In response to:
The Afterlife of Anne Frank from the February 19, 1998 issue
To the Editors:
How, I wondered, after reading Ian Buruma’s treatment of my book, The Stolen Legacy of Anne Frank [NYR, February 19], was I to respond to so spirited a defense of the indefensible behind whose scholarly mask was hidden a polemical attack? Should I point to the skewed emphasis on a few passages ripped from their larger context, or catalog the many important questions addressed in the book’s complex story that were left unassessed? Or should I merely repeat the Hacketts themselves on the central role Lillian Hellman played in the writing of their Diary of Anne Frank, as quoted in The New York Times? Might it help to detail Hellman’s long history of Stalinist flirtation, anti-Semitism, and meanness that she brought to bear upon the Diary’s adaptation but which Buruma so cavalierly dismissed—or that Meyer Levin’s allegedly unstageworthy play was plagiarized by Hellman and others for this Broadway production, as successfully demonstrated in court?
This enumeration could be lengthened, but I will leave this easy exercise to The Stolen Legacy’s readers. Rather, I wish only to add that Buruma’s attack appears motivated by a grievously erroneous reading of my politics, a misreading made more absurd by an anachronistic extrapolation that places Levin’s 1950s struggle against the censorship of Anne’s thoughts and of his dramatic treatment of them into the succeeding generation’s discussion of “identity politics.” Could Buruma have so unconsciously misunderstood the documents before him? Or had he a prior agenda? How else are we to understand his accusation that I have engaged in the “tactic” of guilt by association, a clear allegation of red-baiting as shockingly abusive as it is ill-founded and unbecoming of him, and deserving of nothing more than exposure?
For the essential issue first raised by Levin in 1952 remains, that the distinctive voice of Anne Frank has yet to be fully heard either on stage or screen (with the exception of a few unauthorized performances of Levin’s adaptation of the Diary). Though it is unequivocally clear that only Anne can speak for herself, the tradition of distortion by deletion, overemphasis, and substitution has continued as a matter of predictable course. In a highly politicized and commercialized atmosphere that continues to churn ideology and the marketplace into the telling of history, such usurpation of so usable a property is, perhaps, inevitable. And so it is not surprising that no attempt after Levin’s still-suppressed script has been made to draw out Anne’s profoundest thoughts in response to the Holocaust, neither in Jon Blair’s largely derivative if touted Anne Frank Remembered, nor in the newly minted Kesselman-Lapine effort that further heightens the commonplace dynamics of adolescence while eliminating the Diary’s climactic confrontation between Anne and Peter Van Daan over the question of why the Jews were being so murderously persecuted. (Even Hellman’s unconscionable misuse of the Diary to redefine the Holocaust into a politically useful tool recognized the crucial role played by this scene, however much she contorted Anne’s particularistic response to fit the universalizing Stalinist approach of a dejudaized Holocaust.)
And so we are left asking how much longer Anne’s Diary will be treated emblematically by those promoting their own agendas, however axiomatic that the value of any adaptation is forever a function of its fidelity to its source. For we need not enter into the debate regarding the origin and nature of the Holocaust to recognize the harm that is still being done to Anne’s legacy, or to ask if she will ever theatrically be allowed her long-silenced voice, filled with her own thoughts on the tragedy closing in upon her and demonstrative of the developing Jewish identity it fostered as she fought against deepening spiritual despair. To do less remains unacceptable.
To the Editors:
In Mr. Ian Buruma’s letter published in your issue dated April 9, 1998 (his response to a letter written by Ms. Cynthia Ozick), Mr. Buruma states that there is a “falsification” in “the latest version of the play [The Diary of Anne Frank],” that “Mr. Dussel, the dentist, is made into an orthodox Jew.”
We are the producers of this production, which presents the play in its new adaptation by Wendy Kesselman. We believe that Mr. Buruma is referring to a brief scene in which the lights come up on Dussel, his back to the audience, wearing a yarmulke and prayer shawl. He is seen davening—rocking back and forth in prayer.
The following passage appears in the Definitive Edition of Anne Frank’s Diary, published here in the United States by Doubleday in 1995. The passage is dated Sunday, February 20, 1944, and does not appear in earlier editions of the diary:
One of my Sunday morning ordeals is having to lie in bed and look at Dussel’s back when he is praying. I know it sounds strange, but a praying Dussel is a terrible sight to behold. It’s not that he cries or gets sentimental, not at all, but he does spend a quarter of an hour—an entire fifteen minutes—rocking from his toes to his heels. Back and forth, back and forth. It goes on forever, and if I don’t shut my eyes tight, my head starts to spin.
People often don’t realize that Mr. Dussel was a German Jew (as were the other seven inhabitants of the annex), with an Eastern European Jewish influence.
New York City
Ian Buruma replies:
It isn’t clear to me what Mr. Melnick is referring to when he writes about masks, hidden motivations, and prior agendas, but I assume my name has now been added to the list of conspirators and fellow travelers etched in his suspicious mind. I agree with Mr. Melnick that Anne Frank’s Diary has been distorted and sentimentalized. But I believe he is guilty of this himself. I also think he simply gets things wrong.
That Lillian Hellman was involved with Stalinism is clear. But there is no evidence that her involvement, or indeed her alleged “meanness,” had any effect on the Broadway play. Did she, or anyone else, really plagiarize Levin? One jury thought so. But the evidence presented in court was in fact so flimsy that a judge overturned the jury’s verdict.
Still, let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Hellman had some hand in the sentimental Hackett play. That surely is not comparable to Stalin’s murderous crimes against Jews. To say that it is, as Mr. Melnick does in his book, is to use a smear tactic, commonly known as guilt by association.
Finally, Mr. Melnick’s own distortion. Anne Frank wrote about religion, and also about Jews. But it is perverse to read her diary as a document about the development of a “Jewish identity,” whatever that may be. The “climactic confrontation” between Anne and Peter Van Daan is not about the question why Jews were being persecuted. It isn’t even about Jewishness per se. Anne deplores her friend’s lack of faith in anything: “He has no religion, scoffs at Jesus, and swears, using the name of God…. People who have a religion should be pleased, for not everyone has the gift of believing in heavenly things.”
She was scornful of Peter’s stated wish to pass as a Christian, not because he renounced his “Jewish identity,” but because he would be pretending to believe something he did not. She never did. The problem is that Meyer Levin—now backed by Ralph Melnick—wanted to believe that she thought as he did.