In the award-winning 1959 film The Diary of Anne Frank, we see a mercurial Anne on the first day of her arrival in the secret annexe finally wind down with a book. She reads the last sentence out loud and we recognise A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens’s historical novel set in eighteenth-century French revolutionary times. In the film the camera zooms in on the title page in Dutch, translated as Verhaal van twee steden. There is something wrong with this picture, because it is highly unlikely that the real Anne Frank ever read this book. First of all, she had just started to learn English, and this would have been too difficult for her. Secondly, the Dutch translations published up to 1942 were entitled In Londen en Parijs, and thirdly, it is unlikely that she was reading this, because this kind of book did not fit in with the other books she was interested in at the time. The book is not mentioned in her diary. The screenwriters, Frances Goodrich and her husband Albert Hackett, who also wrote the theatre version, must have come up with the idea from the diary itself, in which Anne mentions four times that her father is reading his Dickens. Once he even entertained the entire annexe company with readings from The Pickwick Papers. One can argue that choosing A Tale of Two Cities was very appropriate for dramatic effect and added thoughts of revolutionary violence to the certain ominous suspense so apparent in other small details in the film. However, it is probably not historically accurate.
What were the books that Anne Frank was interested in, and was allowed to read? Let us go back to 12 June 1942. On the second floor of a townhouse on Merwedeplein 37 in Amsterdam, a young Jewish girl celebrates her thirteenth birthday. She has been living in Amsterdam since 1934, following the persecution of Jews in Germany, where she was born in Frankfurt. Her father, the son of a banking family, starts a business selling pectin for making jams and jellies and spices for meat processing. Together with her sister Margot she goes to the Montessori elementary school. After the German invasion of the Netherlands, May 1940, they attend the Jewish Lyceum, a high school. After Margot receives a summons to report for transport on 8 July 1942 the entire family goes into hiding, together with the Van Pels family. They are joined later by dentist Frits Pfeffer. Anne Frank starts keeping a diary two days after her birthday. She knew she was getting a diary, because she had already bought it together with her father in Blankevoort’s bookshop. I will come back to the diary itself, but for now I would like to draw your attention to her other presents on that birthday. I quote: ‘From Daddy and Mama I got a blue blouse, a game, a bottle of grape juice, which to my mind tastes like wine, a puzzle, a jar of cold cream, 2.50 guilders and a gift certificate for two books. I got another book as well, “Camera Obscura” (but Margot already has it, so I exchanged mine for something else)… They [her schoolfriends] gave me a beautiful book, “Dutch Sagas and Legends”, but they gave me Volume II by mistake, so I exchanged two other books for Volume I. Aunt Helene brought me a puzzle, Aunt Stephanie a darling brooch and Aunt Leny a terrific book: “Daisy’s Mountain Trip”. I had my birthday party on Sunday afternoon. The Rin Tin Tin movie was a big hit with my classmates. I got two brooches, a bookmark and two books.’
As one can see, books were an important part of her cultural baggage and an obvious treasure and pleasure to get as presents. Of course one should realise that there was no TV and that books were cherished, partly because they were expensive in the pre-softback era. Dutch books still are. After the German decrees against the Jews, which forbade them to go to the theatre, the cinema, to own a telephone, to travel by tram, to have visitors or keep the windows open after 8 p.m. and other horrid absurdities, the Jews had limited entertainment. In the hiding place even listening to the radio was very much restricted to the hours when the personnel downstairs had left. Therefore, books and reading must have been greatly appreciated. On 11 July 1943 we read in the diary: ‘Miep (one of the main helpers, Miep Gies) brings us 5 library books every Saturday. We always long for Saturdays when our books come, just like little children receiving a present. Ordinary people simply don’t know what books mean to us shut up here. Reading, learning and the radio are our only amusements.’
