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In honor of ‘A Small Light’: Revisiting ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’

NatGeo’s widely acclaimed new limited series “A Small Light” chronicles the heroism of Miep Gies and several other brave Amsterdam residents who hid Anne Frank and her family, as well as four other people from the Nazis in a hidden attic apartment in Otto Frank’s office building. After the eight Jewish residents were arrested and sent to concentration camps in 1944, it was Gies who saved Anne’s diary and kept it in her desk drawer. Otto Frank, who was the only member of the immediate family who survived the camps — Anne died of typhus in March 1945 at Bergen-Belson — returned to Amsterdam, Gies gave him Anne’s diary. And in 1947 “The Diary of a Young Girl” was published in Europe. Five years later, “Diary” made its way to America. It has been translated into over 67 languages.

Anne had received a red checkered autograph book for her 13th birthday on June 12, 1942. She wrote her first entry on her birthday: “I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.” A month later, they went into hiding. Despite their hardships, the luminous Anne remained the eternal optimistic..

Three years after the book’s publication in the U.S., Anne Frank’s story made its way to Broadway. “The Diary of Anne Frank” opened on the Great White Way in 1955 starring 17-year-old Susan Strasberg in her Broadway debut and Joseph Schildkraut as Otto Frank. Penned by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and directed by Garson Kanin, the play ran for 717 performances, winning the Tony for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize. The 1997 revival directed by James Lapine starring Natalie Portman as Anne and George Hearn as Otto Frank was nominated for two Tonys and ran for 221 performances.

The lauded 1959 film version was directed by George Stevens. Anne’s story was personal to him. As a member of Special Services during World War II, Stevens chronicled the liberation of the Dachau death camp. “Having been in Dachau, I think he saw humanity at its worst,” his son, honorary Oscar-winning filmmaker George Stevens Jr., told me in a 2019 L.A. Times interview. “He never lost kind of his optimistic spirit. But I think he saw what human beings were possible of doing”

In 1958, he accompanied his father to Europe where the elder Stevens was on the jury of the Cannes Film Festival. After the festival, they traveled to Munich and then to Dachau. They eventually arrived in Amsterdam where they met Otto Frank. “He was getting the first look at the man who was going to tell his daughter’s story,” Stevens Jr. recalled. “After a moment, he went over to the filing cabinet and brought something wrapped in cloth and put it on the desk and unfolded it in front of us. It was Anne’s red diary. Seeing the photographs of movie stars she’d pasted in and her handwriting.  It was
just this tremendously emotional experience.”

And so was the movie: the first Hollywood production dealing with the Holocaust. Several actors from the original play reprised their roles for the black-and-white film including Schildkraut, Lou Jacobi and Gusti Huber. Both Millie Perkins as Anne and Diane Baker as her sister Margot made their debuts in the film. Rounding out the cast were Shelley Winters, who earned her first Oscar for her performance (she donated her Oscar to the Anne Frank House in 1975), Richard Beymer and an Oscar-nominated Ed Wynn. “Diary of Anne Frank” earned eight Oscar nominations including Best Picture and director. Besides Winters,  the film received Academy Awards for black-and-white cinematography and black-and-white art direction and set decoration

Even six decades later, the movie still affects Perkins and Baker. The later recalled the time she and Perkins had dinner with Otto Frank at the home of Goodrich and Hackett, who wrote the screenplay based on their play. “I remember we just sat talking, sharing,” said Baker in a 2019 interview. “It was the most extraordinary moment.”

Perkins didn’t know what to say to him when she had the opportunity to speak with Frank privately at the dinner. “He was a terribly nice man,” she related in 2019. “I stood there. You know sometimes people when they’re a little nervous, they take their thumb, and they have all their other fingers holding the thumb tight? I was sitting there with both my thumbs closed that way.  I looked down and Mr. Frank is sitting there with his hands the same way. Then I looked up and he had tears in his eyes and he said-this moves  me every time I say this-‘Anne used to sit that way all the time.’”

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