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The Myth of Anne Frank

Published in 2014, Humanity in Action: Collected Essays and Talks is an anthology of written works by Judith S. Goldstein, the founder and executive director of Humanity in Action. "The Myth of Anne Frank" was first published in the Partisan Review, in Winter 2003. Humanity in Action: Collected Essays and Talks is available for purchase as a Kindle eBook on Amazon.


For millions of people, Anne Frank’s history has come to symbolize one of Europe’s deadliest conflagration—a time when one nation set fire to its democratic government, ravaged countries all over the Continent, destroyed Jewish life in Eastern Europe and irreparably damaged Jewish existence in many Western European countries as well. The outlines of Anne Frank’s history are clear: the escape with her family from Germany; resettlement in 1933 in Amsterdam where her father Otto Frank had a business; German occupation of The Netherlands in May, 1940; the family’s flight in 1942 into hiding in the attic above Otto Frank’s office; writing in her diary; betrayal and capture in August 1944; imprisonment in Westerbork, a transit camp; deportation to Auschwitz in September 1944; death in Bergen-Belsen a few weeks before liberation in March 1945; Otto Frank’s return as the sole surviving member of the family; publication, in the early 1950s, of the diary found by Miep Gies after the police arrested the Franks; posthumous fame for Anne and her family.

The Diary of Anne Frank and derivative theatrical productions have made a unique impact on children and adults throughout the world. They connect the public with vulnerability, innocence and torment during the Holocaust. The writing bespeaks of courage, misery, persecution and resistance. Anne Frank has come to represent the child, in her mid-teens, struggling to maintain hope and faith in mankind, if not in her own future. The most famous quote from her diary is: “In spite of everything I still believe people are good at heart.” (1) Sudden capture stopped the flow of testimony of inner thoughts.

An aura of sweet optimism and faith surrounds the Diary. Unfortunately, the sentiments are misapplied. Cynthia Ozick’s critique is closer to the truth. She described the Diary as a “chronicle of trepidation, turmoil, alarm.... Betrayal and arrest always threaten. Anxiety and immobility rule. It is a story of fear.” People know that Anne as well as her sister and mother were exterminated but for many readers Anne’s story ends with the hope that “people are really good at heart.” These words, I believe, are the key to understanding the conversion of her diary and personae into a redemptive myth.

Ian Buruma wrote that Anne Frank has “become a Jewish Saint Ursula, a Dutch Joan of Arc, a female Christ.” He concluded: “Anne is a ready-made icon for those who have turned the Holocaust into a kind of secular religion.” (2) I would take the comparisons even further. Despite the evolution of Europe’s post-war secular spirit, the myth derives much of its force from a deeply ingrained Christian template. Anne’s story converges into elements of Christian belief and symbolism: a Jewish child, a hidden child, a virgin, a betrayal, the Holocaust as Hell, a form of resurrection through her words, a place of pilgrimage and contact with her life, an offering of consoling, forgiving and hopeful words for those who survive her death.

The redemptive tale seems tragically simple. But the real history is complex and convoluted. It is part of a Dutch national tragedy in a country of contradictions. The German occupation exacerbated passive political and social habits and traditions that affected the individual and collective life of the Dutch. The Anne Frank legend has further blurred the history of Dutch Jews and the Dutch nation during the War. A sorting out is long overdue.

In an essay published in the early 1981, the American historian Simon Schama highlighted some of those Dutch paradoxes in regard to the Jews. Schama was writing about Rembrandt’s time when Jews were welcomed in Amsterdam but also subject to restrictions in terms of occupation, membership in guilds, political rights and religious expression. In his introduction to an exhibition of Rembrandt’s images of Jews in The Netherlands, Schama wrote: “The relationship of the host culture to its Jewish immigrants was... clouded with ambiguities.” He continued: “Compared with other seventeenth century options, it cannot be overstressed, the Dutch Republic was a paradise of toleration and security.... And it is a mark of the extent to which they could invent an authentically Dutch-Jewish identity that many of the paradoxes and conflicts in which the community was caught reflected paradoxes and conflicts that lay within the heart of Dutch culture itself. For that compressed little power-house of wealth and ingenuity vibrated to the throb of its own contradictions.” (3)

