The widely held understanding about Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl is reasonably straightforward: it’s a young girl’s diary, lightly edited by her father for publication in the years following her tragic death in a German concentration camp. The book is read in schools all over the world, though many adults may have clearer recollections of the play or movie, both seemingly faithful adaptations of the diary. But the discrepancy between what is considered common knowledge and the greater truth of the story surrounding Anne’s book and its adaptations has been hotly contested.
The Frank family—Otto, Edith, daughters Margot and little Anne—relocated from their home in Frankfurt, Germany in 1933, around the same time as Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor. Sensing trouble brewing, the Franks moved to Amsterdam, where Otto had business associates who helped him establish a spice company called Opetka Works. The Franks made their new home in the River Quarter, a developing community of other well-to-do German-Jewish immigrant families.
Life was comfortable for the Frank family in Amsterdam until the Germans invaded on May 10, 1940. The Dutch government was completely unprepared for the attack and capitulated after only five days of fighting. Hoping to impress Dutch Aryans, the Germans were slow to impose their typically harsh restrictions on Dutch Jews. But by 1941, severe anti-Semitic laws descended. Curfews were imposed, and Jews were removed from their jobs and banned from almost all public places. In January of 1942, Adolf Eichmann and other high-ranking Nazi officials devised “The Final Solution” to exterminate all European Jews, now easily identified in Nazi-occupied lands by the mandatory yellow star affixed to their garments.
That same month, the Frank family applied for “voluntary emigration.” Denied this request, Otto began to plan an alternative escape for his family, one so close and obvious it wouldn’t be expected: a hiding place above the Opetka offices at 263 Prisengracht in the center of Amsterdam. Despite their secret preparations, the Franks tried to maintain a semblance of normalcy. On June 12, 1942, they celebrated Anne’s 13th birthday with a party and a large pile of gifts. Among these presents was a little red-and-white-checkered, cloth-bound diary.
Anne made her first diary entry on June 20, 1942—the same day, Eichmann and the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Berlin initiated a program to send 40,000 Dutch Jews to Auschwitz. The date of the first scheduled deportation was July 5; coincidentally the same day that teenaged Margot Frank received a “call-up” notice to report to Westerbork, a transitory Dutch labor camp. The Frank family sprang into action and moved into the secret annex early the next morning, letting neighbors believe they had escaped to Switzerland.
They were joined a week later by the Van Pels family: Hermann, a partner at Opetka, his wife, Auguste, and their son, Peter. That November, a dentist named Fritz Pfeffer joined life in the annex. Using pseudonyms in her diary, Anne recorded these arrivals, referring to the Van Pelses as the “Van Daans,” and Pfeffer as “Alfred Dussel.” She also changed the names of some of the annex group’s Dutch friends who helped them while in hiding, although Miep Gies, who would famously rescue Anne’s writing, was called by her real name.
Much of what is understood about life in the secret annex is from Anne’s diary. However, a significant factor in the diary’s history is less well known. Among the many items smuggled into the annex was a contraband radio, which allowed the occupants regular access to war reports. One such broadcast from the Dutch government exiled in London was vital to Anne’s record-keeping. Gerrit Bolkestein, minister of education, art and science, issued a statement on March 29, 1944, calling for Dutch citizens to save “ordinary documents”—letters, diaries—in hopes of building a national archive. (This vision would ultimately be realized as the contemporary Netherlands Institute for War Documentation.)
Anne, who by this time had filled not only her diary, but also several other notebooks with chronicles of life in the annex, took Minister Bolkestein’s speech as a personal directive. Having composed several entries in which she expressed her desire to write professionally and “live on after her death,” the idea of preserving her work in a national archive must have been deeply appealing. Titling her work, Het Achterhuis, or “The House Behind,” Anne dedicated herself to a rigorous re-writing process: refining, re-ordering, clarifying, cutting and expanding diary entries from multiple volumes.
On August 1, 1944, Anne wrote her last “current” diary entry. On August 4, Dutch Nazi police acted on an informant’s tip and raided the secret annex. After four days in Amsterdam’s Gestapo prison, the Franks, the Van Pelses and Pfeffer were sent to the dreaded Westerbork camp. September saw the last Dutch shipment of Jews to Auschwitz, and with it, all the former occupants of the annex. They arrived on September 6, and Hermann Van Pels died several weeks later. By October, Anne and Margot had been transferred together to Bergen-Belsen in Germany, where they both would perish in March of 1945. Edith Frank died in Auschwitz just after the new year; Auguste and Peter Pels and Fritz Pfeffer were killed in different camps nearby.
