By Lawrence Henley
History’s lessons are often sobering, and many are difficult to examine. Painful the raw truth may be, but if we’re to learn from tragedy and avert the same errors in the future, we must look at them squarely in the present. Carefully, and sometimes sorrowfully, we observe tragic eras and how they came to pass.
Mercifully, a redeeming quality often surfaces when examining the past’s cruel realities: while doing so we often uncover surprises worthy of joy and celebration. Embedded amid history’s most bitter chapters are examples of amazing courage and indomitable human spirit, embodied by those who struggled to maintain dignity in the face of victimization.
In the tender, yet powerful episodic writings of Holocaust victim Anne Frank we are reminded that the best side of our nature and spirit can endure even the coarsest depths of humanity. Although written nearly seventy years ago, the power of her story fails to decay because she told it as she lived and felt it all, with honesty and simplicity. Her intelligence, innocence, and raw talent endowed her words with an uncommon poignancy inviting us into her soul, rather than allowing the stark horror of Jewish existence in the 1940s to repel us.
Anne’s diary, written as she and her terrified family hid from the Nazis (June 1942 to August 1944), chronicles the daily lives of Anne Frank and her extended family, members of a race balanced precariously atop a merciless, genocidal blade. Both literature and history owe a great debt to Miep Gies, the late guardian and caretaker of the Frank and Van Daan families during their long seclusion. Gies preserved the abandoned diary, ensuring the autobiographical work would far outlive its author.
With his decision to publish the volume three years subsequent to Anne’s death, Otto, her grieving father, gave his bittersweet treasure to the world. Otto Frank was the lone survivor among the eight Jews hidden in his warehouse attic. Today, The Diary of Anne Frank remains one of the publishing industry’s most consistent sellers. Although released seven decades ago, it reappears in the top 100 bestsellers list regularly.
To broaden the reach of this remarkable story the memoir was retooled for the theatre by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Their 1955 Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning theatrical adaptation reincarnated the voices of the Frank family and their fellow exiles. Performed throughout the world, The Diary of Anne Frank has since been translated into many languages. A new adaptation of the play by Wendy Kesselman came to Broadway in 1997.
From the mid-eighteenth century until the 1930s, life for Jews in German and Austrian society had been, for the most part, comfortable and prosperous. There was also a cultural renaissance during that time, owing much to influential Jewish artists and scholars such as Felix Mendelssohn, Albert Einstein, Max Reinhardt, Franz Kafka, and Sigmund Freud. The Franks and Van Daans were typical of Jewish families in the German merchant class. Unhappily, by 1933 a sickening degree of intolerance and anti-Semitism spawned by Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist movement had taken root in the Germanic republics. As fear and hate became pervasive, many proactive families were left little choice but to flee their homes, as the Franks did by leaving Frankfort, Germany.
In the late 1930s, it was widely believed that the Dutch would remain neutral during the anticipated pan-European conflict, as they were in World War I. Thus, while many Jews chose to cross the Atlantic to the Americas, Otto Frank opted to move his family to Amsterdam, capitol of the Netherlands.
For a time, business and life in their adopted city were quite good for the Franks and other transplanted families, but the year 1939 brought a series of invasions (“Blitzkriegs”) of weaker European neighbors by Hitler. By the spring of 1940, Amsterdam had fallen under control of the Nazis. Gradually, life for Jews throughout Nazi-dominated countries was tightly restricted: first, by the steady enactment of activity and movement restrictions; next with mandatory registration for people of Jewish descent; and lastly the affixing of garish yellow stars to outer clothing. These actions, of course, were merely precursors to the Nazi’s unthinkable “solution” to the “Jewish question.” Slowly, trains to transit and death camps began to roll, followed by the likely extermination of their Jewish riders. During this time, Jewish families residing in Europe had tough decisions to make, all with life or death implications.
When her father made the decision to send his family into hiding from the Nazis, Anne Frank was a bright, precocious thirteen-year-old. Although the limitations of race, politics and religion had significantly narrowed life’s possibilities, she would not be denied the joys, sorrows, and struggles of her flowering adolescence. She drew power from her desires, learning from a growing recognition of what she wanted out of life. Inevitably, her cloistered life in the dingy warehouse attic could not keep her from seizing a little of what the future owed her. Sadly, there would be no escape from the austere life imposed on the Franks and Van Daans. For Anne Frank, writing would be the only escape.
Despite confinement, life in the shelter provided ample inspiration for a young writer. Things were difficult, and the attic became a breeding ground for pettiness and quarreling. The air was rife with festering tensions and underlying fear, with only temporary respite provided by endless time for reading and family talk. Anne’s live-wire personality invariably brought her into conflict with others, particularly Mrs. Van Daan and Mr. Dussel, a priggish dentist who later moved in with the two families. Even young Peter Van Daan’s mouse-chasing cat, Mouschi, created uproar within the nerve-wracked apartment.
Along with the stresses, Anne also described times of joy and celebration. She wrote of Hanukah time, when she created presents for everyone from the most meager resources. With Peter, the Van Daan’s teenage son, she experienced a taste of what love with a boy could mean to a young woman. Her relationships with her father and sister Margot grew closer, as her relationship with her mother, Edith, grew combative and aloof.
In the end, the exiles whereabouts were betrayed on a tip from an ensnared burglar, likely a disgruntled former employee of Otto’s factory. Local police turned the inhabitants of the annex over to the Nazis for deportation. Like most Holocaust families, the Franks and Van Daans were separated by sex and age. Transported to camps of unfathomable squalor, each resident was discarded into Nazi concentration camps, like human rubbish.
With one exception, the Franks and Van Daans all perished, dispersed and isolated from one another. Otto Frank witnessed Mr. Van Daan being led to the gas chamber at Auschwitz, and Edith Frank died at the women’s camp there. Mrs. Van Daan expired at Buchenwald, while her son Peter expired at Matthausen following a death march in front of retreating Nazis. Ironically, both died on the very day that their camps were liberated by the Allies. Mr. Dussel died at Neuengamme. Margot and Anne Frank both died of typhoid fever at the Bergen-Belsen camp, first sister Margot and then Anne: alone, naked, with her head shaved.
Only Otto survived the year following expulsion from the annex, returning to Amsterdam to live with Miep and her husband after a futile search for his vanquished family. By the time he returned to Holland, faint hope that his children remained alive still existed. Sadly, a letter of inquiry returned by a nurse in Rotterdam confirmed that both girls had lapsed in the squalid conditions at Bergen-Belsen. At that deep moment of despair in his office, Miep handed Mr. Frank the diary he had given Anne in their last moments before moving into seclusion.
Because Anne’s diary was all that remained of his family, it provided Mr. Frank with a modicum of comfort and was his only satisfaction aside from his work. Continually astonished by his daughter’s musings and her vibrant style of writing, he would remark to Miep “Who would have imagined what went on in that little mind?” In time, Otto shared a few excerpts with an acquaintance with publishing contacts and was subsequently persuaded at length to share the diary in book form. First published locally, and then internationally, the book engendered phenomenal interest upon release. Today, The Diary of Anne Frank stands as one of the most read works of literature to come out of the World War II era.
Although Anne Frank’s promise (and that of countless others like her) was removed from this world prematurely, through her writings her spirit has been immortalized and set free.