Schama described Amsterdam in the 17th century as a “relatively benevolent milieu” for Jews—one in which they could develop an identity in the Dutch context. “For its sheer regularity, the undisturbed ordinariness, with which Amsterdam Jews went about marrying; raising their young, burying their dead; cleaning their houses before Pesach; gathering together in their splendid temples for the Sabbath and the solemn feasts and fasts—that testifies most eloquently to the emergence of an authentic Dutch Jewish culture. In some ways Amsterdam, with its hectic oscillation between mass piety and mass hedonism, was an odd habitat for this Great Calming Down to occur.... Despite the golden crown on the spire of the Westerkerk, it wasn’t really Jerusalem. But then it wasn’t Babylon, either.” (4)

Given this remarkable advance in acceptance by a European country, the Jewish population in the Netherlands continued to expand and confidently regard itself as part of the Dutch nation. In Rembrandt’s time, the Jewish population was 10,000. Two centuries later, it was 140,000. By 1940, many Jews had attained high levels of prosperity, recognition and acceptance in Dutch life, although not to the degree characteristic of German Jews before the rise of Hitler. Forty per cent of the Jewish population lived in small villages, towns or cities such as The Hague. The other 60% lived in Amsterdam. A large number of them were poor. Through the 1930s, Dutch Jews focused on internal issues of assimilation, integration and the well-being of the Jewish community despite the fact that Nazi rule in Germany compelled thousands of Jews, such as Otto Frank, to seek refuge in the Netherlands.

The Dutch haven, developed with such promise since the 17th Century, appeared secure until the spring of 1940 when Germany conquered the Netherlands. The Dutch fought for five days and then capitulated. The Queen and government fled to London, established a resistance government in exile and urged the Dutch at home to oppose the Germans. The presence of thousand of Germans—administrators, police and soldiers— an acquiescent or obliging Dutch civil service, and the active support of Dutch Nazis quickly turned The Netherlands into a subject state. The government in Berlin put the Dutch under the control of Seys-Inquart, an accomplished Nazi fresh from anti-Semitic conquests in Austria. From that point on, to refer back to Schama, for the Jews Amsterdam was neither Jerusalem nor Babylon. It was hell.

It didn’t take long for the Germans to differentiate Jews from other Dutch citizens through anti-Jewish decrees and administrative acts: first, the prohibition against Jewish civil servants and teachers; then, in 1941violent assaults against Jews  in the Jewish Quarter in Amsterdam. The Germans insisted that the Jews form a Jewish Council to make the Jewish community respond to increasingly punitive German demands. The separation of Jews from the rest of Dutch society consisted of ending their rights to property, education, work and mobility. Jews were not allowed to use the trams or bicycles, enter parks or swimming pools, go to movie houses or theaters, and use the beaches. Schools for children were segregated, universities were closed for Jewish professors and students, Jewish musicians and actors were no longer allowed to perform. And shopping was only allowed for Jews in narrow time slots. (These were the same kinds of restrictions that the Germans imposed upon their own Jews in the 1930s.)

Initially, German policies of disenfranchisement and persecution infuriated the Dutch. In February 1941, many Dutch launched a general strike, which closed down the docks, transportation system and industry. This great spasm of opposition to the Germans—and outrage against the treatment of the Jews—lasted three days. The punitive German response pushed the Dutch back into acquiescence and did nothing to stop the increasing physical isolation of the Jews, their economic ruination and the “razia” or roundups and deportations. Resistance flared again in the spring of 1942,when every Dutch Jew was ordered to buy and wear a yellow star with “Jood”— “Jew” written on it. Many Dutch non-Jews put on the yellow star or a yellow flower in solidarity with the Jews. It made a strong impression on Miep Gies, protector of the Frank family. “The yellow stars and yellow flowers those first few days were so common,” she wrote in her book Anne Frank Remembered, “that our River Quarter was known as the Milky Way.... A surge of pride and solidarity swelled briefly until the Germans started cracking heads and making arrests. A threat was delivered to the population at large: anyone assisting Jews in any way would be sent to prison and possibly executed.” (5)