Only Otto Frank would survive and make his way back to Amsterdam to learn the fate of his family and friends. Miep Gies, who had hidden the diary in hope of Anne’s return, took Otto in. The story goes that, hearing of Anne’s death, Miep pressed the diary into Otto’s hands. He locked himself in his former office just floors below the annex and did not emerge for several hours. After several readings, Otto was firmly convinced his daughter had intended to publish Het Achterhuis, so he set about editing and translating.
Much debate has ensued about the various versions of the diary. Accusations run from sentimental to extreme. Relatives of annex occupants have disliked Anne’s depictions of their loved ones; other readers have criticized Otto’s removal of more overtly sexual, religious or intimate family observations. Neo-Nazi critique of the diary gained ground as early as 1957, with a Swedish newspaper article implying that the diary, much like reportage of the war itself, was forged. Similar theories emerged sporadically throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, finally prompting the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation to issue The Revised Critical Edition of the Diary of Anne Frank.
Released in English in 2003, The Revised Critical Edition replaced five controversial pages removed by Otto (discovered after his death in 1981), provided analysis of Anne’s handwriting in defense of her true authorship and encapsulated the three major versions of the book. The original first draft of Anne’s diary is referred to as the “a” version by scholars. “B” version contains the edited work she completed in the months following Bolkestein’s radio broadcast; the “c” version is Otto Frank’s, drawn from both “a” and “b” source materials, as well as some of Anne’s collected short stories. It was the “c” version that was first published in Dutch in 1947, then in French in 1950 and it remains the version taught in schools. It was this book which made its way into the hands of Meyer Levin.
Meyer Levin was born in Chicago in 1905 to Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants. As a cub reporter during the Leopold and Loeb murder trial of 1924, Levin made a name for himself as a writer, and would go on to author several respected novels. In 1944 and 1945, he served as a military journalist with the US Army’s Fourth Armored Division and was among the first Americans to encounter the scope of destruction and cruelty wrought by the concentration camps. Levin’s personal struggle to establish an American Jewish identity had previously been the crux of much of his writing; viewing the carnage of Nazi hatred was an overwhelming and pivotal experience.
In the following years, Levin dedicated himself to a massive autobiographical work entitled In Search. A full section of the book discussed the implications of the Holocaust on Jewish identity throughout the diaspora, and Levin, feeling unable to articulate the degree of devastation in Europe, called for a voice with greater insight, able to offer the world better explanation of the horrors than he could. He hoped that “some day, a teller would arise.” It was at this point in 1950, that Levin read The Diary of a Young Girl, and found the voice he’d been looking for.
Levin wasted no time contacting Otto Frank. Sending a copy of In Search as proof of his gravity as a well-known, published Jewish writer, Levin offered his services as the Diary’s book agent for an English-language translation. He made it clear that he sought no financial compensation, but in exchange asked for rights to adapt the book for the stage. Otto Frank accepted his proposal, striking a gentleman’s agreement between them. Levin’s personal efforts to secure a publisher were fruitless, though Otto Frank had better luck. The Valentine Mitchell company accepted the manuscript for British publication, and on April 9, 1951, a contract was signed with Doubleday in New York.
Otto Frank was gracious in reassuring Levin that his services would not be overlooked. Doubleday enlisted Eleanor Roosevelt to write an introduction to the Diary and persuaded Levin to write a crucial review for the New York Times Book Review, published on June 15, 1952. The book was a smash success, in no small part due to Levin’s article, selling out its first edition in only 10 days, with second and third printings of 10,000 copies each ordered. Within weeks, top New York producers were scrambling for theatrical rights.
In the summer of 1952, Doubleday awarded these rights to Cheryl Crawford, well known for her affiliation with the Group Theatre and her success producing Brigadoon, Porgy and Bess and Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy on Broadway. Crawford’s impulse was to commission an adaptation co-authored by Odets and Lillian Hellman, although Maxwell Anderson, Elia Kazan and Thornton Wilder were also suggested. Made aware of Otto Frank’s promise to Meyer Levin, Crawford gave Levin two months to draft his version.
Levin’s adaptation of Anne’s book was incredibly faithful, utilizing her own language, retaining her spirituality and grounding the play in somber tones of war. Although her first response to Levin’s script was positive, Crawford passed on his adaptation. On Yom Kippur 1952, Otto Frank arrived in New York and retained a lawyer, who assured him that Levin had no legal entitlement to theatrical rights but should be granted the opportunity to shop his version to a list of producers approved by Doubleday. No willing party emerged, and Levin issued claims that a community of Stalin-supporting, anti-Semitic theatre professionals were censoring and discriminating against his work because it was “too Jewish.”
