Perhaps we are at the end of an era where narrating no longer has a place . . . because human beings no longer have any experience to share. . . . And yet . . . Perhaps, in spite of everything, it is necessary . . . to believe that new narrative forms, which we do not yet know how to name, are already being born. . . . For we have no idea of what a culture would be where no one any longer knew what it meant to narrate things.Paul Ricoeur 1
Introduction: Problems of Reception
Strictly speaking, the Diary of Anne Frank is not a testimony of the Holocaust atrocity. In contrast with ghetto diaries and concentration camp memoirs, Frank’s text depicts the anticipation of the Holocaust persecution. It is a story of the victim coping with the inexorable awareness of the Final Solution. The eventual encounter with the persecutors and the physical destruction itself are not part of Frank’s narrative.
As Alvin Rosenfeld sees it, the absence of the tragic end in the text seems to have reduced Anne Frank to a symbol of moral and intellectual convenience. 2 The particular position of the text which ends in medias res, at the threshold, so to speak, of the deportation camp, allows to attenuate and even to abstract the horror that awaited the author. The concentration camp in the testimonies of Elie Wiesel, Pelagia Lewinska, Primo Levi, and other victims of the Final Solution exposed an unimaginable horror. The Annexe, however, retained a semblance of normalcy which helped to insist on continuing faith in humanism.
The reading of the Diary as a lesson in liberal-humanist Weltanschauung was established very early. The Critical Edition of the Diary quotes the 1946 response by the writer Jan Romein. “How [Frank] died, I do not wish to ask,” Romein says, “The way she died is in any case not important.” What is important, according to Romein, is that Frank’s fate [End Page 105] makes us reject fascism and reminds us that the future solution lies in “the building of a society in which talent is no longer destroyed, repressed and oppressed, but discovered, nurtured, and assisted, wherever it may appear.” 3
The reception of the Diary as an edifying, universal message to humanity contributed to its classification as adolescent literature. 4 The tenor of optimism is noticeable in the Diary’s adaptation into a play and into a successful film. Anne Frank herself became a standard presence in the writings and the events produced in commemoration of the Holocaust. She is considered the symbol of universal victimization and, at the same time, an emblem of prevailing humanism.
The critical responses focused on the politics of the Diary’s theatrical and cinematic adaptations. Meyer Levin raised the question of the universalization of Jewish suffering. Levin was instrumental in the first publication of Frank’s Diary in the United States in the 1950s. In the famous court case, he claimed that the dramatized version was a distortion of the Diary’s Jewish character. 5 Levin’s extraordinary, thirty-five-year-long struggle against the de-judaisation of Anne Frank has been recently documented in Lawrence Graver’s study of his obsession. 6
Judith Doneson argues that the stage and film productions of the Diary reflects America’s ideological crisis in the 1950s. The ambivalence regarding the Jewish aspect of the Diary should be considered in the context of the McCarthy era. Doneson claims that the play’s emphasis on Frank’s faith that “people are good at heart” promoted the ideal of democratic liberalism by turning the Holocaust victim into a symbol of humanistic fortitude. 7 Sidra Ezrahi argues that the universalization of Jewish suffering signals the reluctance of the assimilated American Jews to single out the Holocaust as Jewish experience. Like Doneson, Ezrahi maintains that the play’s emphasis on human goodness reaffirms trust in the endangered tenet of democratic freedom and equality. 8
Another trend of critical response draws attention to Frank’s own universalism. Critics point to her assimilationist background and her lack of Jewish education. Sandor Gilman dismisses Levin’s arguments about the Diary’s “Jewishness” and maintains that “Anne Frank was typical of assimilated Jews . . . [her language] is no specific marker for her identity . . . she does not speak with a Jewish accent, does not mix bits of Hebrew in her discourse.” 9 According to Gilman, the de-emphasis of the Jewish component in the theatrical production is congruent with Frank’s upbringing and orientation.
The notion of the language as a marker of Jewish identity emerges in James Young’s discussion of Holocaust diaries. Young highlights the Jewish authenticity of those diarists who wrote in Hebrew and in Yiddish in contrast with “Anne [who] was assimilated, non-Zionist, and wrote in Dutch.” 10 Young reads the Diary as “alternately jaded and optimistic.” 11 [End Page 106] He argues that “in the context of her assimilated world view” Frank emerges as “[a] member of the human community and not as one who identified herself as part of a collective Jewish tragedy.” 12
It is important to note that the controversy concerning the “Jewishness” of the Diary provided ammunition to the deniers of the Holocaust. As Gilman notes, Levin’s court case fuelled the revisionist claim that the Diary was a fabrication and thus a proof that the Holocaust never happened. 13 In response to these claims, the authenticity of Anne Frank’s work was definitively reconfirmed in the Critical Edition of the Diary prepared by the Netherland State Institute for War Documentation published in 1989.
At the psychological level, the controversy of the Diary signaled the difficulty to accept the reality of the Holocaust. In this sense, Bruno Bettelheim’s essay, “The Ignored Lesson of Anne Frank,” exemplifies a denial of the irrevocability of the Final Solution. It is true that Bettelheim first sees the play’s concluding affirmation of human goodness as an implication that “there never really was an Auschwitz.” 14 Then, however, Bettelheim claims that Anne Frank need not have died had Otto Frank resorted to different tactics of escape and hiding, which he inexcusably failed to consider. Bettelheim’s argument met with an outraged critical response. As Rosenfeld notes, “Bettelheim’s charge that the Jews, in effect, had prepared the way for their own victimization was received in a hostile manner.” 15
The reluctance to confront the horror emerges also in postwar American Jewish literary treatment of Anne Frank. Nathan Zuckerman, the protagonist-writer in Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, denies Frank’s death. His fantasy of Frank, alive and well, demonstrates the fearfulness of the North American Jew to confront the true meaning of the European catastrophe. The portrayal of Frank as a survivor signals the wish to deny the event of the Holocaust. Like her theatrical image constructed to symbolize humanistic faith, the novelistic figuration of Frank as a living character communicates the need to abstract the horror of the Holocaust.
The fictional representations of Frank imply unwillingness, or perhaps inability, to face the author of the Diary. Even the opponents of the transformation of the Diary into a humanistic manifesto of a child-victim invariably focus on the cinematic and theatrical adaptations. Systematic critical examinations of the original text are rare.
Among the few who have tried to grapple with the Diary itself, 16 John Berryman seems to offer the most thoughtful and relevant analysis of the text. In contrast with the Jewish critics, Berryman, who was not Jewish, does not concern himself with Frank’s ethnic or religious authenticity. Nor does he question Frank’s Jewishness. What attracts him is the Diary itself which he considers an extraordinary piece of writing [End Page 107] produced by an extraordinary writer under extraordinary circumstances. And he is amazed that the artistic and ethical qualities of the text have been virtually ignored. “I am obliged to wonder,” Berryman admits, “whether Anne Frank has had any serious readers, for I find no indication in anything written about her that anyone has taken her with real seriousness. . . .” He is certain that she deserves genuine critical attention:
At first it is necessary to discover what she is writing about. Perhaps . . . she is not truly writing about anything—you know, ‘thoughts of a young girl,’ ‘Jews in hiding from the Nazis,’ ‘a poignant love affair’; but such is not my opinion. 17
Berryman dismisses the notion of the Diary as a work of a young girl. He also rejects the play’s sentimental emphasis on child victimization in the Holocaust. In contrast, Berryman considers the Diary a unique literary event produced by a person who becomes “more mature than perhaps most persons ever become.” 18 It is a credit to Berryman’s critical astuteness that his appreciation of the Diary was made on the basis of the early, partial publication of Frank’s papers. He had no opportunity to consider the complete work as it appears in the Critical Edition of the Diary.
Nonetheless, Berryman shows a deep understanding of the uniqueness of the text. He sees Frank’s Diary as a narrative of developmental conversion. His point of comparative reference is St. Augustine’s Confessions, a text of religious conversion. Berryman compares “the originality and ambition and indispensability of the two books in the heart of their substances.” He suggests that the subject of Frank’s Diary is “the conversion of the child into a person” and maintains that, in that sense, Frank’s account is “more mysterious and fundamental than that of St. Augustine’s.” 19
Berryman then proceeds to analyze the psychological aspects of Frank’s development. 20 His discussion is based on a close textual reading. He not only calls attention to the process of Frank’s emotional maturation, but highlights her growth as a talented writer. Most significantly, however, Berryman is aware of the ironic futility of his efforts to place the Diary in a referential context.
