The Girl in the Attic

Jenny Diski

I wonder if to be Jewish is to be by definition lonely in the world – not as a result of the history, but on account of the theology. If ardent young men attending the yeshiva have traditionally engaged each other in intense arguments nagging at the nicer points of interpreting the Torah, it is surely because the Jewish God is notorious for evading questions directed at him. Was there ever such a one for sliding out of an argument as Jahweh? The last time he responded to a direct question must have been when the blameless Job, suffering a foreshadowing of the 20th century with the loss of his children, his worldly goods and afflicted with all manner of physical ills, demanded – quite politely under the circumstances – to know why of his maker. ‘Where,’ boomed the Lord, ‘wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? ... Hath the rain a father? ... Out of whose womb came the ice? ... Canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook?’ All interesting questions, but not really to Job’s point. God does not seem to be a good communicator. Too busy with the overall scheme of things, perhaps. He’ll give out ten blanket rules, but he won’t tell you why your life seems to be so bloody difficult lately. The problem of the senior executive without the common touch. Catholicism seems to have understood the Almighty’s failing and provided its faithful with a bevy of more approachable under-managers, each with their own speciality, willing and able to intercede with on high on behalf of the baffled individual. A Catholic knows exactly who to apply to when hoping for better health, safe travel, release from drudgery or persecution. There is a saint for almost everything that ails you. For the Jews, however, there is only a single very busy, self-important and fractious God. So it seemed to me when I was young. I was troubled by the unreliability of prayer, rather as one feels anxious about sending important letters to large organisations.

Anne Frank is the only Jewish saint. I first read the diary of Anne Frank when I was about the same age as she was when she began to write it. She seemed to me perfectly to fit the bill as a possible intercessor. Perhaps, in the years after the war, young Jewish girls all over Europe discovered her as a saint all their own: someone to share the miseries of pre-adolescence, someone to turn to in times of aching solitariness within their raucous families, who would without doubt understand. She sounded so like oneself, and yet she was dead, which gave her a necessary gravitas. She may have personified the Holocaust for millions of adults – the diary is the most widely read non-fiction book after the Bible – but for me, aged 12 or 13, she simply told the story of what it is like to be 12 or 13 in a world where no one seems to be listening to you. Read the diary without hindsight (impossible for any adult, of course, but not so difficult when you are a child looking for a literary friend) and it is a masterly description of the sorrows and turmoil of any bright, raging, self-dramatising young girl. Read in this way, in the way I first read it, the sequestration becomes peripheral, the fear of capture secondary. ‘I don’t fit in with them’ is an early and continuous complaint that for me, at the time, quite overrode Anne Frank’s particular circumstances. Being locked in an attic in fear of one’s life was, to my mind, just another version of being trapped with the family. What counted was someone who looked not very different from me, saying precisely what was on my mind. Anne Frank, wanting to be a writer, precocious, isolated, furiously adolescent and angry with her family, was the point.

Last night I went downstairs in the dark, all by myself ... I stood at the top of the stairs while German planes flew back and forth, and I knew I was on my own, that I couldn’t count on others for support. My fear vanished. I looked up at the sky and trusted in God. I have an intense need to be alone. Father noticed I’m not my usual self, but I can’t tell him what’s bothering me. All I want to do is scream: ‘Let me be, leave me alone!’

I knew that the war, the Holocaust and the tragedy of a young and pointless death was what I was supposed to be reading the diary for, but I was far too engaged with her inner story to pay much attention to the other stuff. Now, of course, reading it from the other end of the age telescope the story looks a little ambiguous. Quite a good family, as families go: liberal, affectionate, willing to tolerate the moods of a difficult adolescent, and under an unimaginable pressure. There’s a new sympathy for Mrs Frank as she turns away from her daughter, who has refused to allow her to listen to her prayers instead of her father: ‘ “I don’t want to be angry with you. I can’t make you love me!” A few tears slid down her cheeks as she went out of the door.’ Anne’s main complaint against Mrs Frank is that she doesn’t take her seriously. ‘The truth is that she has rejected me,’ she writes after this incident. ‘She’s the one whose tactless comments and cruel jokes about matters I don’t think are funny have made me insensitive to any sign of love on her part.’ Everybody behaving just how they are supposed to, I think now. A good enough family under any circumstances, let alone theirs.