A quick word about Levin’s wild claims: by the time the US entered World War II, the country had a flourishing Jewish community, with many actively trying to assimilate. The dozens of publications and theatre performances conducted in Yiddish and Hebrew had dwindled in a first-born generation’s desire to suppress an old-world identity and move toward a more American culture. Scholars of Anne Frank’s diary have suggested that this social milieu was responsible for the initial difficulty of finding a publisher, and that the witch hunts of the McCarthy era and the House Un-American Committee (HUAC) hearings reinforced old fears of anti-Semitism.
For Levin, whose other work centered on these particular themes, and whose convictions about a faithful (in his mind, meaning Jewish) adaptation of The Diary of a Young Girl were so strong, any blow to his ambition was devastating. Levin was incensed by Otto Frank’s own insistence that the play be accessible to a universal audience, as well as by Doubleday’s addition of HUAC-blacklisted playwright Lillian Hellman to their production team. Levin found Hellman a symbol for his greatest fears: in his mind, she embodied the worst sort of anti-Semitic, Communist values. Levin would ultimately accuse her of leading a left-wing conspiracy to purge the diary of all Holocaust references.
Antagonized by Levin’s continuing public accusations and suffering financial duress, Cheryl Crawford withdrew from the project in 1953, and well-known Broadway producer Kermit Bloomgarden took the reins. Hellman, as his valued artistic advisor, recommended a succession of writers (among them novelist Carson McCullers) before Bloomgarden commissioned the husband-and-wife screenwriting team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. The Hacketts would ultimately write 32 screenplays together and contribute to the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. When they began their adaptation of Anne’s diary, they had already won a Writer’s Guild Award and been nominated for several Academy Awards.
The research conducted by the Hacketts was extensive. They visited Otto Frank and the secret annex in Amsterdam, consulted a rabbi in Los Angeles and read dozens of books about Jewish culture and history. In September 1954, they showed a draft to Hellman, who made some structural suggestions about the play, prompting a complaint of plagiarism from Meyer Levin. By that winter, Levin had found a lawyer willing to represent him in a suit against Otto Frank and Cheryl Crawford, so he sued for breach of contract—an unfounded lawsuit, considering there had never been a signed contract.
It ultimately took eight laborious drafts to arrive at a play that satisfied Doubleday, Frank and Bloomgarden, whose instruction had been to create a lighthearted comedy that could still reference “the war and all its misery and pain and wasted hope.” The Diary of Anne Frank opened on Broadway October 5, 1955, and won both the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award that year. In December 1956, Meyer Levin filed another lawsuit, this time against Frank and Bloomgarden. Financial settlements were reached, but Levin would continue to torment Frank for the rest of his life, accusing him of betraying his daughter and the message she wished the world to understand.
The Diary of a Young Girl has sold more than 20 million copies in more than 50 languages. The play has been performed all over the world, and Twentieth Century Fox’s 1959 film instigated an international casting competition and won multiple accolades. A result often attributed to the popularity of the Broadway play, Anne Frank’s story inspired countless adaptations, documentaries and re-imaginings and catapulted her to celebrity status, making her vulnerable to deep admiration and virulent attack.
Beyond claims of forgery by those who deny the Holocaust, Anne’s diary and its dramatic interpretations have instigated controversy in reaches far beyond Meyer Levin. Her writing has been disparaged by concentration camp survivors and students of literature alike for neglecting to mention the horrors of war. The Hacketts’ play has been derided as safe and sentimental, refusing to acknowledge religion and thereby satisfying a Nazi desire for Jewish invisibility. On the other end of the spectrum, her musings of self-reflection have been compared to the writings of St. Augustine, her character to that of Antigone or Joan of Arc, her style of prose similar to that of a young Jane Austen.
The urgency of Meyer Levin’s desire to preserve Anne’s own voice was equaled by the need of Otto Frank, Kermit Bloomgarden and the Hacketts to maintain the story’s humor in the face of bleak circumstances—to provide a source of hope in the worst of circumstances. They battled over something Anne Frank was fully capable of on her own: inspiring millions of readers and viewers. Nelson Mandela has spoken of reading her book during his own prison sentence, and the diary is among the texts most widely read by incarcerated Americans.
Anne Frank and her diary remain deeply familiar, disproving scholars’ fears that the impact of her voice might fade with the passage of time. In fact, the opposite seems true: as evidenced by award-winning documentaries, puppet shows, musicals and an anime series, as well as dozens of philanthropic organizations and novels that imagine Anne as an adult. Some are wildly controversial and some have been published as recently as June 2010. Despite decades of controversy, Anne’s story continues to affect and provoke, and the diary still speaks articulately and with humor about human cruelty and the power to overcome.
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Anne Frank(1929 – 1945)
Meyer Levin (1905 – 1981)