The Augustinian and Freudian models of conversion and development are inadequate in the case of Frank’s narrative. According to Berryman, because of the “very special circumstances” under which this particular personality was developing “we have been tracing a psychological and moral development to which, if I am right, no close parallel can be found.” 21
Berryman’s assertion of the uniqueness of the Diary is enlightening. His view highlights the interpretive problematic regarding a text which has “no close parallel.” The unprecedented historical circumstances [End Page 108] under which the text was composed posit the Diary as a category of its own. It is a life narrative which resists and, at the same time, is shaped by the projected narrative of awaiting deportation and death.
The poignancy of Frank’s writing, therefore, emerges from her awareness of the terrifying historical reality against which, as a Jew, she writes her life story. As we shall see, she becomes increasingly conscious of the impossibility to communicate the tensions, the dangers, and the terrifying prospects that she and those with her are facing. This consciousness forges Frank’s artistic skills and shapes her ethics. As a story of “psychological and moral development,” in Berryman’s definition, the Diary is also, to recall Ricoeur, a quest for a “new narrative form” which would make it possible to “share an experience” to which a parallel cannot be found.
This discussion of the Diary will proceed along the lines suggested in Berryman’s reading. I suggest that the Diary is a work of art, which defiantly contravenes the fearful hiatus which brought it into being. It is not our “reduction of Anne Frank to a symbol of moral and intellectual convenience,” to recall Rosenfeld, that allows us to read optimism into Frank’s life narrative. It is, rather, her valiant artistic accomplishment and her courageous ethical vision that enables us to read triumph into her losing battle against fear and despair.
I should mention here that in my appreciation of Frank’s writing I was fortunate to be able to use the two versions of Frank’s Diary and the text of the first publication of her papers as they appear in the Definitive Edition. 22
The Language(s) of an Unparalleled Situation
Comparative reasoning enables us to approach unfamiliar phenomena. The ability to draw comparisons communicates a fundamental belief that no phenomenon is inherently new; phenomena may be new only in terms of our personal experience. Reference to previous experiences evokes a network of corresponding patterns, assimilating the new experience in a familiar context.
Kafka’s story “Metamorphosis” illustrates human inability to break away from patterns of thinking grounded in analogues, even in an unprecedented situation. As Tzvetan Todorov tells us, despite the incomprehensible nature of Gregor’s transformation, both the protagonist and his family continue to behave as if their misfortune were of perfectly ordinary nature. Through its representation in ordinary language, “a shocking, impossible event . . . ends by becoming possible.” 23 The ordinary language allows us to approach the event in the sphere of the “normal.” [End Page 109]
In the case of the Diary, the desire to situate the experience within the boundaries of the “normal” is evident in the dramatized adaptation of the text. The ending on a hopeful note in the stage production attenuates the Holocaust circumstances. A similar intention is communicated in the wording of the title and in the synopsis which appears on the cover of the pocket-book edition. 24
The title of the paperback reads: Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. The attempt to fictionalize the diary is signaled in the qualifier “Young Girl” and in the absence of any reference to the Holocaust. The wording of the title places the content in the realm of the “normal.” The omission to mention the Holocaust circumstances of the life narrated in the Diary is conspicuous in the phrase “young girl” which associates with longevity and hope.
The synopsis on the back cover re-emphasizes the evasion of the Holocaust. The content summary does not mention Frank’s death as a Holocaust victim; in fact, it does not mention her death at all. The focus is on Frank’s romantic involvement with Peter. Indeed, the back cover tells us that the Diary “is not a lament but a song of love.” Such an interpretation, clearly designed to lure the prospective buyer of the book, misrepresents both the content of the Diary and the circumstances of its composition.
It is very interesting to note that Frank anticipated the postwar attempts to place the Diary in the context of conventional literary categorization.
In response to the official announcement that private papers relating to the war experience would be collected and published once the war was over, Frank considered submission of her diary. The title of her publication, she decides, will be Het Achterhuis [The Secret Annexe]. She then remarks jokingly that “the title alone would be enough to make people think it was a detective story.” The significant comment that follows, however, demonstrates Frank’s awareness that her tale of hiding and suspense could not comply with the detective story convention:
But, seriously, it would seem quite funny ten years after the war if we Jews were to tell how we lived and what we ate and talked about here. (D 578, my emphasis). 25
Nonetheless, on May 20, 1944, Frank decides to tell her tale. She writes that “at long last after a great deal of reflection I have started my “Achterhuis” (D 653). In fact, she started rewriting her diary on loose sheets. This version became the second version of the Diary in the Critical Edition (D 61). Clearly, she saw publishing the story of her war experience as a step toward becoming a writer.
The story of the Secret Annexe tells of suspense which does not classify [End Page 110] it as a conventional detective story. Frank’s story depicts the perilous situation of the Annexe inhabitants as both Dutch citizens under Nazi occupation and as Jews under the threat of the Final Solution. At one level, the suspense reflects the helplessness of the endangered and starved Dutch population at large. At another level, it reflects the particular plight of the hunted, condemned-to-death Jewish population.
Anne describes the fear when “350 British planes dropped half a million kilos of bombs on Ijmuiden and the houses trembled like a wisp of grass in the wind”; she talks about the epidemics, the “indescribable” shortage of food, the doctors who are under “incredible” pressure, the burglaries and thefts which are “beyond belief,” the “wanton destruction by youth,” etc. (D 578–579).
A future writer struggling to find the language to portray an “indescribable” reality, Frank is aware of the “unreality” of this situation to anybody distanced from the world at war. She finds herself in the predicament of a writer afraid of failing her reader.
In a direct comment to Kitty, the imaginary 26 addressee of her testimony, Frank addresses her misgivings, “You don’t know anything about all these things, and I would need to keep on writing the whole day if I were to tell you everything in detail” (D 578–579). This hyperbole as well as the recourse to such modifiers as “indescribable,” “incredible,” and “beyond belief,” 27 signal Frank’s sensitivity to the limitations of her vocabulary. She seeks terminology to narrate a reality which escapes the accepted linguistic connotations.
In this reality, the intended haven of the Annexe speaks the language of a frightful entrapment. “Everyday our living space grows smaller,” Frank observes. “Will it be over soon enough, before we suffocate and die of hunger? (D 581). The hardship of the war which affects everybody intensifies incomparably for the Jewish victims. Frank is aware that for the Jews the alternative to deprivation and air raids is deportation and gas chambers.
The consciousness of premeditated Jewish annihilation emerges as early as October 1942. In this entry Frank reports about Jewish friends who have been rounded up and sent to Westerbork, and about transports to Eastern Europe where Jews are being gassed (D 272).
The story of the “Secret Annexe” diverges therefore from the detective’s search for “who’s done it.” Rather, it poses a poignant query: “how much longer?” In Frank’s “detective story,” the suspense is not evoked by the expected discovery and elimination of a wily criminal. Rather, it generates from the threat of discovery and elimination of the innocent victim.
For the Jewish population, therefore, the entrapment is absolute. The sense of inescapable doom emerges poignantly at the time of an especially [End Page 111] powerful air raid. As Frank describes it, “the house rumbled and shook, and down came the bombs.” At that moment of fear, she realizes that
there’s nowhere we can go. If ever we come to the extremity of fleeing from here, the street would be just as dangerous as an air raid.(D 375)
Literally a “death trap,” the Annexe illustrates the Jewish fate under Nazi occupation. Far from acting and writing as an inauthentic, assimilated Jew, Frank demonstrates full understanding of the terrible situation of the Jews. Furthermore, she demonstrates solidarity with the Jewish plight. As she bitterly points out, her situation reminds her time and again that “we are Jews in chains, chained to one spot, without any rights” (D 600).
Frank’s decision to record the story of the “Secret Annexe” for a postwar readership confronts her with the complexity that such a testimony entails. While the text strives at a mimetic representation of the situation, it also demonstrates its author’s search for an appropriate narrative form and an adequate linguistic expression. Fully conscious of her fate as a Jew, Frank seeks a rhetoric which would both name and defy the unparalleled reality of horror.
