Prinsengracht 263 would be just another house by a canal in central Amsterdam but for the serpentine queue outside it round the year. Inside, the weight of history hangs heavy in the air. Visitors move silently across rooms, along narrow corridors and up the stairs before arriving in front of a nondescript movable bookcase. It leads to what was once a secret annexe — a hidden shelter for three Jewish families during World War II. In 2017, the Anne Frank House Museum, where 13-year-old Anne lived in hiding with seven others between July 1942 and August 1944, welcomed 1,266,966 visitors, according to annefrank.org. Nearly 75 years after her death in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, what accounts for the popularity of the young Jewish diarist, whose coming-of-age account continues to serve as a reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust?
A clue perhaps lies in how Frank envisaged the purpose of the diary that she lovingly christened Kitty — her confidante and conscience keeper, but also the repository of a history that was being made, and in which she was forced to play a part. After the War, Frank hoped to see herself as a woman with a career in journalism and later, as a writer — and to that end, Kitty was her first real attempt at documentation.
Towards the end of her time in hiding, Frank heard a broadcast in which the Dutch minister in exile Gerrit Bolkestein appealed to his people to preserve diaries and letters so that when it all ended, these personal narratives could serve as a reminder of the tumultuous times they had survived. The idea appealed to Frank — “Just imagine if I were to publish a novel about the Secret Annexe. The title alone would make people think it was a detective story,” she wrote on March 29, 1944.
Thereafter, she began to carefully edit her diary, reworking bits and self-censoring portions that dealt largely with her differences with her mother, or with her sexuality and physical growth, and compiling a near-draft of her manuscript before the inmates of the Annexe were betrayed and arrested. Apart from her father Otto, none of the others survived the internment. In 1947, Otto published Anne’s diary. In 1952, an English translation was published by Doubleday.
In her diary, Frank’s precocity is matched by the depth of her reflections on an unusual range of themes — from an individual’s scope for fulfillment to notes on her sexuality, from gender relations to the complicity of the common man in larger political deceptions. On May 3, 1944, she wrote: “I don’t believe that war is simply the work of politicians and capitalists. Oh no, the common man is every bit as guilty; otherwise, people and nations would have rebelled long ago! There’s a destructive urge in people, the urge to rage, murder and kill.
And until all of humanity, without exception undergoes a metamorphosis, wars will continue to be waged, and everything that has been carefully built up, cultivated and grown will be cut down and destroyed, only to start all over again!” In today’s increasingly polarised world, to read Frank is to recognise history playing out in newer conflict zones.
On June 20, 1942, a few days after she started keeping the diary, Frank wrote: “Writing in a diary is a really strange experience for someone like me. Not only because I’ve never written anything before, but also because it seems to me that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl.” She couldn’t have been further off the mark. Frank’s diary offers a ringside view of not just the dangers of fascism and the human cost of war — the loss of lives, the stripping of dignity, the deep abyss of depravity — but also of all that cannot be subdued by war: hope, faith and the indomitable spirit of perseverance in the face of the worst of adversities.