Read the Poignant Letter Sent to Anne Frank by George Whitman, Owner of Paris’ Famed Shakespeare & Co Bookshop (1960): “If I Sent This Letter to the Post Office It Would No Longer Reach You”

Be not inhos­pitable to strangers, lest they be angels in dis­guise.

More than a few vis­i­tors to Paris’ fabled Shake­speare & Com­pa­ny book­shop assume that the quote they see paint­ed over an arch­way is attrib­ut­able to Yeats or Shake­speare.

In fact, its author was George Whit­man, the store’s late own­er, a grand “hobo adven­tur­er” in his 20s who made such an impres­sion that he spent the rest of his life wel­com­ing trav­el­ers and encour­ag­ing young writ­ers, who flocked to the shop. A great many became Tum­ble­weeds, the nick­name giv­en to those who trad­ed a few hours of vol­un­teer work and a pledge to read a book a day in return for spar­tan accom­mo­da­tion in the store itself.

In light of this gen­eros­i­ty, Whitman’s 1960 let­ter to Anne Frank (1929–1945) is all the more mov­ing.

One won­ders what inspired him to write it. It’s a not an uncom­mon impulse, but usu­al­ly the authors are stu­dents close to the same age as Anne was at the time of her death.

Per­haps it was an inter­ac­tion with a Tum­ble­weed.

Had she sur­vived the hor­rors of the Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps that exter­mi­nat­ed all but one inhab­i­tant of the Secret Annex in which she penned her famous diary, she would have made a great one.

He refrained from men­tion­ing his own ser­vice in World War II, pos­si­bly because he was post­ed to a remote weath­er sta­tion in Green­land. Unlike oth­er Amer­i­can vet­er­ans, he had­n’t wit­nessed with his own eyes the sort of hell she endured. If he had, he might not have been able to address her with such ini­tial light­ness of tone.

One can’t help but think how delight­ed the ram­bunc­tious young teen would have been by his sense of humor, his descrip­tions of his bohemi­an booklovers’ paradise—then called Le Mistral—and ref­er­ences to his dog, François Vil­lon, and cat, Kit­ty, named in hon­or of Anne’s pet name for her diary.

His pro­found obser­va­tions on the imper­ma­nence of life and the pol­i­tics of war con­tin­ue to res­onate deeply with those who read the let­ter as its intend­ed recip­i­ents’ prox­ies:

Le Mis­tral

37 rue de la Bûcherie

Dear Anne Frank,

If I sent this let­ter to the post office it would no longer reach you because you have been blot­ted out from the uni­verse. So I am writ­ing an open let­ter to those who have read your diary and found a lit­tle sis­ter they have nev­er seen who will nev­er entire­ly dis­ap­pear from earth as long as we who are liv­ing remem­ber her.

You want­ed to come to Paris for a year to study the his­to­ry of art and if you had, per­haps you might have wan­dered down the quai Notre-Dame and dis­cov­ered a lit­tle book­store beside the gar­den of Saint-Julien-le-Pau­vre. You know enough French to read the notice on the door—Chien aimable, Priere d’en­tr­er. The dog is not real­ly a dog at all but a poet called Fran­cois Vil­lon who has returned to the city he loved after many years of exile. He is sit­ting by the fire next to a kit­ten with a very unusu­al name. You will be pleased to know she is called Kit­ty after the imag­i­nary friend to whom you wrote the let­ters in your jour­nal.

Here in our book­store it is like a fam­i­ly where your Chi­nese sis­ters and your broth­ers from all lands sit in the read­ing rooms and meet the Parisians or have tea with the writ­ers from abroad who are invit­ed to live in our Guest House.

Remem­ber how you wor­ried about your incon­sis­ten­cies, about your two selves—the gay flir­ta­tious super­fi­cial Anne that hid the qui­et serene Anne who tried to love and under­stand the world. We all of us have dual natures. We all wish for peace, yet in the name of self-defense we are work­ing toward self-oblit­er­a­tion. We have built arma­ments more pow­er­ful than the total of all those used in all the wars in his­to­ry. And if the mil­i­tarists who dis­like nego­ti­at­ing the minor dif­fer­ences that sep­a­rate nations are not under the wise civil­ian author­i­ty they have the pow­er to write man’s tes­ta­ment on a dead plan­et where radioac­tive cities are sur­round­ed by jun­gles of dying plants and poi­so­nous weeds.

Since a nuclear could destroy half the world’s pop­u­la­tion as well as the mate­r­i­al basis of civ­i­liza­tion, the Sovi­et Gen­er­al Niko­lai Tal­en­sky con­cludes that war is no longer con­ceiv­able for the solu­tion of polit­i­cal dif­fer­ences.

A young girl’s dreams record­ed in her diary from her thir­teenth to her fif­teenth birth­day means more to us today than the labors of mil­lions of sol­diers and thou­sands of fac­to­ries striv­ing for a thou­sand-year Reich that last­ed hard­ly more than ten years. The jour­nal you hid so that no one would read it was left on the floor when the Ger­man police took you to the con­cen­tra­tion camp and has now been read by mil­lions of peo­ple in 32 lan­guages. When most peo­ple die they dis­ap­pear with­out a trace, their thoughts for­got­ten, their aspi­ra­tions unknown, but you have sim­ply left your own fam­i­ly and become part of the fam­i­ly of man.

George Whit­man

via Let­ters of Note

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch the Only Known Footage of Anne Frank

Anne Frank’s Diary: From Reject Pile to Best­seller

8‑Year-Old Anne Frank Plays in a Sand­box on a Sum­mer Day, 1937

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Join her in New York City this Thurs­day for Necro­mancers  of the Pub­lic Domain, in which a long neglect­ed book is reframed as a low bud­get vari­ety show. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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Comments (3)
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  • Angela says:

    Actu­al­ly, see this for source con­tent on “angels in dis­guise” quote.–2.htm
    Let me also take this oppor­tu­ni­ty to express my mas­sive grat­i­tude to you, OC, for all the insight you pro­vide. I have shared this source with so many peo­ple and con­sid­er it my gift to them, via you.

    Thank you!

  • Eli ELiazian says:

    The quote attrib­uted to the store’s own­er is actu­al­ly from let­ter to the Hebrews in the Chris­t­ian Bible.

  • Eli Eliazian says:

    see what? lol. there is no antecedent source for the say­ing there. you were wrong and could­n’t admit it, and are you reply by try­ing to lead read­ers on to a link you expect they will not engage upon that is does not reprove the rebut­tal. seri­ous­ly? that’s insult­ing. con­grat­u­la­tions, OC?

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