On August 4, 1944, Anne Frank and her family were captured by the Gestapo. Somebody ratted them out and they, the family of Otto Frank’s business partner Hermann van Pelz, and Fritz Pfeffer, a friend of the Franks who was hiding with them, were sent to concentration camps; only Otto Frank survived. Which you knew.
Anne Frank is famous, and justly so, because of the diary the Gestapo did not find. She began it shortly before the family went into hiding and made its last entry just three days before they were captured. It was recovered by one of the brave Dutch gentiles who had sheltered the Franks and the others, and given to Otto Frank after the war. Amazingly, given the cramped quarter eight people shared for over two years, he was not aware that his daughter was keeping such a detailed chronicle of their lives.
The diary puts a very human face on the Holocaust, and speaks for the millions of whom we have not even a name let alone a story (despite the best efforts of the Names Recovery Project at Yad Vashem). And it forces each of us to ask how we would have handled such difficult circumstances for over two years, unable to get away even briefly from people who would not under other conditions even have socialized occasionally. And to ask whether we would have had the courage to help them if we’d been in the position of non-Jewish Netherlanders in those terrible years.
By the way, I said somebody “ratted them out” and I use the phrase advisedly. Technically a rat, as G. Gordon Liddy says, is one who had been part of a group and then betrays it. And the person who betrayed the Franks, van Pelzes and Pfeffer may never have agreed to help shelter them. But I think our fundamental duty to assist one another against life’s greatest horrors makes whoever turned them a “rat” who betrayed all mankind and their own humanity as well as the eight people in the secret “annex”. I only hope after the war they read the diary and repented (though if they did, I note unhappily, they did not find the courage or clarity to make a public confession).
The diary is a very powerful book. Anne was a remarkable girl, kind and thoughtful, at one point repenting of an earlier harsh judgement about her mother and recognizing how their claustrophobic as well as generally terrifying situation naturally made everyone edgy. And because of her sensitivity the diary is almost a wonderful insight into the blossoming of a shy girl into an exceptional woman.
I say almost, because almost everyone knows how it ends before they start reading it. And we all know before we reread it. I wonder sometimes if it would be better to give it to a young person without revealing the ultimate fate of the participants, which obviously Anne Frank herself did not know as she wrote. But I think not.
Somehow having the whole story unfold not just under the general shadow of Nazism, but the specific knowledge that the darkness would take Anne, swallowing her petty thoughts and her profound ones, her small frustrations and her unexpected joys, makes it that much more poignant and moving, a bright light still shining through the dreadful murk.