Anne Frank’s Diary
60 Years Later
Soon after Anne Frank’s father, Otto, bought her a diary for her 13th birthday, her family—German Jews living in Amsterdam—went into hiding to avoid deportation by the Nazis. For the next two years, until their discovery and arrest in August 1944, Anne assiduously recorded their life in the Secret Annex, a small suite of rooms concealed behind Otto’s former place of business. Anne did not survive the war, but, miraculously, her diary did.
Never forget: After the Holocaust this credo seems essential. Only through remembering the suffering of the millions who perished can we rightly honor them and, possibly, prevent a crime of such magnitude from happening again. Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl has served as a relatively digestible aide-mémoire for countless readers worldwide. But Anne, who died at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in March 1945, could not continue her diary after her arrest, so the document communicates nothing of the unfathomable horrors of the death camps. That grim job was left to those who survived—writers like Elie Wiesel, in his memoir Night (1960)—and to those who recorded the survivors’ stories. Among the latter group, Art Spiegelman stands out as the most perversely inventive; his two-volume Maus is a biography in graphic-novel form of his father, Vladek, an Auschwitz survivor. Spiegelman flirts with readers’ outrage (for instance, by portraying Jews as mice, Nazis as cats, and gentile Poles as pigs), yet Maus provides moving testimony not only to the importance of remembering but also to the lacerations memory leaves. For Holocaust victims like Vladek—and for their children—the experience of the camps can never be escaped.
Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog is hard to watch. Resnais himself reported having nightmares while making it. The first documentary to attempt anything like a comprehensive account of the Holocaust, the 32-minute film—written by Jean Cayrol, a survivor of the Gusen concentration camp (a.k.a. Mauthausen II)—tells the story of the Nazis’ implementation of the Final Solution through newsreel footage and photographs of Nazi rallies, deportations of Jews and the death camps. Especially wrenching are scenes, filmed soon after the camps’ liberation, of piles of naked, skeletal corpses being bulldozed into mass graves. Those black-and-white archival images are interspersed with color sequences, shot by Resnais’s crew, of the abandoned Auschwitz and Majdanek camps 10 years after the war. The film’s effect—enhanced by Hanns Eisler’s minor-key score and Michel Bouquet’s somber narration—is reverent and doleful. In tone, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which is alternately horrific and funny (in a queasy-making way), could not be more different. But Spiegelman’s irreverence is pointed and canny: When a reporter asked him, “Don’t you think that a comic book about the Holocaust is in bad taste?” Spiegelman responded, “No, I thought Auschwitz was in bad taste.”
The Third Reich’s machinery of death was staggering in scale. Beyond the hundreds of concentration camps the Nazis operated in Germany and throughout occupied Europe, there were six major death camps, all in Poland, whose primary purpose was the extermination of Jews. Of these camps, one in particular has come to symbolize the Holocaust: Auschwitz. The number murdered at Auschwitz (more accurately, at Auschwitz-Birkenau, or Auschwitz II, the subcamp containing the main gas chambers and crematoria) is nearly impossible to absorb: at least 1.1 million, more than 90 percent of whom were Jews. Given Auschwitz’s monstrous efficiency at killing, it seems incredible that any who were sent there survived. Yet thousands did, including Primo Levi and both of Art Spiegelman’s parents. To read Levi’s If This Is a Man (1947; English edition 1959), his Drowned and the Saved (1986) or the second volume of Spiegelman’s Maus is to learn that surviving Auschwitz required relinquishing most if not all of one’s humanity. Former Auschwitz inmates wore their tattoos for the rest of their lives, but their psychic scars were equally indelible: Spiegelman’s mother, Anja, committed suicide in 1968, and Levi fell to his death—apparently intentionally—in 1987.