The “Indescribable” Reality of the Imminent Apocalypse
In a letter to Kitty written a year after going into hiding, Frank observes that “everything” in the “Secret Annexe” is “so different from ordinary times and from ordinary people’s lives” that “it is quite indescribable.” Nevertheless, in an attempt to communicate the “out of the ordinary” experience of hiding, Frank decides to “give . . . a slightly closer look into our lives,” and to present Kitty with “a description of an ordinary day” (D 381). The next two entries offer detailed accounts of the meal times, sleeping arrangements, and daily tasks of the Annexe inhabitants.
In a way, Frank’s description of an ordinary day seems to reveal nothing out of the ordinary. If anything, it demonstrates the remarkable determination of the individuals in hiding to lead normal lives. They go about their activities, trying to work, read, and study, while striving to adjust to the cramped setup of the Annexe.
What, then, causes Frank to sense the “indescribable” quality of her existence? I suggest that her decision to describe the “ordinary” indicates a conscious wish to defuse the notion of the anomalous situation of hiding. The meticulous listing of regular schedules, activities, and arrangements communicates the desire to hold on to the semblance of normalcy.
It is as if the account of the routine could fend off the invading [End Page 112] sense of the futility of hiding. The account of the “ordinary” registers the need for a sense of control and purposefulness to contravene the debilitating sense of helplessness.
It is significant that Frank’s decision on Aug. 4, 1943 to describe the daily routine in the Annexe follows the entry of Aug. 3. There Frank describes Mrs. Van Daan, “shaking like a leaf” after the third air raid that day, and quotes her saying, “A terrible end is better than no end at all” (D 380). We should note that the same sentiment is reiterated by Frank herself at a later date, in May 1944, when she wonders “how long have we still to put up with this almost unbearable, ever increasing pressure?” (D 660) and admits her growing despair:
Again and again I ask myself, would it not have been better for us all if we had not gone into hiding, and if we were dead now and not going through all this misery . . . I hope something will happen soon now, shooting if need be—nothing can crush us more than this restlessness . . .(D 662, italics in the text).
The hiding place incurs such mental hardship that it evokes the death wish. The anticipation of the end has become too terrible to endure.
As the ordeal of hiding goes on, it becomes increasingly evident that the main source of anguish, strain, and hopelessness is rooted in a self-inflicted erasure from history and even from one’s own life story. The decision to disappear from the social scene signifies severance of all social patterns which define one’s sense of belonging.
Ironically, the opposition to the Nazi plan of Jewish elimination signified, in fact, deliberate self-elimination from normal life. In order to remain alive, the Jews in the Annexe had to cease to exist as members of society. They had to detach themselves from their personal past and identity. They were coerced into the role of condemned, ghostlike figures, allowed to come to life only at night.
With past annulled, the growing sense of doom precluded the future. The horrific news of the systematic destruction of the Jews incurred fear which was exacerbated with each of the increasingly frequent air raids. The diminishing chances of survival engendered despair, rendering plans, dreams, and prospects for after the war meaningless to the point of the absurd.
In her moving memoir, Miep Gies, the woman who helped to hide the Frank family, remembers Mrs. Frank admitting to her in private that “she was suffering under a great weight of despair.” Miep recalls that “although the others were . . . making games of what they would do when the war was all over, Mrs. Frank confessed that she was deeply ashamed of the fact that she felt the end would never come.” 28
An entry in the Diary makes clear that Mrs. Frank’s sense of despair [End Page 113] was shared by her daughter. Indeed, as Frank writes on Nov. 8, 1943, planning for the future has turned into a meaningless exercise; the memories of the past have also become meaningless:
I simply can’t imagine that the world will ever be normal for us again. I do talk about “after the war,” but then it is only a castle in the air, something that will never really happen. If I think back to our old house, my girl friends, the fun at school, it is just as if another person lived it all, not me.(D 416)
The merciless implementation of the Final Solution not only stripped the hiding Jews of their past, but robbed them of the hope for the future. In a sense, it “froze” the victims’ time by imprisoning them in the present of constant dread.
In this situation, the “ordinary” day seems out of the ordinary because it lacks a future direction. In the atmosphere of the end constantly about to come, the people in the Annexe are helplessly suspended in the situation of “no exit.” They are doomed to lead an “indescribable” life of exclusion from the continuum of time.
A brief discussion of life narrative as a metonymic construct of humankind’s progression in history will help to elucidate the “new form,” to recall Ricoeur’s term, of Frank’s timeless life narrative. Speaking about temporal constituents of emplotment, Ricoeur distinguishes between the “episodic dimension of the narrative” and its “configurational dimension.” The former is made of events; the latter transforms the events into a story. “The configurational arrangement,” claims Ricoeur, “transforms the succession of events into one meaningful whole.” 29
According to Ricoeur, such a “whole” renders the story meaningful because it determines its beginning, middle, and end. The notion of start and conclusion moves the narrative along. In this sense the narrative concurs with the notion of history as teleological, that is, meaningful, linear progression from beginning to end, as decreed by the divine Providence.
By his own admission, Ricoeur follows in the footsteps of Frank Kermode. In his Sense of Ending, Kermode postulates that eschatological closure is inherent in any story, as it reflects the prototypical narrative of the Bible. According to Kermode, the configuration of the biblical story reflects the paradigm of human history which begins with Creation and ends with the vision of apocalyptic destruction. 30 But the apocalypse, that is, the ending of history, is constantly deferred. As Kermode says, “[the apocalypse] is disconfirmed without being discredited.” 31 History has continued to evolve despite the anticipated ending of time, and so modern theological thought perceives the apocalypse “as immanent rather than imminent.” 32
The sense of the immanent apocalypse affects the individual life [End Page 114] story. The consciousness of ending shapes our life as “fiction,” the evolution of which reminds us of the temporarily deferred reality of our death. As long as it remains in the sphere of the abstract, the myth of the apocalypse infuses sense in life by teaching us a useful lesson about our mortality. An attempt to actualize the myth, however, brings forth destruction. Kermode observes that such an attempt produces a “consciously false apocalypse,” such as the Third Reich, “which projected death upon others.” 33
In the context of Kermode’s discussion, therefore, the “projection of death” upon Jews in the Holocaust was meant to actualize the prophecy of the apocalypse. Through fascism, says Kermode, “the world is changed to conform with a fiction, as by the murder of Jews.” The destruction of Jews identified by the “medieval apocalyptic movements” as “the demonic host of the prophecies” 34 marks the Holocaust as an attempt to end the history of the Jewish people.
The end of history amounts to the arrest of the time flow. The timelessness which marks the end of human history signifies the lifelessness of a world devoid of its future. For the inhabitants of the Annexe—the targets of the apocalyptic scheme of the Third Reich—time had stopped, as they were approaching the end designated as the Final Solution.
In the normal course of events, humanity’s position on the historical paradigm is, as Kermode sees it, in “the middest,” that is, between the “imaginatively recorded past [the Creation] and imaginatively recorded future, [the Apocalypse].” 35 The anomaly of the “false apocalypse” of the Nazi terror transferred the position of the Jews onto the pole of the hitherto only “recorded future” of the apocalypse. The imagined apocalyptic ending has become the concrete reality of the present. Thus, in terms of the Creation-Apocalypse paradigm, the hiding Jews in the Annexe are no longer “in the middest”; rather, they move inexorably towards the sphere of the destruction.
The apocalyptic situation of the Jews in the Annexe turns the configurational dimension of the “ordinary,” everyday life in the Annexe into a purposeless, “episodic” existence. Divested of everything that connects them to the past, deprived of the future, the inhabitants of the Annexe follow their daily schedules which, increasingly, turn into perfunctory, repetitious, and meaningless motions.
The temporal stasis compounded by the spatial confinement marks an existence empty of meaning. The purposelessness of such an existence is apocalyptic in itself, because it evokes the self-destructive wish for an ending. Indeed, the tragic fulfillment of this wish reconfirmed the ordeal of hiding as a preamble of the apocalyptic termination. The eventual betrayal, deportation, and annihilation of the Annexe inhabitants enhance the ironic futility of an attempt to defy the reality of the Final Solution. [End Page 115]
The Jewish Holocaust undermines the sense of teleological meaningfulness. The unwillingness to acknowledge the irrevocable concreteness of the destruction emerges, as demonstrated earlier, in the evasive reader-response to the tragic fate of the Diary’s author. I suggest that Frank’s death constitutes a crucially important addendum to her story. The consciousness of her death in Bergen Belsen confronts us with the reality of the decreed catastrophe and thus highlights the heroic quality of her artistic struggle with the “indescribable” life narrative.
