Illustration by Edward Carey

I’ll Show Them That Anne Frank Wasn’t Born Yesterday!

A reading of The Diary of a Young Girl

“I HAVE MADE A rough sketch of my underground palace,” Anne Frank wrote in her diary on June 14, 1942. “I hope that this wish of mine will be fulfilled one day, but there would have to be a miracle then, since it doesn’t usually happen that . . . you can just disappear under the ground and then live there, it’s too beautiful to be true.”

How is it possible that Anne Frank did not know, when she wrote this lovely meditation on the imaginary—as realist and dreamlike as the best fairy tales—that her father was making plans for his family to disappear? Too beautiful to be true is possible, as fairy tales show.

The imaginary Anne Frank the world has made, since her murder, is neither beautiful nor true enough. Is it still possible to remember her by her real name? Anne Frank the author. Anne Frank the Jewess Philosopher.
Merely three weeks after Anne made the sketch of her underground palace, the Frank family walked through the rain, carrying all that they could, to Het Achterhuis (the Secret Annex). There, behind a bookcase and through a door, were stairs that led not underground but up to a space where the family would indeed “disappear and then live there” for a time. They would need to be silent all day so no one in the building, a pectin warehouse, would know that Jewish families were hiding above the ceilings. Books would be their constant companions: Dickens, Greek and Roman mythology, the Bible. Apart from certain classics (Faust), no German books were permitted, which meant that the worn, 1925 edition of Grimms’ Fairy Tales that Anne once shared with her sister had to be left behind in their real house.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm did not make it into the Secret Annex.

Though Anne Frank had been born in Germany, the family left the country when she was four because, she writes, “we’re Jewish.”

Anne Frank’s underground palace shares not only poetics with castles in the air—an image called forth by another of my favorite Jewish philosophers, Ernst Bloch—but also its ethics. Like Ernst Bloch, Anne Frank loved fancy, knew it to be sacred to seriousness.

Yet how has Anne Frank, a girl murdered by genocide, become a symbol of hope? What does it mean about us that we allow a girl murdered by hatred of Jews to become a symbol of hope? What does it mean about our relationship to girls, to hatred of Jews, and to hope?

Sometimes, Anne Frank was very angry, and this isn’t the opposite of hopeful.

In late September 1942, soon after she has gone into hiding, Frank writes:

Margot [Anne Frank’s older sister] . . . is such a goody-goody, perfection itself, but I seem to have enough mischief in me for the two of us put together. . . . Mummy and Daddy tell me that I mustn’t talk so much; that I must be more retiring and not poke my nose into everything, still I seem doomed to failure . . . nothing, I repeat, nothing, about me is right, my appearance, my general character, my manners . . . I’m not going to take all these insults lying down, I’ll show them that Anne Frank wasn’t born yesterday! Then they’ll be surprised . . . I’m simply amazed over and over again by their . . . stupidity . . . Am I really so bad-mannered, conceited, headstrong, pushing, stupid, lazy, etc., etc., as they all say? . . . if only you knew how I sometimes boil under so many gibes and jeers. And I don’t know how long I shall be able to stifle my rage. I shall just blow up one day.

The girl whose image—all over the world—is accompanied by a line misrepresented from her diary (“I still believe that people are really good”) returns in her own philosophy again and again to the question of goodness—her own lack of it, to be more precise.

November 7, 1942:

I must become good . . . from whom but myself shall I get comfort? As I need comforting often, I frequently feel weak, and dissatisfied with myself, my shortcomings are too great. I know this, and every day I try to improve myself, again and again.

And later that month:

I often see rows of good, innocent people accompanied by crying children, walking on and on . . . bullied and knocked about . . . No one is spared . . . How fortunate we are here, so well cared for and undisturbed. . . . I feel wicked sleeping in a warm bed . . .

January 30, 1943:

I’m boiling with rage, and yet I mustn’t show it. . . . If I talk, everyone thinks I’m showing off; when I’m silent, they think I’m ridiculous; rude if I answer, sly if I get a good idea; lazy if I am tired, selfish if I eat a mouthful more than I should, stupid, cowardly, crafty, etc., . . . an insufferable baby . . . it is impossible for me to be all sugar one day and spit venom the next. I’d rather choose the golden mean (which is not so golden) . . .