The Frank family spent 25 months inside the Secret Annex. They didn’t have the place to themselves, however. The Franks were joined shortly after their arrival by another Jewish family, the van Pelses (called the Van Daans in the Diary’s original published version), and later by a dentist they knew, Fritz Pfeffer (Diary pseudonym, Albert Dussel). As one may imagine, relations among the five adults and three teenagers cooped up in the annex’s small rooms were often strained, and Anne Frank filled many pages of her diary with accounts of the occupants’ squabbles. Despite their resentments, bickering and occasional selfish behavior, the inhabitants of the annex always remain recognizably, even tenderly human. The same cannot be said of most of the inmates of Auschwitz as described by Italian Jewish Holocaust survivor Primo Levi in his memoir If This Is a Man (1947). In harrowingly clear-eyed detail, Levi classifies the behavior of the “subhumans” (Untermenschen) who inhabited Auschwitz—pitiful, craven, inhumane beings mutated by the incessant degradation to which the Nazis subjected them. Life in the annex could be devilishly uncomfortable; in Auschwitz, life—if it can be called that—was hell itself.
Several gentile business associates of Anne Frank’s father endangered their own lives by helping the Frank and van Pels families survive during their two years in the Secret Annex. Such help was hardly unknown. It’s estimated that as many as 25,000 Dutch Jews went into hiding during World War II, and most of those who hid survived—a feat that would have been impossible without the unflagging assistance of thousands of non-Jews. And some Dutch citizens resisted Nazi anti-Semitism in other ways. For example, the Germans’ first pogrom in Holland—the roundup and deportation of 425 Jewish men in February 1941—sparked a general strike in Amsterdam that spread to several cities throughout the country. But military occupations are always abetted by local collaborators, and not all Dutch were heroes. Set in a small Dutch town in 1945 during the last winter of the war, Winter in Wartime examines resistance versus collaboration as witnessed by Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier), an adolescent boy who helps a British fighter pilot stranded in the nearby countryside elude capture by the Germans. As Michiel painfully learns, both resisters and collaborators rely upon carefully crafted lies, and neither villains nor heroes are always who they seem.
For decades Anne Frank’s Diary has been required reading for many American middle and high school students. A few school districts have also banned it following parents’ complaints about its sexual content (which is minimal) and “depressing” story line. But Angela Chase, the main character in the critically lauded but short-lived ABC television series My So-Called Life, doesn’t find it depressing. Assigned the diary in English class, 15-year-old Angela (played by Claire Danes) appalls her teacher by describing Anne as “lucky,” because “she was trapped in an attic for three years with this guy she really liked.” That assessment, while shocking (and slightly incorrect), hits one emotional nail on the head. A gifted writer, Anne was also an ordinary love-struck adolescent, and some of Diary’s appeal to young readers undoubtedly lies in Anne’s disclosures of her evolving romantic feelings for Peter Van Daan. The teenage son of the family that shared the Franks’ confined quarters, Peter is a highly sympathetic character—a confidant and protector, as well as the object of Anne’s affection. Unfortunately for Angela, Jordan Catalano (the heartthrob played by Jared Leto) isn’t as emotionally available.
The Nazis perfected an iconography of terror. They transformed the swastika—an age-old symbol of good fortune—into the emblem of evil. They derived the double-lightning-bolt insignia of the SS (Schutzstaffel), the elite, sadistic corps that ran the death camps, from Scandinavian runes. And they devised a system of badges to categorize those deemed ideologically or racially “impure.” Most such badges—for example, the pink triangles identifying homosexuals—were worn only by concentration camp inmates. The exception was the six-pointed Star of David, which Nazi laws specified should be in the form of a yellow cloth patch that Jews in occupied Europe were required to wear whenever they appeared in public. In the Netherlands, the decree dictating the wearing of the yellow star was issued in late April 1942. By that time the Franks, like all Jews in the Netherlands, had already suffered greatly under anti-Jewish laws. Otto Frank had relinquished ownership of his business; Anne and her sister, Margot, had transferred to an all-Jewish school, losing many childhood friends. But the yellow star was the signal of much worse to come: Large-scale deportations of Jews from the Netherlands began in June 1942; by July the Franks were in hiding.