But imagine the liberation of reading at the age of 12 or 13:

I simply can’t stand Mother ... I don’t know why I’ve taken such a terrible dislike to her. Daddy says that if Mother isn’t feeling well or has a headache, I should volunteer to help her, but I’m not going to because I don’t love her and don’t enjoy doing it. I can imagine Mother dying someday, but Daddy’s death seems inconceivable. It’s very mean of me, but that’s how I feel. I hope Mother will never read this or anything else I’ve written.

In fact, I didn’t read that the first time. That passage from the entry of 3 October 1942 was heavily edited by her father, Otto Frank. The entry I read concluded: ‘Daddy would like me to offer to help Mummy sometimes, when she doesn’t feel well or has a headache, but I won’t. I am working hard at my French and am now reading La Belle Nivernaise.’ This is not just a new translation, but The Definitive Edition of The Diary of a Young Girl. That ‘but I won’t’ was quite thrilling, it suggested a fervent obstinacy which was very attractive, but ‘because I don’t love her and don’t enjoy doing it’ would have offered more than a stubborn young girl, would have given me and the world an Anne Frank who had the horrible honesty of a writer who says what there is to be said, even if it is unspeakable. Niceness was not her project; describing how things were was what she was doing, at first for herself and later with the idea of publication. There are three versions of the diary: Version A is the first unedited diary; Version B is her own edited variant, worked on when, in 1944, Gerrit Bolkestein, a member of the Dutch government in exile, broadcast from London his wish to collect eyewitness accounts of the Dutch Occupation and publish them after the war; Version C is the one Otto Frank cut and culled from Versions A and B and what we have read. There is a Critical Edition which lays out all three versions side by side, so the Definitive Edition is not new, but culled itself, adding about a third more material, but also dropping some of the text. This is the kind of publishing history you might expect of the testimony of a saint; authorised, unauthorised and apocrypha.

It was perfectly reasonable for Otto Frank to censor his daughter’s diaries. Of the eight people in hiding he was the only survivor and Anne’s pent-up peevishness about her mother, sister and the van Daans – who shared the secret Annexe with the Frank family – did not serve the purpose he intended in publishing his dead daughter’s diary. In a schools’ version (Otto Frank’s version, edited by Christopher Martin) published by Longman’s to commemorate the first national Anne Frank Day on 12 June 1996, the inside front cover states: ‘By thinking about Anne Frank and her message to the world, it is hoped that the day will enhance young people’s spiritual, moral, social and cultural development.’ This is not exactly the personal saint I envisaged, but a Jewish version of St Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little White Flower, who was canonised in spite of a complete absence of the usual mandatory miracles, for dying an early death and struggling with her dislike of some of the Sisters in her Carmelite convent. St Anne, like St Thérèse, was offered to the world as an example. Each put up with their respective lots: the Nazis and tuberculosis. What father, and what champion of martyrdom, is going to include his daughter’s detailed description of her vulva (‘In the upper part, between the outer labia, there’s a fold of skin that, on second thought, looks like a kind of blister. That’s the clitoris’), or her haughty dismissal of her mother (‘I need my mother to set a good example and be a person I can respect, but in most matters she’s an example of what not to do’) or her irritation at her father (‘Father’s fondness for talking about farting and going to the lavatory is disgusting’). There are moments of saintlike repentance, but they rarely come without a sting in the tale.

I was offended, took it far too much to heart and was insolent and beastly to her, which, in turn, made her unhappy ... The period of tearfully passing judgment on Mother is over. I’ve grown wiser and Mother’s nerves are a bit steadier. Most of the time I manage to hold my tongue when I’m annoyed, and she does too ... but there’s one thing I can’t do, and that’s to love Mother with the devotion of a child.

