The life and legacy of Anne Frank

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This March marks 70 years since Anne Frank died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. Stylist explores her life and the legacy of one girl’s diary.

Two months ago, as jihadists attacked French magazine Charlie Hebdo, on the other side of Paris, Amedy Coulibaly, another Islamic extremist, took shoppers in a Kosher supermarket hostage. He killed four of them – all Jewish. Two days later, Paris police ordered all Jewish shops in the Marais to close down for their own protection. In the UK, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle tweeted that all the French Jews he knew were leaving Paris or actively trying to find a way to flee. A month later in Copenhagen, outside the Grand Synagogue, a Jewish man was shot dead.

Newspaper articles predicted a mass Jewish emigration – Jews fleeing to North America, Israel, Britain. Suggesting that if we knew our history, there was a cycle repeating itself, that before the Holocaust began in earnest, before Hitler’s Final Solution took it’s ultimate, terrible form, this was how it all began – anti-Semitism at its creeping, insidious worst.

So, it’s incredibly poignant, following Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January, that this March marks 70 years since the Nazi regime claimed the life of 15-year-old Anne Frank. The young girl who had sat in a hidden annex above her father’s workplace – her secret home for over two years – writing about the suffering of millions and yet hoping for peace, believing it was just within reach. Her life was tragically cut short in Bergen- Belsen concentration camp, but Anne’s diary, her legacy, has sold more than 30 million copies in 73 languages, and turned her into an icon of this devastating period in human history.

She may have given a face to the six million murdered Jews but, says Carol Anne Lee, author of Roses From The Earth: Biography Of Anne Frank, Anne is so much more than an untouchable symbol. The diary is the work of an ordinary girl – albeit one with an extraordinary talent.

Anne was born in Germany on 12 June 1929, the younger sister to Margot, and daughter to Otto, who later owned a company which supplied ingredients to jam manufacturers, and Edith, a housewife. With the rise of Hitler, the family fled to Amsterdam, only to see the terror of the Third Reich spread to Holland. By the time Anne was given a red and white checked diary on her 13th birthday Jews couldn’t own businesses, attend school with non-Jewish children and had to wear a yellow star at all times. They were banned from using trams or cars, going to beauty parlours or from being outside after 8pm. Otto knew it was time to put a plan in place.

He kept his thoughts from his daughters, leaving Anne to fill her diary with the musings of a popular, attractive and vivacious girl, all addressed to an imaginary friend ‘Kitty’. An odd normality within the horrific world she lived in. As well as her thoughts on the treatment of her community there’s the sometimes brutal analysis of her friends (“J is a detestable, sneaky, stuck-up, two-faced gossip who thinks she’s so grown up”), struggles with her teachers and, of course, boys. Anne is pretty and she knows it. “As soon as a boy asks if he can cycle home with me and we start talking, nine times out of ten I can be sure he’ll become enamoured on the spot,” she writes on 20 June 1942. It is this normality which makes her so relatable.

Anne was the girl bestselling author Deborah Moggach – who adapted the diary for a BBC mini-series in 2009 – fell in love with when she read the diary at 13. “She was a normal, fallible, self-centred, sarky, sometimes rebellious young teenager.”  

Life in hiding

On the 5 July 1942, three weeks after she wrote about boys and bikes, Anne’s carefree life was over. A letter demanding 16-year-old Margot to report for a ‘work camp’ in Germany put Otto’s plan into action. Having circulated rumours they were fleeing to Switzerland, early in the morning wearing as many layers as they could, the Franks walked in the pouring rain to Prinsengracht 263, the office of Opteka, Otto’s former company, and vanished.

Stepping through a door on the third floor (it would later be covered by a moving bookcase) Anne’s world shrank to just 70 square metres; three storeys of hidden rooms that would act as bedrooms, kitchen and living space. They’d been carefully furnished and stocked with the help of four of Otto’s colleagues, who put their lives at risk to save the family.

A week later, the Van Pels family joined the Franks: father Hermann, mother Auguste and son Peter. Dentist Fritz Pfeffer arrived in November, bringing the total crammed in hiding to eight. The group knew they were luckier than many; the horror of what was happening in the camps filtered through, as did the fates of other Jewish families forced to separate and hide in damp cellars.

But the harsh reality of life in hiding leaps off the page. Anne’s frustration at having to share a tiny bedroom with Fritz, a man she despised; using a bucket as a toilet and the monotony of eating nothing but rotten boiled lettuce for days; hiding in terror as the building was burgled. All with no privacy and no escape.

The expression of Anne’s claustrophobia is painful to read. “I wander from room to room, climb up and down the stairs and feel like a songbird whose wings have been ripped off and who keeps hurling itself against the bars of its dark cage. ‘Let me out, where there’s fresh air and laughter!’ a voice within me cries,” she wrote on 29 October 1943.

You can feel her ache to be free says Gillian Walnes, executive director of the Anne Frank Trust UK. “Here was a teenager full of life who must stay absolutely silent, her whole day lived in whispers, having to stifle every laugh. Each morning waking up to think this could be her last. In constant fear and tension.”

For Lee, too, some of the most evocative entries are those expressing Anne’s desire to be free. “She writes about being in the attic looking out at the chestnut tree, trying to sniff fresh air through a tiny crack in the window. Anne has an incredible ability to put us in those moments, we read them and will her to fly free.”

But, says Moggach, what makes the diary so wonderful is Anne’s balance of the serious and the everyday. “You can’t sit in that annex for two years and just think about the fact that you might die. Your lavatory is blocked and you’re getting your first period, quarrelling with your mother and making up again, being normal.”