The Apocalyptic “Stillness” and the Voice of Art
As a rule, autobiographers write their lives in order to understand their motivations and attain an extent of self-understanding. They draw upon their past experiences to illuminate their present situation and to gain a measure of foresight. Frank, whose young age could hardly offer a sustaining perspective of the past, drew support and strength from her aspiration to become an artist. Despite the imminence of death, writing seemed to afford her a sense of future.
Frank treated her desire to become a writer with utmost seriousness. As mentioned before, in preparation for the possible publication of Het Achterhuis after the war, she started to recopy and to edit her diary. The seriousness about her future vocation is also evident in the frequency of the entries, the range of topics, and the insistence on an accurate portrayal of life in the Secret Annexe. Methodically and meticulously, Frank created a record of a world in the throes of terror, a world which, as she knew very well, was on the brink of collapse.
To persist at creating such a record meant a constant struggle against despair. The fear that dominated the Annexe was so overwhelming that it often put the diarist in a state of utter desperation. In a moving entry of Oct. 29, 1943, Frank portrays herself as “a songbird whose wings have been clipped and who is hurling himself in utter darkness against the bars of his cage.” Depressed, she lies down to sleep, “to make the time pass more quickly, and the stillness and the terrible fear, because there is no way of killing time” (D 411, my emphasis).
The sense of the end is so palpable that soon after it transforms into a truly apocalyptic vision of destruction. On Nov. 8, 1943, Frank wrote:
I see the eight of us with our “Secret Annexe” as if we were a little piece of blue heaven, surrounded by heavy black rain clouds. The round, clearly defined spot where we stand is still safe, but the clouds gather more closely about us and the circle which separates us from the approaching danger closes more and more tightly. Now we are so surrounded by danger and darkness that we bump against each other, as [End Page 116] we search desperately for a means of escape. We look down below, where people are fighting each other, we look above, where it is quiet and beautiful, and meanwhile we are cut off by the great dark mass, which will not let us go upwards, but which stands before us as an impenetrable wall; it tries to crush us, but cannot do so yet. I can only cry and implore: “Oh, if only the black circle could recede and open the way for us!”(D 416)
This poetic visualization presents a surprisingly lucid picture of reality. The apocalyptic tenor of the vision calls attention to Frank’s lack of self-delusion. The act of writing, therefore, was by no means a panacea. Despite her youth, Frank was capable of articulating a poignant and unsparing assessment of the circumstances.
Frank’s imagination and intelligence enabled her to assume a detached “bird’s eye view” which she articulated in a striking, poetic language. A remarkable confluence of sensitivity, integrity, and artistic inspiration precluded escape into self-deception and false optimism. Insistence on a faithful and systematic representation of the experience compelled the diarist to re-live her fear in the act of writing.
Frank’s determination to confront reality in writing raises the question of the rationale for this re-immersion in the terrifying situation. Why would the young victim feel the need to tell about her world coming to its end? What would make her write about a reality in which both recounting and foretelling became meaningless?
To understand the telos of Frank’s writing we need to remember that the time span that she sets out to describe is the present of immediate, direct menace and dread. It is therefore important, first of all, to comprehend the artistic significance of such a foreshortened perspective.
The mimetic representation of the world at the edge of the apocalypse subverts the Aristotelian notion of the mimetic plot as a carefully selected sequence of events. Mimesis, “the medium of imitation,” as Aristotle defines it, 36 foregrounds the “unity of plot” and is, therefore, predicated upon the selection of the “probable or the necessary” events which center around “one action.” 37 The unity of action results from the process of artistic selection out of the “infinitely various . . . incidents in one man’s life.” 38 The narrative is directed at the audience and, if effective, the cathartic impact of its mimetic construct, especially in the case of a tragic tale, “will thrill with horror and melt to pity” all those who hear the story. 39
When applied to the life in the Annexe, the Aristotelian precepts of mimesis highlight the fact that the range of events subject to selection was extremely limited. Needless to say, the expectation to elicit a cathartic sense of horror and pity under the circumstances presented a totally incongruous proposition. [End Page 117]
We should mention in passing that the Diary’s theatrical production did follow the Aristotelian precepts of the tragic plot. The staging of the text as a tragedy ended with a cathartic relief. The dramatic adaptation complied with Aristotle’s injunction that “the tragic plot must not be composed of irrational parts,” since “the poet should prefer probable impossibilities to improbable possibilities.” 40 The dramatized version of the Diary defused the “irrationality” of the Holocaust horror. It suggested the probability of a cathartic response to the Holocaust.
In contrast to its dramatic production, the narrative of the Diary focuses on the irrational. The story deals with the unprecedented problematic of the “improbable possibility” of the Holocaust.
The possibility of the Holocaust signifies that history improbably turned life itself into an artifact. Life became an arbitrarily controlled and extremely limited existence in the shadow of the apocalypse. In the Aristotelian ars poetica, the function of art is to reshape and refigure life through conscious selection and compression of infinite number of events. In contrast, the terrible confines of the univers concentrationnaire of the Holocaust ineluctably reduced life in the Annexe to the lifelessness of an absolute lack of choice. The arrest of the time flow in the apocalyptic tremendum effected a stagnant existence suffused with the fear of imminent destruction. Consequently, the inversion of the Aristotelian paradigm points to the “improbable possibility” of art-as-life in the death-in-life existence in the Annexe.
The courage that we detect in Frank’s poetic rendition of the fear of death highlights the energizing power of art in the presence of death. The humanistic message in the Diary should not be sought in its subject matter but, rather, in its artistic form. In other words, the act of literary representation of the Annexe presents literary creativity as a life sustaining system.
Indeed, time and again, Frank affirms her writing as a life line which saves her from despair. On March 16, 1944, she confides in Kitty that writing enables her to endure the unbearable situation:
Yes, Kitty, Anne is a crazy child, but I do live in crazy times and under still crazier circumstances. But, still, the brightest spot of all is that at least I can write down my thoughts and feelings, otherwise I would be absolutely stifled!(D 540–541)
Frank shows a full awareness of the role that the Diary plays in her life. In the entry of April 4, she reports she has overcome a spell of incapacitating misery and depression. She reasserts herself as a writer who defeats fear through writing:
I can shake off everything if I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn . . . for I can recapture everything when I write, my thoughts, my ideals and my fantasies.(D 587–588) [End Page 118]
Paul Tillich offers the observation that “the most fundamental expression of [every encounter with reality] is the language which gives man the power to abstract from the concretely given and . . . to return to it, to interpret and transform it. The most vital being is the being which has the word and is by the word liberated from bondage to the given.” 41
Frank’s Diary seems to actualize this observation in a moving and poignant way. The entry which describes the terror of a close call that the people in hiding experienced illustrates Frank’s perception of art as the sustaining source of the “life wish.”
There was a burglary in the offices below and the investigating police came up the stairs to the camouflaged door leading to the Secret Annexe. The terrified people inside discussed what needed to be destroyed in case they should be discovered. Somebody suggested burning the diary. Frank responded to this suggestion with an emotional outburst:
This [the suggestion] and when the police rattled the cupboard door, were my worst moments. “Not my diary; if my diary goes, I go with it!”(D 595)
The connection that she makes between the destruction of the Diary and physical destruction reiterates dramatically Frank’s view of writing as a life-giving activity. Her behavior illustrates Tillich’s belief that the ability to abstract, to interpret, and to transform through language signals the vitality of being. In Frank’s view, the ability to voice helplessness redeems her vitality because it liberates her from the “stillness and the terrible fear” that this very helplessness incurs.
It is therefore important to examine the voice of art in Frank’s writing. How does the artist’s creative act redeem vitality in the apocalyptic void of paralyzing fear and deepening depression?
To an extent, the answer seems to lie in the understanding of the time factor implied in diaristic writing. As “a book of time,” 42 the diary presents two kinds of time: the period that it records and the actual duration of the recording. I would argue that in the Annexe situation the time of the diaristic recording counteracts the timelessness of the apocalyptic ending.
Let us recall Henri Bergson’s notion of the correlation between the inspirational stage of artistic creativity and the stage of the actualization of the work of art. Bergson claims that “to the artist that creates a picture by drawing it from the depths of his soul . . . the duration of his work is part and parcel of his work. . . . The time taken up by the invention is one with the invention itself. . . . It is a vital process, something like the ripening of an idea.” 43
According to Bergson, the effort of artistic creativity comprises the [End Page 119] time in which the artist’s vision comes into being and the time during which this vision shapes its mode of artistic expression. In this sense, the diaristic mode effects compression of the two aspects of time in a creative continuum.
