Anne Frank – 70 years since she died in Bergen-Belsen

Nobody knows exactly when Anne Frank died in the work camp Bergen-Belsen in 1945. All we know is that it was at the beginning of March. After the war, her father allowed her diary to be published and her legacy continues to inspire people the world over.

Anne Frank's diary in English and Dutch, together with Sharon Dogar's Annexed

Anne Frank’s diary in English and Dutch, together with Sharon Dogar’s Annexed

Coincidences

Not so long ago I read the Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank in tandem with a more recent book telling the story from the point of view of the boy who shared the Secret Annexe with Anne, Peter van Pels . This book was Annexed by Sharon Dogar (read in Dutch, De jongen in het Achterhuis). Coincidentally, the book I read before that was Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, about a German family sheltering a Jewish man in their cellar, a fictional story told from the other point of view. The link between the books wasn’t planned, but I was looking for books to read on the theme of diaries for a reading challenge and suddenly realised that I had one of the most famous diaries in the world on my shelves. It was also completely by chance that I should happen to read these books almost exactly 70 years after Anne Frank’s death.

I first read Anne Frank’s diary as a teenager and it was probably one of the first books I read about WWII, after Carrie’s War. I didn’t know much about the war because we didn’t study it at school. The only other input I had was from general knowledge and patriotic films (The Dam Busters, A Bridge Too Far, The Eagle Has Landed, etc.). Then there were films about the Resistance (Secret War, parodied by ‘Allo ‘Allo) and POWs (Colditz, The Great Escape). There weren’t any films about the Jewish experience. It was too gruesome and too recent. First the way had to be paved by dramatised TV series based on POW camps in Asia (Tenko) and the slavery series Roots. Only after our minds had been prepared by the horrors of prison camps elsewhere, slave galleys and plantation life could films be made about concentration camps in Europe. Even then the tales had a lightness of touch, however heartrending the ending. Schindler’s List was mostly set in a factory so the worst was left until the end and the focus was on the bravery and double-crossing of Oskar Schindler himself. In the Far East, J.G. Farrell’s Empire of the Sun showed something similar, but it was the POW experience, not the Jewish experience.

My reactions to Anne Frank’s diary

I first read The Diary of Anne Frank when I was a teenager. The reason I think it was so popular was that it was written by a young girl trapped in a restricted place. Apart from a rather excessive interest in food and toilet habits, her diary shows us the thought processes of a young girl left too much time to think. When I first read it, I identified with Anne as a teenager, though not with her animosity towards her mother.

Reading it later, as an adult who now knows a lot more about what happened to the Jews, I came at it from a different angle. I know more about the history and wanted to be able to relate her story to wider events. Sometimes Anne even mentioned them in her diary, something that I missed first time round. Anne knew about developments in the war too, through the Jewish grapevine and by listening to BBC radio broadcasts. I was shocked to read they had already heard of gas chambers in 1942 and were quite clear that the concentration camps were death camps; the rumours of eye witnesses had already been whispered back then.

The Diary of Anne Frank is so powerful because we know what happened to her. It’s poignant because she is torn between fear and hope. We know her story was hopeless. She was afraid that they would be captured and killed, yet not only did she keep hoping and praying that they would be spared, but she continued to believe that people were basically good and that good would triumph over evil.

After the war, Anne’s father Otto Frank was the only one of the residents of the Secret Annexe to survive. Throughout his life he dedicated himself to telling Anne’s life story, but he wanted it told according to his own rules. Anne could be very negative about her housemates, particularly her mother, saying that she couldn’t love her. On the other hand she adored her father (most of the time). Otto didn’t want to speak ill of the dead and he didn’t want to share Anne’s most intimate teenage secrets, so the first version of her book was very much bowdlerised. In the 1980s, an uncensored version came out and that was the version that I just read. It was probably one of the first books I bought in Dutch, but it’s taken me 25 years to get round to reading it.

Why Anne Frank’s diary affects me more as an adult than as a teenager

This time I read the full version of the diary, in Dutch instead of English (the language it was originally written in). Another thing that has changed is that I now know far more about what happened so that I have images in my head to fit Anne’s darkest fears:

  • A few years ago I visited a concentration camp (Bergen-Belsen) where I saw Anne & Margot’s gravestones, covered in pebbles laid by pilgrims. They were both buried in mass graves, but they are so famous that people wanted a memorial to visit.

