Conference report: first workshop Reappraising the Anne Frank Diaries

By | 29 April 2015

Standard-TextOn April 15-16, 2015 the first of a series of four workshops entitled Reappraising the Anne Frank Diaries – Contexts and Receptions, took place at the European University Institute in Florence. Devoted to the theme of “Contextualisation”, a group of around twenty international scholars discussed a total of six long papers (45 minutes presentation and 45 minutes discussion). The workshop is part of the project The Diaries of Anne Frank. Research – Translations – Critical Edition, a collaboration between the Lichtenberg-Kolleg (University of Göttingen) and the Fritz Bauer Institute (University of Frankfurt), which aims to produce a new critical edition of the diaries, with new translations into German and English, as well as a research monograph with various chapters that will focus on context, receptions and representations of the diaries. Papers of the workshop will feed into this monograph.

MARTIN VAN GELDEREN (Lichtenberg-Kolleg, Göttingen) and RAPHAEL GROSS (Simon-Dubnow-Institute, Leipzig and Fritz Bauer Institute, Frankfurt) introduced the goals and structure of the Anne Frank project.

Bob Moore talking about Anne Frank and her family as refugees in Amsterdam-Zuid.

Bob Moore talking about Anne Frank and her family as refugees in Amsterdam-Zuid.

In the first paper, BOB MOORE (University of Sheffield) provided a crucial, yet often forgotten, part of the context of the history of the Frank family, namely their flight from Nazi Germany and subsequent move to the Rivierenbuurt in Amsterdam. Here they became part of a newly built neighbourhood with as much as 30-40% of the population comprised of German-Jewish refugees by the outbreak of the war. Besides German Jews, the area was also inhabited by Jewish and  non-Jewish Dutch residents in the 1930s. As a result, Moore argued, relations were shaped as much, if not more, by Dutch/German animosities than by Jewish/non-Jewish tensions and the occurrence of anti-Semitism. Moore also questioned what the Frank family could possibly have experienced before they went into hiding in terms of anti-Jewish violence on its streets and the high number of suicides by Jews in the neighbourhood around May 1940. Moore did not only bring the issue of Exil into the picture but furthermore sketched a number of issues that characterised the Frank family and its internal dynamic itself; Otto Frank’s largely secular outlook versus Edith Frank-Holländer’s more religious inclinations; Otto’s travelling background which made his adjustment to life in the Netherlands easier than for Edith who also struggled with the Dutch language; Anne’s attendance of a Montessori school, a particular choice at that time.

Alexandra Garbarini, Gerben Zaagsma and Ann-Kathrin Rahlwes during Alexandra’s talk about diary writing in historical perspective.

Alexandra Garbarini, Gerben Zaagsma and Ann-Kathrin Rahlwes during Alexandra’s talk about diary writing in historical perspective.

After Moore thus set the stage by contextualising the Frank family, ALEXANDRA GARBARINI (Williams College, Williamstown) provided another crucial part of the contextual puzzle in her paper on wartime diary writing in historical perspective. She focused on two contextual levels: the connection of the Anne Frank diaries to Holocaust diaries in general, as well as their connection to cultural practices of diary writing extending European borders. She also indicated that the exceptionality of Frank’s diaries lies in the absence of the Holocaust from its pages. Garbarini highlighted the two functions of diary writing in the late 19th and early 20th century. The inward looking perspective of the classic journal intime, with self-exploration as a main function of writing, versus the documentary traits of the war diary, with entries concerning sociopolitical and cultural events and thoughts discussing them with the aim to bear witness and reach a future audience, which also became characteristic of many Holocaust diaries, particularly in Eastern Europe. Like in many other Holocaust diaries, both functions were present in Anne’s writing insofar as she exemplified the notion that personal/intimate lives bore historical significance. Regarding the historical context of such Jewish documentary practices she stressed, on the one hand, the importance of the practice of diary writing among the Jews of Eastern Europe as a way of documenting persecutions and pogroms already in the pre-WWII era. Elias Tcherikover’s efforts to document the pogroms against Ukrainian Jews during the Russian civil war period (1918-1922) influenced the activities of Emanuel Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabes group in the Warsaw ghetto during WWII. On the other hand she also introduced a comparative perspective by pointing out that these Jewish practices to document atrocities very much resemble similar efforts that were undertaken to document the fate of the Ottoman Armenians during World War I and in its immediate aftermath. She thus broadened perspectives on Jewish wartime diary writing that are often analysed from within a uniquely Jewish context of responding to catastrophe by emphasising the importance of moving beyond a strictly Jewish genealogy and suggesting a broader shared structural impulse in responses to major ruptures and catastrophe.

