Journaling in history

Famous Diary Writers: Anne Frank

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Anne Frank (real name Annelies Marie Frank) is probably our most famous diary writer to this day. Her edited diary, as published by her father Otto Frank, has been translated into more than 60 languages and over 30 million copies have been published. Imagine 30 million people or more reading your diary…

I remember reading Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl” as a teen, and how it felt so intimate, like nothing I’d ever read before. She was candid about her emerging sexuality, and she mused freely about her family members and the others she shared the annex with. I was fascinated by the voyeuristic nature of reading someone else’s thoughts and how, although we shared the common preoccupations of teen girls, the threat to Anne’s life and the severity of her situation still loomed overhead at all times.

Anne received her diary a few weeks before she and her family went into hiding in an annex in her father’s business workhouse in 1942. Her father took her to pick it out the day before giving it to her as a 13th birthday present, and she began writing in it on June 14, two days after receiving it.

Cover of the diary of Anne Frank
The famous diary.

Life in the annex

Anne spent two years and one month living in the annex. During this time she detailed life with her family and the other people living there: A family of three (among them a teenage boy she developed a confused relationship with), and a dentist. Mostly the monotony of life in such a small space was only broken by visits from Otto’s trusted colleagues, who were helping everyone stay hidden and survive, news from the outside world, or scares when it seemed they might be discovered. Around 9 AM they all had to stay silent as work began in the workhouse downstairs – the workers were unaware of the annex and those living there. All that stood between the annex and the workhouse was a movable bookcase.

Netherlands-4474 - 1942 Moveable Bookcase (12083797916)
The movable bookcase. It’s so strange to think how big of a role this bookcase played in eight people’s lives…

October 20th 1942, Anne wrote:

My hands still shaking, though it’s been two hours since we had the scare… The office staff stupidly forgot to warn us that the carpenter, or whatever he’s called, was coming to fill the extinguishers… After working for about fifteen minutes, he laid his hammer and some other tools on our bookcase (or so we thought!) and banged on our door. We turned white with fear. Had he heard something after all and did he now want to check out this mysterious looking bookcase? It seemed so, since he kept knocking, pulling, pushing and jerking on it. I was so scared I nearly fainted at the thought of this total stranger managing to discover our wonderful hiding place…

(Source)
Ana Frank escritura1
A sample of Anne’s handwriting.

In her wish for someone to “correspond with”, Anne made up a whole host of characters to address her letters to. Most famous of these is Kitty. Apparently Anne had a pre-war friend named Kitty, but it’s unclear whether she had anything to do with Anne’s diary Kitty. The accepted explanation seems to be that Kitty was inspired by a character of the same name from a book series Anne started reading before she went into hiding, and completed during her time in the annex. I remember when reading Anne’s diary I was thoroughly confused as to who was real or not – apparently I wasn’t alone.

Literary ambitions

Anne’s first diary was written in the red-and-black checkered notebook her father gave her for her birthday, as well as two school notebooks. However, in 1944 the (exiled) Dutch minister for Education, Art and Science made a call on the radio for people to preserve their diaries and other documents that could later illuminate the suffering that the Nazi occupation caused. Upon hearing this, Anne began rewriting her diary for public consumption.

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Anne with her diary.

I was really impressed by this – at 14 she created pseudonyms for everyone mentioned in her diary, edited out parts she thought would be boring to readers, and otherwise made all the edits she thought would make the diary more fit for reading. One has to wonder how far Anne Frank might have gone if history went differently. Her writing was extremely poignant for being so young:

July 8th 1942:

At three o’clock (Hello had left but was supposed to come back later), the doorbell rang. I didn’t hear it, since I was out on the balcony, lazily reading in the sun. A little while later Margot appeared in the kitchen doorway looking very agitated. “Father has received a call-up notice from the SS,” she whispered. “Mother has gone to see Mr. van Daan” (Mr. van Daan is Father’s business partner and a good friend.) I was stunned. A call-up: everyone knows what that means. Visions of concentration camps and lonely cells raced through my head. How could we let Father go to such a fate? “Of course he’s not going,” declared Margot as we waited for Mother in the living room. “Mother’s gone to Mr. van Daan to ask whether we can move to our hiding place tomorrow. The van Daans are going with us. There will be seven of us altogether.” Silence. We couldn’t speak. The thought of Father off visiting someone in the Jewish Hospital and completely unaware of what was happening, the long wait for Mother, the heat, the suspense – all this reduced us to silence.

(Source)

Her first diary is referred to as version A, and the rewritten version as version B. The version that was eventually published was a mix of both.

Anne’s father receives her diary

Only a few months from Anne’s rewriting the diary the annex was discovered, and the eight people living there were sent to concentration camps. Only Otto survived. Anne herself died from typhus in Bergen-Belsen in 1945, at 15 years old.

Anne is described as having a very lifelike imagination, and her father was reportedly surprised to learn about the inner workings of her mind upon receiving her diary. He was given it by a trusted family friend, Miep Gies, who retrieved it from the annex after the arrests and kept it safe in a desk drawer. After Anne’s death was confirmed, she gave it to Otto. His friends and family read excerpts and felt it was important to let the world read her words, which Otto, surely needing some time to grieve and process Anne’s fate, eventually agreed to.

Anne Frank Diary at Anne Frank Museum in Berlin-pages-92-93
Pages from Anne’s diary at the Anne Frank Museum in Berlin, courtesy of Heatheronhertravels.com

In 1947, five years after Anne initially received her diary, it was published as ‘The Secret Annex’. Her father wrote: ‘How proud Anne would have been if she had lived to see this. After all, on 29 March 1944, she wrote: “Imagine how interesting it would be if I published a novel about the Secret Annex.”‘ (Source)

Concluding thoughts

Imagine Anne, experiencing herself as a normal teenager and writing in her diary to reflect and entertain herself through a dangerous situation. Now she’s a household name and her diary is probably the most famous one ever written. It’s astounding to me that someone’s diary can have such a massive impact on the world. It goes to show that keeping our thoughts is important – if not for future generations or historical value, then for having a place of our own when we need it most.

Anne’s diary is an incredibly intimate look at one person’s life. For that alone it holds value, and maybe I found it so fascinating because it’s so normal despite its historical context – it’s a teenager’s musings on her life, the ordinary and extraordinary weaved together as naturally as I’ve ever seen.

It’s an important, standalone read, and one I’d recommend to anyone.

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