Europe & Britain | Inspiration

How Anne Frank became a historical icon

Anne Frank may have been just 13 when she began her diary, but she went on to become an internationally acclaimed author, penning the most famous document of the Holocaust. Over 30 million copies sold worldwide in over 70 languages and every year, more than a million people visit the building where Anne hid during the Holocaust. So how did Anne’s diary go from a pile of papers in a ransacked attic to the global phenomenon that became a symbol of the six million Jewish people murdered during the Holocaust? We look at the extraordinary story of Anne Frank and her diary.

“I don’t think of all the misery but of the beauty that still remains.”

Anne Frank

Who was Anne Frank?

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Anne Frank was a German-Jewish teenager born 12 June 1929 in Frankfurt, Germany. Her family moved to Amsterdam in the Netherlands when she was 5. They were forced to go into hiding in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam during the Holocaust of World War II.

Anne received a red and white checkered diary as a gift on her 13th birthday and began recording entries on 13 June 1942. She originally planned to use the diary as a place to write down her innermost thoughts and observations about her friends, family and school. However, it soon became an incredible record of the Holocaust, as Anne and her family (her father Otto, mother Edith and older sister Margot) went into hiding less than a month after she received the diary, on 6 July 1942. 

“Writing in a diary is a really strange experience for someone like me. Not only because I’ve never written anything before, but also because it seems to me that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a thirteen-year-old school girl. Oh well, it doesn’t matter. I feel like writing.”

Anne Frank

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How long was Anne Frank in hiding?

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Anne Frank and her family hid with four other people in a concealed attic space in her father’s office building for two years and one month. During that time, they had friends who helped them remain hidden and would bring them food, clothes and other necessities. Anne kept up her diary throughout her time in the ‘Secret Annex’. She wrote her entries as letters to imaginary friends.

“I know what I want, I have a goal, an opinion, I have a religion and love. 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.”

Anne Frank

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What did Anne write about?

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She wrote about their daily life, revealing her thoughts, fears and dreams, and about the seven other people in hiding including her parents, sister, Hermann and Auguste van Pels, their son Peter, and dentist Fritz Pfeffer, along with their helpers on the outside. There is great detail about their living space, their daily routines, the great efforts it took to remain hidden, their arguments and relationships, their thoughts on the war, and notes from radio broadcasts. She also wrote poems, short stories and essays during her time in the Secret Annex.

In some ways, she was an ordinary teenager, agonising over romantic interests, conflicts with her family and her changing body. In many other ways, she was truly exceptional, clever and witty, with insightful observations on everything from the war to human nature and the pursuit of happiness.

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“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 shall 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 realize them!”

Anne Frank

Anne’s dreams of writing

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Anne was an incredible writer and she had dreams of becoming a professional writer. After hearing a radio broadcast in March 1944 from the Dutch minister for education, art and science, Anne thought more about her diary as a potential book. The Dutch minister, who was in exile in London, said “History cannot be written on the basis of official decisions and documents alone. What we really need are ordinary documents—a diary, letters.” 

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After hearing this broadcast, Anne decided to rewrite her diary with the hopes of it being published after the war. She edited the content for clarity and made pseudonyms for the people mentioned in the book. 

American novelist Francine Prose wrote, “The differences between Anne’s initial efforts and her revisions vary from trivial to profound and deepen our respect for her as a writer.” Her remarkable observations and writing ability, along with her striking bravery and optimism despite the horrors, has ensured Anne her place in history as one of the greatest literary and historical figures.

“I know I can write, but…it remains to be seen whether I really have talent.”

Anne Frank

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What happened to Anne Frank?

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On 4 August 1944, Anne Frank and the group in the Secret Annex were betrayed. The Nazi police were tipped off about their location and they stormed the hideaway. They arrested everyone inside, deporting them to separate concentration camps. Anne was sent to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany with her sister, Margot. After enduring months of horrifying conditions, Margot died of typhus. Soon after, in March 1945, Anne also died of typhus and starvation, just weeks before British forces liberated Bergen-Belsen on 15 April 1945. She was only 15. 

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Of the eight people hiding in the attic, Anne’s father, Otto Frank, was the only one to survive. He came home from the liberated Auschwitz concentration camp to discover his whole family had been murdered. He thankfully found that all of their helpers had survived the war, including Miep Gies, who had retrieved Anne’s diary from the ransacked attic. She had locked it in a draw to await its author’s return, but when Anne never came home, she gave it to Otto. “Here is your daughter Anne’s legacy to you”, she said, giving him the now famous red-checkered diary.

“What is done cannot be undone, but one can prevent it happening again.”

Anne Frank

The publication of Anne’s diary

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The diary shocked Otto. He said, “The Anne that appeared before me was very different from the daughter I had lost. I had had no idea of the depth of her thoughts and feelings.” He became determined to publish her diary and translated it into German, making his own edits and excluding some passages about sexual content and conflict between Anne and her mother (those passages have since been included in revised editions of the diary). 

Otto struggled to find a publisher willing to take the book as most people wanted to leave the horrors of the war behind at that time. However, in 1947, he found a publisher and the diary was released in Amsterdam. The book was a combination of both Anne’s private diary and the one she edited for publication. It was titled Het Achterhuis (The House Behind) – Anne’s chosen title. In 1952, it was published in the US and the UK as Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.

“Everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!”

Anne Frank

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The legacy of Anne Frank

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Anne’s book has sold more than 30 million copies, inspired award-winning movie and theatre versions, and is even required reading in schools all over the world. Otto Frank also entrusted the original manuscript to the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation.

Anne was only 13 when she began writing about her life and wartime experiences, yet she was a remarkable author and editor. Although her bright future as a writer was cruelly snuffed out when she was betrayed and murdered, her words live on in her extraordinary work. They continue to inspire millions today.

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

Anne Frank

Have you read the incredible story of Anne Frank? Let us know in the comments below.

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