On 15 July 1944, after two years in claustrophobic and fearful hiding from her Nazi oppressors, Anne Frank wrote these words:
“It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos suffering and death, I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too…
And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty will end and peace and tranquillity will return once more.
In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals. Perhaps the day will come when I will be able to realise them.”
Just three weeks later Anne and her family were arrested, and 15-year-old Anne started the 7-month journey to her terrible death from disease and starvation in Bergen Belsen concentration camp.
75 years after the publication of her diary, on 25th June 1947, people all over the world know the name Anne Frank. The young Nobel Peace laureate Malala Yousafzai cites Anne’s diary as her favourite book. Nelson Mandela described how a copy of the diary was smuggled into Robben Island prison, where prisoners were encouraged to read it as a testament to the power of the human spirit.
An ordinary teenager
As revered as Anne is for her remarkable writing, it is important to note that she was no saint. And this makes her so very human. She was a child with the good and bad traits common to us all, a child who found herself living in extraordinary circumstances. Let’s take up her story on her 13th birthday, the day she received a red check cloth-covered notebook she had spotted in a book store window a few days earlier. She had hinted to her parents that she would really love this for her birthday, no doubt this notebook was especially appealing to her as it had a brass lock on its front cover to deter prying eyes.
In my book The Legacy of Anne Frank, I describe what happened immediately after she unwrapped the ‘surprise’ gift:
Anne started writing in her notebook on the day she received it. Her first words were, ‘I hope I’ll be able to confide everything in you, as I’ve never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you’ll be a great source of comfort and support.’ She had no idea on that day that in three weeks’ time the diary was about to indeed become a vital source of ‘comfort and support’.
She goes on to describe her birthday party and all the other gifts she received, and over the next few days, she shares her privately held views about her school friends. On this matter, she doesn’t hold back, using adjectives such as ‘stuck up’, ‘sneaky’ and ‘vulgar’ for some of her unfortunate targets.
By 20 June, Anne has given her new paper confidante the name Kitty, after one of the characters created by her favourite author. Kitty is to become her friend, a surprising confession from a girl who says she has about thirty friends and a throng of boy admirers, who ‘can’t keep their eyes off me’. But with her friends she feels the talk is superficial and about ordinary, everyday things. Kitty will be her ‘true friend’, paper will be her intimate confidante. And anyway, no one is ever going to read it.
Three weeks after Anne has started her diary, on the afternoon of Sunday 5 July, the doorbell on the Frank family’s apartment unexpectedly rang. It was a postman delivering the dreaded notice for 16-year-old Margot to report at midnight for transportation to ‘a work camp’. According to the notice, she would be permitted to take a number of specified items in a single suitcase which had to have ‘first and last name, date of birth and the word Holland’ written on it. In a foreboding of the true fate of the deportees, this was explained to be ‘important because the owner’s suitcase would be sent by a separate train’…
The very next day, early on the morning of 6 July, Otto, Edith, Margot and Anne left their Merwedeplein home together and trudged in the pouring rain across the city to the Prinsengracht offices of Mr Frank. They were each wearing several layers of clothing and carrying one satchel, plus another bag laden with essential items. The city was still dark and people were scuttling about to get out of the downpour, so no one would have taken much notice of the sodden group of people who were leaving their home for good.
The two years spent in hiding were desperate times for Anne. As well as the fear of being discovered, she was cut off from everything she had grown to love when Holland had been free: socialising with friends, visits to the movie theatre, trips to the seaside. Her diary chronicles her frustrations with the five adults she was forced to spend 24 hours a day with, plus two other teenagers, her own sister and Peter van Pels, neither of whom she felt were truly on her wavelength.
But then we must understand that this child was becoming an adolescent and seeing her adulthood in front of her. She was developing a moral framework and deciding how she will try and change the world as an adult.
The journey for Anne’s father Otto Frank to publish her diary was fraught. After his liberation from Auschwitz in Eastern Europe, it took five months for him to travel across war-torn Western Europe back to Amsterdam. On learning via a Red Cross telegram that his two daughters had died, Otto was given Anne’s diary by the family’s heroic helper Miep Gies, who had rescued it after the family’s capture, so she could return it to its owner.
When Otto read his daughter’s writing he was faced with a moral dilemma; on the one hand, Anne had dreamt of being a published writer and had edited her diary with a view to its publication but on the other, the pages were not always kind towards Anne’s mother, sister and the other hiders who had been so cruelly killed.
Eventually, after Otto had shown it to friends whose opinions he trusted, a small publishing company called Contact agreed to publish the diary to gauge the response from readers in a post-war Europe which wanted to look forward rather than back. I describe in my book how the publication of Anne’s diary so nearly didn’t happen. The story concerned a young Jewish woman called Betty Polak, who had been hidden in Amsterdam by non-Jews and thus survived.
After the war ended, Betty had been working as a secretary for a civil servant whose government department controlled the distribution of paper, a valuable commodity immediately after the war as the limited amount available needed to be used wisely and productively. In early 1947 she received a call from her wartime protector Annie Romein. Annie explained that a friend of hers had a manuscript that needed publication – it was the diary of his young daughter murdered in the Holocaust.
After several rejections, they had at last found a company who wished to publish it, would she agree to supply the paper? Betty went to have a word with her boss, who agreed to supply the publishing company Contact with the paper to publish 1,500 copies of Het Achterhuis – now known throughout the world as The Diary of Anne Frank.
By December 1947, a second edition of Anne’s diary had been published, and by the 1950s it was being read in many languages of the world. To date it has been published in more than 70 languages, including an Ethiopian regional dialect.
Anne’s international impact
The work to educate young people in the name of Anne Frank continues unabated. The Legacy of Anne Frank details the astonishing impact these programmes have had on teenagers from as far afield as India and Bangladesh, Kazakhstan in central Asia, Argentina, Chile, countries of the former Soviet bloc, on the street kids of Guatemala, and in the impoverished townships of South Africa.
The Anne Frank Trust UK, which I co-founded in 1990 with family and friends of Mr Frank, takes educational programmes into some of Britain’s most challenging communities.
When Anne sat in her hiding place and wrote about holding onto her ideals and dreaming of the day she could realise them, little could she have envisaged that 75 years after her words were gifted to the world, thousands of young people were indeed helping to spread her ideals.