What were they reading? Anne gives us the answer herself when she made a list of the members and their interests: ‘Mr Van Daan: detective stories, love stories; Mrs van Daan: biographical novels and occasionally other kinds of novels; Mr Frank: is learning English (Dickens), never reads novels, but likes serious, rather dry descriptions of people and places; Mrs Frank: reads everything except detective stories; Mr Dussel: reads everything, goes along with the opinion of the majority; Peter van Daan: seldom reads, sometimes geography; Margot Frank: reads everything, preferably on religion and medicine; Anne Frank: likes to read biographies, dull or exciting, and history books (sometimes novels and light reading).’ She mentions also that among her courses are art history, mythology, Bible history and Dutch literature.
This entry of 16 May 1944 gives a general idea of Anne’s broad interests and it indicates that she prefers informative biographies and history books. This is a marked change from her earlier entries, full of novels and romances. Then again, the last year of her diary sees much less mentioning of books in general, in favour of romanticising about her relationship with Peter, life in general and matters of survival.
‘I’m allowed to read more grown-up books lately’
When we try to get a picture of the books she was reading, we come across a few obstacles. First of all, the diary does not cover the entire hiding period. Secondly, she doesn’t always give full titles and authors’ names, nor is it always clear that she has indeed read them. She writes on 29 October 1942: ‘Daddy has brought the plays of Goethe and Schiller from the big bookcase. He is going to read to me every evening. We’ve started with Don Carlos.’ Does it follow that Anne Frank read Goethe? This was stated once in the New York Times, in the review of the Oscar-winning Anne Frank documentary. I think it is a silly attempt to make a young genius out of a regular teenager, who doesn’t need this.
On other occasions Otto Frank wanted her to read German classics like Koerner and Hebbel, projecting his own education onto his daughters. It doesn’t mean that she obliged and at the tender age of 13 was reading beyond normal teenage interests. She did like Theodor Koerner, however, now regarded as a mediocre playwright from the early nineteenth century, more famous for his war-songs. ‘Now I can buy “Myths of Greece and Rome” – great!’ she writes also about her birthday presents on 14 June 1942. Did she buy this? Probably. Was it a strange choice? It might sound very learned in 2000, but it is not really, for someone who goes to a school called a Lyceum, where the literature of the Greeks and Romans is being taught, in Greek and Latin, although not in her first year. It is even likely that the book was on the list of recommended school books. Still, she had a mind of her own and certainly liked to enjoy and explore her interests to the full as she writes, months later, on 27 March 1943: ‘I’m mad on Mythology and especially the Gods of Greece and Rome. They think here that it is just a passing craze, they’ve never heard of an adolescent kid of my age being interested in Mythology. Well, then I shall be the first!’ She calls this one of her time-killing subjects, and indeed what better topic than myths and legends, where anything is possible and fantasy knows no bounds.
I mentioned Camera Obscura (1839), one of her birthday presents together with the diary. This Dutch novel by Nicholaas Beets is often regarded as the Dutch equivalent of Dickens’s Pickwick Papers. However, Anne only mentions the title and nothing about the content. The same goes for other works like Dutch Tales and Legends, Daisy’s Mountain Trip, a book called Good Morning Milkman and Lydia’s Problems. In 1944 we read about her interest in biographies of Liszt, Galileo, and Emperor Charles V, but also on a different topic: Margot’s book Palestine at the Crossroads. On 12 June 1944, for her birthday, which would be her 15th and last one, she marvels at the 5-volume History of Art by Springer.
We don’t really get to hear what Anne thought of these books, or who suggested these titles. However, we have some information about other books and I quote from her diary for 3 October 1942: ‘I have such a lovely book, it’s called “Eva’s Childhood”. The Eva in it thought that children grew on trees like apples, and that the stork plucked them off the tree when they were ripe and brought them to the mothers. But her girlfriend’s cat had kittens and they came out of the cat, so she thought cats laid eggs and hatched them like chickens, and the mothers who wanted a child also went upstairs a few days before their time to lay an egg and brood on it. After the babies arrived, the mothers were pretty weak from all that squatting. At some point, Eva wanted a baby too. She took a wool scarf and spread it, and then she squatted down and began to push. She clucked as she waited, but no egg came out. Finally, after she’d been sitting for a long time, something did come, but it was a sausage instead of an egg. Eva was embarrassed. The maid thought she was sick. Funny, isn’t it?’
The novel she is referring to was written by Dutch author Nico van Suchtelen and describes the development of a young girl, born out of wedlock to a frail woman who dies when Eva is a baby. Her grandfather, a kind old notary, brings her up, together with a friendly maid. We see her go to school, become a lovely but outspoken, honest, inquisitive, naughty teenager with a positive outlook on life. The author, who died in 1948, was a humanistic writer with an interest in the philosophy of Erasmus, Spinoza and Freud. He was part of a Thoreau and Tolstoy type of communal living in the early decades of the century and as a religious humanist had strong pacifist ideas. In the book one of Eva’s friends, whom she loves dearly, becomes a conscientious objector and ends up in prison at the end of the novel. The story ends when the grandfather dies and Eva, who has just finished high school, decides to learn typing and shorthand to get a job. She goes to live with her uncle Herbert, who has returned from Australia after having stolen and squandered her inheritance, but is accepted back in forgiving grace.
Although the novel and its author have now largely been forgotten, he was well known at the time, and Anne Frank had definitely taken to the book and certain topics in it. She writes on October 29, 1942: ‘I’m allowed to read more grown-up books lately. I’m now reading “Eva’s Childhood” by Nico van Suchtelen. I can’t see much difference between this and the schoolgirl love stories. It is true there are bits about women selling themselves to unknown men in back streets. They ask a packet of money for it. I’d die of shame if anything like that happened to me.’ Anne must have identified very strongly with the ever curious Eva, who tries to understand what goes on in these so-called ‘houses of pleasure’ as she ponders: ‘So they had fun these women. Perhaps they danced with the men that came. And of course they would sing, and they would make them drunk… But then? They were paid… some of them became filthy rich. Not here of course but in Paris and Vienna and the like. They were paid for their love, they sold their bodies, as they say. How was that possible? How could love become something ugly? It was incomprehensible. But surely there was no love between these women and their visitors? How could there be one man, who wanted to buy a woman’s dedication, and how could there be found one woman who sold herself?’
Other important female questions occupy Anne’s thoughts as she writes in the same entry about this book: ‘It also says that Eva has a monthly period. Oh, I’m so longing to have it too; then at least I’d be grown up.’ In the book, Eva thinks about her mother and what it would be like to be one herself. This is the passage that Anne refers to: ‘Strange, that she had to think of that now, after the doctor had told her, the great, miraculous, that she now… a woman… imagine: she was… a woman, that she could now be a mother. She had known before that the time would come one day… (her girlfriend) Jet’s had already started half a year ago and she thought it was quite normal (doodgewoon), only annoying. But now it was her turn, it seemed so strange – important, so…. responsible, so… official. You could only think of it a little bashful, half-fearful, and yet it was wonderful.’ When Anne refers to this regarding herself she uses the phrase ‘it seems so important’ which sounds literally taken from the novel. A later note of 22 January 1944 says ‘Today I couldn’t write a thing like that anymore’.
Anne is obviously interested in other facts of life, as we read: ‘I have learned something new again: “brothel” and “cocotte”, I have got a separate little book for them but it’s kept with the letters, otherwise nothing special.’ Unfortunately, this separate little book was lost.
One should realise that Anne’s quotes do not represent the entire novel and one might wonder whether an impressionable 13-year-old should read such books. It was certainly the case until the sixties that in Dutch libraries most books were classified according to a system of cataloguing numbers, indicating the targeted reading public. Of course access was a matter of parental discretion, also in Anne Frank’s case, as she writes on 17 March 1944: ‘every book I read must be inspected. I must admit that they are not at all strict, and I’m allowed to read nearly everything.’ As other instances show, Otto Frank was a fairly open-minded person. There was discussion in the annexe about other books; the Van Pelses commented more than once on the too liberal education of the Frank children.