As Lawrence Rosenwald tells us, the diary is an art of microscopic literary writing, 44 in that every entry is a distinct creative act of its own. Consequently, Frank’s constant preoccupation with her diary infuses the duration of hiding with an ongoing artistic invention. Looking at reality as material for diaristic recording elicits a sense of meaningful continuity. The purpose of recording contravenes the episodic disconnectedness of the reality of destruction.
In her diaristic recording, Frank creates an illusion of a “normal” existence. Further, the mode of her writing becomes the signifier of a normally continuing life. By virtue of its calendric recording, the Diary reflects a “microscopic” historical continuity which extends into the future and therefore offsets the a-historicity of the apocalyptic ending.
As an evolving record, Frank’s Diary becomes the Annexe’s chronicle. It enables the diarist to read “backward” and write “forward,” to draw analogies to formerly described events, and to incorporate the past into the present. In the entry of Jan. 2, 1944, for instance, Frank comments disapprovingly on past events which she recalled when “[she] turned over some of the pages of [her] diary.” By re-reading past entries, Frank can re-evaluate her past experiences. The sense of the past enters and affects her present, as she observes:
This diary is of great value to me, because it has become a book of memoirs in many places, but on a good many pages I could certainly put “past and done with.”(D 438)
The accumulation of memories and events enhances the importance of the Diary as a life story. The possibility of maintaining a historical record even in the limited time span allows Frank to infuse the stagnant existence in the Annexe with a meaningful theme worthy of an artistic representation. The re-reading and also, let us recall, the re-writing of the Diary in preparation for future publication, defer, even if for a short while, the diarist’s listless anticipation of the end.
Thus, the Diary’s artistic construct countervails the deathlike tenor of its subject matter. In this sense, the Diary is an inversion of the Aristotelian concept of art modeled on life. The creativity of diaristic writing infuses the notion of vitality into an otherwise atrophied, lifeless existence.
The entry of May 3, 1944 is a case in point. After having reported about meals consisting of rotten lettuce and rotten potatoes, Anne ponders “despairingly” the human “urge to destroy, an urge to kill, to murder and rage.” She suggests that “until all mankind, without exception, [End Page 120] undergoes a great change, wars will be waged, everything that has been built, cultivated, and grown will be destroyed and disfigured” (D 627–628).
At this very point, when “the sense of an ending” threatens to invade and when despair is about to take over, the consciousness of life as narrative intervenes, allowing the author to feel, even if only temporarily, in charge of her art and life:
I have often been downcast but never in despair. I regard our hiding as a dangerous adventure, romantic and interesting at the same time. In my diary I treat all the privations as amusing. . . . My start has been so very full of interest, and that is the sole reason why I have to laugh at the humorous side of the most dangerous moments. . . . I am young and strong and am living a great adventure; I am still in the midst of it and can’t grumble the whole day long. . . . I have been given a lot, a happy nature, a great deal of cheerfulness and strength. Why, then, should I be in despair?(D 628–629)
The process of gaining control over life through art points to the reflective function of the Diary. Frank’s autobiographical story is also the story of her growth as an artist. As the entries follow each other, Frank crystallizes and defines the autobiographical purpose of her writing. In the above quote, she sees her writing as an act of self-assertion. Life writing reverts an existence of incapacitating helplessness and despair into a humorous adventure.
Like the foremost Yiddish storyteller, Sholom Aleichem, who proscribed tears and prescribed laughter to heal suffering and pain, 45 Frank exercises her authorial prerogative to re-view the world that surrounds her. She neutralizes her fear by establishing an alternate point of view. In her ongoing struggle with despair, she enlists humor to cope with the desperate situation.
The choice of the humorous perspective is concomitant with the qualities of “cheerfulness and strength” that she constantly strives to develop. The hopeful passages do not support therefore, the popular notion of Frank’s naive faith in the goodness of man. Rather, they disclose the subtext of an immense effort to affirm meaning in the meaningless, hopeless ordeal.
Frank refers to her struggle when she says: “Everyone must try to be the master of his own moods. . . . My work, my hope, my love, my courage, all these things keep my head above water and keep me from complaining” (D 603, my emphasis). Significantly, the list of things that sustains her starts with “work,” that is, her writing. 46 However tenuous and temporary, the victory over despair signals the vitality of creative imagination.
Writing infuses potency. The transformation of “hiding from the [End Page 121] Gestapo” into a literary theme of “life in the Secret Annexe” allows Frank, to distil, in Ricoeur’s terms, the “configurational dimension” out of the “episodic dimension.” The ability to ascribe the meaning of a “romantic adventure” to Jewish existence at the time of the Holocaust engenders a sense of control. And the capability of experiencing her “adventure” through the act writing reinforces the hope to develop the inner discipline to become “the master of her moods.”
The perception of life as a humorous adventure attests to Frank’s imaginative attempt to transform the miserable existence in the Annexe. The epistolary form of the Diary illustrates an even more significant aspect of the freedom of imagination. The Diary takes the form of letters to an imaginary addressee, Kitty. Frank structures Kitty as a character outside the reality of occupied Europe. The literary construct of a close friend, yet a distant addressee, functions on multiple narrative levels.
The addressee is a naive listener, occasionally presented as an interlocutor. She has the knowledge of neither the horror of the raging war nor of the systematic destruction of European Jews. At the same time, her presence is reaffirmed in each entry by the heading “Dear Kitty” and the signature “Yours, Anne.” Moreover, the direct statements, comments, and questions, such as, “I must tell you,” “I think you should know,” “You asked me . . . so I must reply,” etc., reinforce the sense of closeness between the writer and the addressee.
These direct phrases imply a dialogic situation, whereby the writer enlightens the naive reader-outsider. The construct of “Kitty” attests to Anne’s need to share her “adventure.”
The Diary as a testimonial directed to a distant reader defines Frank as a witness-victim. In this respect, therefore, “Kitty,” the reader-outsider, represents all of us, the postwar readers of Frank’s Diary. In this respect, the diarist’s intention to inform and teach does not differ from the intention of other witnesses-victims of the Holocaust who wished to bequeath their testimony to posterity.
However, the placement of the addressee in the text calls attention to the uniqueness of the Diary as a Holocaust testimony. As the marker of the epistolary form of the Diary, “Kitty” communicates Frank’s need for an audience. Writing to a particular, singled-out reader highlights the therapeutic function of the imagined addressee.
In this respect, it is, perhaps, not so much the need to inform posterity, as the urgency to alleviate the specter of despair that motivates Frank’s constant dialogue with her imaginary friend. The special friend, a confessant ready to hear, but not to condemn, indicates Frank’s ingenuous search for support in art.
The addressee as a naive listener highlights further the complexity of this artistic effort. In Kitty, the author creates a mind unaffected by [End Page 122] the horror. This intentional creation of a tabula rasa receiving consciousness ineluctably affects the manner and the voice in which the narrative unfolds.
The construct of an ignorant addressee incurs the need to devise adequate narrative strategies. The complete unawareness of the addressee regarding the reality of the Holocaust de-intensifies the teller’s emotional involvement with her tale. The naivete of the addressee compels the writer to innovate, diversify, infuse comic relief—in brief, to seek literary devices to ensure the accessibility of the story.
Let us recall once more Sholom Aleichem who, as a rule, defuses the tragic tenor of his narrator’s tale of woe by invariably incorporating into his story the character of an unimplicated narratee. In a similar way, Frank achieves respite from feelings of despondency and hopelessness by focusing on communication with her remote addressee. To communicate, she must distance herself from misery and despair. She must gain control over her subject matter and see it, even if only for a moment, as “a romantic adventure.” The role of the teller that she constructed for herself by devising a naive “Kitty” allows Frank the freedom to exercise her creativity and imagination as a writer.
The Ethical Self at the Time of De-Humanization
As a continuing, daily activity, Frank’s diaristic writing becomes a source of vitality. In this sense, Frank’s testimonial defies the Final Solution. Her creative energy, persistence, and artistic ability to record this world carve an enclave of normalcy in the midst of uncontrollable madness of destruction. As a coherent narrative as well as a dialogue, the Diary records and, at the same time, contravenes the terror. The rhetorical strategies in the work indicate an effort to maintain meaningfulness even in the situation of the apocalypse. Thus, against all odds, Frank attempts to create the time span characteristic of an autobiographical self-representation.
