Was Anne Frank the only author of her famous diary?

August 8, 2003

Dear Cecil:

Is there any truth to the rumor that Anne Frank's father was the person who finished writing his daughter's famous diary? I recall being told that the original is kept in a Swiss bank vault and when examined it was discovered that the last chapters were written in ball point pen, a writing instrument not invented until after Miss Frank's death.

Depends on what you mean by "finished writing." He certainly tweaked it, as editors do. But thanks to the unusual provenance of the document, neo-Nazis, Holocaust deniers, and other unsavory characters have seen fit to scream fraud.

Anne Frank, a precocious Jewish girl whose family emigrated in 1933 from the German city of Frankfurt am Main, to Amsterdam, began keeping a diary on her 13th birthday, June 12, 1942. On July 6, the day after her older sister, Margot, received a deportation order to a labor camp, her family went into hiding in a "secret annex" above her father's place of business, where they were joined by four other refugees. On August 4, 1944, three days after the diary's last entry, police raided the annex and arrested the eight occupants. Anne and Margot died of typhus within days of each other in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in March, 1945, just weeks before the liberation. Their father, Otto, the family's sole surviving member, returned to Amsterdam after the war and retrieved the diary from two of his former secretaries, who'd scooped up the scattered pages after the arrest. In 1947 he succeeded in getting an edition of 1,500 copies printed. The diary went on to become an extraordinary success: First published in English in 1952, at last count it had sold more than 31 million copies in 67 languages. A Pulitzer prize-winning stage adaptation opened on Broadway in 1955 followed by an Oscar-winning film version in 1959. The diary--with its haunting words, "In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart"--remains the best-known literary work to emerge from the Holocaust and World War II.

Questions about the text's authenticity arose early--not only was Anne Frank unusually eloquent and self-aware, but a stiff, pedantic translation done in 1950 made the diary seem even less like the work of a young person. In the late 1950s, several pro-Nazi publications alleged that the diary had been forged by Meyer Levin, an American writer who'd worked to get it published in the U.S. It turned out that Levin had also written a theatrical version of the diary which was never staged because Otto Frank lent the weight of his name to other playwrights instead. Levin sued, charging the other writers with plagiarism, and rumors flew. Levin, of course, had had nothing to do with writing the diary itself, but the story continued to circulate among right-wing nutjobs for many years. German authorities prosecuted several of the propagandists involved under laws prohibiting anti-Semitism. In the ensuing investigations the diary's complicated history was revealed: There were actually multiple original documents--the diary Anne had begun in 1942, which consisted of three volumes, plus a rewritten version that she started in 1944 (on the radio she'd heard a Dutch political leader in exile call for the collection of diaries, letters, etc, to be published as a testament to Dutch suffering during the war.) She also wrote a number of freestanding stories, both fantasies and anecdotes, about life in the annex. With some assistance Otto redacted the surviving portions of the two different versions (and several of the stories) into one narrative, making corrections and omitting material he considered uninteresting or embarrassing. (For example, Anne reminisced at one point about asking to touch another girl's breasts.) Otto often had to choose between very different versions of the same events, but an expert witness agreed that the published book remained true to the author's intent.

In 1980 the German criminal investigation bureau fanned the embers of the controversy by issuing a report that made an eyebrow-raising claim: While the paper used in the diary appeared authentic, some corrections to Anne's rewritten version had been made using a ballpoint pen supposedly not available till 1951. (For the record, ballpoint pens were popular in Britain as early as the late 30s.) The German magazine Der Spiegel published a sensational account of this report alleging that (a) some editing postdated 1951; (b) an earlier expert had held that all the writing in the journal was by the same hand; and thus (c) the entire diary was possibly fake. This logic is faulty, in no small part because premise (b) is wrong--it's now known some page numbering and other minor edits were done after the war, probably by Otto or his assistants. But at the time the article caused quite a stir--it's the likely source of the story you heard.

In 1980 Otto Frank died and willed the diary manuscripts to the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, known by the Dutch acronym NIOD. Hoping to settle matters once and for all, the NIOD conducted a painstaking analysis--the results, published in English in 1989 as The Diary of Anne Frank: The Critical Edition, tip the scales at more than 700 pages. This book traces the history of the manuscript and allegations of fraud, recounts a detailed forensic examination, then prints the different versions of the diary side by side. Conclusion: Anne Frank wrote it (and rewrote it) between 1942 and 1944, just as her father always claimed.

So that's that, eh? Not quite. In 1998 five pages turned up that Otto Frank had withheld from the manuscript sent to the NIOD, in which Anne is critical of her parents' marriage. Are more surprises in the offing? Who knows? They're still finding previously unknown works by Saint Augustine, almost 1,600 years after the guy died. Anne Frank's diary may not yet be complete, but its origin is not in doubt.

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