As in the Grimm fairy tale about two girls, one who speaks in diamonds, the other in toads, Anne Frank is looking at conflict and asking how to resolve it. Inside. She wants to be good. She wants people to be good. How else will she be saved?

Anne Frank begins sleeping with her hands covering her ears, to block out the relentless sound of machine guns throughout the dark night. She becomes hungry. She hears of “children coming home from school” to “find that their parents have disappeared. Women return from shopping to find their . . . families gone.” She writes, “every night hundreds of planes fly over Holland and go to German towns, where the earth is plowed under by their bombs, and every hour hundreds, even thousands of people are killed in Russia and Africa. . . . the end is not yet in sight.” She adds that she is lucky—she is in a safe and quiet place, with her family. Hauntingly, she says, they are privileged to be hiding there, waiting. They are waiting for the end of the war, but—as the Austrian psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim brutally points out—they are waiting only to be discovered and taken away.

At this time, though, Anne Frank is well aware of Jews and others being sent like “cockroaches” to “filthy slaughterhouses.” She notes her depression. She begins to take valerian pills—sometimes, her diary suggests, up to “ten Valerian pills,” but nothing can cut the fear. Or the hunger. Her diary takes on a hallucinatory quality—in one sentence she is beyond grateful and lucky, gushing about beautiful things; in the next, she describes herself as a detestable person, the world as hideous, and life as a meaningless void. She is good. She is bad. Life is beautiful. Life is terrible. The Secret Annex is home. The Secret Annex is a prison. She is a terrible person for thinking it a prison. She is not in a concentration camp. She is alive. She will die. They will all die. Everyone dies. But everyone does go to heaven. We had bread today. We ate rotten cabbage. We went to the bathroom in jars.

At night the family listens to the news—hears all the atrocities—the atrocities go on and on, and no one seems able to stop them.

Bruno Bettelheim presents a brutal indictment of the Frank family in his little-known but controversial essay, “The Ignored Lesson of Anne Frank,” which I have read many times since I discovered it in a volume of his collected essays. The first time I read it, I was so angry, I threw the book at the wall. The second time I read it, I was again very angry, but I did not throw the book. I had more restraint. The third time I read it, I could absorb it.

Bettelheim argues that the true culprits of “gentle Anne” being murdered in a concentration camp are her own parents. He is furious with the Franks, whom he says could easily have saved “Little Anne” had they sent her to live under an assumed identity with a non-Jewish Dutch family instead of going “underground” all together, which was far more dangerous. Bettelheim describes with disgust the Frank family’s dream of a return to their original home after the war, citing this as an example of the Frank family’s denial of the true evil around them. This supposed act of denial includes “Little Anne” and her sweet diary. He claims that the Franks, instead of saving her life, retreated “into an extremely private world” and went “passively into hiding.” He suggests they ought to have acquired “a gun or two,” which he says would have been easy for them, “had they wished,” and then they could have “shot down” the SS who would eventually discover them in the Annex. Yes, he acknowledges, they probably would have died anyway, but at least they would have “sold their lives dearly instead of walking to their death.”

I find it peculiar and sad that Bettelheim does not dare to imagine the depth of their wish to remain together and to return home, for his 1977 National Book Award–winning study, The Uses of Enchantment, speculates deeply and generously about the mechanism behind a return to home in such vulnerable imaginary characters as Hansel and Gretel, at the end of whose well-traveled tale, you may recall, they return to the very father who abandoned them during a famine to save himself and his wife. So many fairy tales are about banishment from home, displacement from home, a longing for home. It’s strange that Bettelheim makes no connection in his essay about the Frank family to his beloved form. By my reading, too, Bettelheim thinks of Anne’s diary as also a kind of retreat into a child’s childish internal world rather than an urgent work of literature—also odd for a man professionally dedicated to an exploration of the intelligent psychology of a child’s childlike mind.

