The Sexist Editing Of Anne Frank’s ‘Diary Of A Young Girl’
By Stephanie Watson
The edits on Anne’s diary are more than disrespectful to her memory — they seem to be an act of misogyny.
Anne Frank’s diary, published after its author died in a German concentration camp at age 15, is for many people the defining document of the Holocaust. The diary, originally titled Het Achterhuis, is a national treasure to Jewish women and girls throughout the world, and many Holocaust survivors and historians, such as Primo Levi, have said that it serves as a solid representation of the millions of Jews and other oppressed people who suffered at the hands of the Nazi party. But not everyone realizes that the book published under the title The Diary Of A Young Girl is an abridged, reworked, and redacted version of the diary Anne actually wrote. For me, that knowledge was almost enough to make me boycott the book.
I had managed to avoid reading Anne’s diary for most of my life, but not too long ago I decided to give it a go in audiobook form. The narrator, Helena Bonham Carter, started with the forward of the Penguin edition. She set the scene, described the book’s importance, discussed the war — and then explained that the book had been heavily edited:
“To begin with, the book had to be kept short so that it would fit in with a series put out by the Dutch publisher. In addition, several passages dealing with Anne’s sexuality were omitted; at the time of the diary’s initial publication, in 1947, it was not customary to write openly about sex, and certainly not in books for young adults. Out of respect for the dead, Otto Frank also omitted a number of unflattering passages about his wife and the other residents of the Secret Annex.”
That’s when I turned it off.
There’s something very unsettling about the idea of editing someone’s personal and autobiographical journal. After all, it’s supposed to be a portal into the past: Anne’s experience in the annex, exactly what happened exactly as it happened. To omit important facts and attitudes from its pages just seemed wrong. So I couldn’t continue listening to it, particularly after learning that many omitted sections were on gender-specific topics like sexuality and a young woman’s relationship to her mother.
As it turns out, there are actually three versions of Anne’s diary. Version A is the original journal, the actual words she wrote while in hiding. Version B is Anne’s rewrite in novel form, after she heard on the radio that Minister Bolkestein — the minister for Education, Art and Science during World War II — had requested that all diaries during the German occupation were to be kept and studied for years to come. But version C is the one that most schools handed out in English class, and Anne had no control over that version at all.
‘The Diary Of A Young Girl’ is an abridged, reworked, and redacted version of the diary Anne actually wrote.
After her father was given the remains of both versions by Miep Gies and Bep Voskuijl, who hid the Franks, he and the publishing house edited them into a version that combined the original diary and the rewritten version, with some additional redactions. I considered this blend offensive to Anne’s privacy — since in the diary itself she stated that she didn’t want anyone to read her unfiltered thoughts. Moreover, it omits things that she surely would have wanted kept in version B, since she put them there in the first place.
According to the forward of Penguin’s Definitive Edition (the audiobook I began listening to), several paragraphs on Anne’s personal attitudes and experiences were edited or completely removed from version C. Anne’s opinions on her parents were edited to seem less harsh — for instance, this version removes the line “Father’s fondness for talking about farting and going to the lavatory is disgusting.”
Anne’s thoughts and observations about her body were also cut in version C. Take a look at this section in which she talks about her vagina: “Until I was 11 or 12, I didn’t realize there was a second set of labia on the inside [of the vagina], though you couldn’t see them. What’s even funnier is that I thought urine came out of the clitoris.”
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The edited version is scoured of references to Anne’s adolescent sexuality. “I told him [Peter] all about girls, without hesitating to discuss the most intimate matters,” Anne wrote in the diary, about her potential boyfriend in the annex. “I found it rather amusing that he thought the opening in a woman’s body was simply left out of illustrations. He couldn’t imagine it was actually located between a woman’s legs. The evening ended with a mutual kiss, near the mouth . . . “ The edited version also removes Anne’s references to her period: “PS. I forgot to mention the important news that I’m probably going to get my period soon. I can tell because I keep finding a whitish smear in my panties.”
I already worried that heavy editing of Anne’s diary was disrespectful to her memory. But seeing the content of the changes, it seemed that the edits were also an act of misogyny. The redacted sections dealt with love, sex, and body changes, all topics that women were discouraged from talking about in the 1940s and are still discouraged from talking about today. If Anne had been a boy, would the publication house have deleted sections on discovering his body? On his thoughts about a girl? Would his thoughts about his parents be written off as just a “boy being a boy”?
This is what made me uncomfortable enough to boycott the book.
The edited version is scoured of references to Anne’s adolescent sexuality.
Anne’s father, Otto Frank, was on board for some of the edits, and according to Otto himself, he made these changes with Anne’s own desires in mind: “Of course Anne didn’t want certain things to be published. I have evidence of it . . . Anne’s diary is for me a testament. I must work in her sense. So I decided how to do it through thinking how Anne would have done it. Probably she would have completed it as I did for a publisher.”
But if she wouldn’t have wanted those entries published, then why did she include them in version B at all? Version B was her own re-working, after all, so everything in that version is what she wanted people to see. What evidence did Anne’s father have that she would want her work sanitized?
With these questions in mind, I asked several writers and readers about their opinion on the editing of Anne Frank’s diary. Did the changes and redactions dilute its value? Did they justify simply not reading the book at all?
Some people I talked to agreed with me: “The idea of censoring Anne Frank goes completely against that important principle of telling the truth through the eyes of direct witnesses,” said Erin Stewart, a journalist. “Especially since I think some of the more powerful aspects of her diary (at least for me) are the minutiae, the fact that even trapped in this dank, cramped, precarious place, she had normal feelings about her relationships and life generally. She was still herself. There’s something really moving about the endurance of identity in those times and something terribly heartbreaking about diluting that.”
But the Jewish writers and readers I spoke to emphasized the significance of the diary, in whatever form it’s available. “As a Jewish reader who has read this book since childhood, I don’t agree with not reading it at all because it’s been edited,” said Alana Saltz, a Jewish writer and avid reader. “I do understand your frustration, and I think it’s unfortunate that the book was censored that way. However, you can’t dispute the power and historical impact it’s had in bringing awareness to the Holocaust, and so even if it’s not ideal and should be challenged in the future and questioned now, not reading it seems too extreme.”
After talking to Alana, I started to realize that the bigger picture was more important than any editing shadiness. The edits may be sexist, but fighting anti-Semitism — including by facing and examining what happened during the Holocaust — is more important.
But it doesn’t have to be a choice between accepting the bowdlerized diary and ignoring it altogether. I discovered that there is apparently an unabridged version of the diary that has not been altered the way other versions have, published under the name The Critical Edition. This edition offers side-by-side looks at the three versions, so readers can understand what’s been changed. In my opinion, this is the version that should be available in schools. This would allow us to critique the edits, and acknowledge the misogyny that fueled them, without boycotting the book.
While the edits are offensive, we can’t let that hold us back from learning more about what Anne, and millions of other Jewish people, went through during those painful years. If like myself, you’ve been putting off reading the book, I urge you to join me in giving it a chance. And if you’ve already read it, maybe pick up the Critical Edition and take another look.