I first read The Diary of Anne Frank when I was around 10 or 11 years old. Although I was aware by that age that Anne’s diary held extraordinary significance, I was unable to fully appreciate the gravity of her story, and so I decided to return to Anne’s diary again recently. Before I share my thoughts on Anne’s story, I think a short disclaimer is necessary: I don’t pretend to be an expert on Anne Frank’s life or on the political context which defined her experiences. My approach is informed only by my curiosity as a reader.
Knowing how Anne’s story ends, it’s impossible to start reading her diary without feeling a sense of trepidation. It would be slightly easier to embark on a story which ultimately leads to the horrors of the concentration camps if it was possible to remain detached, but I’d challenge anyone not to grow attached to Anne’s voice. She shows a natural capacity for writing, and her penmanship captures the heart of the reader from the outset. I’m convinced that even if the historical context which shaped and abruptly ended Anne’s life were to be removed, her diary would persist as a great literary document, simply on the basis of the quality of her writing itself. It’s incredible to consider that Anne was only 13 years old when she received her diary as a birthday present: ‘The first to greet me was you, possibly the nicest of all.’
Reading Anne Frank’s diary reminded me of John Green’s discussion of Escape from Camp 14, which details the escape of Shin Dong-hyuk from a concentration camp in North Korea. John Green made the perceptive point that we have a tendency to expect those caught up in the worst instances of human cruelty to be somehow super-human, and for their struggles to prove the enduring strength of the human spirit. Shin Dong-hyuk undermines this expectation: his experiences in the camp eroded his humanity, and his escape was driven by hunger, not by an inviolable human desire for freedom. This tension between our expectations of figures like Dong-hyuk and their own natures is fascinating when applied to Anne Frank’s diary. She has been elevated to an almost saint-like status, and not unjustly so, but viewing her solely in this light undermines, I think, the very qualities which make her story so incredible. Anne is a normal, foible, adolescent girl, who feels bored and depressed and fearful for her future, who misses her school friends and harbours a crush on fellow Annex-dweller Peter. Anne’s everyday problems are continually overshadowed by news of deaths and disappearances in the outside world, and she herself is torn between feeling fortunate at her escape and tortuously bored by her enforced captivity.
The Diary of Anne Frank is, of course, a devastatingly tragic story. I still can’t quite comprehend the horror of the Holocaust in its entirety. After spending 200+ pages in Anne’s company, it’s impossible to close the book with dry eyes. Her allusions throughout the diary to a time after the war, when she envisions herself, for example, becoming a professional writer and raising a family of her own, make for frequent moments of sharp and powerful grief. Since the publication of her diary in 1947, Anne’s story has created an awe-inspiring legacy. So as long as people keep discovering and reading her diary, the tragic end to Anne’s life will always be followed by a hopeful epilogue.