This doesn’t mean that Anne Frank read only risqué books. Far from it. Her favourites when they first went into hiding in the Autumn of 1942 (21 September) were a series of books by Cissy van Marxveldt, a pseudonym for Sietske Beek-de Haan, with titles relating to the main character Joop ter Heul. Anne read the five books in a week and one of them four times. Joop or Josephine ter Heul is one of three children of successful businessman Ter Heul. His wife, Joop’s mother, seems mainly worried about the right etiquette, the latest fashion and her daughters’ marital candidates. We follow Joop, mainly through a diary and letters to a friend, from her childhood, especially her early teens, to adolescence, marriage at 19 to a bank manager, and motherhood.
Especially in the novel called Joop ter Heul’s High School Times (De H.B.S.tijd van Joop ter Heul) we see parallels with the young vivacious Anne Frank, who like her novel’s hero founds a club of girlfriends to share secrets and go out together. In Anne Frank’s case it was called Little Bear minus Two (De Kleine Beer min twee), with referral to the heavenly body; as Anne explains: ‘because we thought the Little Bear had 5 stars, but we were wrong there, because it has seven stars, just like the Big Bear; minus 2 therefore means that Sanne is the Leader and Jacque is the secretary, and that we (Ilse Hanneli and I) are left to make up the club. It’s a ping-pong club.’ They play table-tennis in the Wagner family’s dining room and go to the ice cream parlour to cool off afterwards. If we go by the examples of her novels, they also have evenings together spent gossiping about boys and teachers, eating sweets and planning parties.
The similarities abound when reading Anne Frank’s early diary. She had not yet decided on Kitty as her soulmate, but wrote to several people named Connie, Pop / Emmy, Marjan, Pien, Lou, identical names to those in the Joop ter Heul books. In fact, until 21 September 1942 it seems that Anne doesn’t get a grip on her diary. She has not decided on a form yet, just personal notes or a ‘letter’ to a friend, imaginary or not. Until she writes on that same day: ‘I haven’t written anything for ages, but no doubt I’ll make up for it’, and continues: ‘I really feel like corresponding with some one, and I’ll do that in future with my diary. I’ll write in future in letter form, which is in fact the same‘ and ‘I have some time left tonight dearest Emmy, and so I shall drop you a few lines, this afternoon I wrote a fairly sheepish letter to Yettje, but I had hardly sat down for a minute when I had to peel potatoes for “her ladyship my mama” she says it in such commanding tones, and if I don’t hop to it she shouts “loos”. That is German but I don’t know exactly how you spell it. Just as in “Joop ter Heul”. Incidentally, have you read Joop ter Heul?’ Joop ter Heul uses English phrases from her sister to show off, sometimes German, and occasionally doesn’t know how to spell them. It’s amusing to realise that she asks in a letter to Emmy, one of the characters in a novel, whether she had read the novel. One letter is addressed to the whole club in general and she has a few lines for each member, singling out one person who in the Van Marxveldt novel was called Kitty Franken. ‘Dear Kitty, Yesterday I wrote to Emmy and Yettje, but I prefer writing to you, you know that don’t you and I hope the feeling is mutual.’ Why she chose Kitty is not quite clear. The character in the novels comes across as sympathetic, lively and naughty like Joop, great company, but she doesn’t stick out as special, doesn’t finish high school, marries a stockbroker and is not one of the main characters. Perhaps her last name ‘Franken’ inspired her choice.
