Today is Anne Frank’s birthday. Had she lived, she would be 87 years old. The exact date and cause of her death are unknown, although it is now believed that she succumbed in late February, 1945, probably to a disease such as typhus.
Anne, her family, and the other inhabitants of the secret annex in Amsterdam were discovered and arrested on August 4, 1944. Thereafter she was sent to Westerbork, then Auschwitz (sharing the camp with Thomas Buergenthal who was also there at the time) and finally, in October 1944, to Bergen-Belsen.
Despite considerable differences in age and experience, there are numerous parallels between Odd Nansen and Anne Frank. Most obviously, they were both famous diarists. Moreover, their diaries were not a mere afterthought, they were central to their respective lives. When the Frank family received a call-up notice and decided to go into hiding, “I began to pack some of our most vital belongings into a school satchel [and] the first thing I put in was this diary,” wrote Anne. Similarly, Nansen writes in his Foreword “Paper and writing materials were the last things I put in my knapsack before going off with the district sheriff and his henchmen.” Anne describes as one of her “worst moments” the time her family discussed burning the diary, lest it fall into the wrong hands and implicate their helpers; Nansen called his diary “such a blessed help to me, such a comfort.”
Both diaries survived by the slimmest of margins. Nansen faced the constant threat of detection in prison, and relied on all sorts of channels while in Norway to smuggle the diary pages to his wife, including, at one point, a Wehrmacht driver that even he called “ungovernable [and] frankly dangerous.” Anne’s diary, seemingly safely hidden in a briefcase, was unceremoniously and unwittingly dumped on the floor of the annex on the day of her arrest by a Gestapo official who wanted to use the briefcase to collect any family jewelry and cash he could find in the apartment. After the Gestapo left, Miep Gies collected everything she could find on the floor for safekeeping. As a result, as Francine Prose has pointed out in Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, “There is no way of knowing if any, or how much, of Anne’s writing was lost.”
This was not the only danger both diaries faced. Upon his evacuation from Germany (along with his secret diary) at the hands of the Swedish Red Cross, Nansen heard, to his dismay, that the prisoners’ every possession, without exception, was burned upon arrival in Denmark, presumably to prevent the spread of disease. Miep Gies, holding Anne’s diary until her return, later wrote that, had she read the diaries “she might have felt compelled to burn them, out of concern for her colleagues.”
Once the war was over, both diaries had difficulty getting into print. Nansen’s diary was rejected by the first publisher it was submitted to, before being taken up by Dreyers Forlag. Similarly, the manuscript collated and prepared by Anne’s father Otto Frank was rejected by every Dutch editor to whom it was submitted.
Once finally published, Nansen’s work was faster out of the gate, becoming a bestseller in Norway when it appeared in 1947; that same year Anne’s book had a small initial print run (1500 copies) in Holland, and was out of print by 1950. Nansen also had an easier time breaking into the U.S. market; by 1949 an English translation was available through G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Anne’s diary received a skeptical reception. One major publishing house called it “a dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions.” The book was already on Doubleday’s reject pile when an assistant to the director of its Paris bureau picked it up, started reading, couldn’t stop, and thus rescued it.
When both diaries ultimately appeared in America, they each met with an enthusiastic response. Meyer Levin, writing in the New York Times Book Review, was smitten by Anne’s writing; it “simply bubbles with amusement, love [and] discovery” he wrote. The New Yorker said of Nansen’s diary: “[I]t will surely rank among the most compelling documents to come out of the recent [war].”
Even the moneys generated by the books have followed a similar course. According to Prose, Otto Frank decided to channel some the book’s profits into human rights causes. Odd Nansen chose to give all the proceeds of the German edition of From Day to Day to German refugees. And one hundred percent of the royalties from the sale of the new edition of From Day to Day are earmarked for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Jewish Museum of Oslo.
Of course, the post-publication trajectories of The Diary of Anne Frank and From Day to Day have been much different. Millions of copies of The Diary of Anne Frank are now in print. As Prose explains, “Good fortune and serendipity appeared, at every stage, to arrange Anne’s diary’s American success.” Out of print, and all but forgotten in America for over 65 years, perhaps good fortune and serendipity will now smile equally on Nansen’s diary, and it will join the ranks of seminal works on the Holocaust, along with Anne’s diary, Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz and Elie Wiesel’s Night.
Most importantly, now that From Day to Day is back in print, perhaps it will also provide the same inspiration that Francine Prose attributes to Anne’s eloquent diary: “Anne Frank’s strong and unique and beautiful voice is still being heard by readers who may someday be called upon to decide between cruelty and compassion. Guided by a conscience awakened by [the diary] one . . . may yet opt for humanity and choose life over death.”