Every so often a book comes along that changes the world in some way. With Holocaust Remembrance Day around the corner in the U.S. (April 19), it seems appropriate to consider this one.
What it is: The book often called "The Diary of Anne Frank" was first published in 1947 in the Netherlands under the title "The Secret Annex: Diary Letters from June 14, 1942 to August 1, 1944." It was published in the U.S. in 1952 under the title "Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl." It has subsequently been published around the world.
How it changed the world: The diary, containing the personal musings of a girl trying to negotiate the tumults of adolescence while hiding with her family in fear for their lives, brought home the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust in a way no news reports could.
"When you hear the voice of one girl who was in one of those camps, it's able to touch you in a way more than all of those statistics," says Judith Jones, a recently retired legendary book editor who, while working for Doubleday in Paris after World War II, discovered the diary in a pile of rejects and insisted that Doubleday publish it in the U.S.
"I think that nobody had grasped" what happened, she says. "I just think the idea of destroying a whole race of people … was so appalling that people couldn't believe it. Here was evidence of how it touched human lives."
The diary was one of the earliest Holocaust texts to reach American readers. And today, "I think it still probably is the earliest text by which a new generation comes to know something of the Holocaust, not only in the U.S. but in other countries," says Emily Budick, who is serving a one-year fellowship in the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at theU.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
The diary had implications beyond the Holocaust. "It awakened (people) to the horror of this kind of thinking and the lengths to which a crazy dictator could go," Jones says.
The story: The diary begins in 1942 shortly before the Franks — mother Edith, father Otto, Anne and her sister, Margot — go into hiding in Amsterdam with four other people when it becomes evident that Jews are in mortal danger from the Germans occupying the Netherlands. Anne writes movingly about daily life in hiding, describing what they eat and how they obtain it, her dreams of becoming a writer after the war, her fear of discovery. The family gets news of the outside world via a radio and the people helping them hide.
"Terrible things are happening outside," she writes. "At any time of night and day, poor helpless people are being dragged out of their homes. … Children come home from school to find that their parents have disappeared."
The diary ends abruptly after about two years of entries; the Franks and their companions were arrested Aug. 4, 1944, and transported to concentration camps. In 1945 Anne and her sister died in Bergen-Belsen, in Germany, a few months before the camp was liberated by British troops. Anne's father, Otto, was the only one of the eight to survive the war. He devoted the rest of his life to the publication and dissemination of his daughter's diary and its message, and died in 1980 in Switzerland.
Why you should read it now: Though the Holocaust happened roughly 70 years ago, it remains a current topic. Virtually every day brings some mention of it. A search of a database containing about 70 major world newspapers for the dates March 18-31 of this year, for example, turns up 219 results for the word "Holocaust" and 383 for "Nazi."
Beyond the fact that many people still living suffer from the Holocaust's effects is the fact that the diary introduced the world at large to the concept of genocide. "The Holocaust is a figure for genocide before we became conscious of other genocides," Budick says.
The diary is relevant, too, in that it reminds the world what can happen if ethnic, racial, religious and other forms of discrimination and hatred — instances of which occur daily around the world — are allowed to go unchecked.
And there is one more reason to read the book: "It is itself a readable and lovely text," says Budick, a literary critic researching fictionalized accounts of the Holocaust.
What we think of it: When I first read the diary, as a girl about Anne's age (13-15), the sadness I felt was not personal. I thought of it as a historical event, distant from my own life. Never mind that the diary's events occurred a mere 16 years before my birth, or that — unknown to me — members of two families on the street where I then lived survived these experiences.
I couldn't have known then that I would marry into a family of Holocaust survivors, and that the Holocaust would become a devastating part of my daily life. Rereading the book now, I see that had Anne survived, she might now be suffering through the same crippling symptoms I see in my in-laws: voracious rage, insomnia, an inability to trust, paranoia and more. I know that it is possible for survivors who were children in hiding then, like Anne, to literally relive their pasts: to once again see yellow stars on clothing; to hear voices threatening to beat them, spit on them, kill them; even to fear that their grown children are in danger of starving, or worse.
Many people, however, have taken inspiration from the diary, which displays an admirable intellect and spunk. Anne's hope was to publish her diary or a fictionalized version of it after the war.
"Ten years after the war people would find it very amusing to read how we lived, what we ate and what we talked about as Jews in hiding," she wrote.
If only she knew.
The annual U.S. Holocaust Remembrance Day, established by Congress in 1980, falls on Thursday this year. Activities and programs are held throughout that week, known as the Days of Remembrance, by religious, community, government and private institutions.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day, established in 2005 by the United Nations, is held Jan. 27 each year, the date Soviet troops liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp complex.
For more information, go to ushmm.org, the site of theU.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times