If you’ve ever read the Diary of Anne Frank you’ll know that it was a tragic story. You probably cried reading it, and then afterwards you probably spent a while thinking about the other six million, and the stories that didn’t get told. And because six million is too immeasurable a number, maybe you narrowed it down a bit. You wonder about Anne’s friends, her sister’s friends, and her parents’ friends. Their stories didn’t get told either. A whole generation of voices, silenced, wiped out, and removed from history.
This is what Anne’s diary was meant to provoke when it was published by Otto Frank, her father, the sole survivor of his family. It was the story of one girl, a girl who just wanted to be a normal teenager. It is the story of how all that was ripped away from her before she ever even got the chance to experience it. Beyond that, it is the untold story of another 1.5 million children. It wasn’t a dramatic fairytale, it didn’t have a happily ever after. Anne was just a girl, forced to hide in an attic, until one day they came to take her away.
However, as the world moved on, people found it increasingly hard to respect Anne’s story the way her father had hoped they would. Armed with incredible disconnect, many people enjoy linking every inconvenient event to the holocaust, and Anne’s diary has become romanticized, idealised, and even worshipped.
The world right now is in the grip of a global pandemic that has forced people inside and away from our usually busy lives. Unfortunately, boredom breeds bad ideas, and one such idea has been popular online as more and more people begin to compare the current situation to the one that Anne Frank, and millions of other Jews in the holocaust, found themselves in.
“Anne Frank spent two years hiding in an attic and we’ve been at home with Netflix, food delivery, and video games” one such tweet read.
“I understand how Anne Frank felt now, bout to get myself a l’il diary” read another.
These things are of course shocking and upsetting to read as descendants of holocaust survivors, but they only scratch the surface of the problem. One of the above tweets was poorly thought out, a motivational, albeit privileged, message which backfired, and the other can be passed off as a terrible joke, one that shouldn’t have been made but a joke nonetheless.
However, when you look past these, there is a much more worrying reality. There is a whole subculture of teens and young adults on the internet who worship Anne Frank but are entirely ignorant about who she really was, both at the same time.
Her memory is used to promote various political talking points such as free healthcare (“Anne Frank died because of unsanitary conditions”) and LGBT rights (“Anne Frank was persecuted because she was bisexual”) and she is even used as a twisted form of black humour (Drag Queen Trixie Mattel’s impersonation of her on her Drag Race audition tape). People feel free to claim her story, to twist and morph it into whichever political talking point they need to use it for, but very rarely do they understand the full implications of what this means.
When Otto Frank published Anne’s diary, he was giving up his private memories of his daughter in order to share a message with the world. It wasn’t a political message. It wasn’t one of heroism, or an act of revolution. It was the story of a young girl who had life got stolen away from her. It was the story of a girl who should have been playing on the streets of Amsterdam with her friends, and instead she died just weeks before the end of the war, far away from the friends and family she had once known.
It is almost easy to understand why people romanticize this. In publishing her diary, Otto handed the memory of his daughter over to the public. He wanted to share her with them, hoped they’d take something greater than themselves away from it. Unfortunately, the opposite happened. People read the story of Anne Frank, the simple girl from Amsterdam, and began to see themselves in her. They romanticized the parts of her that they felt connected to and discarded the rest. Unencumbered the history of genocide and persecution, people felt they could twist her story into whatever shape they wanted it to be. If they wanted to make a point about healthcare, they said she died because of unsanitary conditions. If they want to talk about LGBT+ people erased from history, they quote intensely private parts of her diary, claiming that she was bisexual. Her story is twisted and shaped and reshaped, again, and again, and again.
The Diary of Anne Frank was the testament of a young girl living her life in the face of meaningless persecution, existing even as she was hated and hunted by the world. She was one child, one victim of the holocaust, and at the same time as she was every child, and every victim. Her story represents the 1.5 million stories that never got told. And yet, even this one simple story, of one young girl who hid in an attic for two years only to die alone in Bergen Belsen, could never be left well enough alone.