The Phenomenon of Anne Frank

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David Barnouw
Jeannett K. Ringold
Jewish Literature and Culture
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , February
     152 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


It now feels cliché to remark on the influence of The Diary of a Young Girl, yet the recent surge in interest in the wake of the sixtieth anniversary of the diary’s initial publication in the Netherlands serves to remind us of the enduring legacy and ongoing impact of Anne and her diary on the image of the Holocaust, both for the academy and the public, particularly in the United States. Returning to this conversation is long-time scholar of Anne Frank, David Barnouw, who at times in this book is covering well-known ground, particularly in the early chapters that recount the history of the book itself. If it is well-worn, however, it is in a good part thanks to Barnouw himself, who is perhaps best known as one of the editors of the Dutch critical edition of the DiaryThe Phenomenon of Anne Frank brings together, in a concise and well-structured presentation, his more concerted efforts over the last three decades to bring the story of the diary to its various publics. 

Though providing a broad and clear chronology of the diary’s composition and reception (and often to its credit the book relies heavily on a straightforward, almost journalistic presentation), it becomes evident that Barouw does not aim to critically unpack the motives of the various figures and institutions that played a role in shaping the diary prior to and after its publication. This certainly makes the book more accessible, as is its intention, and though providing a wealth of historical information, Barnouw’s study in this sense remains descriptive, leaving it to the readers to draw conclusions for themselves. However, the reader’s ability to make such judgments is troubled at times by the author’s own authoritative position, establishing himself early on as having been instrumental in the preservation, publication, and study of the diary for several decades. The decision to omit sources from the main body of the text for readability makes Barnouw’s authority-by-proximity the primary, often sole reference point throughout.

That said, the great strength of the book, apart from its accessibility (due in no small part to the quality of Jeannette Ringold’s translation), is also the result of Barnouw’s unique institutional positioning. Chapter 6, “Who Owns Anne Frank?” which recounts the various attempts by individuals and institutions to claims Anne Frank’s message as part of their own cultural history, will be the most novel section of the book to those familiar with the wider history of the diary. Barnouw recounts, for example, attempts in the GDR to claim Anne as a model for anti-fascism and the brief and utterly perplexing image he offers of Anne’s complex presence in Japan. Most valuable, in terms of adding to scholarship on the “phenomenon” however, is Barnouw’s exploration (begun in the introduction) of the ongoing tensions between the two major institutions responsible for the preservation of Anne’s legacy: the Anne Frank House and the Anne Frank Foundation, the former being the primary institution in charge of maintaining 263 Prinsengracht, where Anne lived in hiding, and the latter being established (somewhat secretively, to hear Barnouw tell it) by Otto Frank in the mid-60s. The question of “who owns Anne Frank,” though permeating the entirety of the book, is never more central or more complex than in Barnouw’s discussions of the ongoing antipathy between these two seemingly equally authoritative institutions. It is odd then (but maybe unsurprising), how jarringly partisan the final chapter of the book is in its criticism of the treatment of copyright by the Anne Frank Foundation, returning once again to the particularity of the intellectual and institutional position from which Barnouw writes.

The penultimate chapter, perhaps more than any other, highlights the central issue for the book as a whole as it attempts to reflect on Anne’s diary as literature. The briefest of surveys, at less than five pages, the chapter is built on the claim that the diary is rarely, if ever, examined as a literary text, being treated instead as a historical document. A central concern for the field of Holocaust literature, this chapter could be read as an attempt to connect criticisms Barnouw has surrounding the singular reception of the diary with the wider, ongoing, academic discussion over the literariness of Holocaust testimony in general and the ethics of treating such texts in a literary way. Such a reading is built on Barnouw’s brief connection of his assessment to controversies (or lack thereof) over fictionalized versions of Anne in the works of Philip Roth, Ellen Feldman, and Sharon Dogar. Yet, it may be over-generous on the part of the reader to assume this is the case as Barnouw is satisfied, often frustratingly so, with bringing our attention to the issues at stake rather than examining them in depth—a problem shared by chapters 3 and 4, which recount respectively the histories of stage and film adaptations of the diary.

Though lacking the rigorous critical engagement that one might desire of an academic study, The Phenomenon of Anne Frank ultimately provides a contained and cogent reception history of the diary that serves as valuable introduction to the ongoing and often contentious debates surrounding The Diary of a Young Girl.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sean Sidky is a doctoral student in Religious Studies and Comparative Literature at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Date of Review: 
September 10, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Barnouw is an Independent Scholar and Emeritus Researcher and Former Director of Communications at the Dutch Institute for War, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies. He has written more than fifteen books and dozens of articles on World War II subjects. 

Jeannette K. Ringold has translated over twenty fiction and non-fiction works by Dutch authors into English. She was born in the Netherlands and now lives in California.


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