During the 18 years he spent locked up on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela found one book taught him much about “the invincibility of human spirit”: the wartime diary of a young Jewish teenager hiding in Amsterdam.
Such was the evocative power of The Diary of Anne Frank, the future president of South Africa urged his fellow prisoners to also learn from it.
When the book had been passed around so much that the pages began to fall out, the prisoners clandestinely took turns – using just candlelight and at great risk to themselves – to copy the pages by hand and collate them together, so that younger prisoners could also benefit from Anne’s words.
Mandela’s account is just one of the many remarkable examples of how one little diary has had a lasting effect on generations long after Anne Frank died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen, aged just 15.
This and many other stories of people inspired around the world by the young diarist are explored in a fascinating new book, The Legacy of Anne Frank, written by Gillian Walnes Perry, who co-founded the Anne Frank Trust UK in 1990.
Walnes Perry has seen first-hand how impactful the diary has been over the nearly 30 years she spent perpetuating Anne’s messages of courage, tolerance and fighting prejudice through a mobile exhibition that has travelled extensively throughout the UK and into prisons and schools.
But, as her book details, the reach of Anne Frank’s diary beyond the UK has been immense.
Translated into 70 languages and with more than 30 million copies sold, the diary continues to help those living through turbulent times decades after it was first written.
There are the many unknowns, the children living in post-civil war in Sri Lanka or gang-ridden cities in Guatemala and Brazil, or the teenage girl who testified against the soldiers who murdered her family in Kosovo.
There are also the families living with the grief of a murdered child, such as that of Stephen Lawrence, who was killed in a racially-motivated attack, and Myriam Hyman, a victim of the 7/7 bombings in London.
Then there are the world leaders and well-known personalities who have equally been inspired, such as Luciano Pavarotti, Angelina Jolie and Audrey Hepburn, who agreed to become a patron of the trust three years before she died.
As Walnes Perry relates in her book, Hepburn said of the young writer: “Anne Frank and I were born in the same year, lived in the same country and experienced the same war. Except she was locked up and I was on the outside.
“Reading Anne’s diary was like reading my own experiences from her point of view. I was quite destroyed by it. An adolescent girl locked up in two rooms, with no way of expressing herself other than to her diary. She expresses the claustrophobia, but transcends it through her love of nature, her awareness of humanity and her love – real love – of life.”
Walnes Perry, who was awarded an MBE in 2010 for her work in education, believes that the diary still has the ability to touch so many lives because of Anne’s astute observances about humanity.
“Anne is very honest about her own emotional turmoil and going through adolescence in a claustrophobic situation where there was no escape. That’s something that really touches young people.
“She lived 70 years ago, but she’s writing about the same things that they are talking about, including rebelling against your parents and wanting to do a better job than many of the adults.
“There’s also a feeling, right until the very end, that there was still some hope. The Allies had landed, and when she was writing those final entries, she was still thinking of the future, that they would be liberated. She felt that she would go on and make things better in the world.”
Her father, Otto, who survived Auschwitz and first published Anne’s diary in 1947, was also “visionary” in spreading the power of Anne’s words.
“When he read her diary, he was determined that he could use this as a force for good, so that other young people would not have to suffer like his daughters had. His is a story of inspiration that he went on to do this amazing thing.”
In bringing together these stories of people from across the globe, Walnes Perry believes she has laid bare the true power of Anne’s diary to continue effecting change more than 70 years on.
She adds: “Some have described my book as a ‘handbook of hope’. In these really quite difficult times, with antisemitism bubbling under the surface, people can read an uplifting story about all the good things people have undertaken in the name of one Jewish girl.”
- The Legacy of Anne Frank by Gillian Walnes Perry (Pen & Sword), £14.99. Available now