Otto Frank sifted through the documents – a chequered autograph book, an exercise book, a sheaf of loose papers. Their author, 15-year-old Anne Frank, had died of typhus in a German concentration camp a few months earlier, in spring 1945. Now Otto, her father, was reading words he had never imagined his daughter could write. As he read, he came to an unnerving conclusion: he had never really known her.
“I knew that Anne wrote a diary,” he said in a later interview. “But I must say I was very much surprised about the deep thoughts Anne had. It was quite a different Anne than I had known as my daughter. My conclusion is… that most parents don’t know, really, their children.”
Burdened with the responsibility of stewardship for his daughter’s words, Otto Frank would spend the rest of his life overseeing the publication and dissemination of Anne Frank’s diary. Along the way, though, his editorial decisions would inadvertently cover up the unsuspected depths he had discovered inside.
By the time the Frank family was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944, they had been in hiding in Amsterdam for two years. Anne and her sister, Margot, and their parents, Edith and Otto Frank, sought refuge on Prinsengracht 263 with Hermann van Pels, a business associate of Otto’s, along with his wife, Auguste, and their son, Peter. Fritz Pfeffer, a family friend, completed the group.
Their hiding place was the back portion of the building where Otto’s business still ran. Only a small group of Otto’s colleagues had any idea the building was also a sanctuary. The cadre of devoted workers risked their lives to provide Otto and his family with food and moral support.
On 4 August 1944, their luck ran out. Though the identity of their betrayer has never been discovered, someone reported their existence to the Gestapo. During their arrest, the police ransacked their living quarters, taking everything of value. But they left behind a treasure, strewn in pieces along the floor: Anne’s diary.
Miep Gies and Bep Voskuijl, two of Otto’s employees, gathered up the papers and stored them in a locked drawer. They planned to give them to Anne when she returned.
She never did. Less than a year later, the 15-year-old died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Otto was the only survivor of the eight who had been in hiding. After Otto received news of his daughter’s death, Gies gave him the diary. Initially refusing to read them, he finally dove in.
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Did Anne’s father edit her diary?
He couldn’t stop reading. Anne’s words were a revelation to Otto. He began sharing translated portions of the diary with his mother, then telling others. Eventually, persuaded by a historian and a friend who convinced him the diary was a significant document, he agreed to seek publication.
But the manuscript that Otto Frank pitched to Dutch editors didn’t contain his daughter’s entire diary. Anne herself had begun editing large swathes of her diary with publication in mind after hearing a radio broadcast that called on Dutch people to preserve diaries and other war documents. Otto respected some of those editorial decisions, but overlooked others – for example, he included material about Anne’s crush on annexe dweller Peter van Pels.
Otto made his own cuts, too: he removed passages in which Anne was critical of her parents’ marriage, and expurgated sections about sexuality and her often brutal comments about friends, family members and acquaintances. In an early passage from the diary that Otto eliminated completely from the first editions, Anne describes her classmates as everything from “a detestable, sneaky, stuck-up, two-faced gossip” to “pretty boring.”
The cuts made the book short enough for publication, but publishers were reluctant to release books about the Second World War for fear of alienating war-weary customers. Eventually, though, Otto found a publisher. Het Achterhuis (“The House Behind”) was published in 1947. It was an immediate success in Europe.
But English-language readers almost missed their chance to read the book. The French-language translation languished in a pile of rejected books at Doubleday in New York until editor Judith Jones chanced upon it. She encouraged her boss to acquire it and – with an English translation by Barbara Mooyaart-Doubleday, a cover that featured Anne’s photograph, and a foreword by former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt – Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl was published in English in 1952.
It was an instant success, gaining worldwide fame and soaring to immediate symbolism. It was especially revered for its impact among young readers. “As seen through Anne’s eyes,” wrote Mary Lane for The English Journal in 1956, “the evils of discrimination have made a terrific impact on these young people’s minds.” At the time, the events Anne recounted were so recent that Lane was able to write to Otto Frank and even visit Miep Gies in Amsterdam. But though readers like Lane said the book helped them see adolescents in a new light, they had no idea how much material Otto and his publishers had suppressed.