Right from the start, the diary was personified. ‘To enhance the image of the long-awaited friend in my imagination, I don’t want to jot down the facts in this diary the way most people would do, but I want the diary to be my friend, and I’m going to call this friend Kitty.’ ‘Dearest Kitty’ is how all the entries begin, and they end, ‘Yours Anne’, or later, ‘Yours Anne M. Frank’. It enables her not just to grumble about her parents and the other members of the Annexe, but also to practise a heroic jauntiness, a public voice: ‘I look upon our life in hiding as an interesting adventure, full of danger and romance, and every privation as an amusing addition to my diary.’ She apologises and tries for distance when a previous entry has sounded depressed, and makes sure that Kitty gets a thorough and up-to-date picture of everyday life in hiding. The beginning of the entry for 13 December 1942 is disturbingly vivid, but also literary, reminiscent of young Jane Eyre reading alone behind the curtains in the window-seat: ‘I’m sitting here nice and cosy in the front office, peering out through a chink in the heavy curtains. It’s dark, but there’s just enough light to write by.’ Making the diary her reader allows Anne Frank to be a writer, to get a sense of the overall work, to balance it, to convey a mood, to reach for an effect.

To Father, peeling potatoes is not a chore, but precision work. When he reads, he has a deep wrinkle in the back of his head. But when he’s preparing potatoes, beans or vegetables, he seems to be totally absorbed in his task. He puts on his potato-peeling face, and when it’s set in that particular way, it would be impossible for him to turn out anything less than a perfectly peeled potato.

This is Anne with her public-writing face on, and there’s pleasure and great sadness in witnessing her working like this. ‘I’ve made up my mind to lead a different life from other girls, and not to become an ordinary housewife later on.’

Her burgeoning love for Peter van Daan is also part of the work. She creates a romance our of poor material, but all there is to hand. Peter, whose name is the same as that of a boy she had a crush on before they went into hiding, serves to practise on. At first he seems to lack qualities of mind and personality she would prefer, but Anne is undaunted and begins to perceive all manner of gentleness and shyness that she can use to transform him into a suitable first love. They sit close and alone watching the stars. The first kiss is breathlessly described to Kitty: ‘How I suddenly made the right movement, I don’t know, but before we went downstairs, he gave me a kiss, through my hair, half on my left cheek and half on my ear. I tore downstairs without looking back, and I long so much for today.’ And then, just a few pages later, the falling away of a passion she couldn’t, and under normal circumstances wouldn’t, be expected to sustain: ‘I forced Peter, more than he realises, to get close to me, and now he’s holding on for dear life. I honestly don’t see any effective way of shaking him off ... I soon realised he would never be a kindred spirit.’

The diary ends with an entry for Tuesday, 1 August 1944, in which she describes herself as a bundle of contradictions, wondering who she would be if she could be truly herself: ‘if only there were no other people in the world.’ Two days later the SS arrive and we are briefly informed in an Afterword of the final fate of the members of the Annexe. There’s a curious hiatus here. We have witnessed Anne Frank’s life and development over a period of two years, then we hear how, seven months later, she died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen just a few days after her sister Margot, and a month before the camp was liberated. But from the moment of discovery in the attic, to her final illness, Anne, who has been so vividly herself, disappears into the mass. We’ve followed her fears, first love, anger and joy, but it is impossible to follow her imaginatively as she is transported across Europe, when the irritations of family, the hormonal ups and downs, the dreams all disappear in a fearful reality that she refused to imagine in her letters to Kitty. Later, thanks to one of her Dutch protectors finding and saving the diary, she was to become the most famous victim of the Holocaust, and does achieve her ambition: ‘I can’t imagine having to live like Mother, Mrs van Daan and all the women who go about their work and are then forgotten ... I don’t want to have lived in vain like most people. I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death.’ But there is something haunting about her absence during those first weeks after she was discovered and the diary was silenced. She disappears into a fog of cattle trucks too full of humanity to see any one individual clearly. She becomes part of a mass disaster, and as alone as it is possible to be. It is in her sudden anonymity that Anne Frank becomes most emblematic of all the individuals caught up in the midst of an immense tragedy.