Perhaps the name Kitty comes from a real life friend called Kitty. The fact is that the letters to Kitty become more frequent, and on 13 November 1942 she addresses the last one to Yettje. In the revised version it is Kitty all along from 20 June 1942 when she writes the well-known lines: ‘In order to enhance in my mind’s eye the picture of the friend for whom I have waited so long I don’t want to set down a series of bald facts in a diary like most people do, but I want this diary, itself to be my friend, and I shall call my friend Kitty.’
Anne Frank was enamoured of the Van Marxveldt books, as she states on 3 October: ‘As a matter of fact Cissy van Marxveld is first class. I shall definitely let my children read her.’ The comparisons with the books are striking: the diary form, the direct referrals, the letters to the girls, the club, the reports about classroom and school activities. A French pop quiz and especially Anne’s constant talking in class and the composition she had to write about ‘a chatterbox’ for punishment, could have been lifted out of a Joop ter Heul book.
These books have lost much of their charm nowadays, and no teenager reads these stereotypical novels anymore, in which fathers are grumpy old darlings, mothers followers of fashion or marriage counsellors for their daughters, the maid-servant is either old and kind, or young and absent-minded, the sister older and silly, and the brother understanding. Emotions in these books are never very passionate, most important issues are school matters, like being promoted to the next grade. In 12th grade, several girls fall in love with young intellectuals, students with promising careers. Joop in the books is a lively, intelligent, bubbly girl, what Americans would call ‘a swell bobbysoxer’. She sometimes feels stifled by her family and conventional sister, likes to go against the grain, i.e. when expressing an interest in theatre, and lets her impulses steer her in unforeseen directions. One might think of nineteenth-century examples like Alcott’s Little Women or Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, but these Dutch works never reach that level. Nevertheless, these books give an interesting insight into the stereotypical view of a certain type of woman in the twenties in the Netherlands. Anne must have identified with this carefree upper-middle-class existence, and when we take this into account her diary gains this extra dimension.
A far more interesting book that must have widened her horizons, was called The Rebels (De opstandigen), and Anne is quite informative about this one. On closer examination, however, one cannot maintain that Anne gives an accurate rendition of the whole novel, nor that she has quite understood the basic theme: women’s emancipation and struggle (or rebellion, hence the ‘rebels’ of the title) to find a place and life of their own, as portrayed in the history of three generations of one family. In half a page she sums up nicely all the names of the protagonists and their children. The reason is simple: this was given at the end of the book, where some 40 characters are put in their family tree. The novel has some nice aspects, which have escaped Anne’s inexperienced eye. I spoke earlier of Nicolaas Beets’s Camera Obscura as the work that Anne was going to read, and the first part of this work is written in a similar vein. One interesting detail is the appearance of Beets in the flesh, fulminating in a lecture against suffragettes. This was based on a true story, and among his reasoning was the bad example set by women in America, who sit in their clubs, with crossed legs, smoking cigars.
It may be surprising that Anne is actually not more outspoken about one of the main protagonists in the novel, the woman who leaves her dictatorial uncle’s house to become a governess abroad. She returns after 30 years as a writer, a profession that was not ‘done’ for a woman in 1870. Anne’s summary leaves most of the second part of the book out, and gives no indication about the third part, mainly a view of contemporary life in the twenties. The author to my mind doesn’t seem to grasp it all either and gets a little tedious, with a midlife-crisis modern man who falls in love with a 20-year-old and his midlife crisis wife, member of parliament, who acts out her hot flushes.
There is also a Kitty in this book, an 18-year-old with a gorgeous body, who wants to go to Berlin to join a dancing troupe and express herself like Isadora Duncan, the famous dancer. I don’t think that Anne was inspired, and although she was very interested in film stars, she doesn’t indicate any sympathy for this person. I suspect that it was mainly the first part that really interested her, for reasons of readability, or historical interest. Two years later, she had developed stronger ideas about the treatment of women in society when she writes: ‘I merely condemn all the men, and the whole system, that refuse ever to acknowledge what an important, arduous, and in the long run beautiful part, women play in society.’ (15 June 1944)
The author of the book The Rebels, Jo van Ammers-Kuller, who died in 1966, had a few other best-sellers in the twenties, with for that time ‘advanced’ themes. It was risqué even to mention matters like ‘divorce’ or an ‘affair’, let alone illegitimate children. Many educators, librarians and parents made sure that only adults would be able to read this.
