The following is based on a talk given at the opening of the exhibition “Anne Frank in the World: 1929–1945” at the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts in April.*
I must begin by making a confession. In 1957, the American couple Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who adapted The Diary of Anne Frank into a successful play, established the Anne Frank Prize, intended for young writers in the Netherlands. The prize no longer exists, but I was the first to receive it. And yet I had not yet read her book at the time. Even more shameful is the admission that when almost thirty years later I was invited to open an exhibition dedicated to Anne Frank, at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, I still had not read the book. This is partly owing to a professional idiosyncracy on my part. I only read what is more or less directly related to what I am writing at the time and is therefore of use to me. Reading is, for me, a part of writing and not an end in itself, as it is for legitimate readers. But there may be yet another cause for this omission of mine, namely Anne Frank’s place in Dutch literature which is, actually, nonexistent. Her book has been translated into fifty-one languages and about sixteen million copies of it have been sold. If one asks anyone in the world at large if he knows the name of a Dutch writer the answer will be “Anne Frank.” But in our own literary annals, any second-or third-rate novelist, wholly unknown abroad and hardly known at home, receives more notice than Anne Frank.
I am not going to insist that this is a scandal that should be corrected, but I would like to understand the reason for it. The number of her readers and translations is not significant in itself, of course. There are literary, and especially poetic, masterpieces that are admired by only a few thousand people in the world, while books that one reads sitting by the swimming pool also sell in the millions but are not, and rightly so, remembered at all. But Anne Frank’s book is not one of these; on the contrary, I would say. It is read throughout the world; it is not trivial, but is nevertheless not considered to be literature. Why is this? Could it be that a third category exists?
It has, first of all, something to do with reality, and with death. We know that everything we read in her book is true, and at the same time we are continuously aware of the fact that the writer will seal the written word with her death. The total isolation of the secret annex of which the windows and curtains are never allowed to be opened is reminiscent of a stage on which the relationship between the eight characters keep growing with increasing intensity, the girl being both one of the actors and the author. In this high-pressure atmosphere, her own development too accelerates; she grows from girl into woman and one witnesses her increasing astuteness in her analysis of self as well as others; her voice becomes purer, her fore-bodings of the approaching end become more ominously defined. In Sartre’s No Exit the action goes on indefinitely because everyone is already dead, but here we know that the murderers will be arriving three days after her last sentence. This last sentence is probably the longest in the book, as if she were unable to part from it:
Oh, I would like to listen, but it doesn’t work; if I’m quiet and serious, everyone thinks it’s a new comedy and then I have to get out of it by turning it into a joke, not to mention my own family, who are sure to think I’m ill, make me swallow pills for headaches and nerves, feel my neck and my head to see whether I’m running a temperature, ask if I’m constipated and criticize me for being in a bad mood. I can’t keep that up: if I’m watched to that extent that I start by getting snappy, then unhappy, and finally I twist my heart around again, so that the bad is one the outside and the good is on the inside and keep on trying to find a way of becoming what I would so like to be, and what I could be, if…there weren’t any other people living in the world.
From a purely technical point of view the theatrical finality is, of course, ideal for a writer of diaries: the classical unities of place and action are here dictated by circumstance. And yet this too is still in the realm of truth and reality, as is the final catastrophe, which is never shown but always pending. But the aim of literature is not truth about the world. The truth always implies a lack of freedom: things are as they are. Yet in literature things also are what they are not.
Take one of the greatest masterpieces of all time: Don Quixote. There is not a word of truth in the whole book. The man didn’t even exist. This fictional character has, furthermore, been created by his own reading of chivalrous novels, and he wants to make what he has read come true in his own life. But the outcome of this triple fiction is a new kind of truth: not the truth of the world, but the truth of the reader. This is what makes it literature. Literature does not teach us about life in general, but about ourselves. Don Quixote is not out there, in the world, but here: I am Don Quixote. I am Hamlet. I am Anna Karenina.
Am I also Anne Frank? No, I am not. Her book, which I have since read, affected me for several days with a devastating emotion that even made me sob at times, mixed with a strong dose of murderous hate. But this has to do with reality, not with art. She has remained precisely one murdered girl who longed so much to live and become a writer. That is what makes her book so effective. If she were still alive she would now be my colleague and two years my junior. She would then undoubtedly have written a novel about her years in hiding and used her diary as raw material; but these diaries would then have remained unpublished whereas the novel would have had only a tiny fraction of their power. In short, we would then not have gathered in Berlin where the murders were once planned.