Life for the Jews in the Netherlands ground down to a devastating pattern of anxiety and violent round ups for Jews, their protectors and those in the resistance movement. Unlike the Jews in Denmark who could escape to Sweden, the Dutch Jews had nowhere to go. Some, such as the Franks withdrew into silent hiding in buildings in the cities and countryside. They were totally dependent on their Dutch protectors who resisted the Germans by housing, feeding, clothing and caring for Jews. Of the 140,000 Jews in the Netherlands in 1940, about 20,000 went into hiding. Approximately 7,000 of them were discovered. They shared the fate of the majority of Dutch Jews: removal to the Westerbork camp and then deportation to Sobibor and Auschwitz in the East. By the time that the process was complete, 110,000 Dutch Jews had been killed.

The German occupation sorely challenged traditional Dutch relationships, attitudes and behavior built upon a seemingly strong facade of tolerance and compromise. The political and social acceptance of differences obscured the fateful gulf between tolerance, on the one hand, and disinterest and disengagement, on the other. In regard to national cohesion and separate ethnic, religious and political identities, the War tested the viability of the so-called Dutch pillar society, based upon separate realms of allegiance among Protestant, Catholic, Socialist and Liberal groups. With insidious understanding of Dutch passivity, and the narrowly focused “pillarized” affiliations—above all else, the Dutch yearning for order, the acceptance of government rules to insure that order, the obedience of civil servants to carry through ordinances of order—the Germans surgically removed the Jews out of Dutch life. And when so removed, the Jews disappeared from the realm of responsibility and moral concern of most of Dutch society.

Despite the humiliation and anxiety of occupation, only in the last year of the war did the non-Jewish Dutch—and principally those in the large Northern cities—suffer acutely from the depletion of goods and food, the dangers of forced labor in Germany and the desperate wait for the defeat of the Germans. It finally came on May 4, 1945 to the northern part of the country that was starved, sick and degraded. When the Germans finally surrendered, the Dutch celebrated for days in the streets. The Queen came back. “People who had been in hiding came out onto the streets,” Miep Gies wrote. “Jews came out of hiding places, rubbing eyes that were unused to sunlight, their faces yellow and pinched and distrustful. Church bells rang everywhere; streamers flew.... To wake up and go through a whole day without any sense of danger was amazing.” (6)

And then came the questions and the counting—a new kind of reckoning amid the decay of civilized life. Miep Gies recounted that she and her husband Henk “and everyone else began waiting to see just who would be coming home to us. Shocking, unimaginable accounts circulated of the liberation of the German concentration camps. Pictures were printed in the first free newspaper; eyewitness information,  too. Through the occupation we’d heard rumors of gassings, murder, brutality, poor living conditions in these camps, but none of us could have imagined such atrocities. The facts had far surpassed even our most pessimistic imaginings.... I needed to do everything I could to keep my optimism about our friends. It would have been unbearable to think otherwise.”

Their friends included nine Jews in hiding in the secret annex above the offices where Gies had worked for Otto Frank’s firm. Day after day, she asked returning Jews if they had seen any of the Frank family. In June, Otto Frank returned to The Netherlands from Auschwitz with the news that his wife had died there. He was unsure about what had happened to his two children, Margot and Anne. Months later, he got word from a nurse in Rotterdam that the daughters had not survived their imprisonment in Auschwitz and in Bergen-Belsen. The finality of all the deaths mixed into the tortured lives of those who survived. “I heard it said,” Gies wrote in her book “that where the Jews had looked like everyone else before [the War], after what they had endured, those who returned looked different. But people hardly noticed because everyone had been through so much misery that no one had much interest in the suffering of others.” (7) Despite the fact that Dutch Jewry lost nearly 75% of its population, the highest number of deaths in any Western European country under occupation, despite the fact that Dutch Jewry had enjoyed an illustrious and secure existence in The Netherlands since the 16th century—certainly compared to Jewish communities in other European countries— and despite the fact that the Dutch Jews had lost everything—family, possessions, health—the few who came back were expected to make do with what they found or did not find of their former lives.

