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Dear Anne Frank,

Early Edition

Dear Anne Frank,

Thank you for The Diary of a Young Girl. Born in 1940, I was only two when you began your diary and ten or eleven when my mother gave it to me. By then you were dead and I had a little trouble processing this sad chronology. I’d paid no attention to the drone of Sunday school teachers and rabbis and I don’t recall my parents ever sitting me down and explaining the Holocaust. So I don’t think I knew about concentration camps where millions of Jews were worked to death, starved, or gassed. In retrospect, it occurs to me that maybe my mother gave me your diary as a way of informing me of this historical horror, just as she’d given me a book featuring diagrams of tubes and circles to explain sex. So you not only introduced me to the Holocaust, but you also taught me about diary-keeping.  Like your many other readers, I was hooked by your oft-quoted opening line, “I hope I will be able to confide everything to you as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.” Your voice, youthful, urgent, and full of hope and your desire for a nonjudgmental ear spoke for and to me.

Photo of Anne

I identified with you at once. We even looked alike. A photo of you in my copy of your book could have been a photo of me. We had the same thin faces, long bumpy “Jewish” noses, mostly straight brown hair, prominent dark eyebrows and eyes and wide mouths. If it had been deemed safe for you to venture out of hiding to see an eye doctor, you, too, would have been prescribed glasses. We both had elderly grandparents who moved in with us and we both went to birthday parties, were expected to do well in school, read a lot, and were eager to be “popular.” Yet again, like you, I was a daddy’s girl and very aware of my parents’ fear of antiSemitism. Unlike you though, I didn’t share my parents’ fears. In fact, in the early Fifties, I thought my mother’s preoccupation with being perceived as “too Jewish” was totally uncalled for. After all, The War was over, we won, and in America one was free to worship as one wished.Red Leather Diary and Key

Even as I identified so strongly with you, I was a little disappointed in your diary because contrary to your expressed wish to fill it with confidences, it seemed you had no secrets, let alone shameful ones, to share, whereas I did.  For my twelfth birthday, my parents gave me a diary of red leather with gold trim and a lock and key. I kept this little book and the key in a drawer in my desk in my room and unburdened myself on its pages every night. I treasured my diary and considered it the big sister I didn’t have. To my horror, one Sunday afternoon when I was at a movie with friends, my father opened it, read it, and then confronted me with what I’d written about myself, myJudge Daddy classmates, our neighbors, and him and my mom. None of these outpourings upset him but I’d also penned a rather lurid entry listing things I wished to do with certain boys I knew. Alas, my dad believed I’d actually done them, or feared I might do them. It took me a long time to convince him otherwise and a lifetime to get over the dreadfulness of having my own secrets exposed to my beloved, but notoriously stern father. Did I mention that he had served as a municipal judge? His intrusion and his reaction to my fantasies put a heavy and durable damper on my urge to write down stuff I made up. It’s no co-incidence that I didn’t really begin writing for publication until after both of my parents died.

Definitive Edition

It was not until 1995 that I read The Definitive Edition of your diary. In the preface to this book, edited by your dad, Otto H. Frank, and Mirjam Pressler, I learned that the edition I read back in the early Fifties had also been edited by your father not long after your death. He had expunged all references to your sexuality and all of the disparaging remarks you made about your mom and the others with whom you had shared the Secret Annex. So it wasn’t until I was forty-five with a teenage daughter of my own that I finally came upon all your girlish confidences I’d hoped to find in the earlier version. That’s when I understood that your biggest secret was really the one you struggled to keep from the Nazis, the fact that you all were hiding in an attic in Amsterdam to avoid being sent to the death camps.

 

The Secret Annex

Secret Annex

But even on my very first reading of your edited diary, I’d been aware that while I had been safe in Passaic, New Jersey learning to skip, dunking Oreos in milk, and taking care of my dolls, you had been imprisoned for years in a small secret annex with your family and some other folks you didn’t know and hadn’t chosen. There you all shared chores, money, food, and bath and bedrooms, and gave up much of your treasured privacy. Even as a child I’d noted how your affinity for reading enabled you to pass the time constructively, keep up your spirits, and write clearly and expressively. I doubted that I would have been able to handle the privations and unremitting proximity and dread that you describe so memorably. And without your detailed recording of the trials of your years in hiding, I doubt that I would have been able to begin to comprehend the series of events we call the Holocaust. Even in your teens you were a writer and you recorded your experiences for posterity. That would include me.

Thank you for keeping this diary under such duress. I’m glad that in your too-short life you did what journalists do. You wrote history as it happened, so when you died at Auschwitz, the world lost not only a young girl, but a clear and compelling witness and writer.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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