Illus­tra­tion: Kather­ine Messenger

Anne Frank’s par­ents could not have known, when they bought the small, square note­book with its red-and-white checked cov­er, that this lit­tle book would be a present not just for their daugh­ter but for the entire world.

Like many thir­teen-year-old girls, Anne eager­ly embraced the project of keep­ing a diary. But unlike so many of them, who aban­don the enter­prise after a few weeks, she faith­ful­ly main­tained hers, year after year. Why? Because Anne was a writer:

There is a say­ing that paper is more patient than man’; it came back to me on one of my slight­ly melan­choly days, while I sat chin in hand, feel­ing too bored and limp even to make up my mind whether to go out or stay at home. Yes, there is no doubt that paper is patient and as I don’t intend to show this card­board-cov­ered note­book, bear­ing the proud name of diary,’ to any­one, unless I find a real friend, boy or girl, prob­a­bly nobody cares. And now I come to the root of the mat­ter, the rea­son for my start­ing a diary: it is that I have no such real friend. (June 201942)

On one hand, Anne’s hope for a real” friend can be read as a sen­si­tive adolescent’s desire to be seen and heard. Read­ing this entry with the knowl­edge of what ulti­mate­ly hap­pened to Anne and her fam­i­ly imbues it with a great sad­ness and heart­break­ing irony: Anne’s wish to share her inner­most thoughts was grant­ed beyond her wildest dreams, as her words have been read by mil­lions of peo­ple, over sev­er­al gen­er­a­tions — at the trag­ic cost of her own pre­ma­ture death.

But there is more to this entry than a teenager’s yearn­ing to be under­stood. These words also offer us one young girl’s expla­na­tion for why she chose to write. They show us a nascent artist’s yearn­ing to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried deep in my heart,” and they reveal a writer’s faith in pen and paper as the surest medi­um for express­ing the thoughts and feel­ings of the secret self that she most valued.

Read­ing Anne Frank’s diary as a kind of Por­trait of the Artist as a Young Woman” is a poignant enter­prise. She proves her­self to be a great sto­ry­teller, as she recounts life in the Annex, using sin­gu­lar descrip­tions (“[Father] puts on his pota­to-peel­ing face”), wry dia­logue (“[Mr. Van Daan announces, When this is all over, I’m going to have myself bap­tized’”), and amus­ing metaphors (“An elephant’s tread is heard on the stair­way. It’s Dus­sel”). Time and again, I catch glimpses of her sen­si­tiv­i­ty — her des­per­a­tion to lift the cur­tains and look at the moon, the fact that a dark, rainy evening, a gale, scud­ding clouds” can hold her entire­ly in their power.”

Anne’s artis­tic tem­pera­ment also reveals itself when she feels depressed. Her moth­er admon­ish­es her and advis­es, Think of all the mis­ery in the world and be thank­ful that you are not shar­ing in it!’” (March 7, 1944). But Anne rejects that cure for melan­choly. She finds that, for her­self, the key to joy is to dwell in beau­ty, not sorrow:

I don’t think then of all the mis­ery, but of the beau­ty that still remains.… I don’t see how Mummy’s idea can be right.… On the con­trary, I’ve found that there is always some beau­ty left — in nature, sun­shine, free­dom, in your­self; these can all help you.

Anne’s faith in the redeem­ing pow­er of beau­ty, even or per­haps espe­cial­ly in the midst of sad­ness and defeat, oppres­sion, and tragedy, is, to my mind, quin­tes­sen­tial­ly artis­tic. While the world around her appears to be going mad, Anne clings to beau­ty as a pil­lar. She can­not count on any­thing else; she has lost her home, bombs are being dropped on her head dai­ly, she is grate­ful to be able to eat even rot­ten kale, yet beau­ty remains. When over­whelm­ing dark­ness and injus­tice descend upon the world, cre­at­ing some­thing beau­ti­ful may seem insignif­i­cant and point­less — but Anne Frank reminds us that that effort may in fact be the most impor­tant one of all.

A lam­en­ta­ble and shame­ful truth about Anne Frank’s sto­ry is that the Unit­ed States had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to shel­ter her: in 1938 and again in 1941, the entire Frank fam­i­ly sought to enter this coun­try as refugees. Ulti­mate­ly, their efforts were futile, because wide­spread anti­semitism and xeno­pho­bia led to dras­tic restric­tions on immi­gra­tion from war-torn Europe. Had the Unit­ed States not allowed itself to be ruled by fear and dis­trust, had it wel­comed Anne Frank into its bor­ders, she would sure­ly have con­tin­ued writ­ing, increas­ing the mea­sure of beau­ty in the world with every word.

Ursu­la Wern­er is a writer and attor­ney cur­rent­ly liv­ing in Wash­ing­ton, DC, with her fam­i­ly. Born in Ger­many and raised in South Flori­da, she has prac­ticed law while con­tin­u­ing her cre­ative writ­ing, pub­lish­ing two books of poet­ry, In the Silence of the Woodruff (2006) and Rapun­zel Revis­it­ed (2010). Her first nov­el, The Good at Heart, was pub­lished by Touch­stone Books ear­li­er this year.