Frieda Menco was 15 when she returned from Auschwitz with her mother. They were the only survivors of their large family that had lived in The Netherlands for over 300 years. “When we came back,” she recalled, “we tried to tell people of our experiences. But nobody wanted to listen. The authorities considered us as a pain  in the neck. A Jew who came back and wanted something.” The survivors were told to forget and be quiet— to keep their nightmares and losses to themselves. A once thriving Jewish Dutch world of family, community, institutions, property and homes was gone. That was it. The Dutch constructed effective bureaucratic remedies to bury Jewish claims to emotional and full financial restitution. Many survivors retreated into silence as European countries began to rebuild, to cleanse themselves of some of the Nazis and to adjust to the development of the Iron Curtain.

Amidst rebuilding civilized life in the post-War world, Europeans and Americans constructed comforting wartime myths, especially myths about resistance. This is particularly true about the Dutch who sought to restore a viable nation after the trauma of occupation and the erosion of the pillar society. New terms of national unity, dependent on myths of resistance and victimization, were developed. In a seminal essay, Matthijs Kronemijer and Darren Teshima described this process. This new “identity was built upon the heroic stories of resistance in the Netherlands to the Nazi regime and the belief that Dutch society had stood by and protected its    Jewish citizens. While individual acts of heroism and resistance certainly existed, the formation of a national myth focused on these acts and extending this heroism to describe the entire Dutch nation obfuscated the truth of the war experience.” (8)

The world thinks that the Franks were emblematic of what happened to the Jews in the Netherlands. From Anne’s story the international public has gained the impression that whole Jewish families could go into hiding together; that most could remain in one place for a few years; that numerous Christian friends or employees could sustain and succor them in hiding; and that the unfortunate hidden Jews were the ones betrayed by some unknown informer. And, the final impression: after the war, Dutch Jews would be welcomed back in the country in which they had lived.

In the Netherlands as in all other European countries, there were extremes of valor and decency along with villainy, greed, brutality and cowardice. In the large middle, there were the bystanders who lived with fear and indifference to the threatened minority. Within the Netherlands there were two extremes: on the one hand, mainly Communists and pious Protestants resistance fighters, including many protectors of Jews; and, on the other hand, collaborators who supported the deportation of Jews and the wholesale theft of Jewish property and possessions. At Yad Vashem in Israel and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, thousands upon thousands of Dutch are honored as Righteous Gentiles, including Miep Gies. Risking their lives, they had to resist not only the Germans but their fellow citizens as well. Dutch collaborators or Nazis—as well as rogues just desperate for money—hunted Jews down and turned them over to the authorities. In the official report about the Franks, the record simply states that someone was given the pitifully small amount of 60 guilders—seven guilders for each person he turned over in the Frank hideout.

The history of Otto Frank and his family, in fact, was unique in many ways. Most of the Dutch were too afraid of German terror and punishment to aid those  in hiding; most Dutch people—Jew and Gentile alike—couldn’t be sure that their neighbors could be trusted; most Dutch Jewish families were broken up as children were sent away by themselves into hiding; most of those in hiding had to move from place to place to escape detection; many Amsterdam Jewish families were too poor to pay for places to hide in the country of densely populated urban homes or in the flat terrain of villages and farms; most Jewish families had no assets of property and friendship among non-Jews to expend on survival, although a considerable number of Dutch protected Jews without initially asking for payment. And then after the war, most Dutch Jews came back to a society that was, in large part, indifferent—and at worst cruelly hostile—to what the Jews had suffered in the camps and what they had lost in regard to their family, home, work and communities. Again, Otto Frank was  an exception. Miep Gies and her husband, who had protected and aided the Franks  in hiding, received him warmly, brought him into their family for seven years and helped him to rebuild his life.