So the old Anne – the precocious girl who, as her cousin Buddy Elias told Lee, “would come into a room and it would be 40 quickfire questions” – was still there, driving the adults a little nuts. The boy-crazy Anne hasn’t gone either, she falls in and then out of love with Peter, who Walnes calls, “the object of her attention, affection and growing sexual awareness”.

A normal girl

Anne’s struggles for independence and identity, alienation from her sister, frustration with her mother and wonder at her burgeoning sexuality are so universal, you can’t help but see your own teenage struggles on the page. That’s because Anne wasn’t just an extraordinary writer says Lee, she was also an incredible editor.

On 28 March 1944 she heard Dutch Cabinet Minister Bolkestein on the radio asking people to keep documents as a record for future generations. Anne was determined hers would play its part, creating an edited version of her diary. “What’s so remarkable is that when she went back over her diary with a goal of publication, she didn’t edit out the incredibly personal sections,” says Lee. “She knew they were interesting and would speak to people.”

A gimlet-eyed analysis of the failings of her parents’ marriage, the fumbles with Peter and her then-provocatively liberal view of sex outside marriage – “It’s not wrong for a man to bring a little experience to a marriage. After all, it has nothing to do with the marriage itself, does it?” – was just the start.

The entries on her changing body were some of the most controversial. “Until I was eleven or twelve, I didn’t realise there was a second set of labia on the inside, since you couldn’t see them,” she wrote on 24 March 1944. “What’s even funnier is that I thought urine came out of the clitoris. I asked Mother once what that little bump was, and she said she didn’t know. She can really play dumb when she wants to!”

These passages illustrate Anne’s skill as a writer. She instinctively knew that brutally frank and funny worked for a reader, creating a precursor to today’s confessional journalism and blogging. Lee suggests it is Anne’s searing honesty that connects with readers. “There are passages where you feel sorry for the others because of the way she wrote about them. But the person she was always most unsparing with was herself.”

The final, moving entry shows the intense internal struggle 15-year-old Anne is having: “My lighter, more superficial side will always steal a march on the deeper side and therefore always win. You can’t imagine how often I’ve tried to push away this Anne, which is only half of what is known as Anne – to beat her down, hide her.”

“She’s grappling with the two sides of personality,” says Walnes. “The precocious, flippant, sarcastic Anne, and the real Anne, wanting to take responsibility, go out and change the world. She’s fighting to let the good Anne win.” She never had the chance.

We’ll never know who betrayed them, but we do know that when the Gestapo burst in on 4 August 1944, they were incredibly close to being saved. Instead, all eight were sent to Westerbork transit camp. One girl who saw Anne there told Lee she expressed a relief to be out in the open after being inside so long. “They also thought they had a very good chance of survival. They knew the Allies were on their way.”

Then a second terrible twist of fate: all eight were put on the last train to Auschwitz. Once there, they were separated and the women were stripped, shaved and tattooed. Anne and Margot were sent on to Belsen while Edith remained in Auschwitz where she died of starvation.

If they’d remained at Auschwitz, there was a chance they could have survived says Lee, because the camp was liberated on 27 January 1945. Instead the sisters arrived at Bergen-Belsen in northern Germany – a neglected, disease-ridden, freezing hell.

Hanneli Goslar, a childhood friend Anne mentioned in her diaries, saw Anne again at Belsen. “She described a girl who was lice-ridden with no clothes, clinging onto one thin blanket,” says Lee. “Completely riddled with typhus, Anne was a shadow of herself in every possible sense. She thought both her parents were dead. She was broken.”

The sisters shivered on a bunk near a barrack door, where survivors told Lee they could literally see them losing their lives. “One described them as just two frozen little birds.”

No-one knows the exact dates they died, or in which of the mass graves they were buried. More than 17,000 people died in Belsen in 1945 alone. But Margot succumbed to typhus in either late February or mid-March, and Anne died soon after, just weeks before British troops arrived on 15 April 1945.

Unknown fame

What happened to the diary is in its own way extraordinary. After the Gestapo left the annex, Miep Gies, one of the Franks’ helpers while they were in hiding, saved the papers at huge risk. Otto somehow survived Auschwitz (the only resident of the annex who made it out of the camps) and honoured Anne’s wish for the diaries to be published. The original 1947 print run of 3,000 sold out and by 1950 it was on its sixth reprint. An English language version was published in 1952, making the book a bestseller. Otto, who had decided to publish his daughter’s work to honour her heartfelt wish, lived until 1980 and became a custodian of his daughter’s legacy saying of her posthumous fame: “If she had been here, Anne would have been so proud.” He also helped to set up the Anne Frank Foundation and answered thousands of letters from readers of the diary.

Today, Jacqueline van Maarsen, a childhood friend of Anne, vividly remembers receiving the diary from Otto. “I thanked him in a letter and said, ‘Maybe Anne’s diary will be famous one day!’ I wrote this just to please him, I didn’t believe this. I thought: who’d be interested in the writings of a little girl? It turned out I was wrong.”

At the Anne Frank Trust UK they are marking the anniversary by asking everyone to spend 60 seconds reading aloud a section of the diary. After all, says Walnes, at a time of increasing anti-Semitism and racism, when people are being set against each other, this is the time to speak up, not stay quiet. “Anne was a girl with so much to say, forced into silence for so many hours of her life. We can honour her best by raising our voices.”

The Anne Frank Trust Campaign #Notsilent;

Words by Kate Graham

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Stylist Team