Pride of place on Eva Schloss’s bookcase in her London home is The Diary of a Young Girl, also known as The Diary of Anne Frank.
Schloss’s fascination with this iconic book is not merely due to the fact that she and Anne met as child immigrants in wartime Amsterdam, but rather because of a much closer connection that has dominated her life for over 70 years. After the war, Anne’s father Otto married Eva’s mother Fritzi. Had she lived, Anne would have been Eva’s stepsister.
When the Russians liberated Auschwitz in January 1945, Eva and her mother ended up on the same homeward-bound transport as Otto Frank. Together, they made the long arduous trip to Odessa, returning to Amsterdam in June 1945, after the war. Otto and Fritzi became friends and eventually married in 1953.
Back in 1940, the 11-year-old Eva and Anne had already met. They were part of a group of friends who cycled, skipped and gossiped about boys in Amsterdam’s Merwedeplein Square after school. But for Eva, years later, the diary was a revelation.
“I was the same age as her and I was quite amazed how Anne had a much more mature view of the world,” Schloss, who has just celebrated her 88th birthday, recalls.
“She wrote about feminism and politics, and she said you don’t have to wait till tomorrow to do good deeds and help people. She was really quite amazing for that age.”
Eva – who was just 16 when the war ended and whose father Erich and brother Heinz Geiringer were sent to Auschwitz, but later perished in Mauthausen concentration camp – witnessed the story behind the publication of the diary. Otto had received it in the summer of 1945 from Miep Gies, his secretary before the war (at Opekta, his trading company in gelling agents for making jam) and one of the people who had hidden the family in the annex at Prinsengracht 263. It was Otto who had picked out the checked-cover diary as a gift for Anne’s 13th birthday, in June 1942, just weeks before the family was forced into hiding. On handing over the diary to him after the war, Miep told Otto: “This is your daughter Anne’s legacy.”
It took Otto three weeks to read it, reading just a bit each day, as it was so painful,” says Schloss. “He was so proud of Anne’s thoughts and her writings that he showed it to everyone.”
Many people wonder at the polished style and expression of Anne’s diary. While the Franks were in hiding, the Dutch education minister, who was in exile in London, appealed on British radio for people to keep war diaries. It was at this point that Anne started to rewrite the diary with the intention of publishing it after the war.
It was Jewish historian Annie Romein, notes Schloss, who told Otto that it was his duty to publish it. But finding a publisher was not easy – until a 1946 article by Romein’s husband, Jan, helped put the diary in the spotlight. In his front-page piece in Dutch newspaper Het Parool
, he wrote: “To me, however, this apparently inconsequential diary by a child... stammered out in a child’s voice, embodies all the hideousness of fascism, more so than all the evidence at Nuremberg [trials] put together.”
Eventually Dutch publisher Contact produced the book Anne Frank, Het Achterhuis
, translated as The Secret Annex
, in 1947.
Eva’s mother Fritzi became involved in helping Otto get the first edition published. “They came together in the evenings often and talked about publishing it. Otto worked conscientiously, editing what should stay in.” Otto left out intimate thoughts, like Anne’s flirtations with Pieter and her negative thoughts about her mother.
In his own diary entry for June 25, 1947, Otto marked one word: “book.” “How proud Anne would have been if she had experienced it,” he later said.
But, recounts Schloss, the first edition wasn’t particularly successful because people weren’t in the mood to read more terrible things after all the suffering that had been endured in the war. “Moreover, no one thought what a little girl writes about day to day would interest anyone.”
Undeterred, Otto got in touch with various foreign publishers, who had it translated. Then he tried America, but without much success, until publisher Doubleday decided to take a chance on it. It published the first English version, titled The Diary of a Young Girl
. This was the turning point.
It was Jewish author and war correspondent Meyer Levin’s rapturous review in The New York Time
s on June 15, 1952, that changed everything. His review ended: “‘I want to go on living even after my death,’ Anne wrote. ‘I am grateful to God for giving me this gift, this possibility of developing myself and of writing, of expressing all that is in me.’ Hers was probably one of the bodies seen in the mass grave at Bergen-Belsen, for in August 1944, the knock came on that hidden door in Amsterdam. After the people had been taken away, Dutch friends found Anne’s diary in the debris, and saved it.
“There is anguish in the thought of how much creative power, how much sheer beauty of living, was cut off through genocide. But through her diary Anne goes on living. From Holland to France, to Italy, Spain. The Germans too have published her book. And now she comes to America. Surely she will be widely loved, for this wise and wonderful young girl brings back a poignant delight in the infinite human spirit.”
The review made the diary an overnight bestseller, which “thrilled and amazed” Otto.
Otto gave Levin the opportunity to adapt the diary into a play, but he was unsuccessful in finding a producer to take on his work. In the end Otto and Levin were embroiled in a bitter dispute, over which Levin took Otto to court. Levin later wrote a book called The Obsession, where he described his feelings of being cheated out of his rightful due. Instead the playwright couple Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett obtained the rights to the play, and it premiered on Broadway in 1955. The play was a hit, and led to the first Anne Frank film, starring Millie Perkins, in 1959.
OTTO MARRIED Fritzi in 1953 and they moved to Basel, Switzerland. In 1963 he set up a charitable trust; the royalties from the diary, the play and any other related source was, said Otto, “Anne’s money.” The proceeds have been distributed to many charities.
Otto bequeathed the unedited version of the diary to the Dutch government. After his death in 1980 the government decided to publish the diary in its entirety. It became available to all publishers. To date the diary has been translated into over 60 languages, with more than 30 million copies sold.
Schloss retains special memories of her stepfather, and the “grandfather” Otto became to her three daughters. His sensitivity – not wanting to marry Fritzi until Eva was married – coupled with his warmth and kindness, were a constant source of consolation and reassurance after the trauma of the war years.
Even when it was decided that Eva should become a photographer, after her school years, it was Otto who gave her his Leica camera. “I think Otto was an exceptional, wonderful, thoughtful and intelligent man. He was really an amazing person,” reminisces Schloss.
“He was a wonderful grandfather to our three daughters. He often talked to them about Anne.”
She believes the maturity of Anne’s writing comes down to the education she received at home. “Otto read all of Dickens’s books with her and he probably discussed many things with her, from which she formed her own judgment. It shows you how important it is not to leave all education to the teacher. A parent is very important in the education of the children.”
Similarly, the message of education is one Schloss also shares with her audiences today as she travels the world telling her own story of survival in Auschwitz, as recounted in her three published books Eva’s Story, After Auschwitz
and The Promis
Otto never expected his daughter’s diary to play such an important part in postwar education. It has become one of the great literary documents of the war, to be ranked alongside masterpieces like Primo Levi’s If This is a Man.
The diary ended up dominating Otto’s life. “He was completely consumed, not necessarily by her, but by her thoughts and the message he could use.” He traveled extensively to the US, Israel and Germany, dedicating libraries and schools in the name of his daughter.
“He spoke to young people about Anne and her message,” concludes Schloss, “together with his own message, which was about peace and tolerance.”
The writer is the author of Dutch wartime memoir Two Prayers Before Bedtime.