These exceptions never impinge on the myths. In the service of the redemptive legend of Anne Frank, there is a pattern of pilgrimage that starts and ends at 263 Princengracht in Amsterdam. People go to Anne Frank’s house, beckoned by the Diary that has sold over 25 million copies in over 50 languages, to have contact with a consecrated space of suffering. They visit the house/museum, which is now supervised by an outstanding educational foundation. The hideout on the upper floors is a stifling, small space high up narrow stairs behind the typical central city’s embellished facade of a narrow brick house. It is one of those typical Amsterdam houses set in rigid, repetitive formations between the canal in front and a garden behind. Canal, home and garden—all carefully planned to blend and separate the animated life on the street and canal with the quiet privacy on the inside. Big windows on the street bring light into the houses and exposure to the life of the city; transparent glass curtains unmistakably divide the public and private sphere of concern and responsibility.

The Dutch are somewhat appalled that the Anne Frank House is such an attraction for tourists—especially the Americans who pay homage to Holocaust remembrance. Nonetheless, this flood of attention, drawing 800,000 visitors a year to the House, is a convenience and distraction for the Dutch. It is also a lucrative source of Dutch tourism. Tourists don’t dig deeper into the history. And the Dutch don’t push the matter. Few of the visitors go beyond the house to explore the sad history of what happened to the rest of Dutch Jewry and to the Dutch themselves. Few visitors move on to other places, such as the Resistance Museum, that memorialize the history of opposition to the Germans and the fate of Dutch Jewry during the War. There are 800,000 visitors annually at the Anne Frank House, but only 19,000 visit the Hollandse Schouwburg, the former theatre where the Germans processed many Dutch Jews for deportation, although it too is now a museum and monument.

There is a clear irony relating to the book and the matter of return—not ours  but Anne’s. The 1950s public, including the Dutch, welcomed Anne Frank’s miraculously preserved diary. But had she herself returned right after the war, few in The Netherlands would have wanted to learn about her suffering directly from her or through her writing. Testimony was not in style. After enduring the occupation, the impoverishment of the economy and public morale, the Dutch didn’t want to hear about the camps, the theft of Jewish property by the Germans and the Dutch themselves, or have to account for the orderly disappearance of 110,000 Jews from 1942 to 1944.

There is, however, one place in Amsterdam, and maybe others as well, where the myth of Anne Frank does not flourish. This is in the social hall of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue. After attending a service in the sanctuary, one goes into an adjoining room to eat and socialize. On the central wall is a picture of Anne Frank age 12 — one that we have all seen numerous times. There is no written explanation on the wall—no attempt at identification, no attempt to make a monument or find meaning. Just a remembrance. The Franks lived near the original Liberal Jewish Synagogue before they went into hiding. They were members of the synagogue.

No one in the congregation needs any explanation for what happened to her. She is part of them, but also apart. In this place, there are no misconceptions, distractions or embellishments concerning the symbolic and real Anne. The same human tornado of persecution hit all of the families with the devastating loss of Jewish friends, progeny, community, family, confidence, habits, wealth, traditions and knowledge. The burden of living with that past is hard enough. Living in the somber shadows of Dutch tolerance, indifference, national victimization and the Anne Frank myth—the task is even harder.


 •     •     • 

About the Author

Judith S. Goldstein founded Humanity in Action in 1997 and has served as its Executive Director ever since. Under Judith’s leadership, Humanity in Action has organized educational programs on international affairs, diversity and human rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Poland, the Netherlands and the United States. She received her Ph.D in history from Columbia University and was a Woodrow Wilson Scholar for her MA studies. Judith has written several books and articles about European and American history, art and landscape architecture. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and several boards and advisory groups.


Goldstein, Judith S. "The Myth of Anne Frank." In Humanity in Action: Collected Essays and Talks, 11-18. New York: Humanity in Action Press, 2014.


1. Ozick, Cynthia, The New Yorker, Oct. 6, 1997, p. 78.

2. Buruma, Ian, The New York Review of Books, Feb.19, 1998.

3. Morgenstein, Susan W. and Levine, Ruth E., The Jews in the Age of Rembrandt, p. 9.

4. Ibid p. 17.

5. Gies, Miep, Anne Frank Remembered, p. 87.

6 . p. 227.

7. p. 228.

8. Kronemijer, Matthijs and Teshima, Darren, Reflections on the Holocaust, (Humanity in Action, Inc.), p.116.


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