"I was exactly the same age as Anne Frank," she explained in her curiously accented, international English. "We were both 10 when war broke out and 15 when the war finished. I was given the book in Dutch, in galley form, in 1946 by a friend. I read it … and it destroyed me. It does this to many people when they first read it but I was not reading it as a book, as printed pages. This was my life. I didn’t know what I was going to read. I’ve never been the same again, it affected me so deeply."
While Anne Frank was watching the moon from her warehouse attic window and listening to the news of Allied advances on the radio, Audrey Hepburn was trying to lead a normal life in the heart of her mother’s Dutch family, and experiencing the Nazi occupation on the street.
"I have memories. More than once I was at the station seeing trainloads of Jews being transported, seeing all these faces over the top of the wagon. I remember, very sharply, one little boy standing with his parents on the platform, very pale, very blond, wearing a coat that was much too big for him, and he stepped on to the train. I was a child observing a child. I don’t know how much longer it was before we knew what was happening - sooner than you did in Britain. Then I realised what would have happened to him. And reading Anne Frank’s diary, it all came back to me.
"We saw reprisals. We saw young men put against the wall and shot and they’d close the street and then open it and you could pass by again. If you read the diary, I’ve marked one place where she says, ‘Five hostages shot today’. That was the day my uncle was shot. And in this child’s words I was reading about what was inside me and is still there. It was a catharsis for me. This child who was locked up in four walls had written a full report of everything I’d experienced and felt."
The focus of their collaborative work on Anne Frank’s diary, for both Michael Tilson Thomas and Audrey Hepburn, is not the arousal of guilt through horror - though Tilson Thomas has drawn on traditional Jewish music and admits he found the Holocaust peculiarly difficult to make into music - but the indestructability of the human spirit. Children may be destroyed, but the optimism of childhood cannot be defeated. “The Anne Frank spirit,” says Tilson Thomas, “was optimistic and forgiving. This is not a grim, horrific piece, although it is sad and disturbing. Here is a special person, a wonderful spirit, even though we know she had an unhappy ending. The piece ends on a hopeful, if wondering, note.”
"People say," says Audrey Hepburn, "wasn’t it all dreadful, the war, but five years of your life can’t all be horrifying. As a child you live daily life. I see this in camps in the Sudan. As long as children have even a very little food they will still run around and want to play. I see it at its strongest where situations are worst. If they have strength, children go on living. You’ve seen the Kurdish children barefoot in the snow, children holding children, holding babies and still struggling on. This spirit of survival is so strong in Anne Frank’s words. One minute she says, ‘I’m so depressed.’ The next she is longing to ride a bicycle. She is certainly a symbol of the child in very difficult circumstances, which is what I devote all my time to. She transcends her death."
[ Lesley Garner on interviewing Audrey Hepburn, The Sunday Telegraph, 5/26/1991 ]