Anne Frank at 85: What would she have become had she lived?


Anne Frank would have turned 85 years old Thursday.

It was on June 12, 1942, her 13th birthday, that she received the red-and-white checked diary. Not long after, she and her parents and sister, along with four others, went into hiding in the attic of a house in Amsterdam. Two years later, someone betrayed them — no one’s ever discovered who — to the Nazis. Anne died the following March of typhus at Bergen-Belsen, just weeks before the arrival of Allied soldiers.

That diary, found among the debris in the attic after the end of World War II, was published in 1947. Some 30 million copies have been sold, translated into at least 67 languages.

But what if Anne Frank had lived?

“Anne,” a new play commissioned by the Anne Frank Fonds in Basel, set up by her father, explores that possibility. Dutch husband and wife co-authors Leon De Winter and Jessica Durlacher create Anne’s postwar dream life in Paris, where she meets a handsome young publisher and talks about her manuscript.

“It’s all inspired by Anne’s own writing,” De Winter told CNN“It’s her dream to have this grand student bohemian life in Paris and London — and to become famous, and we used these remarks to see glimpses of a life she never had.”

There’s no doubt she would have pursued her passion as a writer; it’s what she wanted to do, she wrote in April 1944. But she was already a skilled and talented writer. In her book, “Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife,” Francine Prose argues that Anne’s diary is a work of literature and not “just” an historical document chronicling the Holocaust.

“The fact remains that Anne Frank has only rarely been given her due as a writer,” Prose wrote. “With few exceptions, her diary has still never been taken seriously as literature, perhaps because it is a diary, or more likely, because its author was a girl….it has hardly ever been viewed as a work of art.”

Some, of course, have argued — and will continue to do so — that the power of her book lies in the fact that she died. I wasn’t the only young girl who cried at the end of the diary when learning of Anne’s tragic death at the age of 15.

But her contemporary Elie Wiesel did survive both Auschwitz and Buchenwald and went on to write about it. Like him, Anne would have shared her experiences, along with her outlook.

“In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” That may be the most famous quote from her diary.

David May, a former classmate of mine and now a professor at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kan., described finding a sign with that quote in the rubble after our middle school was torn down in Maryville, Mo.

“Even with Washington School’s last breath, she still teaches,” May wrote in an essay published in the Maryville Daily Forum.

“I would like to think that Anne Frank would have challenged us with doing better,” said E.K. Pearson, a high school English teacher in the Blue Valley School District (she taught my son his freshman year). “She would have been out there, realizing she could effect change.”

Although Anne’s diary is generally taught in the middle school in our district, not all teachers include it in their curriculum, and Pearson encourages students who haven’t read it to do so.

It’s an eye-opener, she told me, for the middle-class and affluent students in our Kansas City suburb, learning about the challenges of life and how to face them with hope and optimism as Anne did.

“She saw the beauty to be found even among all the ugliness,” Pearson said. “She focused on the positive, and I think she would have held onto that, even at 85.”

For someone so young, Anne seemed to understand so many issues. Melissa McCoy, a friend of mine in Knoxville, Tenn., summed up the reaction of many of us who read the book decades ago: “I felt then as I feel now: what an amazing old soul! She got it about women’s rights, people’s rights, love, you name it! So much wisdom packed into that tiny young person. I still am in awe of Anne Frank. She is a personal hero.”

Anne remains in the news. The release of the film version of John Green’s novel, “The Fault in Our Stars” has sparked discussion about a controversial scene during which the teenage cancer patients experience their first kiss — in the annex of the Anne Frank House.

Reactions to the kiss (some call it a make-out session) are mixed, from Richard Corliss in Time magazine calling it “an egregious scene” to Ann Hornaday in The Washington Post describing the visit to Anne Frank’s house as “something powerful and profound.”

Hornaday continues, “At that moment, ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ is less about young love than about the heroic moral search for meaning in suffering.”

Last year pop singer Justin Bieber drew worldwide criticism for the comment he wrote on the guestbook at the Anne Frank house, but what shocked me more than his narcissistic world view were the tween-age girls following him on Twitter who had claimed to be clueless  about who Anne Frank was.

To commemorate Anne’s birthday, the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam has asked people to share her impact on their lives on social media, using the hashtag AnneFrank2014.

There are no surprises in the responses: She was a role model and an inspiration. Her hope and optimism in the midst of hiding for two years from the Nazis have given hope and optimism to countless others — whether they’re facing adversity or just trying to live their lives.

A few others, like me, have wondered what an octogenarian Anne Frank would have been like. A video produced by the Anti-Defamation League offers a bittersweet glimpse into a future without hate or bigotry, with a headline announcing, “Anne Frank Wins Nobel Prize for Her 12th Novel.”

Author and translator Mirjam Pressler told DW, “I am convinced she would have become something big. A girl that is capable of making so much out of so little at the age of just 13 or 14. In the back room where she had to hide with her family, there was nothing. It really was boring, there was hardly any variety. And she managed to make something out of that and create a whole world.”

“Everything that happened to her can’t have been for nothing,” Pearson said.

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.
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