Has she left us then no more than a human document? Was she then no more than a kind of intelligent journalist, recording her own experience and thoughts? This too is not quite the case either. A journalist gives a truthful account of something that has happened, whereas in literature the actual happening takes place during the act of writing, and for the reader during the act of reading. As it is not for the journalist, writing is a necessity to the writer. And this literary aspect of The Diary of a Young Girl (the actual experience of writing and reading) derives from the circumstance that it is not simply a diary. She abandons the vague, fragmentary, suspended character intrinsic to diary writing after the first week and changes it into imaginary letters to “Kitty.” This friend Kitty, she says, is first of all her own diary. But of course this person she addresses has, inversely, an influence on the writing, which would have been quite different if the person addressed had been called Magdalena or Frederik. We too describe events of some complexity differently if addressing a girl friend or a boy friend. The event in itself, an sich as I might say in German, does not exist at all; yet what comes closest to it is the journalistic impersonality of the diary.
Just as Anne Frank immediately came to personify millions of others, so the Kitty she addresses too has taken on the identity of millions. The artistic device of the letter, the Aristotelian unities inherent in the situation, and the very real catastrophe that occurs after the writing of the final sentence, all contribute to the devastating effect of the book. The work by this child is not simply not a work of art, but in a certain sense it is a work of art made by life itself: it is a found object. It was after all literally found among the debris on the floor after the eight characters departed. Her father had put the notebooks in his briefcase to take them along on their final voyage, but an employee of the Grüne Polizei held the briefcase upside down to steal the money and jewels it contained. If his daughter noticed this, she might have left the notebooks there on purpose.
Would it be embarrassing if I too came to the conclusion that The Diary of a Young Girl does not really belong in a literary category? I think the opposite is true, for who would profit the most from classifying this book as belles-lettres, so situating it in a world of free choice? The neo-Nazis. For that is, after all, what they have been claiming all along: that Anne Frank is a literary creation, just like Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary, but a literary creation that falsely passes for the truth. According to them, Anne Frank is just as fictitious as her Kitty; just another Jewish contribution to the “Auschwitz Lie.”
The first time that the authenticity of The Diary of a Young Girl was disputed was in 1957, in Norway; in 1959 the first lawsuit took place in Frankfurt, the city of Anne Frank’s birth, and this sort of thing is still going on in a great many countries. The antifascist effect of this book is being disputed with the most ridiculous arguments and circumlocutions in all manner of ways by rightist radicals. All those accusations and law-suits…just imagine their effect on the father who saw his murdered daughter writing night after night in her notebooks. In 1980, when the Federal Bureau of Criminal Investigation in Wiesbaden discovered that corrections had been made with a ball point pen—an instrument that was not available in Europe until after the war—the government Institute for War Documentation in Holland decided to commission a thoroughly scientific analysis of the manuscripts.
This has meanwhile taken place; the result will be published as part of a historical analysis of The Diary of a Young Girl. This definitive book will consist of articles about the origins and destiny of the Frank family, their betrayal, and the history of the diary. Of the latter, all three existing texts will be published. The first two are by Anne Frank in person. She began to recopy her original version after Radio London made an announcement urging people to keep careful track of their diaries which could then be used as documentation in writing the history of the war; she was however unable to complete this. Her father used these two texts to make a selection; this is the text that we are familiar with today. The final section of the book will be a report of the analysis made by the judicial laboratory of the ink, paper, glue, handwriting, etc.
I was of course very interested in the results of all this before coming of Berlin. I hadn’t forgotten Hitler’s diaries, or our own Van Meegeren. Imagine if we had indeed had a case of fraud here, no matter how slim the chance; it would have been a political disaster. It was therefore imperative that I know the results. I tried to get access to the report, but it was kept secret from me, which of course made me suspicious. One learns to tread carefully in life. I had illegal access to a secret document once before. It was in 1961 in Jerusalem; ironically it was the memoirs of Adolf Eichmann, written at the request of the Israeli police—Adolf Eichmann, the very man who in 1944 organized the last transport of Dutch Jews to Auschwitz, Anne Frank being one of them.
