Seventy-five years ago this month, Anne Frank began a diary, reflecting: “Writing in a diary is a really strange experience for someone like me. Not only because I’ve never written anything before, but also because it seems to me that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a thirteen-year old girl.” Since her diary was published, it has sold over thirty million copies and been translated into almost seventy languages. No other teenager—perhaps no adult—has influenced Holocaust studies as much as she has.
What makes Frank’s diary so memorable is the depth of its honesty and humanity during a time of unimaginable evil. When Anne began her diary, her family was living in Amsterdam, after her father, Otto, had moved the family there from Germany, following the Nazi takeover of 1933. For almost a decade, life in Amsterdam was relatively serene for the Franks—Otto and his wife Edith, Anne and her sister Margot. Things changed dramatically when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. As Frank wrote in her diary: “After May, 1940 the good times were few and far between: first there was the War, then the capitulation and then the arrival of the Germans, which is when the trouble started for the Jews.”
As they had in Germany, and now in other Nazi-occupied lands, Jews in the Netherlands came under fierce attack, and Anne’s family soon became targets. Just weeks after she began her diary, Anne’s sister was summoned to a Nazi work camp. But the Franks defied this order and went into hiding, taking refuge in an attic apartment—a “secret annex”—concealed behind Otto’s business office in Amsterdam. There Anne and her family lived for the next two years, along with four other endangered Jewish friends, aided by a small group of Otto’s employees, who provided food and information from the outside world. Everyone, survivor and protector alike, knew that their situation was perilous, and that discovery of their secret would mean dire consequences.
During this time, from 1942-1944, Anne wrote the bulk of her diary. She wrote about the day-to-day trials of her family and friends, and made it a point to describe their moments of tenderness and joy. She could be serious as well as humorous, and frequently expressed her hopes and ideals, as a way of resisting the evil she knew was rising outside the annex: “I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.”
But there were times when her confinement became too much, and Anne was tempted by despair. “I’ve reached the point where I hardly care whether I live or die,” she confessed, in February of 1944. But the act of writing became a source of strength, allowing her to overcome these terrible moments, for “when I write, I can shake off all my cares.”
Anne was uplifted when she heard a 1944 radio broadcast from a Dutch resistance leader, encouraging those who were suffering to preserve their letters and diaries, so that posterity would have a record of everything the Nazis had done to them. So Anne resolved to turn her diary into a book after the War, and began revising and improving it for future publication.
But Anne’s dreams of becoming a published author in a liberated Europe appeared shattered that August, when Nazi officials stormed the secret annex and seized its occupants. To this day, no one knows how the Nazis learned of the hiding place, but the tragic result was that Anne, her family, and their four friends were all deported to concentration camps, where seven of them died. Only Otto Frank survived the War, and because he had been separated from his wife and daughters during the ordeal, he did not learn of their deaths immediately. When he finally did, he was grief-stricken, but resolved to rebuild his life, especially in light of an unexpected gift.
While he was in captivity, Miep Gies, his Catholic secretary—who had risked her life protecting everyone in the secret annex, and was honored by the state of Israel for doing so—gave Otto a copy of Anne’s diary, which Miep had recovered after the Nazis had arrested the Franks—leaving behind the scattered pages from Anne’s diary, apparently thinking them unimportant. For the next two years, Otto meticulously reconstructed the diary and finally had it published, first in Dutch, then in English and other languages, to worldwide acclaim.
Among the millions of people moved by Frank’s diary was a young man, John Neiman, who had just become a Catholic, and who would eventually become a Catholic priest. Neiman wrote to Otto, describing the impact Anne’s diary had upon him. Otto was extremely gracious, but indicated he would not be able to keep up a correspondence, since he already received so much mail. Neiman told him, “That’s all right; I’ll continue to write, but please don’t worry about answering me.” Something must have affected Otto in those letters, because after a short time, Otto did continue the correspondence, and the two became great friends until Otto’s death in 1980. By that time, Neiman had also befriended Miep Gies and her husband, who traveled from Europe to attend his ordination. Since then, Father Neiman, who serves the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, has become an authority on the life and legacy of Anne Frank, giving free lectures about her witness.
In a recent interview, Father Neiman told me what Otto had said to him early in their friendship: “It’s wonderful that you’ve taken such an interest in my family’s story, but if you really want to honor Anne, do what she wanted from everyone: ‘Live your life doing good for other people.’” Those words reaffirmed Father Neiman’s decision to become a priest.
Father Neiman also told me how impressed Otto was by his daughter’s unshakable faith in God, which he was not fully aware of until he read her diary. This aspect of her book is often downplayed, as when commentators celebrate her literary immortality by citing her prophetic line, “I want to go on living even after my death!”—without mentioning the sentence that immediately follows. “And that’s why I am so grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and express all that’s inside me!”
Anne Frank knew, as Father Neiman emphasized, what could happen to her and her family, but that didn’t prevent her from writing in her diary: “God has not forsaken me, and he never will”; and “It’s God who has made us the way we are, but it’s also God who will lift us up again.”
It’s that kind of faith and courage, with death bearing down on her, which has inspired so many people to embrace Anne Frank’s enduring testament, and even let it transform their lives.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine.