Keep Telling Her Story

2nd August 2019

This Sunday, 4 August, marks the 75th anniversary of the day on which Anne Frank – arguably the most famous diarist in the world – was arrested. Jennifer Lipman looks at the legacy of the famous diary: the many forms it has taken, the conversations it has inspired and the work being done in Anne’s memory today – and reminds us why we should…

“People can tell you to shut up, but they can’t keep you from having an opinion.” It’s a quote that sounds like it could have come from a disgruntled teen vlogger or Instagram influencer; a mantra for a Gen Zer proud to have formed their own opinions.

In fact, it’s a line from what remains, 75 years on, one of the world’s most famous journals – that of Anne Frank, sent to her death in Bergen Belsen three quarters of a century ago and yet remembered and recognised around the globe even now.

Anne’s story is well known, but it bears repeating. Born 90 years ago in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, Anne moved to Amsterdam when she was four, along with her older sister and her Jewish parents, Otto and Edith. What followed was a purportedly happy childhood, with her father experiencing business success, but everything would change in May 1940 when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands.

Almost two years later, when Anne had just turned 13, the family went into hiding, where they would remain until August 1944, protected by friends. Caged into a tiny space, in what must have felt like a hopeless situation, Anne wrote, and wrote and wrote in her diary, filling the pages with philosophical thoughts, mundane details and plenty of teenage angst.

The Franks were captured by the Nazis on 4 August and sent to Auschwitz; Anne died of typhus six months later, soon after her sister. She was not yet 16.
Remarkably, however, her diary was saved, and protected until after the Holocaust, when Otto – the family’s sole survivor – agreed to publish an edited version. Since its first issuance in June 1947 it has sold an estimated 30 million copies, been read globally, translated into almost every language imaginable and provided arguably the most well-known account of the Nazi era in Holland.

Anne’s story has been told in film, on stage and on television, been cited by politicians, actors and novelists as an inspiration, and formed the basis for educational programmes used around the world. There have even been films about people reading the diary; most notably the Hilary Swank vehicle Freedom Writers (itself based on a memoir) about a teacher who encourages her inner city pupils to keep a diary and learn lessons from Anne about tolerance and humanity.

The annexe itself and the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam are visited by around 1.2 million people every year; it’s a must-go destination for politicians and foreign dignitaries visiting the city, from Beyonce to Madonna and Whoopi Goldberg. In 2013, popstar Justin Bieber caused global consternation after writing in the guestbook that he hoped Anne would’ve been a fan.

Partly, the diary’s enduring appeal is down to the fact that it came out just two years after the war ended, and partly it’s that it isn’t actually about the Nazis. “The world was not yet ready to accept the full horror of the Holocaust,” says Tim Robertson, Chief Executive of the Anne Frank Trust UK. “Anne’s account – protected as she was, in hiding, from the reality of it – introduced people to the worst of human behaviour and suffering from something of a distance.”

Seventy years on, we know far more about what happened. But the diary remains an enormously important educational resource, used in formal and informal school curricula around the world to introduce them to what happened to Europe’s Jews. “It has had a huge impact on the way that people come to learn about the Holocaust,” says Dr Rachel Century, head of outreach at the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. “Her diary gives us a precious personal insight into what it was like to live in hiding.”

Teachers find it an effective tool precisely because it isn’t a history book – it’s not about big numbers or dates, but about an individual whom teenagers can identify with. Anne might come across as extraordinarily perceptive in some entries, but like most teenage journals there’s plenty in there that betrays her age.

“In many ways Anne was just a regular teenage girl… subject to the same angst, the same parental conflict – particularly with her mother – and the same hormonal ups and downs as teenagers everywhere have today,” says Robertson. “Young people, especially, can relate to that.” And in a world of fake news and information that’s hard to trust, the fact that it’s a first-hand account gives it a necessary credibility.

Anne’s legacy is also as an inspiring individual, interested in the world that she was cruelly cut off from. Setting aside her subject matter, Robertson highlights her “extraordinary, precocious talent as a writer and commentator, which enabled her not only to document that experience but to touch her readers in a very profound way”.

She was a profoundly modern woman; that she was writing before most teenagers’ grandparents were born makes it all the more remarkable how much she had to say about the issues affecting today’s young people. “She’s a feminist, she decries persecution, she wants a world free of conflict, in which there is social equality and justice for all,” says Robertson. “The diary’s legacy surely therefore is, be the best you can be, for a better world.”

Take, for example, her musings on equality. ‘One of the many questions that have often bothered me is why women have been, and still are, thought to be inferior to men… I’d really like to know the reason for this great injustice!’ she writes, going on to discuss a book she’d read about childbirth and the fact that ‘women [in labour] commonly suffer more pain, illness and misery than any war hero’. She suggests that in the course of the next century ‘the notion that it’s a woman’s duty to have children will change and make way for the respect and admiration of all women, who bear their burdens without complaint’. These are meaty questions for a 15-year-old to be considering, albeit that in other passages she writes more relatably about how she ‘can’t stand’ her mother.

Of course, her diary doesn’t tell the full story – it’s an introduction to what happened next. The published version does come with an afterword, but it talks specifically about the fates of the Franks and those they hid with, with no mention of the scale of the genocide across Europe at the time (or that it was perpetrated not just at Jews, but several other groups as well). As Dr Century says, “as with any individual account from the Holocaust, we must also make sure that we understand the wider context of what happened.”

Perhaps Anne’s story also resonates because, while the Holocaust may be history, genocide and persecution is far from being so: something we have seen in Rwanda, in Darfur and in Bosnia – to name but a few – in the decades since. Young women like Zlata Filipović, who kept a diary in Sarajevo while it was under siege, and Pakistani education activisit Malala Yousafzai, who used to blog for the BBC Urdu website, have taken up Anne’s mantle to illuminate the horrors they experienced.

In order to truly respond to Anne’s teachings, and honour her memory, the lesson is clearly to keep reminding people of her experience – and those of the millions of other ordinary men and women, like Anne, persecuted just for who they were.

“We cannot be complacent and even today the language of hatred must be challenged by us all,” says Dr Century. “All of us must learn from genocide – for a better future.”

The Anne Frank Trust focuses on creating a network of ambassadors who can communicate the dangers of intolerance and bigotry. “The great strength of our approach lies really in the universality of Anne’s message – of equality and social justice for all,” explains Robertson. “It enables us, through Anne’s story and example, to inspire young people to want to make a change – to embrace difference, to challenge all forms of prejudice.”

As the last generation of survivors passes on, there is of course no guarantee that her legacy and experiences will be remembered in future, nor, says Robertson, “that the future will be one she would have wanted”. But if her message is anything, it’s that one person can make a difference – and that it’s up to all of us to keep telling her story.

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