For all its astonishing madness, Bettelheim’s forgotten article is still very, very important in its effort to reverse a horrific American use and abuse of enchanting Anne Frank, which is to hold her up as a beacon of innocent goodness, something that was happening dramatically at the time of the article, when a play about her life had become very popular. He points to the detail that the play ends with the character of Anne Frank stating a belief that “all men are good.” Bettelheim does not point out that her diary does not say “all” men, but rather “people are good”—yet it must be said here. And still, Bettelheim is rightly outraged. Outraged at audiences for failing to take seriously the very important contributions of psychoanalysis on conflict resolution—internal conflict between the life instinct and the death instinct, which we can also call, for the sake of this meditation, good and bad, which must be resolved without repression of one in favor of the other, if we are to have a peaceful existence individually or together. Thank you, Sigmund Freud, Jewish Mystic!
Anne Frank wrote her passage about people and goodness in adolescence, a time of life that is treacherous and often painful, due to this necessary roiling conflict. She was thinking about her interior predicament with more clearheadedness than most teenagers—let alone teenagers in hiding, tormented by air raids and the threat of death. She knew badness, inside and out. Her diary, which Bettelheim associates with childlike friendliness, is a ruthless investigation of internal conflict and conflict between the self and the world at a most precarious time in a girl’s life. Quicksilver Anne, as she sometimes referred to herself, offers readers perfect analysis of this amateur theatrical called adolescent moodiness:

If I’m quiet and serious, everyone thinks it’s a new comedy, and then I have to get out of it by turning it into a joke. Finally I twist my heart round again, so that the bad is on the outside and the good is on the inside . . . I am guided by the pure Anne within, but outside I’m nothing but a frolicsome little goat who’s broken loose.

And near the end of the diary, she writes in anguish of the struggle of youth:

It’s twice as hard for us young ones to hold our ground, and maintain our opinions, in a time when all ideals are being shattered and destroyed, when people are showing their worst side, and do not know whether to believe in truth . . . It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness. I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too. I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.

That is the “good” Anne Frank believed in: love. Yes, she believed people were good. She also believed people were bad. And she saw both in herself.

As a young Jewish girl growing up in New England, I was told that my great-grandmother was a Russian princess who had shinnied down the drainpipe to run off with the gardener’s son—and that’s how our family came to America.

It was a fairy tale, and like all fairy tales, it carried a dark truth stitched in its seams. Though my great-grandmother did safely emigrate to America, her own father, plus all the family she left behind in Latvia, as well as all the other Jews in their town, were murdered by their neighbors, having been first forced to dig the pit that would be their own mass grave.

She only learned of their horrific fate years later, from a Jewish news leaflet she casually leafed through—a twist to her tale as improbable, or as uncanny even, as a sketch of a castle underground.

But I carried the story of her narrow escape—and, later, the darkness that could not be escaped—throughout my childhood and into my career as a writer, anthologist, and scholar of fairy tales.

The first short story I ever published was a fairy tale. It was serialized in a newsletter my best friend, Diana Selig, and I wrote and edited together, and mimeographed at my father’s office in Dorchester. “Jacob and Rose” took place once upon a time in Russia and featured a gardener named Jacob who was in love with a princess named Rose. One day he placed a ticket to America under her pillow and then they met in America and lived happily ever after.

I truly thought that this fairy tale, which I was certain I had heard from my grandmother, and was certain would bring me great fame, was based on a real family story. For many, many years—until I was forty, in fact, I believed I was descended from Eastern European royalty, the great-great-granddaughter of a woman named Rose who had shinnied down a drainpipe or ladder or maybe a trellis of roses to emigrate to America.
Of course, decades later, when I found out the real history, I was devastated.

I had known that terrible things had happened to Jews during the war. As children, we were shown footage of concentration camps at our temple, documenting in graphic detail the deaths of millions of Jews, intellectuals, artists, LGBT people, other minorities, people with disabilities of every kind.

As children, we also heard the shadow of a story about my great-grandmother and how, upon receiving some news of family members who had died “during the war,” she had a stroke in the kitchen and died.

How they had died we weren’t told, but there were hints of it: “Be good or the Germans will get you,” my grandmother would say as she washed dishes after the Passover Seder.

But how could I be good enough not to be . . . gotten?

This is a different take on the word, entirely, please forgive me, but almost nobody gets Anne Frank. On behalf of the debased feminine fairy-tale hero, a Jewess who’s no angel at all—let it be known that Anne Frank was a warrior princess.