I regret to have to assure the Nazis that the book is authentic. The notorious ball point pen was not used in the text itself but only on two separate pieces of paper concerning the editing of the book. In the text there are only some corrections of mistakes in grammar and spelling, all in Otto Frank’s handwriting. (He also omitted some brief passages having to do with sexual matters and with Anne Frank’s dislike of her mother, and these appear in the new edition.) One musn’t forget that Anneliese Frank came to Holland when she was four and that her first language was, therefore, German, and that all around her in the secret annex a kind of Germanic Dutch language was being spoken. This was why, instead of the Dutch sentence structure, “I have him learned to know,” she wrote, “I have him to know learned,” which comes from the German, “Ich habe ihn kennengelernt.” This was corrected by her father after the war. Otto Frank, himself of German origin, did not catch several of these Germanisms. The report might have mentioned that the very fact of these Germanic expressions was a proof of authenticity.
And so a powerful weapon against fascism has, fortunately, been preserved. I try to envision Kitty, those notebooks, scribbled at a rickety table, by a girl about to become a woman and looking forward to life, but forced to hide because she is doomed to be murdered and will be—in that hopeless, menacing stillness of the war. Then suddenly those same notebooks are in a laboratory where police experts in white lab coats test samples of ink and paper, because those who admire the murderers insist that none of this was authentic. And why shouldn’t it be? Is it not just because of the murders they committed that the murderers are admired by them? No neo-Nazi really questions whether it all happened. But as a neo-Nazi, or perhaps I should say antiquo-Nazi, one must act in bad faith; if any one of that group should really doubt the mass murders, he would immediately be expelled from their midst for desecration of their idols.
The fact that it happened is the most persuasive deterrent for its ever happening again, just as the atom bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki have probably prevented the Third World War until now. We must continue to speak of the deaths of those millions of innocents till the end of time, not only to commemorate them but to prevent the death of any further innocents. There is no better instrument for this than Auschwitz. And how about all those who keep complaining that it is time to stop talking about that war, because it happened forty years ago? They are the ones to keep an eye on. For first of all, that war did not happen all of forty years ago but only forty years ago. And besides, there was hardly any connection between the liquidation of the Jews and the war. The Second World War could have managed perfectly well without the Jewish Holocaust. The Holocaust was not an act of war, but something of a much darker nature—a slaughter that was made possible by the chaotic circumstances of war but was not necessarily a part of it. Except in Russia, people in Western Europe have mostly stopped talking about that war. Who here still mentions the invasion, or the Battle of the Bulge? No, we speak about Auschwitz and Treblinka and Maidanek, not battlefields but places for which there are no other names than Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek. We can learn nothing about Auschwitz by calling it hell, but should one want to find out about hell, then Auschwitz is the place to study.
So, having finally read The Diary of a Young Girl, I also went to visit the house on the Prinsengracht where she was in hiding. Though I live in Amsterdam I had never been there before. It was a chilly Thursday afternoon out of season, but already from a distance I could tell the address because dozens of young people from all over the world, the US, Japan, and also Germany were, with almost tangible youthful solidarity, photographing the gable of this spot where it had actually happened, not in literature but in reality. And yet, in a third sense the Diary is literature—at least in the same sense as the work of someone like Solzhenitsyn is. Inside, on the steep staircase, in the narrow rooms where everything took place, it was as crowded as in a warehouse. Through a window I could see the back of the house where, at a mere fifty feet away, Descartes for several years found a safe refuge. No one else was aware of this and there were no tourists visiting that spot.
In the girl’s room hung pictures of film stars, but also reproductions of Leonardo da Vinci, as well as one of Heinz Rühmann. Where else does one find such a collection hanging on the wall? Heinz Rühmann—a star of the German UFA, a protégé of Goebbels. Anne was after all of German origin. But my own Jewish mother’s family also came from Frankfurt, and they too died in the gas chambers—not my mother herself, but her mother and her mother’s mother, aged eighty-five.
The most unbearable detail in that hiding place is a series of horizontal pencil marks on the wallpaper, in a corner, covered with glass, showing how much Anne Frank and her sister grew during those two years. My own great-grand-mother in the meantime kept shrinking.
What, after all, was the meaning of all this? The more I find out, the less I understand it.
—translated by Claire Nicolas White
July 17, 1986
The exhibition, now traveling throughout the US under the sponsorship of the Friends of Anne Frank, is in Los Angeles until August 17. ↩