21st Century Girl: Anne Frank’s ‘Diary of a Young Girl’.

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In June, our sister bookshop Hall’s tweeted that Anne Frank began her diary 73 years ago, on the 14th June 1942. As the years continue to pass by and we move further away from the war that changed the world, I’ve started to wonder where a book like Diary of a Young Girl takes its place in the Information Age. At times it can seem like everything has changed since Anne Frank was a young woman, from notions of gender and class to identity and personal relationships. Consequently, there is a tendency to locate Frank’s diary within a sturdy framework of artefacts and documents of war – a tendency which only grows stronger with time, more recent human tragedies, and emotional distance. To feed this trend, I feel, is both sweeping and rather short-sighted. If we limit Frank’s writing in this way, we uncomfortably gloss over the importance of her actual written content (of course, this danger is only intensified by Frank’s marginalised position). Moreover, we deny her ‘three-dimensionality’ – Frank existed as an opinionated individual, not only as a victim of war, and this should be celebrated.

Writer Harry Mulish – himself famous for a novel based on real events in the German-occupied Netherlands – called for the creation of a new category of writing in 1985, which was neither literature nor historical document – an ‘object [sic] trouvé’. Mulish suggested that, had Frank survived the war and made a novel out of her material, she would not have become as influential as she is today. Other critics have engaged with her diary as a pure, ‘unspoilt’, harrowing human document, remarking upon its striking honesty, but similarly defining it as “purely and simply, the diary of a young girl”. It seems clear that, like any great work, Diary of a Young Girl can (and should) be read in any number of ways – as a woman’s expression, Jewish writing, Dutch document, a work in translation, and many more. Most pressingly, all of these readings intersect and diverge in fascinating ways.

Where does this debate leave us, as readers and as subjects of a history prone to repeat itself? How can we use Anne Frank’s diary, 73 years after the start of its production? My search led me to Janet Pickard-Kremenitzer’s educational work; Pickard-Kremenitzer has designed a 10-week curriculum component under the title ‘Emotional Intelligence/Anne Frank Aesthetic Education Program’, aimed toward Years 5 & 6. The course also incorporates initial Emotional Intelligence training for teachers and staff. The Diary of a Young Girl is central to this project, in which Pickard-Kremenitzer utilises modes such as self-portrait, journal writing, digital photography and creating narratives in the graphic tradition in order to establish links between the students’ lives and Frank’s development in her diary. Simultaneously, the children become finely attuned to self-expression and emotional reflection, whilst strengthening artistic, research-based, and IT ability. According to its creator, the programme results an ’emotionally intelligent school culture’. The mission places great faith in the power of The Diary of a Young Girl in encouraging global educational diplomacy, primarily due to its rooted status in a world-wide consciousness. From this perspective, to frame Frank’s diary as an artefact denies a glorious, wide-reaching beam of social and personal growth which can be actively employed in schools and beyond. It seems clear that in the 21st century, the book is worth so much more.

Moreover, it is becoming clear that as society progresses and essential questions of censorship and equality continue to dominate the fray, we can learn a great deal from looking at our recent past; we now know that the diary underwent several dramatic revisions before its release, and this reveals compelling (and perplexing) contextual attitudes. Frank feverishly rewrote almost all of her diary entries of the previous two years between June-July 1944; indeed, in making her first revision, Frank removed significant portions – including a one-page description of her own genitals. Clear differences appear between translations, too, as the Dutch version omits Frank’s desire to kiss and feel the breasts of her friend. Only in recent times have critics agreed that childlike innocence and chastity are suggestive of a purity that does not apply to Frank’s writing.

From 1945 onwards, Otto Frank edited the diaries and made them into one text. Feminist critics have focused on this editorial process, underlining the dangers of silencing aspects of Anne Frank’s voice as a woman. [For those interested, other dramatic changes include: the culling of passages on puberty, menstruation, sexuality, anger towards her mother (Otto deemed this unfair to the mother’s memory), and Frank’s conversations with Peter about sex.] Further parts of the diary were removed because they were considered simply not interesting enough for the post-war audience at its time of publication.

As a bookshop before all else, it seems fitting to end on perhaps Frank’s largest influence – books. Finding the Venus de Milo in an art history book prompted Frank to express her own feelings about the female body. In reading historical biographies, a desire to live on after death was realised. Frank was not constrained to Western canonical texts, but popular culture in print; for example, Frank had a penchant for film magazines. Diary of a Young Girl offers evidence that popular novels like Joop ter Heuf were of equal importance in Frank’s identity as a writer as the more traditional German novels she shared with her father. Readers in the 21st century can benefit from this ‘blur’, approaching the mingling of high and low culture as a visceral force, rather than a ‘contamination’.

Frank’s diary retains its global popularity, and for good reason. It seems, that as history moves on at startling pace, one needs to wrestle with questions of authorship and the process of writing more than ever before. The book is of near unparalleled symbolic and historic status – but perhaps more than anything, we should rejoice in the sheer power of self-expression and words-to-paper.

And so, we pay our respects to a young girl.

– Tabitha

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