The Diary of a Young Girl is part of the literary canon reserved for the educational establishment. Generation after generation of students read through the diary, reading it as a voice of optimism in the midst of one of the darkest hours in all of human history. It is common to look upon this diary as a fountain of positive energy daring to exist in spite of the menace of the Nazi machine.
While there are elements of the book that are powerful, and while the book would not have been composed if the Holocaust had not taken place, it is problematic to define this book as a Holocaust work, at least in the terms in which it is commonly marketed. Instead, it is more appropriate to look it as a fragment, a look into the mind of one young woman who had the vast majority of her life taken from her. However, that look should not be conflated into a story, because we do not see Anne Frank in the diary after her arrest; we do not encounter her time in the camps through her diary; we do not come to the end of her days in her diary, as we do (in contrast) with Elie Wiesel’s father, who vanishes from a bunkroom on one dark night, having succumbed to dysentery.
It is true that Frank wrote about her observations as showing the “comical side of life in hiding” (Frank 241). However, the comedy that emerges from her writing is of the darkest sort. There are all sorts of writing at work here, except for the motivation it is touted to contain.
What does the diary tell us? There are moments of deep suspense, as one might expect when two families consisting of eight people are hiding in plain sight in a Netherlands teetering under the weight of its Nazi neighbor. However, much of the diary has very little to do with the menace of the Third Reich: at times, Anne writes about her own sexual curiosity, natural for someone of her age; there are moments when she shows idealistic tendencies to go along with her darker moments. She shows fear, joy, infatuation and desperation. There are nights when the bombing excursions overhead make her sanctuary shake with the impact of the ordnance. The fact that the families have to leave the toilet unflushed for ten hours on end, after eight people have used it, provides a most vivid image, although the smell lingering from the meal of spoiled potatoes and boiled lettuce might be just as rank.
With that said, the commercialized version of the diary is not the one that one sees when one picks up the book. The death of Anne Frank turns out to have been somewhat ironic; at the point when she finally passed away, the Third Reich was collapsing, as the Russians were heading toward Auschwitz. Anne went to Bergen-Belsen as the Nazis were trying to destroy all evidence of their Final Solution at Auschwitz before the Russians could expose their plot. It was not a gas chamber or a death squad that took the life of Anne Frank; it was a typhus epidemic. This sort of outrage was also part and parcel of warehousing so many people so close together and with such little attention to matters of basic hygiene, but Anne Frank was not picked out for selection, she was not tricked into the “showers” that marked the end for so many, and she did not swing from a Nazi rope.
There was never a way out of this situation for Anne Frank. This is what makes attempts to turn the book into some sort of empowering document ring so hollowly. How can a fragmentary memoir of a young woman who had no chance to survive turn into a motivational text? If anything, it serves as a paean to the utter absurdity of both that part of history and our own part, several decades down the timeline, in an eerie place where we have Holocaust survivors in our midst but also have Holocaust deniers as well, a bizarre version of the Einsteinian paradox in which a person would not continue to exist if he encountered a different version of himself as a result of time travel.
When we turn the story of Anne Frank into a cute memoir of a brave girl hiding inside a wall, we take the story of Nazi Germany and we turn it into a sort of Nancy Drew mystery. If we are willing to look at the story as the musings of a young woman who saw nothing good ahead of herself but, even so, still had the natural thoughts of a young teenager. She notes that “[i]n the evenings when it’s dark, [she would] often see long lines of good, innocent people accompanied by crying children, walking on and on, ordered about by a handful of men who bully and beat them until they nearly drop. No one is spared. The sick, the elderly, children, babies, and pregnant women – all are marched to their death” (Frank). There is nothing cute in this representation; there is nothing motivational. Instead, there is just representation.
Representation of what, you might ask? The bleak reality of the Nazi regime was that there was no way out as long as Hitler remained in control. The grotesque fetish known as the Final Solution has its analogue in the yellow stars of David that appeared in the aftermath of the inauguration of Donald J. Trump and in the global refusal to deal with the atrocities that Bashar el-Assad has carried out in Syria. Every time we turn a story like that of Anne Frank into kitsch, we ignore the lesson that that story would actually teach us.