On June 12, 1942, a girl was given a diary for her 13th birthday. She continued to keep her journal until August 1, 1944. The girl was Anne Frank. Her diary covering her years in hiding during the German occupation of the Netherlands would become one of the most read and discussed narratives of the Holocaust in the world.
Anne Frank did not survive the war. She and her sister, Margot, died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp just a few weeks before its liberation. Of the eight people who lived with her in the Secret Annex above her father's former business --- a pectin and spice company --- there was only one survivor. After the war, Otto Frank returned to the Annex to find that the people who had protected the Franks while in hiding had also preserved his daughter's writing. Knowing that she had already begun revising her diaries for publication, Frank devoted his life after the war to ensure his daughter's story reached as many people as possible.
Anne Frank's diary has been translated into 60 languages and read throughout the world. It is taught in schools and prisons to champion the cause of human rights. It's hard to imagine a world without Anne’s diary in it, but initially it was slow to catch on. The first edition was published in Dutch in 1947. Its first print run of 3,000 copies quickly sold out. But after six editions in Dutch, the book lapsed out of print. Frank looked to sell the diary in translation, but met with resistance, as publishers told him readers weren't interested in recalling the horrors of the war, or domestic squabbles recorded by an adolescent. The book didn't become an international phenomenon until it's publication in the United States as The Diary of a Young Girl .
A young editor at Doubleday named Barbara Zimmerman --- who would later become Barbara Epstein, founder of The New York Review of Books --- discovered the manuscript in a slush pile. Zimmerman was the same age as Anne had she lived. Deeply moved by the story, she championed the book, writing to Otto Frank, "I love the book and feel that it has a value for me beyond matters of business." The US edition of the book was published on June 12, 1952, on what would've been Anne's 23rd birthday. Zimmerman’s instinct proved to be profitable. The Diary of a Young Girl has not been out of print since. It has been adapted several times for the stage and screen, reaching people who may never have picked up the book otherwise.
But Anne’s story is not without its controversy. Whether it’s the question of how her story has been used, what has been included or omitted from her journals, or whether it’s appropriate to have one girl stand as a representative for millions of victims, the popularity of The Diary of a Young Girl has also subjected it to scrutiny and criticism. One of the best books to explore the issues surrounding Anne’s diary, as well as the text itself, is Francine Prose’s Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife. Written in 2010, it provides context to the period in Anne’s diary was written, as well as summarizing the history and controversies surrounding the publication and adaptation of her journal. It also makes a stirring case to consider The Diary of a Young Girl as an important work of literature, comparing the text of the original diary to Anne’s revision and her father’s final edited volume. Most importantly, Prose discusses some of the problems Anne’s diary poses by comparing it to some of literature’s greatest masterpieces. She writes:
There is, in the library of masterpieces, an entire subcategory of books whose authors could be said to have been forced into collaboration with misfortune.... These are books that came into being at a personal cost that no one would be willing to pay. Their authors had no choice but to endure the circumstances that led to their books' composition and the books were what they had to show for it, if they survived. It is likely that none of them would have written their novels and poems and memoirs if they could have avoided their subjects, if their subjects had not sought them out, or hunted them down. All of which makes it problematic for us to say how good the books are, and how grateful we are that they exist.
Given the choice, we would have been willing to live without the diary if it had meant that neither Anne Frank nor anyone like her, or anyone unlike her, had been driven into hiding and murdered. But none of us was given that choice, and the diary is what we have left. Meanwhile, across the equator and around the world, Anne Frank's strong and unique and beautiful voice is still being heard by readers who may someday called upon to decide between cruelty and compassion. Guided by a conscience awakened by a girl in an Amsterdam attic, one citizen of Ukraine or Argentinean policeman may yet opt for humanity and choose life over death. (pp. 174-5)
Anne would've been 83 now if she had lived. The experiences she had and the world she describes are quickly passing from memory into history. Her diary is not the only memoir that endures from this period, but it is easily one of the best known and most accessible, particularly for young readers. For many, Anne's diary is their introduction to the horrors of the Holocaust, or to a passionate engagement with human rights. Without devaluing either of those aspects of The Diary of a Young Girl, for me the book also speaks to the importance of young people’s voices. The lives and voices of young people matter. Anne’s diary is proof that young people have the power to influence minds, to move hearts, to change the world.
The most commonly quoted phrase from Anne’s diary is the positive assertion, “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Considering the way her life ended, this phrase can come across as poignant or sickeningly naïve. But the paragraph in which it appears speaks to the larger challenges she and her generation face. Anne writes:
Anyone who claims that the older ones have a more difficult time here certainly doesn’t realize to what extent our problems weigh down on us, problems for which we are probably too young, but which thrust themselves upon us continually, until, after a long time, we think we've found a solution, but the solution doesn't seem able to resist the facts which reduce it to nothing again. That's the difficulty in these times: ideals, dreams, and cherished hopes rise within us, only to meet the horrible truth and be shattered.
It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions, and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think it will all come right that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.
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