A bitter personal detail must be mentioned about the Dutch author Jo van Ammers-Kuller. Several of her books were translated into German at the time, and, perhaps carried away by success, she became a staunch Nazi sympathiser. She was forbidden to publish for several years after the war. It is one of those ironic twists of history to realise that Anne was reading her books, while the author was collaborating with her tormentors.
In their second year in hiding, on several occasions she makes informative inventories of things like daily routines, or people’s reading habits. She writes on Thursday April 6, 1944: ‘Dear Kitty, you asked me what my hobbies and interests were, so I want to reply, but I warn you that there are heaps of them, so don’t get a shock!
First of all: writing, but that can hardly be reckoned as a hobby.
No. 2 is family trees. I have been searching for family trees of the French, German, Spanish, English, Austrian, Russian, Norwegian and Dutch royal families in all the newspapers, books and pamphlets I can find. I have made great progress with a lot of them, as, for a long time already, I’ve been taking down notes from all the biographies and history books that I read; I even copy out many passages of history.
My third hobby then is history, for which Daddy has already bought me a lot of books. I can hardly wait for the day that I shall be able to comb through the books in the public library.
No. 4 is Greek & Roman Mythology. I have various books about this too. I can rattle off the 9 muses or the 7 loves of Zeus. I have the wives of Hercules etc. etc. at my fingertips.
Other hobbies are film stars, and family photos. Mad on books and reading. Have a great liking for history of art, poets and painters. I may go in for musicians later on. I have a great loathing for Algebra, Geometry and figures. I enjoy all the other school subjects, but history above all!’
‘Anyone who doesn’t write doesn’t know how wonderful it is’
While the helpers Miep and Mr Kleiman brought books from the library, Mr Kugler brought Anne the magazine Cinema and Theatre. She had a collection of postcards and film stars: in the Anne Frank House one can still find the pictures of Deanne Durbin, Ginger Rogers, German film star Heinz Ruhmann and Dutch actress Lilly Bouwmeester pinned to the wall. In a charming short story entitled Dreams of Movie Stardom, she addresses the question put to her by Mrs Van Pels: ‘Why she doesn’t want to become a movie star’. She tells the story of her fictitious correspondence with a film star called Priscilla Lane and subsequent travel to Hollywood to meet her. She is well received and has a wonderful time. A photo session is arranged and Anne gets a modelling job. But ‘I had to stand, sit, and smile continuously; walk up and down, change clothes again, look pretty, and put on fresh make up. At night I was so exhausted that I had to drag myself to bed. On the third day it hurt me to smile.’ She finds out that this life is hard work and the story ends: ‘As for dreams of movie stardom, I was cured. I had had a close look at the way celebrities live.’
Her story is one of the more than 40 short stories, observations and unfinished fragments that Anne Frank wrote besides her diary. We know when she started: on August 7, 1943 she writes: ‘An interruption in my sketches of life in the “Secret Annexe”. A few weeks ago I started to write a story, something that was completely made up and that gave me such pleasure that my pen-children are now piling up.’ She called the story Kaatje. It was written when she was observing a little girl through the window of the secret annexe, playing in the garden. It is a two-page fantasy about the girl, who Anne describes as being one of seven. She has lost her father, has a kitten, and she is a nice and sometimes naughty girl. Kaatje can’t wait to grow up so she can earn money in the factory for her mother. She wants to get married but have only two children. ‘Kaatje go to bed says mother, you have been daydreaming again’. Thus ends the story.
