‘I don’t want to have lived in vain like most people. I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death! And that’s why I’m so grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and to express all that’s inside me!’
Sixty-five years after her death in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, the young Anne Frank’s reflection on her aspiration to become a celebrated writer is tragically poignant. Tens of millions of people have now read her diary, which she started keeping as a schoolgirl on her thirteenth birthday and continued throughout her time in hiding in Amsterdam during the Second World War.
The first, edited version of Frank’s diary was published in 1947 under the title The Diary of a Young Girl. In 1995, on the fiftieth anniversary of her death, a new version was published: The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition. This version is now the cause of controversy in the US, where it has emerged that a Virginia school district, which has 7,600 pupils, decided to stop assigning the diary to eighth-grade English students following a parent’s complaint that some of the sexual references in the book are inappropriate.
The definitive edition contains 30 per cent more material than the original one, including passages where Frank writes about her erotic feelings and expresses curiosity about sex and wonderment at the physicality of female genitalia:
‘There are little folds of skin all over the place, you can hardly find it. The little hole underneath is so terribly small that I simply can’t imagine how a man can get in there, let alone how a whole baby can get out!’
These most private and intimate thoughts of a teenager, along with some unflattering descriptions of her mother and other residents of ‘the secret annex’ where the Frank family hid, were originally excised by her father, Otto Frank. This was partly out of respect for the dead, and partly because of demands by the original publishers that the book be kept short.
Anne Frank herself edited, tweaked and redrafted her diary after hearing a radio broadcast from London, in which a minister of the Dutch government-in-exile urged his people to collect eyewitness accounts of the Nazi occupation. This gave Frank the idea of writing a book, which she provisionally titled The Secret Annex. At the same time, she kept up the original diary. These two versions are known as version A and version B, respectively. When Otto Frank decided to publish his daughter’s diary, he edited the two versions into a shorter book, version C, or The Diary of a Young Girl.
Today, Anne Frank’s diary, which is probably the most famous personal account of the Holocaust, has been translated into over 50 languages. There have been TV, cinema and theatre adaptations; it was even turned into a musical in Spain two years ago. It has become staple reading in schools across the world, and in Amsterdam tourists form constant ringlet-shaped queues outside the Franks’ hiding place, which has been turned into a museum. On the façade of the building there is plaque which reads, in Dutch, ‘Anne Frank Huis’, where visitors keenly pose for portraits.
Anne Frank has become the patron saint of the Holocaust – an ordinary, pure and innocent heroine. There’s no doubting, of course, that she was a victim of forces beyond her control. But in the context of the increasing tendency to teach schoolchildren, as well as the general public, about the Holocaust in an individualised and emotive manner, the life of Anne Frank has become the perfect snapshot story of an innocent victim from which we are meant to draw all sorts of moralistic lessons, not just about the Holocaust but also about life today. In this sense, she has become something other than just one of millions whose lives were destroyed by the Nazis. She has, in posterity, been turned into a symbol of all that is good and pure in the world and we are expected to draw numerous contemporary lessons from her diaries – about racism, anti-social behaviour, bullying, censorship, and so on.
The Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam, for instance, includes an exhibition called Free2Choose, which encourages visitors to reflect on issues concerning human rights and freedoms, and there are various international projects and exhibitions, aimed primarily at young people, that use the story of Anne Frank to teach lessons about today, even if the issues dealt with had little, if any, bearing on her life in 1940s Europe. The presumption here is that young people can learn from her diary how to be good people.
So it is not surprising that many have reacted angrily to the idea that young people, as suggested by the parent who felt that Anne Frank’s diary is not suitable for schoolchildren, should be shielded from her writing – because her diary is seen as essential to young people’s social and individual development.
It was in November last year that Culpeper County Public Schools in Virginia decided to stop assigning the definitive edition of The Diary of a Young Girl to its students, but this only came to light at the end of last week after a local paper reported it. After the parent complained, school officials decided to use the earlier, vagina reference-free version of the diary. According to a Washington Post report, Culpeper’s own ‘public complaint about learning resources’ policy, which requires complaints to be submitted in writing and for a review committee to research the materials and deliberate, was not followed in this instance.
It appears that school officials acted pre-emptively. Based on the complaint of just one parent, they thought it would be better to avoid arguments and debates and just give students the ‘less offensive’ version of the diary. This decision is deplorable, treating young people as being incapable of focusing on anything other than Anne Frank’s sporadic ruminations on sex and romance.
Yet if banning the full version of Frank’s diary is daft, then so is the elevation of the diary into a kind of guidebook for life for young people across the Western world. Frank’s diary has been turned into a morality tale, to be fitted into any mould necessary to teach people of all ages how to behave.
Of course, we can learn a lot from reading Frank’s diary and from studying the fate of the Frank family. But the endless attempts to suck every kind of moral fable from the diary in order to lecture young people around the world about how to become model citizens do little to help remember the historically-specific circumstances of Frank’s life, to encourage readers to appreciate the flair of her writing or the courage of the people who helped her.
For instance, if children are asked to draw parallels between bullying victims and Anne Frank, they are in effect being encouraged to regard Nazism as severe teasing and to view the Final Solution as an extreme social exclusion policy. This is not serving the purpose of preserving history or respecting the memory of the Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Instead, it is serving very specific, contemporary agendas and only helps to skew history.
It is true that although, as her writing elucidates, the circumstances around Frank’s death were thankfully historically specific, many of the themes she explored in her diary are universal and timeless: growing up, falling in love, relating to your family, dreaming about the future. It’s all the stuff of teenage life. Her writing is captivating, her story fascinating, and her fate tragic. It is neither surprising nor wrong that Frank’s diary – which references not just the horrors of the German occupation of the Netherlands and the travails of Jews in Europe, but also the coming-of-age of a perceptive and articulate young girl – has captured the imagination of millions of children and adults. But just as Frank should not – regardless of what version of her diary we read – be seen as morally compromising for teenagers, who might be encouraged to become vagina-inspecting, sexual beasts, it is equally bizarre to expect that reading her diary can turn young people into politically correct saints.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.