by Zoe Waxman, Author, Anne Frank’s Life, Diary and Celebrity Re-examined
IN HONOUR of the 80th birthday of Anne Frank, the British Anne Frank Trust – an organisation which does valuable work tackling bigotry, prejudice and anti-Semitism in contemporary Britain – commissioned a pictorial representation of what she might have looked like at that age. The photograph which resulted shows a rather beautiful woman, displaying the type of gentle wisdom and grace we like to think comes with passing years and experience.
The trouble with the photograph, which deploys the same techniques used to age people artificially who have gone missing, is that it bears little relation to what we actually know of the short, sad life of a girl who died of typhus and starvation at just 15 years old in Bergen–Belsen.
We cannot know whether Anne Frank would have fulfilled her early potential as a talented author or journalist, or how her character might have developed.
Her surviving step-sister, Eva Schloss, whom she hardly knew, spoke of her surprise at the image, observing: “I think she would have been more bitter and disappointed. I didn’t see anything of this in the picture.”
Both this photograph and the comment it provoked are indicative of the type of polarised thinking which seems to characterise responses to the life of Anne Frank. Either she is portrayed as heroic and as an example of the triumph of the human spirit, or she is mourned as a tragic victim or icon of suffering. The experiences of a frightened child in hiding for her life have even inspired figures such as Nelson Mandela who, in a public address as president of the newly-democratic South Africa in 1994, stated that he derived strength from her memory while he was imprisoned on Robben Island.
Time magazine has hailed her as one of the 20 “heroes and icons of the 20th century”, along with such figures as Albert Einstein. She has in many ways become a modern-day saint and her star shows no sign of waning.
There are now Anne Frank tours which guide tourists from her childhood home in Frankfurt and the plaque commemorating the house where she was born, to Amsterdam, and then to the transit camp at Westerbork, before proceeding to Auschwitz and Anne’s final resting place at Bergen–Belsen.
More than a million people make the pilgrimage to the Anne Frank House museum at 263 Prinsengracht in Amsterdam, each year, including the Canadian singer Justin Bieber who caused outrage in 2013 by writing in the guestbook that, had Anne Frank lived, ‘hopefully she would have been a belieber’.
The trouble with all this – with the polarised views, with the sanctity and with the sanctification – is that the real Anne Frank has, to a very great extent, been lost. She’s become a symbol – a symbol of hope for some, an icon of suffering for others. What she has ceased to be is a real person.
My short biography is an attempt to go beyond the myth, and behind the symbol. It’s a story about a girl who experienced unspeakable fear and suffering, who died horribly and members of whose family were murdered by the Nazis.
She was also a brilliant diarist, whose unflinching insights into her own predicament stand the test of time. But Anne Frank was also an ordinary adolescent. She bickered with her mother, competed with her sister. She fell in love, idolised film stars and wondered about her looks. She even bleached her upper lip.
If we’re to understand not just Anne Frank but also the other victims of the Holocaust, we need to do more of this. It’s easy to get lost in the sheer scale of the atrocity. It’s easy, too, to reduce the Holocaust to a simple morality tale, dehumanising its victims as we seek to turn them into saints.
If we are to be faithful to the memory of those who died, and if we are to learn the lessons of the Shoah, we need to look again at individual lives, remembering them as real people, in all their complexity.
Anne Frank’s diary, like her life and tragic death, provides a perfect opportunity to do just that. I hope I have done her justice.