June 12, 1942 — Anne Frank received a present on this, her 13th birthday. It was a diary and the entries she would go on to make in it would make her tragically short life an inspiration to millions. Her first words, written on that day, were: “I hope I shall be able to confide in you completely, as I have never been able to do in anyone before, and I hope that you will be a great support and comfort to me.”
The daughter of a Jewish industrialist, Anne was born in 1929 as Annelies Marie Frank at Frankfurt, Germany. Her father, Otto, was a German businessman who served as a lieutenant in the German army during the First World War.
But amid rising anti-Semitism and Nazi persecution of Jews, Otto moved his family to Amsterdam in the autumn of 1933. The Franks were among 300,000 Jews who fled Germany between 1933 and 1939.
In Amsterdam Otto ran a company called Opekta that sold spices and pectin used in the manufacture of jam.
Anne and her sister Margot went to a local school and were relatively happy. That began to change on 10 May 1940 when the German army invaded the Netherlands.
Two years later, on 5 July 1942, Margot received an official summons to report to a Nazi work camp. Her father was having none of it so the next day the Frank family went into hiding, moving into a secret annex in the offices of Otto's company.
Hiding alongside them were another Jewish family and, later, a Jewish dentist. They all spent two years in this hiding place, never once stepping outside. The entrance to the annex was concealed by a large bookcase.
Four of Otto’s loyal employees brought food and other necessities as well as news about the outside world. They knew that if they were caught they would be executed for helping Jews, but they did it anyway.
Anne passed much of the time reading and writing in her diary. She started each entry with the words “Dear Kitty”, an imaginary friend. Written over the course of two years, the diary details the time that her family spent in hiding as well as the feelings of a frustrated and “ordinary” teenager, struggling to live in a confined space.
For all its passages of despair, the diary is essentially a story of faith, hope and love in the face of hate. On 15 July 1944 Anne wrote: “It's difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It's a wonder I haven't abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.
“It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions.
“And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too will end, that peace and tranquility will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals. Perhaps the day will come when I’ll be able to realise them!”
Anne’s suffering was to take a decisive plunge on the morning of 4 August 1944 when the Gestapo stormed into the secret annex and arrested everyone inside. For years it was believed that someone called the Germans and told them that Jews were living in the Opekta premises.
However, the identity of this alleged caller was never confirmed and a later theory suggests that the Nazis may have discovered the annex by accident while investigating reports of ration-coupon fraud and illegal employment at Opekta.
The occupants of the annex were taken to a transit camp in the Netherlands. Because they were in hiding when arrested they were considered to be criminals and were punished with hard labour.
Then it was on to the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. Upon arrival at Auschwitz, all men were separated from their families and all prisoners considered unfit for work were sent to the gas chambers, along with everyone under the age of fifteen. Anne had turned fifteen three months before being captured so she was spared.
Women and girls not selected for immediate death – Anne being one of them – had to strip naked and were then disinfected. Their heads were shaved and an identity number tattooed on their arms. Anne and Margot spent several months enduring hard labour at Auschwitz, lifting heavy stones and cutting rolls of turf.
During the winter of 1944, the two sisters were transferred to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, without their mother, Edith, who fell ill and died of hunger at Auschwitz.
At Bergen-Belsen diseases such as typhoid fever raged through the camp and in early 1945 a typhus epidemic killed about 17,000 prisoners including, it is believed, Anne and Margot – just a few weeks before the camp was liberated by British forces. The exact date of Anne’s death is not known but it is thought she died in either February or March of that year.
Otto was held at Auschwitz until its liberation in January 1945 and afterwards returned to Amsterdam, learning of his wife’s death en route. He learned of his daughters’ deaths in July 1945 after meeting a woman who had been at Bergen-Belsen with them.
Following the arrest of those in the annex, Anne’s diary was retrieved by Miep Gies, one of the trusted friends who had helped the Franks during their time in hiding. Gies gave the diary to Otto in July 1945 following confirmation of Anne’s death by the Red Cross.
Otto eventually gathered the strength to read it. He was awestruck by what he read and later had it published. "There was revealed a completely different Anne to the child that I had lost," he wrote in a letter. "I had no idea of the depths of her thoughts and feelings."
Published as The Diary of a Young Girl, the work has been translated into as many as 70 languages and more than 30 million copies.
Anne Frank's diary endures, not only because of the remarkable events she described, but due to her extraordinary gifts as a storyteller and her indefatigable spirit through even the most horrific of circumstances.
Published: May 28, 2019