Ann-Kathrin Rahlwes and Anna-Leena Perämäki during Ann-Kathrin's talk on the history of the Frank family.

Ann-Kathrin Rahlwes and Anna-Leena Perämäki during Ann-Kathrin’s talk on the history of the Frank family.

Returning to the history of the Frank family itself ANN-KATHRIN RAHLWES (Frankfurt) focused on its German roots going back to the late 18th century. She examined the self-image of the Frank family as reflected in Anne’s diaries and compared it to the image that can be constructed about the Franks using archival sources. Anne Frank referred in her diaries to her father’s wealthy upbringing but also to the loss of their wealth and social position. Rahlwes focused in her paper on the specific image of the Frank family as rooted in a liberal Jewish tradition. Her examination of the Frank-Elias family archive proved that the Franks had seen themselves as liberal German Jews for a long time and that Otto Frank continued this tradition. One of the interesting points that Rahlwes made in her talk was the suggestion that there was a long tradition of writing letters in the family (many of which have been preserved). The question remains of course how this family practice influenced Anne in her writing.

Similarly to GARBARINI, the presentation given by GERBEN ZAAGSMA (Lichtenberg-Kolleg, Göttingen) provided a broader context for exploring the nature and function of Holocaust diaries. His paper focused on wartime Yiddish diaries and their postwar trajectories, as a comparative contrast to the Anne Frank diaries in order to balance and broaden our understanding of Jewish wartime diary writing and consider the role and function of Yiddish diaries in the development of postwar Holocaust memory.  Jewish diarists writing in Yiddish often represented a different class than those writing in Polish or Hebrew, and their war experiences had little in common with those we know from the diaries left by Western European Jews like Anne Frank. Many Yiddish diaries that have been preserved were ghetto diaries and represented a documentary-historical approach (a more public type of diary writing) in response to the catastrophe. Zaagsma, like Garbarini, stated that the question of a writer’s intended audience is important to consider for any scholar studying diaries. Why do diarists decide to write in Yiddish? Why do they sometimes switch to other languages? For whom do they write and what is the function of their writing in the light of their intended audience? He then moved to postwar Yiddish publishing, emphasising that there was no silence about the Holocaust in Yiddish and Yiddish publishers were in fact among the first to publish wartime diaries and testimonies immediately after 1945. They also translated non-Yiddish diaries into Yiddish, for example Anne Frank’s, which appeared in three different versions in 1958 (Buenos Aires, Bucharest and Tel Aviv). He furthermore highlighted the crucial issue of translation. What gets translated into and from Yiddish and how is it transformed in the process? Zaagsma concluded that Yiddish diaries were only accessible for a relatively small and dramatically diminished Yiddish-reading audience, yet they represented the wartime experiences of the majority of Eastern European Jews.

ANNA-LEENA PERÄMÄKI (University of Turku) compared survival strategies in the war diaries of Anne Frank and four other young Jewish women experiencing German occupation in Western Europe: Helène Berr, Elisabeth Kaufman, Isabelle Jesion and Anita Meyer. Berr, Kaufman and Jesion documented their war experiences in France; Anita Meyer and Anne Frank in the Netherlands. Perämäki compared the writing strategies of these five Jewish women; the way in which they presented themselves; their relation to their own Jewishness, religiosity and connection to their country of residence or birth. She also explored the functions of diary-writing for these young women. These included, she argued, mentally coping with traumatic situations, expressing the most intimate feelings, working through incoherent thoughts, and providing a routine in an otherwise unpredictable life situation. The diaries also reveal, Perämäki claimed, how some of these diarists built a new identity in the face of persecution. These new identities did not only reflect changing perceptions of national belonging and relations to their own Jewishness, but also to religion and religiosity.