Is it that much easier for the world to mourn a Good Jew? Or does her perceived innocence (to the grimmer emotions, the less pleasant ones) make her easier for the world to dismiss—which is another way to say, to continue to hate?

Upsettingly, Dutch has a specific verb for the systematic looting of a Jewish house: pulsen. It is perhaps the one language in the world with a word for that; for small things, let us be grateful. The word comes from the name of the moving company that Dutch police hired to empty Jews’ homes after they were shipped to their deaths during the Nazi occupation: Abraham Puls & Sons. When houses were “pulsed,” all the valuable property, such as furniture and carpets, was shipped off to Germany. Ephemera—undergarments, family photographs, books—would be left by the road. “Sometimes neighbours managed to save some of them,” one oral history notes, “while the rest went to second-hand dealers and bookshops for a knock-down price. After the war the books found their way onto new bookshelves.”

I was not yet a teenager when Anne Frank’s copy of Grimms’ Fairy Tales was discovered in 1977. Apparently, the company that pulsed the Frank home had found the book worthless and left it behind.

Of Anne Frank’s diary, a critic in the Guardian writes, “bizarrely, what’s also a journal about the early stages of genocide has ended up with the accolade of being the world’s most famous be-nice-to-each-other primer.” How uncannily, like fairy tales, are stories that tell of gender-based violence, murder, abandonment, famine, misogyny, racism, and queer realities misunderstood as avenues to lessons of goodness. To read The Diary of a Young Girl is to read the work of an exacting, self-critical artist—a Jewish intellectual girl with ambitions to contribute to literature and Dutch history.

She lived in a terrifying situation with a terrible end. Her diary, which she rewrote with an eye toward publication, is a significant work about domesticity, girlhood, becoming a subject, and fear in wartime. It is a domestic myth, a fairy tale. Had Anne Frank lived, I have no doubt that she would have continued her robust investigation of our eternal state of ambivalence—continued to argue on behalf of Goodness within its construct, as her ego ideal developed.

In the preface to the 1955 German translation of The Diary of a Young Girl, the theologian Albrecht Goes describes the book as astutely as I ever have seen:

It is a dialogue between one “I” and another, between a highly sensitive, thinskinned being and another that seems armed with thorns. And it is a dialogue between the one “I” and the surrounding world, a discussion carried on with painstaking exactitude. No one could possibly miss the aggressive note that dominates the dialogue, and no one could miss the second tone that is not dominant and yet is the true keynote of the whole: the note of a genuine ability to love. . . . we must testify that the dialogue between the “I” and the world, set down in these pages, is carried on with almost uncommon instinct for reaching its appointed goal.

Of Anne Frank, I imagine you’ve heard that she believes people are good.

But Anne Frank wasn’t born yesterday! Didn’t I already tell you that? Not being born yesterday means more than not being good. It carries a sense of “knowing more than one is letting on.” It also carries valences of timelessness, eternalness. I am afraid that Anne Frank’s legacy is fading because the saccharine version of Anne Frank—the Girl Who Believes People Are Good—hasn’t been allowed to grow up with us. She wasn’t born yesterday; Anne is eternal. She knows a lot.

Her words about people and goodness come, if only everyone knew, at the self-damning end of a pages-long, self-punishing exploration on her own mistakes, as she sees them. The words are a wish that she, “pure Anne,” not pure as in perfect but as in her ego ideal, make it through—through the war, through
adolescence—with her goodness intact. And that others might do the same. That the conflict might come to an end.

What is important for everyone to know is that when she writes these words—in a condition of starvation, under the sound of machine guns, having had to silently deposit her excrement in a jar in front of other people, having spent pages apologizing for her own personal cruelties, hearing daily about people, children, dying in camps—when she says in the end that despite all this, she believes people are really good, she is afraid, ashamed, stuffed full of tranquilizers, in a desperate state, and very, very aware that she is going to die.
Anne Frank, when you were good, you were very, very good.

And that includes when you wrote, “I’ll show them that Anne Frank wasn’t born yesterday!”

Now that’s the kind of hostility that might save the world. That’s fairy-tale logic.

The author gratefully acknowledges insights into this essay from Kate Garrick and Ana Knudsen.