Georges Gusdorf claims that in autobiographical writing “I exercise a sort of right to recover possession of my existence now and later . . . for the past drawn up into the present is also a pledge and a prophecy of the future.” 47 In light of Gusdorf’s definition, the Diary is not merely an autobiographical story of a Jewish girl in hiding. It is also, against all hope, “a pledge and a prophecy,” of this girl as a woman. Considered as a pledge for the future, the Diary offers more than a chronologically unfolding testimonial. It is also a remarkably insightful self-representation of the growing artist.
Beside the factual observations and reports, Frank expresses her expectations, thoughts, and desires. As she sets her goals, she deplores her [End Page 123] weaknesses and laments over her disappointments. Above all, she articulates the desire for a spiritual change. Let us keep in mind that Frank’s preoccupation with moral self-improvement takes place in the context of increasing certainty of deportation and death.
Diaristic writing demonstrates the need to retell a recent past. This act discloses the writer’s teleological sense of self because the act of shaping life into a tale communicates the premise that life has meaning and purpose. The sense of the future is most concrete in a diary where, by definition, each entry sets up the anticipation of a shortly forthcoming sequel. The boundaries between immediate past events and expected developments are often blurred, since the projection of the near future affects the present.
Margaret Farley maintains that “My future, too, changes my present and my past—not when it comes, but while it is the future which I anticipate.” 48 As an art of “microscopic writing,” the Diary highlights the unity of the writing self’s recollected past, its unfolding present, and its anticipated future.
Consideration of the self in terms of its past and especially in terms of its future could hardly make sense in the reality of the Final Solution. The Holocaust eradicated the past of the Jewish people. It also intended to eliminate the Jews’ “pledge and prophecy for the future.” Facing immediate annihilation, the victim lost the sense of her teleological self.
In the limited time that she has, Frank tries to actualize her artistic and moral potential despite the reality of imminent ending. Tragically, she is aware that under the circumstances neither her ethical nor her artistic actualization can be deferred. Conscious of impending death, she knows that it is in the present that she must actualize herself both as a human being and as an artist:
I want to go on living even after my death! And therefore I am grateful to God for giving me this gift, this possibility of developing myself and of writing, of expressing all that is in me.(D 587, my emphasis)
Indeed, the Diary presents Frank as a growing and developing person. I am using the term “developing person” advisedly. Let us recall that, as discussed above, most critics read the Diary as a text of a precocious young girl. I, however, as mentioned before, concur with John Berryman’s notion that Frank’s inner struggle to establish a moral Weltanschauung transcends the typically adolescent development. 49
It is true that Anne experiences physical changes and emotional vicissitudes related to her growth into adolescence (menstruation, the discovery of sexuality, defiance of the adult world, mood fluctuations, etc.). Yet, it seems impossible to explain the seriousness and the integrity of her ethical self-examination as characteristic of a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old. [End Page 124] And, as I shall demonstrate, it seems equally difficult to describe her ethical Weltanschauung as precocious.
Despite her young age, both Frank’s self-perception and her perception of others reveal remarkable maturity. As Berryman asserts, “most people do not grow up, in any degree that will correspond to Anne Frank’s growing up.” 50
Ironically, the intention to dehumanize Jews by stripping them of their identity, reducing them to non-persons, and in Frank’s particular case, forcing her into hiding, had a countereffect on Frank’s process of individuation. As a written and re-written text, the Diary defiantly affirms Frank’s dignified self-perception as an individual whose story deserves to be recorded. Even further, her understanding of self-writing as a vehicle of ethical self-development demonstrates Frank’s self-assertion against the tyranny of depersonalization.
Steven Kagle claims that “the life of a diary is often born of a tension . . . [which] is a sustaining force of a diary.” 51 The life of Frank’s Diary seems to derive from the tension between the indelible sense of self-worth and the indignity of the life in hiding, between the certainty of the unalienable right-to-be and the knowledge of having been doomed to non-being.
The need to defy the hatred that enforced the self-image of a hunted, terrified Jew “in chains” engages Frank in a rigorously sustained process of shaping her moral values. In view of Frank’s complete awareness of her situation, her uncompromising and unsparing quest for self-knowledge and for moral self-improvement assumes heroic dimensions.
The Ethical Self Vis-à-Vis Others
Frank’s inward journey becomes a struggle of the conflicting needs for independence and for connectedness. On the one hand, she constantly seeks separation from those who surround her; on the other hand, she yearns for close relationships with others. This twofold search is informed by her adherence to a highly demanding value system.
Frank consistently refuses to compromise and accept norms that do not measure up to her world of ethics. The people close to her fail to provide support to maintain her moral vision. Eventually, she understands the extent of solitude and self-sufficiency that her uncompromising ethical outlook entails. The tenor of dejection in the final entries of the Diary testifies to Frank’s growing sense of loneliness and defeat.
The view of Frank as a precocious adolescent gains support from her companions in hiding. As it emerges in Frank’s own reporting, she was perceived as an outspoken, boisterous girl. However, Frank’s argumentation [End Page 125] against this perception raises doubts about the astuteness of this critical attitude:
Although I’m only fourteen, I know quite well what I want, I know who is right and who is wrong, I have my opinions, my own ideas and principles, and although it may sound pretty mad from an adolescent, I feel more of a person than a child, I feel quite independent of anyone.(D 534)
Frank asserts her maturity. She claims to be able to form and articulate her ethical norms as well as evaluate the ethical make-up of others. She sees herself as a morally discerning person of solid convictions. Therefore, in order to assess the validity of her claim to be “independent of anyone,” it is necessary to investigate Frank’s increasing alienation from her father, mother, and Peter.
Frank’s eventual estrangement from her father is rooted in what she experiences as his incapability of empathic understanding. The earlier, oedipal stage of her clinging to her “ideal” father 52 develops into a critical assessment of their relationship. Towards the end of the Diary Frank reaches the conclusion “that Daddy was never any support to me in my struggle,” that “he hasn’t realized that for me the fight to get on top was more important than all else,” that “he is not able to feel with me like a friend, however hard he tries” (D 690–691).
As Frank sees it, her father failed her by not allowing their relationship to develop beyond father-child patterns. Ironically, the teenage daughter is mature enough to discern and articulate her father’s inability to establish a mutually respectful relationship with her. She frankly admits to herself that he never accepted her as “Anne-on-her-own-merits,” and acknowledges that, “I don’t feel I can tread upon more intimate ground with him.” She consciously and painfully detaches herself from him, “for my peace of mind . . . I concealed from Daddy everything that perturbed me; I never shared my ideals with him” (D 691).
While her father fails her on emotional grounds, her mother does not provide the intellectual model that Frank requires. The daughter becomes disappointed in her mother 53 when she feels ready for her mother’s friendship and example. Eventually, she is capable of an unsparing, yet quite objective, assessment of her mother’s limitations. Frank feels able to “discuss things and argue better” than her mother. She claims that she is not “so prejudiced,” does not “exaggerate so much,” and that she is “more precise and adroit” than her mother (D 544).
Frank, who plans to be a journalist and a writer, feels no respect for her mother who has not actualized herself professionally. “I can’t imagine,” she wonders, “that I would have to lead the same sort of life as Mummy and Mrs Van Daan and all the women who do their work and are forgotten.” And in a truly feminist fashion she vows, “I must have [End Page 126] something besides a husband and children, something that I can devote myself to” (D 587).
While her parents do not provide Frank with the emotional and intellectual support that she needs, in Peter she discerns a lack of integrity that she cannot accept. She condemns his inability to develop self-discipline. She passes judgment on Peter’s weak moral values and his derogatory views of religion (D 684–685).
It is remarkable, especially in view of her young age, that, despite her affection for Peter, Frank does not let love blind her. She finds it inexcusable that Peter appears to be “afraid of his own weakness” and so she decides not to indulge his dependency: “Peter’s beginning to lean on me a bit and that mustn’t happen under any circumstances. A type like Peter finds it difficult to stand on his own feet” (D 683). Eventually, Peter’s apparent lack of moral fiber causes Frank to withdraw emotionally from the relationship.
Frank realizes that her closest companions do not give her the support she seeks. Her unwillingness to compromise is all the more significant in view of her intense need to create meaningful contacts with others (D 180–181), to have someone’s complete confidence (D 683), to make a real friendship (D 693).
