Like millions of American children, I read and reread Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl, mesmerized by the journal of her two years spent in hiding from the Nazis. Yet the book always remained somewhat cryptic for my young mind: What exactly was an “annex”? Why did Anne and her sister Margot call their father Pim? If Anne was German, why did she live in Holland?
Reading Anne Frank: The Biography, then, was something of a revelation. Melissa Müller’s updated biography includes new letters and information not yet public when she originally published it in 1998. She delves into the Franks’ lives before German occupation, painting a portrait of a happy, ordinary family: Otto and Edith Frank were doting parents who sought the best education for their girls. Margot was the studious, pretty older sister. Anne was the tempestuous attention-seeker who loved movies and spending time with her girlfriends.
Müller also traces in heartbreaking detail Otto Frank’s increasingly desperate attempts to save his family as the threat of Nazi Germany became clear: first moving to Amsterdam, then seeking to emigrate to the United States, and finally stowing away in the back area of his business’ warehouse.
Müller wisely doesn’t recount in much detail the Franks’ time in the annex—there simply isn’t much to add to Anne’s thorough diary—choosing instead to analyze Anne’s insightful writing and add context where needed. She also devotes considerable space to the question of who might have told the authorities about the hidden Jews at 263 Prinsengracht. This is, unfortunately, a question that may ultimately go unanswered.
Anne Frank has become such a global symbol that it’s easy to forget she was a real girl. Müller’s meticulous research and humane writing remind us that when she should have been exploring her world and coming into her own, the teenage Anne was not allowed to even open a window or move freely for fear of warehouse workers hearing her footsteps. Yet not even nightly air raids and the constant threat of being discovered could break her spirit. “I shall not remain insignificant,” she wrote on April 11, 1944, just months before her family was discovered (Anne died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in March 1945). “I shall work in the world for mankind.”