Hoax, fraud or forgery?
Meanwhile, the world wrangled over the Holocaust. As Anne’s diary garnered more and more readers and international fame, it became the target of deniers who argued it was a fraud or forgery. The very writing that had endeared Anne to generations of readers convinced some that the book had been written by an adult; others questioned the day-to-day accounts of life in the hideaway. Otto Frank sued some deniers, but they continued to publicise unfounded theories that he co-authored or even wrote the entire diary himself.
Holocaust deniers, misinterpreting the results of libel and defamation lawsuits, published books and pamphlets claiming the diary was a hoax. In response to this speculation, the Netherlands Forensic Institute undertook an exhaustive forensic analysis of the diary in the early 1980s that proved the book had been written by Anne. Graphologists and others have reiterated those findings during a variety of analyses over the past six decades.
Those forensic findings were published in 1989 along with new material in a comprehensive critical edition of the diary. The book also contained a tantalising reference to additional material that had been excluded at the Frank family’s request. A decade later, that material screamed into the public consciousness when the contents of the five “suppressed pages” became public.
Otto Frank, who died in 1980, had given Cor Suijk, a former employee of the Anne Frank House, five additional pages of the diary for safekeeping. Suijk had let biographer Melissa Müller read the pages, and she included them in her 1998 book Anne Frank: The Biography. But before the book was published, the Anne Frank Fonds [a charitable foundation founded by Otto] in Switzerland sued Muller to prevent the pages from seeing the light of day. She was forced to paraphrase the pages in her book, and the original pages were only published in 2003 after Suijk gave them to the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation in exchange for a $300,000 donation to Suijk’s foundation.
Sexual anatomy and dirty jokes
A glimpse at the five original pages explained Otto’s reluctance to publish them: they deal with Anne’s impressions of her parents’ marriage, which she characterised as “tepid”. And tiny fragments of new material continue to come to light: in 1995, an expanded version of the diary included Anne’s description of her own genitalia. And in 2016, conservators photographing the diary for preservation purposes realised that brown paper inside the diary was actually pasted over two pages of dirty jokes and information on sex education.
Revelations that Anne Frank wrote about sexual anatomy, masturbation, menstruation, same-sex attraction and scatology [the study of faeces] complicate readers’ image of the teenage author, who spent two formative years in hiding and whose journey to adulthood was cut tragically short. (They have also fuelled censorship attempts, as when a Michigan mother petitioned for the book’s removal from a seventh-grade classroom, and when a Virginia school district began assigning a version of the book that did not include the passage about Anne’s genitalia.)
A legacy misunderstood?
But perhaps more insidious are the ways in which readers have misinterpreted Anne Frank’s legacy over time. The most well-known quote from her book: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart,” has been upheld as evidence of hope for humanity despite the horrors of the Holocaust. But Anne actually penned the words at the end of a long, introspective entry in which she examines loneliness, fear and the increasing terror of war.
“It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death,” she wrote in the same entry. “I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions.”
Twenty days after she penned her most famous words, Anne and her family were arrested. She spent the rest of her brief life on the move, transported between concentration and death camps in Europe and separated from her mother, her father, and friends. She died less than a year later, in circumstances that prove the prescience of her observations about suffering and persecution.
Today, Anne Frank is arguably the Holocaust’s most famous victim, but her fame risks overshadowing the up to 1.5 million Jewish children thought to have been murdered during the genocide. Ironically, those who would uphold her as a martyr needn’t look farther than her own diary for proof of how ill-suited she was for the role. Her words – censored or restored – portray a changeable, sly, flawed, curious, restless youth, one who would have denied she stood for all.
Anne Frank’s real diary challenges the sainted image attributed to her by those who would have her symbolise all of those murdered and uprooted by hatred, even as they force readers to acknowledge the depth and nuance of the children in their lives. As she wrote in one of her last entries in 1944, “I haven’t got the reputation of being a ‘little bundle of contradictions’ for nothing!”
Erin Blakemore is a journalist based in the US and the author of The Heroine’s Bookshelf (Harper, 2010). Find out more at erinblakemore.com