No one is spared. The sick, the elderly, the children, babies and pregnant women – all are marched to their deaths.Anne Frank, Nov 1942
Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On this day in 1945, Soviet troops liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Auschwitz, as well as Dachau, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen are just some of the names that have come to typify an orchestrated regime of pure evil.
The Holocaust was the state-sponsored, systematic persecution and murder of Jews by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945.International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance
This day of remembrance was officially proclaimed in 2005, but in the presence of an alarming rise in global anti-Semitism, the commemoration of this day has become even more important. The day is not just about remembering the victims, but also in declaring a firm commitment to “counter antisemitism, racism and other forms of intolerance that may lead to group-targeted violence” (UN). In particular, it is seen to be vital to educate and support young people so that they will not fall prey to ideologies of hatred. I think, though, that it is not just young people that we need to be concerned about. Recent events have demonstrated the ability for people of any age and background to come under the influence of hate movements.
One of the most well known victims of the Holocaust is Anne Frank (1929-1945). Born in Germany, Anne’s family fled to Holland in the face of anti-Jewish laws, oppression and persecution. But as the Nazi tide swept across Europe, they were forced to go into hiding in July 1942, where they would remain for the next two years until their betrayal and arrest in August 1944. The Frank family were joined by four other Jews in their hiding place called the Secret Annex. During this time Anne kept a diary of their daily life and her inner thoughts and emotions, which was published in 1947. Her diary has been translated into 60 languages and sold over 30 million copies.
Reading Anne’s diary can be a somewhat uncomfortable experience as we are privy to the intimate thoughts and feelings of a teenage girl. If you think about it, would you want your teenage diary to be read by millions of people? While Anne had hoped to write a book after the war about their experiences in the Annex, it was always intended to be based on the diary. She wasn’t “planning to let anyone read this stiff-backed notebook.” It is also a bittersweet experience because we already know how this story ends. Anne’s diary is inextricably linked with her death. Without her death, the story is incomplete. Without her death, Anne is frozen in time. We probably would not even be reading her diary if she had survived. It is the horrific and tragic loss of her life that makes her diary so poignant.
Anne Frank has a reputation for being a “funny, hopeful and happy girl,” and this is certainly true. Anne recognises the gift of her “cheerful disposition and strength” and her ability to find glimpses of happiness in nature. She can also be very witty and wickedly funny, but like all teenagers, she goes through emotional ups and downs. The pressure of living in hiding, never being able to go outside, as well as the fear of discovery, took its toll on all the occupants of the Annex.
One day we’re laughing at the comical side of life in hiding, and the next day…we’re frightened and the fear, tension and despair can be read on our faces.
Anne’s diary clearly shows that she was well aware of the events going on around her. In amongst the usual teenage angst and self-absorption, there are flashes of absolute brilliance.
We’ve been strongly reminded of the fact that we’re Jews in chains, chained to one spot, without any rights…one day this terrible war will be over. The time will come when we’ll be people again and not just Jews.
Imagine the fear they lived under, knowing that their friends were “being taken away in droves… in cattle-trucks” to “faraway and uncivilised places,” “to filthy slaughterhouses like a herd of sick and neglected cattle,” where they were being murdered. Anne is very forthright in her feelings about the Germans, describing them as “the cruellest monsters to ever stalk the earth.” And yet, their sense of humour prevails in one of the rules for the Annex: Only the language of civilised people may be spoken, thus no German.
There has been some criticism that Anne’s hopeful spirit has been over emphasised and that her diary has been appropriated and misused in a way that glosses over the horror of the Holocaust. As the only survivor, Anne’s father, Otto Frank, decided to honour Anne’s wishes and published her diary albeit heavily edited and that is perfectly understandable. Anne was pretty forthright and explicit in writing about puberty, menstruation, sex and the female anatomy. After all, it was a private teenage diary. Like many teenage girls, Anne’s relationship with her mother was complicated and came under extra tension while they were in hiding. It is quite understandable that Otto would want to protect her reputation.
There are actually three versions of Anne’s diary. There is the version she wrote in her actual notebooks. Then there is the version that she wrote and edited when she had publication in mind, and there is Otto’s version published after the war. In the early 1990s a Definitive Edition was published which reinstated much of the material that Otto had cut out. This is the edition that I have read.
We don’t know what Anne would have been like had she survived the war. Would she have retained her optimism about life or would she have emerged traumatised beyond recognition. After the occupants arrest, they were eventually deported to Auschwitz. The statistics of the Holocaust are chilling. On the night they arrived at Auschwitz, 549 people were gassed, including all children aged under 15. In the last week of October 1944, 6,000 people were gassed, including 1,000 boys aged 18 years and under. In December 1944, over 2,000 women died from starvation and exhaustion. It is incredibly difficult to comprehend how a political regime could do this and I guess this why there are so many books written about World War Two and the Holocaust – it is our struggle to understand.
Anne’s mother died in January 1945 from starvation and exhaustion. Anne and her sister, Margot, were transported to Bergen-Belsen where they died in the typhus epidemic during Feb-March 1945. The word “died” doesn’t come anywhere near to depicting the wretchedness of the last days of their lives.
“Weakened by brutality, chaos, and hunger, fifty thousand men and women – insufficiently clothed, tormented by lice – succumbed, may to the typhus epidemic.” (Ozick, 1997)
One of the survivors of Bergen-Belsen described Anne’s death in this way: “She (Margot) fell dead to the ground from the wooden slab on which she lay, eaten by lice, and Anne, heartbroken and skeletal, naked under a bit of rag, died a day or two later.” (Ozick, 1997)
“Extinguished in a program calculated to assure the cruellest and most demoniacally inventive human degradation. The atrocities she endured were ruthlessly and purposely devised, from indexing by tattoo through systematic starvation to factory-efficient murder. She was designated to be erased from the living, to leave no grave, no sign, no physical trace of any kind. Her fault – her crime – was having been born a Jew…”Cynthia Ozick, 1997
When Bergen-Belsen was liberated in April, 1945, BBC war correspondent, Richard Dimbleby described the horrific scene.
Dead and dying people. You could not see which was which….awful ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them…This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.
This is why today is important. This is why it is important to remember the victims of the Holocaust. This is why The Diary of a Young Girl continues to be read and treasured more than seventy years after its first publication.
Otto Frank has often been criticised for focusing on Anne’s hopeful spirit. But is there any wonder why? Which father could bear to remember his daughters in that way?
After the war Otto helped to establish the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. It opened to the public in 1960 and receives over one million visitors every year. Its mission is to encourage young people to make the world a better place and fight against prejudice and discrimination.
We cannot change what happened anymore. The only thing we can do is to learn from the past and to realise what discrimination and persecution of innocent people means.Otto Frank, 1970
Cynthia Ozick, “Who Owns Anne Frank?”, The New Yorker, 1997.