, her revised version, and her father's combined version) printed on the same page for comparison and is complete with back-ground material about the Frank family and the editing and publishing history of the diary.

The present Definitive Edition, featuring a new English translation somewhat more direct and earthy than the previous one, includes much of the material that was left out of the 1947 edition. Unlike the Critical Edition, designed for scholarly use, the Definitive Edition is for the general reader who simply wants to read Anne's diary from its beginning (on her 13th birthday in June 1942) to its abrupt cessation just a few days before the Gestapo invaded the hiding place in August 1944.

The story of this particular Jewish girl remains a kind of prototype for the sufferings of millions of European Jews in the years that Hitler pursued his plan to exterminate every last one of them.

Even apart from the larger role it has played, Anne Frank's diary would still command attention as a remarkable, candid, lively, and insightful portrait of a gifted, quirky, spirited teenager watching herself grow up. The girl who kept this journal was in many respects a very typical adolescent: fun-loving, impatient with her parents, more than a little boy-crazy. But at the same time she had extraordinary powers of self-analysis, self-criticism, and self-expression. Countless readers are familiar with Anne's poignant declaration: "… in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart."

Anne's hopefulness seems all the more impressive in the context of so much else that she witnessed and recognized: "I don't believe the war is simply the work of politicians and capitalists," wrote the 14-year-old. "Oh no, the common man is every bit as guilty…. There's a destructive urge in people, the urge to rage, murder and kill. And until all of humanity, without exception, undergoes a metamorphosis,… everything that has been carefully built up, cultivated and grown will be cut down and destroyed, only to start all over again."


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