This desire for meaningful, trusting relationships reminds us of Hannah Arendt’s observation that “the remedy for unpredictability, for the chaotic uncertainty of the future, is contained in the faculty to make and keep promises.” 54 As Arendt sees it, relationships grounded in the premise of loyalty and truthfulness maintain the telos of human existence. The failure to establish honest relationships threatens to eliminate the sense of order and direction.
Frank confirms Arendt’s view of friendship as a condition for a meaningful existence. She realizes that the need for trust, confidence, and security motivated her relationship with Peter: I needed a living person to whom I could pour out my heart; I wanted a friend who’d help to put me on the right road. (D 693, my emphasis)
Frank’s desire for friendship with Peter was rooted in the need for a loyal, reliable friend. But even more significantly, her need for Peter’s companionship was predicated upon an inner drive for moral self-improvement. The extent of Frank’s maturity emerges in her unsparing criticism of her own failings and her desire to become a better person.
A living friend, rather than the imaginary Kitty, might have helped Frank to overcome her weaknesses. An empathic friendship would have shaped her character according to the ethics that inform her world picture. In the absence of such a person, the Diary became the substitute for a friendly response and it functioned as both a receptacle of confidence and as an ethical corrective.
Frank’s writing as constant self-examination results in a critical, objective [End Page 127] self-evaluation. “I can watch myself and my actions, just like an outsider,” she claims. “The Anne of every day I can face entirely without prejudice, without making excuses for her, and watch what’s good and what’s bad about her” (D 689).
Her insistence on moral self-improvement takes the form of a solitary, difficult struggle “to put herself on the right road” rather than to join others on the “easy road” of emotional, intellectual, and ethical passivity. The need to create her own self-evaluating measure, rather than submit to the judgment of others, gradually becomes the goal of Frank’s lonely struggle. On Nov. 7, 1942, in beginning of the hiding period, Anne makes an important decision:
I must become good through my own efforts without examples and without good advice. Then later on I shall be all the stronger. . . . I frequently feel weak, and dissatisfied with myself; my shortcomings are too great. I know this, and every day I try to improve myself, again and again.(D 296–297)
In the final entry of Aug. 1, 1944, the inner battle still goes on. Addressing Kitty for the last time, Frank tells her imaginary friend of her failure to become her ideal self:
I’ve already told you before that I have, as it were, a dual personality . . . This side is usually lying in wait and pushes away the other which is much better, deeper and purer. My lighter superficial side will always be too quick for the deeper side of me and that’s why it will always win. You can’t imagine how often I’ve already tried to push this Anne away, to cripple her, to hide her, because after all, she’s only half of what is called Anne.(D 697–698)
Frank presents here a complex three-tiered construct of self. The discrepancy between the “ideal ‘I’” that she struggles to become and the “flawed ‘I’” which obstructs her progress is narrated by the “third eye/I” of the narrator. The narration of the dialogic-adversarial relations of the split self highlights Frank’s capability of self-critical perspective. The objectivity of her uncompromising insight conflates with her desire to correct her weaknesses and shortcomings. The narrative “eye/I” watches the inner struggle for self-improvement and admits defeat.
The diaristic form of Frank’s narrative, however, questions such a categorical admission of failure. It is interesting to consider Frank’s self-insight in light of André Gide’s view of a diary’s function. Writing in his journal, Gide observes:
rather than recounting his life as well as he has lived it, [the artist] must live his life as he will recount it. In other words, the portrait of him formed by his life must identify itself with the ideal portrait he desires. 55 [End Page 128]
If the “ideal portrait” represents the absolute, then Frank’s objective to become absolutely good is humanly impossible and therefore doomed to failure. If, however, the process of enabling the “deeper, better and purer” self to emerge is all important, then Frank in her struggle for self-improvement becomes this “ideal portrait.” Frank’s struggle for the ideal, despite and perhaps because of the situation of the Holocaust, paints an “ideal portrait” of a remarkable self-development.
In this respect, Frank’s narrative of her struggle reconfirms her ethical self. Indeed, Margot’s and Peter’s view of Frank corroborates her fighting spirit. As Frank recounts, both her sister and friend comment “again and again” on her self-discipline which they find quite superior to theirs: “Yes,” she quotes them saying, “if I was as strong and plucky as you are, if I always stuck to what I wanted, if I had such persistent energy . . .” (D 682). Margot and Peter refer to the inner force that motivates Frank despite the reality which justifies passivity and stagnation. They correctly detect her inner strength.
Frank persists in her ethical conviction of accountability toward oneself and toward the world. In that respect, she sees the self and the world ineluctably interconnected. Succinctly, she summarizes her aspiration and her credo:
Let me be myself and then I am satisfied. I know that I’m a woman, a woman with inward strength and plenty of courage. If God lets me live. . . . I shall work in the world and for mankind.(D 601)
Against the reality of imminent annihilation, Frank proclaims her uniqueness and assumes responsibility to become a whole human being. Her desire to fulfill herself reminds us of the famous Hasidic rabbi Zusya who said: “In the world to come they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” Like Zusya, Frank knew that true self-improvement entails an utmost effort to actualize one’s authentic self. Self-actualization, however, cannot take place in isolation from the world. In the above statement Frank expresses her conviction that self-fulfillment is possible only through responsible relationship with the world.
Conclusion: Are People Good at Heart?
The final entries in the Diary demonstrate Frank’s frustrated desire to reconnect with the world. While the world outside becomes increasingly foreboding, life in the Annexe offers no encouragement, consolation, or real friendship.
Frank’s last sentence affirms her disappointment in humanity and comes close to an admission of personal defeat: “I keep on trying to [End Page 129] find a way of becoming what I would so like to be, and what I could be, if . . . there weren’t any other people living in the world” (D 699). Whereas the confidence in her potential is still there, her premonition is that in this world of death and alienation this potential will never materialize.
The final sentence appears to contradict the celebrated affirmation written only two weeks before that “in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart” (D 694). This hopeful declaration, which concludes the Diary’s theatrical production, inscribed the Diary as a manifesto of faith in human humaneness even in view of the Holocaust.
My discussion of the Diary concludes therefore with a re-examination of the famous statement. I suggest that considered in its context, the statement reveals a struggle with despair that Frank is about to lose.
The section (D 693–694) in which the statement appears starts with a saying that Frank remembers having read somewhere, “For in its innermost depths youth is lonelier than old age.” She admits to identifying with this statement. She realizes that her sense of loneliness grows out of the difficulty to hold to faith “when people are showing their worst side, and do not know whether to believe in truth and right and God.”
In Frank’s pessimistic view of the world, the “solution” that young people offer to mend the world is not strong enough “to resist the facts which reduce it to nothing again.” As Frank sees it, “ideals, dreams, and cherished hopes rise within us, only to meet the horrible truth and be shattered.”
Frank’s picture of the hopeless situation reminds us of Arendt’s postulation that the fulfilled promise is the antidote to the unpredictability of the future. Frank indicts the world which broke its promises, robbing young people of their ideals, leaving them with no moral support. Her disappointment with the world signals a growing sense of the futility of an ethical system defeated time and again by the powers of evil that have overtaken the world.
In what follows we observe a shift from Frank’s general comments on the moral collapse of the world. Now she focuses on her personal confrontation with the reality of physical and spiritual apocalypse.
I quote the passage in its entirety, as it is important to follow the inner dialogue embedded in the text. The dialogue reveals vacillation between the voice of hopelessness and the voice which clings to hope. The italicized phrases indicate Frank’s reluctance and hesitation to admit defeat, betraying, in effect, the awareness of her losing battle against despair:
It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to hope to carry out. [End Page 130]
Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.
I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the suffering of millions
and yet, if I look up into heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end and that peace and tranquillity will return again.
Interestingly, the rhetoric of this apparently optimistic final statement conveys the ultimate admission of defeat. The apocalypse will destroy the world, including the writer herself, and will be followed by heavenly peace.
In Frank’s poetic representation, the unfolding catastrophe is likened to the Armaggedon, which, as the biblical story has it, will be followed by the heavenly peace of the end of time. This eschatological vision of the future, however, lies beyond the futureless world of the Holocaust. Frank knows that the Armaggedon will destroy her. Tragically, the implacable Final Solution which interrupted Frank’s Diary in medias res reaffirmed her vision.
