FOR MILLIONS OF PEOPLE, Anne Frank's history has come to symbolize one of Europe's deadliest conflagrations--a time when one nation set fire to its democratic government, ravaged countries all over the continent, destroyed Jewish life in Eastern Europe, and irreparably damaged Jewish existence in many Western European countries, as well. The outlines of Anne Frank's history are clear: the escape with her family from Germany and resettlement in 1933 in Amsterdam, where her father Otto Frank had a business; German occupation of the Netherlands in May, 1940; and the family's flight in 1942 into hiding in the attic above Otto Frank's office. Then betrayal and capture in August 1944; imprisonment in Westerbork, a transit camp; deportation to Auschwitz in September 1944; and death in Bergen-Belsen a few weeks before liberation in March 1945. Otto Frank's return as the sole surviving member of the family led to publication, in the early 1950s, of the diary found by Miep Gies after the police arrested the Franks and to posthumous fame for Anne and her family.
The Diary of Anne Frank and derivative theatrical productions have made a unique impact on children and adults throughout the world. The writing bespeaks courage, misery, persecution, and resistance. Anne Frank has come to represent the child, in her mid-teens, struggling to maintain hope and faith in mankind, if not in her own future. The most famous quote from her diary is, "In spite of everything I still believe people are good at heart." Sudden capture stopped the testimony of inner thoughts.
An aura of sweet optimism and faith surrounds the Diary. Unfortunately, the sentiments are misapplied. Cynthia Ozick's critique is closer to the truth. She described the Diary as a "chronicle of trepidation, turmoil, alarm.... Betrayal and arrest always threaten. Anxiety and immobility rule. It is a story of fear." People know that Anne, her sister, and her mother were exterminated, but for many readers Anne's story ends with the hope that "people are really good at heart." These words, I believe, are the key to understanding the conversion of her diary and persona into a redemptive myth.
Ian Buruma wrote that Anne Frank has "become a Jewish Saint Ursula, a Dutch Joan of Arc, a female Christ." He concluded, "Anne is a ready-made icon for those who have turned the Holocaust into a kind of secular religion." I would take the comparisons even further. Despite the evolution of Europe's postwar secular spirit, the myth derives much of its force from a deeply ingrained Christian template. Anne's story converges on elements of Christian belief and symbolism: a hidden child, a virgin, a betrayal, the Holocaust as Hell, a form of resurrection through words. The redemptive tale seems tragically simple, but the real history is complex and convoluted. It is part of a national tragedy in a country of contradictions. The German occupation exacerbated passive political and social habits that affected the individual and collective life of the Dutch. The Anne Frank legend has further blurred the...