Mark Roseman discussing victim diaries and Holocaust memory.

Mark Roseman discussing victim diaries and Holocaust memory.

MARK ROSEMAN (Indiana University, Bloomington) reflected on victim diaries and Holocaust memory, particularly regarding West-European Jewish diarists. He widened the frame to include diarists who wrote, or started writing, already during the 1930s. Roseman argued that contrary to many critics’ claims that the wide acclaim of Anne Frank’s diary has obscured the reality of Holocaust experience, her writing reveals precisely what has been lost in the interpretation of the Holocaust as a total phenomenon of cruelty and destruction. The many years of persecution as experienced by Jews in Western Europe tend to be overlooked as the Holocaust is represented by extermination camps. Roseman elaborated a triple sense of hiding: first of all those concerned who hid from the Nazis. But, secondly, postwar audiences were trying to ‘hide’ from the truth of the Holocaust, and sometimes wartime diaries aided and abetted their strategies of evasion. As the pedagogical function of diaries has changed and the Holocaust consciousness is a given, this plays no longer a role. Third is the author hiding in the text, as he/she attempted to mediate troublesome experiences. Regarding the latter, Roseman pointed to descriptions of perpetrators, and especially their absence, in diaries. German Jews were more aware then their East European brethren of the Nazi legal machine that was implemented to exclude Jews from German society. The power of the perpetrators before the start of the war lay not so much in the threat of physical violence then this power to exclude.

Bo Stråth summarizing the workshop.

Bo Stråth summarizing the workshop.

BO STRÅTH (University of Helsinki) gave a final critical summary of the two days. He stressed that the presented papers clearly feed into the aim of this first workshop to provide a broader context for the understanding of the Anne Frank diaries. The presented research papers showed that scholarship on Anne Frank can benefit much from shifting the focus from Anne Frank and her direct family to the various broader contextual dimensions as chosen by the speakers in order to open up Anne Frank research for new, interesting questions. STRÅTH continued by critically commenting on each individual paper.

Taken together, the six papers presented  in this workshop provided a thorough contextualisation of the Anne Frank diaries first of all in terms of the Frank family’s history in Germany and in Exil (Rahlwes and Moore); second, in terms of wartime diary writing in general and by young women (Garbarini and Perämäki); and finally, the particularities of diary writing in Western and Eastern Europe (Roseman and Zaagsma). The follow up workshops will be in June (receptions) and October (representations).


Text: Kata Bohus, Iwona Guść and Gerben Zaagsma.

Photos: Iwona Guść and Katharina Rauschenberger.


Conference overview:

Wednesday: 15 April 2015 – Contexts

RAPHAEL GROSS (Frankfurt), MARTIN VAN GELDEREN (Göttingen): Welcome and opening remarks

BOB MOORE (Sheffield): Before the Achterhuis: Anne Frank and her Family as Refugees in Amsterdam-Zuid

ALEXANDRA GARBARINI (Williamstown): Diary Writing in Historical Perspective

ANN-KATHRIN RAHLWES (Frankfurt): Anne Frank and her Family


Thursday: 16 April 2015 – The Diaries

GERBEN ZAAGSMA (Göttingen): Wartime Yiddish Diaries and their Postwar Trajectories

ANNA-LEENA PERÄMÄKI (Turku): Survival Strategies in the War Diaries of Anne Frank and Four Other Young Jewish Women

MARK ROSEMAN (Bloomington): Victim Diaries and Holocaust Memory: Some Reflections

BO STRÅTH (Helsinki ): Summary