Names are essential in remembering the Shoah (better known as the Holocaust). Most Holocaust memorials include names, when names are known, because names help to replace inhumanity with the identities of real men, women and children. Anne Frank gave us not only a name, but a mind, a heart, a dream and a life of one among the millions. I read her diary first as a child. After visiting Auschwitz, Yad Vashem and other memorials later in my life, her words and spirit have only grown in power.
In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.
How could a teenage girl be the voice that expressed a horror beyond words and at the same time brought a brilliantly simple articulation of hope to so many in despair? Anne Frank died in the bloodiest conflict in the history of our planet. Yet she also wrote words that brought to light a humanizing ideal that shines brightly out of that dark time.
Anne was born into a Jewish family living in Germany. As anti-Semitism rose with the growth of Hitler’s Nazi party, Otto and Edith Frank moved their family to the Netherlands in 1933. Life there was safe until war broke out. In May of 1940, Germany quickly invaded and conquered the Netherlands, and almost immediately, the anti-Semitic laws of the Nazis were put into place.
June 12, 1942, was Anne’s 13th birthday. One gift was a diary, and she immediately began to write in it. “I hope I will be able to confide everything to you,” she wrote, “and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.”
Less than a month later, the Nazis issued a call for Jews to report and be sent to work camps. The Frank family had prepared a hiding place in the back of a building owned by Otto Frank’s company.
They prepared a room for two families and quickly moved in to avoid the Nazi call-up. Anne confided in her diary, “My happy-go-lucky, carefree school days are gone forever.” Employees of Otto Frank kept the hidden families supplied with food, clothing and books. Living in the cramped quarters, which they called the Secret Annex, put a great strain on everyone. They had to stay quiet during the day because work continued in the factory below. For Anne, her diary was her only safe outlet as she wrote about the tensions, the quarrels and the cursing which particularly bothered her.
Those in the Secret Annex knew about the extermination of Jews taking place through their daily interaction with those helping them. Anne wrote about the “dismal and depressing news” of friends being deported to the east in cattle cars. In 1944 they suspected the tides of war were turning. Anne wrote, “Where there’s hope, there’s life. It fills us with fresh courage and makes us strong again.”
The news of the Allied landings at Normandy sparked excitement, but on August 4, 1944, a Nazi SS officer and Dutch police raided the Secret Annex. The eight people in hiding and some of their helpers were all arrested. Two helpers avoided arrest. Luckily, they found Anne’s diary on the floor and rescued it.
The Jews were taken to Westerbrok transit camp, while the helpers were sent to prison. After a few weeks in Westerbrok, Anne and her family and friends were packed into cattle cars (70 to a car), and taken on a three-day trip that ended at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The men and women were separated. Anne and her sister Margot were eventually shipped to Bergen-Belsen where they succumbed to typhus in March, 1945, just weeks before the camp was liberated by the British Army. Of the eight Jews in the hiding place only Otto Frank survived; all four of those who helped them survived the war.
Miep Gies, the helper who had picked up Anne’s diary, returned it to Otto after he made his way back to Amsterdam. It took Otto a while before he could read the diary of his dead daughter. He was surprised by the wonderful depth of feeling she showed—something she had never shared with her family. Because Anne talked in the diary about publishing a book about her experiences in the Secret Annex, Otto decided he would honor his daughter’s dream.
The Diary of Anne Frank was first published in 1947 and later translated into many languages, becoming one of the definitive works on the Shoah. A stage play was adapted from the diary. Some citizens of Amsterdam restored the dilapidated building where the Franks had hidden, turning it into the Anne Frank House. Late in his life Otto Frank said, “The task I received from Anne continues to restore my energy: to struggle for reconciliation and human rights throughout the world.” As young people wrote to him about Anne’s diary before his own death in 1980, Otto Frank urged them to work for unity and peace.
Anne’s own voice challenges people to this day to work toward peace and justice. She believed in the goodness of people, in spite of the most stunning evidence to the contrary.
Anne wrote, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” Our response is part of her enduring legacy.