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children's diaries

The Nazis and their collaborators murdered more than a million children during the Holocaust. Unlike adults, who possessed the intellectual and emotional apparatus to deal with the Nazi genocidal onslaught—or at least place it in a context, however demanding and often impossible this was—children often experienced persecution without being able to anticipate it or explain it. As scarce as the diaries of the Holocaust are in general, the number of children's diaries from this period is even smaller.

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Despite that fact, one of the most well-known diaries of the Holocaust comes from a girl who was thirteen when she started writing.1 Anne Frank lived in Amsterdam, having fled her native Germany with her parents and older sister in 1934, a year after Hitler and his Nazi party came to power there. The Germans occupied the Netherlands in 1940. By the summer of 1942 the situation had become critical for Jews in the Netherlands, as deportations to Westerbork and from there to the killing centers in occupied Poland began. The Franks went into hiding, to a secret space behind Anne's father’s business office. While in hiding, Anne kept a diary in which she recorded her and her family's life, her hopes and fears, her observations and thoughts about the situation in which they found themselves. Published since the 1950s in many versions and languages, the incredibly prescient and intelligent account of a young girl has remained one of the most iconic examples of children's writings from the period of the Holocaust.

However, Anne Frank's experience and the text she left behind are atypical in many ways. Although the Franks' story of hiding did not end well—they were discovered and deported to Auschwitz in 1944, and Anne's father Otto was the only one from the family to survive—they lived in hiding in a single place for two years. This was unusual, since the contingencies of hiding, especially in smaller towns and villages of Central and Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union—where the majority of European Jews lived—mandated frequent changes of place, and negotiations with non-Jews (who were often not strangers, given the small-town settings). The outcome of every move or negotiation was unpredictable. Furthermore, Anne Frank was clearly a talented writer with literary aspirations; most children's accounts are not as articulate and prescient.2

Children's diaries of the Holocaust provide a glimpse into the impact of persecution on childhood and coming of age. From hiding to experiencing a transient and unpredictable journey through different camps—as did Michal Kraus, for example, whose memoir is featured in the collection on post-Holocaust testimony—children's experiences from this historical period survived in writings that are invaluable sources for the study of this topic. 

The first translation of Anne Frank’s diary into English was published in 1952. For a revised, critical edition, see Anne Frank, The Diary of Anne Frank: The Revised Critical Edition (New York: Doubleday, 2003).

Frank’s talent and aspirations as a writer are evident, for example, in the fact that there are three different versions of her diary, in part due to Anne’s decision to revise her entire diary in 1944 for publication after the war. For more on the different versions and difficulty of establishing a "definitive" or "true" version, see Laureen Nussbaum, "Taken seriously as a writer at last?"