The best-read book of the 20th century

The best-read book of the 20th century

For the JC June 30 2022

The best-read book of the 20th century: the extraordinary story of Anne Frank’s Diary
A new book traces the history of an iconic Holocaust book which became a publishing phenomenon


If you were looking for one name to sum up the enormity of Holocaust suffering, you might say Eli Wiesel, or Mordechai Anielewicz, or Primo Levi. But the chances are that sooner rather than later, you would settle on Anne Frank, the Amsterdam-based teenager whose Diary of a Young Girl became the touchstone for how millions relate to the Holocaust.

Since it was first published in 1947, it has sold more than 31 million copies and been translated into 70 languages. There have been five different editions of the diary itself, two graphic biographies, five books for children, seven feature-length documentaries, one BBC TV series and three feature films.

Hers is the seminal Holocaust book despite (or maybe because of) the fact that we know only the barest details of Anne Frank’s ultimate fate. We don’t know who betrayed the family’s hiding place, and we think Anne succumbed to typhoid in Bergen-Belsen in 1945, just weeks before the camp was liberated. She and her sister Margot are believed to have been buried in an unmarked mass grave.

Now, despite the hundreds of articles, the films, TV series and books, the writer and journalist Karen Bartlett has produced a gargantuan piece of research into Anne and her single-minded father, Otto, the only survivor of the Frank family.

It was a heartbroken Otto who was given Anne’s diary in 1945 by Miep Gies, one of the Dutch people who helped to hide the Franks and their neighbours: she had rescued its pages from the “annexe”, the hiding-place in Amsterdam where they hid from the Nazis for two years, until they were betrayed and the annexe ransacked, the inhabitants deported to concentration camps and almost certain murder, one by one.

Bartlett’s The Diary That Changed The World began when she was working with Eva Schloss, Otto Frank’s step-daughter and an early friend of Anne, on Eva’s memoir, After Auschwitz. “I think that was what triggered my interest, though I was interested before, because when I was young [in Northumberland], there was a touring exhibition about Anne which went round the country, and I went to see it”.

From Eva Schloss, Bartlett learned about the difficulties of becoming part of the Frank family. She wrote an article for Newsweek after she became one of the last people to interview Buddy Elias, Anne’s cousin on Otto’s side of the family, who was both an actor and president of the Anne Frank Foundation. (Otto died in 1980, Elias in 2015). She realised that she needed to turn this wealth of information into a book.

It may well be that Bartlett has produced the definitive Anne Frank primer, telling the reader everything they might want to know about the Diary, and metaphorically holding one’s hand as she guides the reader gently through the plethora of publishing squabbles, court cases, translation rights and Holocaust deniers who claimed that Otto Frank had written it himself.

At times the material is almost overwhelming, but Bartlett is an impeccable guide. There is an assumption, I suggest to her, that people think they know all about Anne Frank, but in fact her book is full of details, guaranteed to remind us that we do not.

Right at the start, for example, we learn that Otto Frank wrote to his mother in Switzerland after he had retrieved the Diary and made plans for it to be published. He told her that a German translation was being prepared: but Anne was born in Germany, so what language was the Diary written in?

“She wrote it in Dutch”, says Bartlett, patiently, “but the Dutch version had to be edited, too, because she was a teenager and she wasn’t a native Dutch speaker. She and Margot were much more fluent than their parents; they spoke to each other in Dutch and also to Otto in that language, but mostly to their mother in German”. The sisters used a mixture of the two languages during their time in the annexe.

Otto Frank was famously astonished at the contents of Anne’s Diary and somewhat horrified at her outspoken criticisms, particularly of her mother, Edith, for whom she expressed acute dislike. How much of this was normal teenage “angst” and rebellion we will never know.

But Otto was very upset to read: “I told Daddy that I’m much more fond of him than Mummy, to which he replied that I’d get over that … Daddy said that I should sometimes volunteer to help Mummy when she doesn’t feel well, or she has a headache; but I shan’t since I don’t like her and I don’t feel like it. I would certainly do it for Daddy, I noticed that when he was ill. Also it’s easy for me to picture Mummy dying one day, but Daddy dying one day seems inconceivable to me”.

Bartlett writes: “Otto edited this entry substantially in the first published diary, wanting to spare his wife’s memory and writing, ‘In reality she was an excellent mother, who went to all lengths for her children.’”

Other entries, says Bartlett, vanished completely, not to reappear until the 1980s. Some of this was due to Otto, a man of his time who was embarrassed by Anne’s explicit descriptions of her own sexual awakening; other pages were discovered only in 2018 after the Diary was examined and two pages were found covered with adhesive brown paper — Anne’s doing, concealing some “dirty stories”. And, notoriously, in 1998, five missing pages were made public, said to have been given by Otto to the former director of the Anne Frank House, Cor Suijk, for safekeeping.

Many of the arguments about who had written what, says Bartlett, stem from a number of factors. The actual physical diary is held in the Dutch national archives, and where different handwriting can be seen in the margins it is often that of the first translators who made notes on the Diary itself. Otto did this, too; and to complicate matters further, Anne herself decided to go back over some sections and re-edit them, not satisfied with the “writer’s voice”, which had naturally changed from a puppyish adolescent to a much more mature take.

It wasn’t just Otto who wanted to excise passages — the first Dutch publishers wanted to omit quite a lot of material. But cheeringly, the first English edition of the Diary has a Jewish Chronicle connection. The paper’s legendary long-time chairman, David Kessler, also headed Vallentine Mitchell publishers — and the first English translation, by Barbara Doubleday, was typeset in the JC’s composing room in 1953. And this edition, says Bartlett, reinstated a lot of the entries frowned on by the Dutch.

Via Vallentine Mitchell, Otto Frank first came into contact with Meyer Levin, an American writer who, says Bartlett, became Otto’s nemesis. The disagreement between the two men — which eventually ended in court — was symptomatic of the fundamental issue relating to Anne Frank — was she a Jewish heroine or symbol, or a universal one?

Otto, fiercely secular for most of his life, though slightly more observant of Jewish tradition in his second marriage, was convinced that the power of the Diary lay in its universality, while Levin, says Bartlett, accused Otto of “gutting the Jewish story of the Diary and sacrificing the truth of the Holocaust to make it [the Diary] more popular”. Otto would have none of it: “It’s not a Jewish story”, he insisted, “it’s a story of humanity.”

Ultimately, says Bartlett, “the Diary is a phenomenon. It’s the most read book of the 20th century and one of the most influential.

“As for Otto, I don’t know how he did it, how he pulled himself together to go on living the way he did. From the very beginning, he was criticised, told he was doing it for money, exploiting his dead daughter, then Holocaust deniers said he had made it all up. His resilience in the face of all of that is astonishing.

“For Anne, there is that overwhelming sense of so much wasted potential. She died at that point of being a teenager when she had all the good and bad parts of it, expressed in the Diary, and never realised”.

The Diary That Changed The World, by Karen Bartlett, is published by Biteback (£20)

  • 6 July, 2022