The accidental survival of only one inhabitant of the Annexe highlights the unrelieved tragedy of those who were mercilessly annihilated. Upon his return from “another planet” of the nameless dead, Otto Frank recovered the Diary. It was his daughter’s disrupted story of her disrupted life. This story named the despair of young people, who, like Anne Frank, demanded “let me be myself” and, who, unlike rabbi Zusya, were deprived the right to live and to fulfill themselves.
The Diary’s legacy of hope, therefore, should not be sought in hard won moments of optimism. Rather it is found in the desire to fight despair through its painful representation in art. In this sense, the Diary allows us to experience a “new form” of a life narrative, to recall Ricoeur. By its very existence, this narrative is new as it redefines the heroism of resistance.
The last chapter of Frank’s life story was written by Frank’s fellow inmate in the concentration camp. Her recollection does not picture Frank extolling the goodness of people. This witness remembers Frank’s despair when she wept over gypsy girls driven to the crematoria and over Hungarian children waiting in front of gas chambers. 56 Frank’s ability to see and to respond to suffering reinforces the lesson of victory in defeat that her Diary teaches so poignantly.
Rachel Feldhay Brenner is Assistant Professor of Modern Hebrew Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of two books and numerous articles. Her forthcoming book is entitled Searching the Self in the World of the Holocaust: Edith Stein, Simone Weil, Anne Frank, and Etty Hillesum (Penn State Press).
1. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer (Chicago, 1984), Vol. 2, p. 28.
2. Alvin H. Rosenfeld, “Popularization and Memory: The Case of Anne Frank,” Lessons and Legacies: The Meaning of the Holocaust in the Changing World, edited by Peter Hayes (Evanston, 1991), p. 271.
4. See for instance Miri Baruch’s article, “Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl,” which discusses the various aspects of The Diary as a text by an adolescent appropriate for adolescent readers. The Melton Journal: Issues and Themes in Jewish Education, Vol. 23 (Spring 1990), pp. 17–19.
5. Meyer Levin sued Otto Frank and the producer Kermit Bloomgarden who, on the suggestion of Lillian Hellman, hired Albert and Frances Hackett to write the play. Levin recorded his involvement with The Diary in his novel Obsession (New York, 1973).
6. Lawrence Graver, An Obsession with Anne Frank (Berkeley, 1995).
7. Judith E. Doneson, “The Diary of Anne Frank in the Context of Post-War America and the 1950s,” in The Holocaust in American Film (Philadelphia, 1987), pp. 57–85.
8. Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, By Words Alone: The Holocaust in Literature (Chicago, 1980), pp. 200–204.
9. Sander L. Gilman, Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews (Baltimore, 1986), pp. 349–350.
10. James E. Young, Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation (Bloomington, 1988), p. 27.
11. Ibid., p. 27.
12. Young’s postulation (p. 29) that Anne showed no affinity with the fate of the Jewish people seems incorrect. Anne demonstrates strong identification with the suffering of Jewish people. See, for instance, the entry of Dec. 13, 1942: “I saw two Jews through the curtain yesterday. I could hardly believe my eyes; it was a horrible feeling, just as if I’d betrayed them and was now watching them in their misery” (D 328); and the entry of April 11, 1944: “Who has inflicted this upon us? Who has made us Jews different from all other people? Who has allowed us to suffer so terribly until now? . . . We can never become just Netherlanders, or just English, or representatives of any country for that matter, we will always remain Jews, but we want to, too” (D 600).
13. Gilman, Jewish Self-Hatred, p. 353.
14. Bruno Bettelheim, Surviving and Other Essays (New York, 1980), p. 251.
15. Rosenfeld, “Popularization and Memory,” p. 275.
16. See, for instance, a general overview of the Diary in Henry F. Pommer, “The Legend and Art of Anne Frank,” Judaism, Vol. 9 (1960), pp. 36–46 and the theme of the Jewish woman in the Diary in Yasmine Ergas, “Growing up Banished: A Reading of Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum,” in Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars, edited by Margaret Randolph Higonnet, Jane Jenson, Sonya Michael and Margaret Collins Weitz (New Haven, 1987), pp. 84–99.
17. John Berryman, The Freedom of the Poet (New York, 1980), p. 92 (italics in the text).
18. Ibid., p. 104.
19. Ibid., p. 93 (italics in the text).
20. Ibid., p. 96.
21. Ibid., p. 104 (my emphasis).
22. The editors of the Critical Edition explain: “Anne Frank wrote two versions of her diary, the second being based on the first. It was on the basis of these manuscripts that the first Dutch publication of her diaries, Het Achterhuis, was brought out in 1947.” In the Critical Edition, the first version appears at the top of the page, the second version appears under the first and, finally, the English translation of the Dutch publication entitled Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl published in 1952 (p. 168; for full annotation of the Critical Edition, see note 25).
23. Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. Richard Howard (Cleveland, 1973), pp. 170–172.
24. I am referring to the popular edition of the text, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl (New York, first printing in 1952). This is the translation of the Dutch publication Het Achterhuis (1947).
25. All the quotes from Anne Frank’s Diary are taken from The Diary of Anne Frank: The Critical Edition, prepared by the Netherlands State Institute for War Documentation, edited by David Barnouw and Gerrold van der Stroom, English translation by Arnold J. Pmerans and B. M. Mooyart-Doubleday (New York, 1989). The page numbers preceded by the letter D appear in the text.
26. Although, as Miri Baruch mentions in her article, that Anne’s friend Kitty was found living in South Africa seems correct, we assume that Kitty is Anne’s imaginary construct, especially if taking into consideration Anne’s own definition: “I want this diary to be my friend, and I shall call my friend Kitty (D 181–182).
27. Interestingly, these modifiers were deleted in the second version of the entry; they appear only in the first draft of the entry of March 29, 1944.
28. Miep Gies, Anne Frank Remembered: The Story of a Woman Who Helped to Hide the Frank Family (New York, 1987), p. 165.
29. Ricoeur, Vol. 1, pp. 66–67.
30. Frank Kermode, The Sense of Ending (New York, 1967), p. 6.
31. Ibid., p. 8.
32. Ibid., p. 30.
33. Ibid., pp. 38–39.
34. Ibid., p. 109.
35. Ibid., p. 8.
36. Aristotle, “Poetics,” Criticism: Major Texts, edited by Walter Jackson Bate (New York, 1952), p. 20.
37. Ibid., pp. 24–25.
38. Ibid., p. 24.
39. Ibid., p. 27.
40. Ibid., p. 36.
41. Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be (London, 1961), p. 77.
42. Lawrence Rosenwald, Emerson and the Art of the Diary (New York, 1988), p. 6.
43. Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution (London, 1911), pp. 359–360.
44. Rosenwald, p. 22.
45. See, for instance, the conclusion of Sholom Aleichem’s story “The Haunted Tailor,” which ends with the following address to the reader: “It was not a good ending. The tale began cheerfully enough, and it ended as most such happy stories do—badly. . . . Then let the maker of the tale take his leave of you smiling, and let him wish you, Jews—and all mankind—more laughter than tears. Laughter is good for you. Doctors prescribe laughter.” The Best of Sholom Aleichem, edited by Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse (New York, 1979), p. 36.
46. Anne sees her writing as work. On April 4, 1944, she writes: “I must work, so as not to be a fool, to get on, to become a journalist, because that’s what I want . . . I am the best and the sharpest critic of my own work. I know myself what is and what is not well written” (D 586–587). In the April 6, 1944 entry she begins the list of her hobbies: “First of all: writing, but that hardly counts as a hobby” (D 589).
47. Georges Gusdorf, “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography,” in Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, edited by James Olney (Princeton, 1980), p. 44.
48. Margaret A. Farley, Personal Commitments: Beginning, Keeping, Changing (San Francisco, 1986), p. 43.
49. Berryman, p. 104.
50. Ibid., p. 93.
51. Steven E. Kagle, American Diary Literature 1620–1799 (Boston, 1979), p. 17.
52. See, for instance, the following, statement in the entry of Nov. 7, 1942: “I’m not jealous of Margot, never have been. . . . It is only that I long for Daddy’s real love: not only as his child, but for me—Anne, myself” (D 295).
53. See in the same entry as above: “. . . I have in my mind’s eye an image of what a perfect mother and wife should be; and in her whom I must call ‘Mother’ I find no trace of that image” (D 297).
54. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago, 1958), p. 236.
55. André Gide, Journals, trans. Justin O’Brien (Harmondsworth, 1978), pp. 18–19.
56. Ernst Schnabel, Anne Frank: A Portrait in Courage, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (New York, 1958), pp. 168–169.