Anne Frank’s ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’
By Suneetha Balakrishnan
I was introduced to Anne Frank in my teens; I was roughly the same age as her in the text, and about four decades apart in the calendar. And I read through the night, intrigued by her life. I read of how a normal German Jewish girl had been gifted a ‘diary’ (red-and-white-checkered autograph album which later expanded into several notebooks) for her thirteenth birthday. Noted in these were her encounters with life and routine. And the to-be-teen me was seized immediately with the awakening of sexuality in the book. I remember how I lamented that four decades ahead, in India, boyfriends and dating were still forbidden words to me and not even concepts to my world. As I read on, I was moved to tears at what happened to Anne at the end of it all. And Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl took up a place among my favourite books.
I admit, during the first reads, I ignored, for the most part, what the book said in notes about how the book happened. I wonder if her challenged history meant anything to me then, other than what happened to her personally. It was a tragic story, well-told, and in first person. I was at that age when one is curious about diaries, especially those by other people.
I re-read Anne Frank’s diary several times over my teenage years; also while I was down with chicken-pox, measles and mumps, and while I was out of stock of new books to read at bed time. And it was rarely the whole book; I had my favourite parts which I would read again and again: the relationship triangle of adolescents in a very limited space, both perceived and real. Later, while I researched for a prize essay on the Holocaust, I found plenty of continuity on this angle. One is astounded when one first encounters the truth that love and life do not die away in times of distress; in fact, it blooms and is considered even more precious.
Curiously, when I left home to join my first job, Anne Frank was left behind. I don’t remember why. I was then twenty. There was a gap in my reading habits for about a decade. And when books came back to chase me, I shifted loyalties to ostensibly ‘serious’ books. But when I made out a list of books for my office library and was asked to include some ‘must-reads’ for children, Anne Frank came back to my life and reading. I could not resist that smiling face and bobbed hair staring at me from a deep brown cover.
The copy of Anne Frank at the library was almost always with me thereafter. I suppose I can admit now that I issued and re-issued the book several times; in my name, and then that of close friends who did not really read. And when we made a new list for the next year’s purchases for the library stock, my Manager pointed out that we get another copy of Anne Frank’s Diary, “since it seems a popular read”. And I had to keep my face down to veil my smile. I just hid the copy I had read to a tattered heap now, behind the library register.
The next year Anne Frank’s Diary was published in translation in my mother tongue, Malayalam, and I promptly suggested a copy for the library. I had not thought of translation as a profession yet, but I remember comparing the English and Malayalam versions and working on some pages to translate them ‘better’ as I thought. Anne Frank had now become a child to me; a child who deserved empathies at various levels; as a refugee, as the face that would become representative of the Holocaust, as a girl who did not get to enjoy her adolescence, as also the writer who never lived to see her book sell 30 million copies and more.
It was in those years that I got seriously hooked to films, and started to consider films as a medium of education and as an instrument of understanding the world, rather than as mere entertainment. I was a regular at the film fests that happened in my city in those years and the innumerable films made around the Holocaust made me see and empathize with Anne Frank more clearly. I now saw the larger realities behind the prosaic adolescent perspectives and the layers behind the writing. I also started appreciating the translator, the original Dutch script never had seemed alien; the translation was so good.
When I was transferred out of my hometown to the capital city of my country, Anne Frank and I lost contact for a while again. In 2004, I returned to my city and my personal library; and my children had now grown to be avid readers. My copy of The Diary of a Young Girl became well-thumbed in a few years, and I went in for a new copy to save the old precious one for the archives. And I discovered that in those years I had been Rip Van Winkle in biblio-dum; Anne Frank’s Diary had come out in an uncensored version.
The sanitized text I had read and loved all these years was only less than half of what she had actually written, which were frank investigations of her own sexuality, unflattering adolescent assessments of her mom and more. The original text had been consciously excised by Otto Frank, Anne’s Dad, who had published the book. It took several years, however, for me to lay my hands on the hard cover edition of The Diary of Anne Frank: The Critical Edition, published in 1989. This certainly was quite different from the old text and even more fascinating in its contents. It was a comparison of the three versions of Anne Frank’s Diary; Anne’s original entries, including never-before-published material; the Diary as she herself edited it while in hiding; and the best-known version, edited by her father. I read this in 2015.
If it were a documentation of her life and a way to keep alive her spirits, why did Anne edit the Diary? Yes, I too had that doubt when I heard about this 3-in-1 text. The book tells us of how Anne heard on radio of the Dutch government meaning to collect and publish war time memoirs of their citizens, and how she started looking at her Diary as a publishable text, rather than a Diary alone. There’s more appealing stuff in the new book: for e.g. the thoroughly researched sections on how the members of the Secret Annex were betrayed and arrested, a painstaking handwriting analysis comparing the diary entries with Anne’s own letters, as also a detailed account of the attacks on the authenticity of the text. I guess you know how many challenges have been made on the Diary as a sham. It has not made me think less of Anne or more darkly of her. She continues to intrigue me as a writer and a child, especially when the refugee crisis heightened in 2015.
In 2015, I also came to read those other books which completed my Anne Frank experience. Eva’s Story: A Survivor’s Tale by the Stepsister of Anne Frank, which picks up the story where Anne Frank ends it; this is the tale of Eva Schloss, Anne’s stepsister. They knew each other before the Holocaust, and Eva and her Mom were captured and sent away to Birkenau. But unlike Anne, they survived. And later, Otto Frank married Eva’s Mom. After Otto Frank passed in 1980, it’s Eva who now carries the flag for Anne.
Then there’s the book by Miep Gies, who, with her husband helped hide the Franks from the Nazis and sustained them in their lives away from the Gestapo eyes. She was also the person who found the Diary and brought it to Otto Frank. The book titled, Anne Frank Remembered: The Story of the Woman Who Helped to Hide the Frank Family completes some missing pieces of the puzzle; of what the outside world was like while Anne penned away the days inside the Secret Annexe.
As I write this piece, the copyright of the book, which was to expire in 2015 (Anne Frank had died at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945, and according to European Law, the book comes into public domain after 70 years of the death of the author), is being contested. Anne Frank Fund, the Switzerland-based organization founded by Otto Frank, claims that since Otto Frank had compiled, the two versions of the diary of Anne, he’s a co-author who is entitled to his own copyright. Otto Frank died in 1980, so the copyright is still in place.
But I am not sure if this is the best option for the book. The digital reach of a copyright free book can take an already iconic book to new heights. To those generations and citizens who haven’t seen war, who don’t read history and don’t involve in public discourses on politics, a book like Anne Frank’s Diary can be the best of pointers; of how history can be shaped and repeated unless the ordinary citizen keeps a careful watch.
Suneetha Balakrishnan is a bi-lingual translator, writer and journalist.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.