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A ‘symbol of an unfulfilled promise’

From June 12, 1942, to Aug. 1, 1944, Anne Frank kept a diary of her family’s life in hiding in the secret annex of an Ams­terdam ware­house. But on Aug. 4, 1944, Frank and her family were cap­tured by the Nazi Gestapo and trans­ported to a deten­tion camp in Hol­land and then to Auschwitz in Poland. Frank was later trans­ferred to Germany’s Bergen-​​Belsen con­cen­tra­tion camp, where she died of typhus in March 1945. Her diary was pub­lished posthu­mously and even­tu­ally trans­lated into more than 60 lan­guages. We asked Lori Lefkovitz, Rud­erman Pro­fessor and director of the Jewish Studies pro­gram, to expound upon the impact of Frank’s diary on the global under­standing of the Holocaust.

What impact has Anne Frank’s diary had on the global understanding of the Holocaust?

The child­hood reflec­tions of Anne Frank, written in the Dutch attic where she hid with seven others from the Nazis from 1942 until 1944, have given the world one small entryway into the dec­i­ma­tion of Euro­pean Jewry. Anne’s edited and revised notebooks—which have sold more than 30 mil­lion copies, been trans­lated into more than 60 lan­guages, and been the basis for wildly pop­ular dramas and literature—put the face, con­vic­tions, expe­ri­ences, aspi­ra­tions and tragic death of one artic­u­late, loving girl to an incom­pre­hen­sibly enor­mous story of human cru­elty and his­tor­ical cat­a­strophe. In this record of daily life, 13-​​year-​​old Frank expressed the ordi­nary strug­gles and hopes of a person coming of age under extra­or­di­nary cir­cum­stances. A world of readers could relate to her unflag­ging belief in people and grieve her abrupt death.

The edited diaries, which Anne her­self dreamed of one day pub­lishing, inspired many people to learn more about the events of the World War II, and per­haps more impor­tant, to learn about the cul­ture that was destroyed. When the world was ready to begin the still ongoing process of com­pre­hending the events of the Shoah, her per­sonal tes­ti­mony was an invalu­able early step. Now a classic text, the diary demon­strates the power of a single work and writer to reach into the hearts of people around the world and over the gen­er­a­tions. Its impact has been tremendous.

How has Anne Frank’s legacy helped shape the cultural memory of the Holocaust for survivors and the cultural identity for modern Jewish culture?

Cul­tural memory refers to how a group, col­lec­tively, thinks about its own past and how that past pro­vides a foun­da­tion for future iden­tity. It refers to the legacy of his­tory as it affects the living. The well-​​known pho­to­graph of Anne’s face inspires nos­talgia for a gen­er­a­tion of people whose lives were cut short and about whose con­tri­bu­tions we can only fan­ta­size. What novels and his­to­ries might Anne Frank have written had she been per­mitted to live into old age? What of the chil­dren and grand­chil­dren she might have had? Anne is a symbol of promise unful­filled. She is also an inspi­ra­tion. To the very end, she pro­fessed her belief that people are good. Her legacy is part of a larger modern Jewish self-​​identity as a people who remem­bers the past and its ances­tors with rev­er­ence, and is ded­i­cated to hon­oring their mem­o­ries by doing good works and by living Jewish lives true to the noblest values of Judaism’s ancient traditions.

Eleanor Roosevelt described Frank’s diary as “one of the wisest and most moving commentaries on war and its impact on human beings that I have ever read.” Why is this book, among so many others written about the Holocaust, so beloved?

This book is beloved because Anne Frank is lov­able. She kept an honest record of inti­mate rela­tion­ships and expressed her feel­ings sin­cerely and beau­ti­fully. The world has loved this book because it affirms the value of every life — of our own lives  — not because we do great things but because we live in rela­tion­ships and in com­mu­ni­ties. Roo­sevelt appre­ci­ated the power of the book to make us feel the impact of war, which wrenches people out of the rou­tine efforts to live pro­duc­tively and, in the case of chil­dren, deprives them of the right to grow to adulthood.

Many works about the Holo­caust are wise, moving and richly infor­ma­tive. This one stands out because, as a simple elo­quent record of one person, it became a shared cul­tural arti­fact. Anne is part of the world’s child­hood. We have her in common as someone we once knew, loved and lost. The uni­ver­sal­izing of the diary has brought us closer to one another and invites us to mutual caring.

by Kara Shemin

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