Choosing non-fiction by women from each decade of the 20thCentury can be tricky. But for the 1940s there was really no choice. To begin with I was reluctant. I sought other important books by women. In the end, it had to be this book. Anne Frank’s Diaryis my choice for the 1940s in the Decades Project on Bookword. And it has to be this book for a simple reason. The 1940s were defined by the horrors of the Second World War, and amongst the horrors was the Holocaust in which Anne Frank was first a witness and then a victim. We must never forget.
Sue Black, a forensic anthropologist, has examined bodies in mass graves, following the paths of brutal armies and militias. Her job is to find the truth of what happened to the people in such graves. She describes the impetus to do this work in this way:
We need to show that ‘our humanity transcends the worst malevolence of which our species and nature are capable’. Sue Black (2018) All That Remains: A Life in Death.
Ann Frank’s Diaryis hard to read, for we know that her brief and bright life ended in Bergen-Belsen just weeks before its liberation. But to reread it is to know again that there is humanity in the world, even in the face of the worst malevolence.
Anne Frank was born on 12thJune 1929 in Frankfurt, Germany. Her family moved to The Netherlands in 1933 in response to the Nazi regime in Germany. When Holland was occupied and Jews being taken away, her family went into hiding. Her father, mother and older sister joined with another family (called the van Daans by Anne Frank) and later a dentist and all eight people lived in the Annexe at 263 Princengracht. The house is a fixture on the Amsterdam tourist trail.
They remained in hiding from July 1942, a month after Anne had begun her diary, until 1944 when they were arrested on 4thAugust. The last entry in the diary is dated 1stAugust. Anne was sent to Auschwitz, and then on to Bergen-Belsen with her sister. They both died in the typhus epidemic probably in February or March 1945. The camp was liberated on 12thApril. Her father, Otto Frank, was the only survivor from the Annexe.
The text of the diary
Two secretaries had worked in the building and supported the people in hiding. They found the pages of Anne’s diaries strewn over the floor after the arrest. Miep Gies locked them away in a drawer. When Otto returned, and it was clear that Anne had not survived, Miep gave the diary to Anne’s father.
He devoted the rest of his life to publishing and promoting Anne’s diary because of its simple resonance with people and its positive message. It was not an immediate best-seller, even in Holland. A shortened version was published to begin with. But gradually as it was translated, and as her father decided to publish the full text, it became better known and more widely read.
Anne had revised some of her original text herself, because in 1944 the Dutch Government in exile announced that it would publish eyewitness accounts after the war. Anne provided pseudonyms for many people, and revised early entries. But she hoped it would be published.
And why should it be read even now?
We must never forget. A thirteen year old girl, lively, vivacious, inquisitive, was growing up in Amsterdam with her life ahead of her. She stands for the many, many people who suffered under fascism and from the antisemitic policies of the Nazi occupiers. It is in the everyday stories of lives destroyed that we can begin to understand the damage wrought by such policies.
This is a young girl’s account of being alive, growing up in restricted circumstances. She is an adolescent, highly self-conscious, very analytical, very sensitive. In distressing and difficult circumstances she hones her beliefs and comes to honour particular qualities in people – equality, honesty, unselfishness, kindness, listening, asserting oneself and so on. And she tries to carry on being alive as best she can, missing the natural world, fresh air, her friends, varied activities, school. She tries hard to remain positive. She mostly succeeds.
This is one book where knowing the ending, or the absence of ending, provides the impetus to read. It is a compelling story: so many months in hiding, so many tiny battles and irritations with the other occupants of the Annexe, so much time to survive, so many hopes, fears, alarms, and even hopeful news when in June 1944 they heard about the invasion: D-Day, at last. There should have been a happy-ever-after.
But we do need evidence, as Sue Black says, that humanity can transcend our species’ worst malevolence. Anne Frank’s diary does provide such evidence, also bearing witness to her father’s determination to do the right thing for her, and to the helpers who kept the family alive.
The Diary of a Young Girlby Anne Frank, first published in a short form in 1947. I used the Penguin revised and definitive edition of 2003. 350pp
Translated from the Dutch by Susan Massotty, edited by Otto H Frank and Mirjam Pressler.
The Decades project on Bookword
In 2018 I am featuring non-fiction by women for each decade in the project having focused on novels in 2017. I select one book each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc). Suggestions are always welcome.
Here are the links to the previous three books in the Decades Project:
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