    Anne and Margot Frank's gravestone in Bergen-Belsen

    Anne and Margot Frank’s gravestone in Bergen-Belsen

  • As a teenager, I visited a German work camp in northern France and heard the terrible tales of forced labourers being deliberately buried in the giant concrete bunker at one of the launching place of the V-1 flying bombs (Doodlebugs), the Bunker of Éperlecques.
  • When we first came to the Netherlands, I visited an exhibition that brought the numbers home to me. 75% of Dutch Jews living in the Netherlands before the Nazi occupation did not survive the war, the highest proportion of victims in any country.
  • Around about the same time, I visited the Secret Annex, many years ago, before the Anne Frank museum was extended.
  • I now know that there were many other people who went into hiding. An estimated 25 – 30 thousand Jews were in hiding, 16,000 of whom remained in hiding until the end of the Nazi occupation. Members of the Dutch Resistance and others who openly opposed the Nazi party were also forced to hide. In fact, I once knew somebody who had been in hiding; now I wish I had asked him about the experience.
  • I have also read other books about illicit activities in occupied Holland, including Corrie ten Boom’s autobiographical The Hiding Place and Jan Terlouw’s fictional Oorlogswinter [Winter in Wartime] about a young Dutch boy who wants to get involved in Resistance efforts. I’ve also read Helene Moszkiewicz’s book Inside the Gestapo: A Jewish Woman’s Secret War about being a double agent at Nazi headquarters in Paris, which reminded me very much of the story of the bombing of Rotterdam. I’ve read Diary of a Nazi Lady, written by the wife of a prison camp director, Sophie’s Choice, about a woman who faced a terrible choice in a concentration camp, The Reader where another woman is revealed to have been a warder in a prison camp and, last but not least, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, telling the story of a small boy who lives next to a camp. All these stories add to my experience of reading Anne Frank’s diary, knowing she died in just such a place.
  • I know a bit about what the Dutch call the Hongerwinter (famine or ‘Hunger Winter’) , the year at the end of the war when there was hardly any food left and people were forced to eat flower bulbs. It brings to life Anne’s comments about the deterioration of their food (rotting cabbage, no oil, only 2 meals a day). It wasn’t just a problem for those in hiding in the Secret Annex, it was the whole population, particularly in the west of the country.
  • This time I read the book in Dutch instead of English and now I know that Dutch people pronounce her name An-na, not Ann as I assumed as an English-speaker.

Anne Frank’s legacy, 70 years on

In March it will be 70 years since Anne died in the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, together with her sister Margot. They both died during an outbreak of typhus, weakened by the cold, lack of food and despair. What makes their story even more poignant is that the two families who had survived most of the war in the Annexe were deported on the very last train to leave the Westerbork camp in the Netherlands for Auschwitz. If only the person who betrayed them had waited a little longer, perhaps they would have survived. Peter van Pels died in the very last week of the war, Margot and Anne in the last couple of weeks before Bergen-Belsen was liberated.

A legacy of coincidences

If a teenager girl hadn’t written a diary of her life in hiding, if the book hadn’t survived, if the entire family had been killed or died, nobody would have heard of Anne Frank. As it is, Anne’s father Otto made sure that her story was heard. As a result of this, Anne has become a symbol of the importance of remembering the Holocaust, the futility of war and evils of discrimination. On the 50th anniversary of her death, a statement released to mark the occasion noted:
“Today, true respect for our neighbors and fellow citizens is disturbingly absent. Anne Frank’s story teaches us that such respect is the prerequisite for a society in which everyone feels secure. This respect will ensure that the civil liberties on which this country was founded are protected for everyone. We need educational programs that teach students to consider all other people — irrespective of their ethnic descent or beliefs — as individuals, whose acceptance only depends on the social, law-abiding behavior of this person.”

Commemorating Anne Frank

Anne Frank’s diary itself has been translated into 70 languages and is studied all round the world as an accessible way of teaching about the Holocaust, even thought her fate is not explicitly set out in the diary. Some people complain that this skirts the issue of what happened in the concentration camps, but it serves as a springboard for further discussion and investigation. Secrets and hiding are common themes in children’s literature and the fact that Anne wrote about her own ambivalent feelings towards her mother and the petty arguments that took place in the Annex make her seem even more human; Anne is no saintly figure from a Victorian morality tale, she writes as much about her own faults and failings as she does about others’ bad habits and she pokes fun at herself too.