Anne Frank is very clear about her ambitions as a writer (11 May 1944): ‘Now, about something else: you’ve known for a long time that my greatest wish is to become a journalist someday and later on a famous writer.’ Interestingly enough, she had already written on 3 April: ‘I must work, so as not to be a fool, to get on to become a journalist, because that’s what I want! I know that I can write, a couple of my stories are good, my descriptions of the “Secret Annexe” are humorous, there’s a lot in my diary that speaks, but — whether I have real talent remains to be seen. Eva’s dream is my best fairy tale, and the queer thing about it is that I don’t know where it comes from. Quite a lot of “Cady’s Life” is good too, but, on the whole, it’s nothing! I am the best and sharpest critic of my own work, I know myself what is and what is not well written. Anyone who doesn’t write doesn’t know how wonderful it is…’.
It’s a hypothetical question whether Anne Frank would have been a good writer. Take her story called Fear, in which fire and bombs go off like a cheap B-movie, the main person is constantly running away, but also tries to keep her parents to finally find peace in nature, on a meadow. Compare this example of bad creative fiction writing to a realistic albeit cynical entry in the diary of 2 June 1944: ‘I have a brand new prescription against gunfire: during particularly loud bangs hasten to the nearest wooden stairs, run up and down a few times and make sure that you fall gently downstairs at least once. What with the scratches and the noise of running and falling, you are too busy to listen to the gunfire let alone worry about it. The writer of these lines has certainly used this ideal recipe with success!’ A much better description of the fear and panic of people who had no hiding place within their hiding place!
One of the most interesting parts of her diary from a literary point of view is her growing into a writer, her shifting interests from teenybopper into a more serious thinking woman, her growing in spurts, her doubts, self-criticism etc. In the early days, she was a little schoolgirl, reading Joop ter Heul, but at the abrupt end we already see an interesting style unfolding, to be brutally cut off. And she loved writing, as shown on April 5, 1944: ‘I can shake off everything if I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn. But, and that is the great question, will I ever be able to write anything great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer? I hope so, oh, I hope so very much, for I can recapture everything when I write, my thoughts, my ideals, my fantasies. I haven’t done anything more to “Cady’s Life” for ages; in my mind I know exactly how to go on, but somehow it doesn’t flow from my pen. Perhaps I shall never finish it, it may land up in the wastepaper basket, or the fire… that’s a horrible idea, but then I think to myself, “At the age of fourteen and with so little experience, how can you write about philosophy?” So I go on with fresh courage; I think I shall succeed, because I want to write!’
She certainly got carried away about her writing when she said: ‘I want to send in to “The Prince” (a popular magazine) to see if they will take one of my fairy tales, under a pseudonym, of course, but because all my fairy tales so far have been too long, I don’t think I have much of a chance’ (April 20, 1944). More realistically: ‘I want to try and finish the story of Ellen, the fairy. I can give it to Daddy for fun on his birthday, together with all author’s rights’ (6 May 1944). These last words were more prophetic than she ever wished, considering the rights of the last definitive edition.
Shirley Temple in wartime?
The Dutch are a reading people. Unlike the Americans, they have less capacity for adoration, hollywoodising or sensationalism. Anne Frank’s Tales from the Secret Annex, a number of short stories, are examples of not very great literature, and she was never regarded as a great Dutch author by the official literary canon. Anne Frank’s diary does not deal with themes and motifs like guilt about collaboration, or at being a bystander, love in wartime, death, coincidence, or choices with a lifelong impact etc. Also, her diary was a work in progress. Still, events and thoughts reappear. Opinions about education and recurring guilt feelings are combined with a great sense of honesty, especially towards herself. She is also a careful chronicler or journalist of daily events. Besides these, she is full of desire for a true friend, and although she starts with a paper friend, she wants a real one, which leads to a love in which she only half-heartedly believed herself. Amazing is her enormous sense of discipline and her work ethic. She studies mercilessly, French irregular verbs, translations from Dutch into English etc. Here is an entry from April 27, 1944: ‘At the moment I’m reading The Emperor Charles V, written by a professor at Goettingen university; he worked at the book for forty years. I read fifty pages in 5 days; it’s impossible to do more. The book has 598 pages so now you can work out how long it will take me — and there is a second volume to follow. But very interesting.’ All this in addition to her stories and her diary. Isn’t she every teacher’s dream student?
