One Voice Speaks for Six Million

The uses and abuses of Anne Frank's diary.

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Such has been the phenomenal fame of Anne Frank's life and diary, and so often has she been invoked as the Holocaust martyr--symbol of the murdered, guiltless six million Jews--that critical reactions were and continue to be inevitable. As early as the late 1950s, neo-Nazis--in their efforts to prove that accounts of German genocide were exaggerated or even fabricated--claimed that the most famous Holocaust document, the diary itself, was a forgery. These frequently repeated charges led to several lawsuits and in the 1980's to an exhaustive scholarly and forensic study by the Netherlands State Institute for War Documentation to authenticate Anne Frank's writings. The result was the authoritative The Diary of Anne Frank: the Critical Edition, which proved beyond a doubt that the diary was genuine and that the neo-Nazi allegations were groundless.

Published first in the Netherlands (1986) and then in Germany, France, Italy and America, the Critical Edition is now recognized as the most reliable source for the text and history of the girl's writings. (See Deborah Lipstadt, Denying the Holocaust, New York, 1993.) Revised and expanded editions of the diary for general readers followed; and in this new form the book again became an international best-seller. (Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, edited by Otto H. Frank and Mirjam Pressler, newly translated by Susan Massotty, New York, 1995.)

Credible Critiques

Other, more creditable critiques of the so-called "mythologizing of Anne Frank" followed in the 1970s and afterwards. Although people continued to revere the girl and to treasure her book, commentators questioned the many, often bizarre uses to which her name and image had been put. Frequently quoting Hannah Arendt's 1962 remark that the adoration of Anne Frank was a form of "cheap sentimentality at the expense of great catastrophe," critics argued that an adolescent Dutch girl could not possibly be "the voice of the six million"; no single person could.

Her diary, which ended before she knew about or experienced German genocide, did not convey the horrific actuality or meaning of an unprecedented historical disaster in which millions of individuals and much of their culture were obliterated in camps built and operated by one of the great nations of Europe. Her book could not and should not be described as the representative Holocaust text. To focus solely on Anne Frank as a symbol of the victims of the Holocaust is, critics argue, to turn an enormous calamity into a story of an assault on fugitives and innocent children rather than of a systematic effort to eradicate an entire people and culture.

Another aspect of the ongoing controversy about the Anne Frank legacy concerns the Jewish specificity of the diary. The best-known adaptations (the Goodrich and Hackett play and the George Stevens film) minimized the Jewish content in order to achieve a greater universality and hence consolation and commercial success. For years after the premiere of the play and film, the heroine was widely perceived not only as a symbol of the Holocaust but as a ubiquitous emblem of hope, a persecuted victim whose utterance "In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart" encapsulated her inspirational message to the entire world.

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Lawrence Graver

Lawrence Graver is Professor Emeritus at Williams College, and author of An Obsession with Anne Frank, and other books.