The first place of pilgrimage for those wanting to know about Anne Frank’s life is the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. When I visited many years ago, the warehouse housing the Secret Annexe had been opened as a museum, with a simple exhibition on the ground floor and a tour round the annexe itself. I had expected to be most impressed by the bookcase that hid the entrance to the annexe. When I first read the book as a teenager, this was the thing that had symbolised Anne’s story to me with its overtones of Narnia and the back of the wardrobe. In the event, I barely had time to register it, but I clearly remember the impact the sight of Anne’s room had with the cut-out photos of film stars on the walls. That was what moved me most. In recent years the museum has been modernised and a major extension has been added, allowing more exhibition space. If you are ever in Amsterdam, the museum is well worth a visit, but try to get an advance ticket so that you don’t have to queue. If you are unable to visit the museum itself, there is an excellent museum tour online and the Anne Frank Museum’s website is full of interesting photos and information presented in a modern and appealing way.

Another way to experience the story is to follow the tour on the Anne’s Amsterdam app on a mobile phone. It will take you to places related to Anne’s life in Amsterdam and as you stand in the place itself, it will show you images of how the city was during the occupation, overlaid over recent photos, bringing Anne’s story and the story of wartime Amsterdam to life.

A new film about Anne Frank

There have been several films and documentaries about Anne Frank’s story, even one casting a Dutch actor, Huub Stapel. At the moment, the first German movie is being made about Anne Frank, sponsored by the Anne Frank Fund. Filming has already taken place in Aachen, the German city where Anne’s grandmother lived, just over the border from the Netherlands. This week (9 March onwards) the crew will be filming in Amsterdam itself, but not at the museum; a copy of the Secret Annexe has been built at a German film studio. The film is due to be released at the end of the 2015.

A new play about Anne Frank in Amsterdam

There is currently a play in Amsterdam based on life in the Secret Annexe, showing in a purpose-built theatre. The play Anne was written by two well-known Dutch Jewish authors, Leon de Winter (author of Zoeken naar Eileen W. – filmed as Looking for Eileen) and Jessica Durlacher (author of Het geweten – The Conscience and De dochter – The Daughter). They also happen to be married to each other. Like the German film, the production was funded by the Anne Frank Foundation based in Switzerland, founded by Otto Frank himself. You can find more information about the play and book tickets on the Holland.com site.

Apart from various editions of Anne Frank’s diary, there are many other books based on the story, some more historically accurate than others. Some are based on the eyewitness accounts of people who were friends with the Franks in Amsterdam. Others reconstruct what happened to the people in the Annexe after they were captured because some people who were imprisoned with Anne and Margot in Bergen-Belsen survived the war. Anne the play claims to tell the story until the end.

Criticism and controversy

You might think that there would be no grounds for controversy surrounding Anne Frank’s story, but you would be wrong. Over the years, there have been all sorts of discussions, scandals and controversies. In fact, at one point there was debate about whether the diary itself was genuine, requiring Otto Frank to have it authenticated. Anne’s father was also understandably possessive of the rights to his daughter’s writing. At one point the foundation allowed a play based on the diary, only to withdraw permission after it was completed. Otto Frank was, perhaps understandably, somewhat fickle in his own attitude to the way Anne’s diary was remembered, controlling fiercely what could be done with it.

In January 2016, the rights to Anne Frank’s diary will pass into the public domain. Even now, some people criticise the commercial exploitation of Anne’s memory and the aura of sainthood that surrounds her memory. Once her writing becomes public property, will the floodgates of Anne Frank worship and  commemoration be opened, cheapening her memory? How much is too much? After all, there is already a major tourist attraction in Amsterdam, a new museum in Frankfurt, centres in New York and Japan, plays, films, documentaries, even memorabilia. Some people say the hero worship of Anne Frank has already gone too far. Perhaps one of the most bizarre ways of commemorating her is the Anne Frank church in Japan with a photo of Anne in pride of place opposite an image of Jesus.

There is also ongoing friction between the Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam (the Anne Frank Foundation) and the Anne Frank Fund in Basel, Switzerland that is funding a new museum in Frankfurt (Anne’s birthplace) and demanding that documents held by the Anne Frank House should be returned to the institution set up by Anne’s father. As the Jewish Times says, a most unseemly battle.

Anne Frank continues to fascinate the world.

Tip: Just google “Anne Frank news” to see what has been written about her recently; she will never be forgotten.

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