This doesn’t mean that we should simplify Anne Frank to that famous last line of the play and film: ‘in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.’ In fact, it is not the last line in the Diary at all, but the entry of July 15, 1944, which continues: ‘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 suffering of millions.’ But it is easy to take these lines too out of context, because the entry finishes: ‘and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquillity will return again. In the meantime, I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out!’
However, let’s not be afraid of a less hopeful, a less saintly image, and take a slightly more critical view when painting Anne Frank’s historical portrait. Anne Frank, bubbly and sweet as she might have been, also had her limits and shortcomings. Her age and immaturity prevented her sometimes from seeing different points of view in her mother or dentist Dussel, made her write romance-style stories better forgotten, and although she shows remarkable growth over a short period of time, she was not a completely rounded person yet. She should also be seen in the larger perspective of a persecuted Jewish family in the Netherlands and not simply as a cute Shirley Temple in wartime.
Would she have written the famous lines: ‘In spite of everything etc’ knowing that she still had 7 months of excruciating pain, torture and humiliation to go through? We don’t know, but we can inform ourselves about those last months. Here is a quote from an eye witness: ‘The Frank girls were so emaciated. They looked terrible. They had little squabbles, caused by their illness, because it was clear they had typhus. … They had those hollowed-out faces, skin over bone… You could really see both of them dying, as well as others. But what was so sad, of course, was that these children were still so young. I always found it so horrible that as children they had never really lived.’ This quote comes from Rachel van Amerongen in the documentary The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank by Willy Lindwer. It is perhaps a sign of the times that the catalogue in which this video was offered for sale has the warning: ‘contains delicate matter’. Do we have to guard ourselves from shock when the rosy picture of Anne Frank threatens to be destroyed, when real facts from real life take over? Will we have an anti-cruelty chip built into our TVs to guard us from ‘delicate matters’? I like to think that Anne Frank herself would have been much more open and forward. She deserves more than a rosy picture. On May 26, 1944 she writes in unusual desperation, with compassion for her helpers and only a glimmer of hope: ‘Again and again I ask myself, would it not have been better for us all if we had not gone into hiding, and if we were dead now and not going through all this misery, especially as we shouldn’t be running our protectors into danger any more. But we all recoil from these thoughts too, for we still love life; we haven’t yet forgotten the voice of nature, we still hope, hope about everything. I hope something will happen soon now, shooting if need be – nothing can crush us more than this restlessness. Let the end come, even if it is hard; then at least we shall know whether we are finally going to win through or go under.’ This was a few months before she wrote: ‘I trust to luck, but should I be saved, and spared from destruction, then it would be terrible if my diaries and my tales were lost.’
Little did she know that her luck would soon run out, and that the consolation prize for us would only be her diaries and tales, which were not lost. But what a prize!
By Ton J. Broos
First published in The Low Countries, 2000
AMMERS-KÜLLER, J. VAN, De opstandigen, een familieroman in drie boeken. Amsterdam, 1925; translated as: The Rebel Generation, New York (1925).
BARNOUW, DAVID (ed.), The Diary of Anne Frank: the Critical Edition. New York, 1989.
FRANK, ANNE, Tales from the Secret Annex. New York, 1983.
MARX VELDT, CISSY VAN, De H.B.S.tijd van Joop ter Heul. Amersfoort, 1930 (9th edition, many other editions).
SUCHTELEN, NICO VAN, Eva’s jeugd. Amsterdam, 1923 (Anne might have used: Amsterdam, Wereldbibliotheek, 1942, the 15th edition).