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The Afterlife of Anne Frank

The Diary of Anne Frank

a play by Frances Goodrich, by Albert Hackett, adapted by Wendy Kesselman, directed by James Lapine. at the Music Box Theater, New York City

An Obsession with Anne Frank: Meyer Levin and the Diary

by Lawrence Graver
University of California Press, 254 pp., $15.95 (paper)


Anne Frank was an ambitious young woman, and most of her wishes came true. She wanted to be a famous writer, and “to go on living even after my death!”1 Few writers are as famous as she. The Diary of Anne Frank continues to be read by millions of people in dozens of languages. The movie version was a global success. The “award-winning” play, based on the diary, was a smash hit on Broadway, as well as pretty much everywhere else, and its current revival is playing to full houses. As is usually the case with fame of this scale, the quality of the original work does not fully explain the legendary status of its author.

Anne Frank has become more than a writer, and more than a victim of the Holocaust whose eloquent voice happens to have reached us across the stinking pits of Bergen-Belsen. She has become an almost sacred figure, a Jewish Saint Ursula, a Dutch Joan of Arc, a female Christ. I grope for Christian examples, since Jews don’t canonize their martyrs as saints. Nor do Jewish saints offer universal redemption. Anne Frank’s most famous words—“In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart”—have been notoriously wrenched out of context to promise just that. And gratefully they were received, too, especially in Germany.

Anne’s death, premature and brutal, also lent itself easily to a common thirst, not just for kitsch absolution, but for a kind of sentimental aestheticism. Her smile has become as famous as Mona Lisa’s. It pops up everywhere, from Santa Barbara, where it was recently on display to promote “tolerance,” to the English city of York, where the smile was projected onto a medieval tower where Jews were massacred during the twelfth century. Anne’s diary has been set to music. There are cartoon versions, one of them Japanese. Anne has been a character in at least one famous novel. About the only thing we haven’t seen so far is Anne Frank on Ice.

A beautiful and talented girl dying so young was always destined, in the minds of many, to live on forever. She had wished it, but I doubt that the result was quite what she had in mind. Many letters arrive every day at the Anne Frank Foundation, located a few steps away from the “secret annexe,” at Prinsengracht 263, in Amsterdam. They come from all over the world. Some are from people who think they have “seen” Anne, somewhere, in Argentina, or Belgium, or Japan. Many more come from people who think they are Anne Frank.

The curse of fame is that it attracts cranks, mostly harmless, sometimes not. Cranks latch onto redeemers. And not just cranks. The actor who played Anne’s father in the original Broadway production said the play gave him a “sacred feeling.” He wasn’t the only one. But Anne’s diary, sold as a message of universal redemption, was actually something much better than that. For she was too intelligent to have written a simple message, redemptive or otherwise. What lifts the diary above the level of a mere witness acount is the author’s capacity to grapple with problems to which there are no easy answers. These include the problems of sexuality, growing up, and relations between parents and children, but also of being Jewish, of national belonging, religious faith, fate and personal freedom, the meaning of life, and of being denied the right to live.

Since it contains so much, readers get different things from the diary, just as they would from any complex work. Adolescent girls identify with Anne’s adolescence. People who want their hearts warmed by a story about a humorous girl rising above terrible circumstances will be satisfied. Jews probing for meaning in collective suffering will find it inspiring as well. Anne is a ready-made icon for those who have turned the Holocaust into a kind of secular religion. It was Anne, after all, who said that “if we bear all this suffering, and if there are still Jews left, when it is over, then Jews, instead of being doomed, will be held up as an example.” Yet, at other times, Anne said she wanted people to “overlook Jew or non-Jew, and just see the young girl in me.” She believed in God, but cared little for the ritual forms of Jewish faith. She said Jews “can never become just Netherlanders or just English or any nation for that matter,” but she also said that her “first wish after the war is that I may become Dutch!”

About the hard questions in life, then, Anne felt ambivalent. That was a mark of her intelligence. But since the question of what it is to be a Jew happens to be a most contentious one, her ambivalence on that score has caused great bitterness among Jews who seek Anne’s spiritual patronage. Reading about Meyer Levin’s feuds with Anne’s father, Otto Frank, over the right to produce different versions of the diary on stage, you get the feeling that the vexed question about Jewish “identity” is being fought over Anne’s soul.

Everyone wants his own Anne: Otto Frank wanted his daughter to teach a universal lesson of tolerance; and Meyer Levin wanted her to teach Jews how to be good Jews. Both have their defenders. Barbara Epstein, who co-edits this paper, was the first American editor of the diary, and close to Otto. The two books under review, by Lawrence Graver and Ralph Melnick, offer different views: Graver is neutral, but Melnick is one of Levin’s chief advocates. Now that the play is being revived on Broadway, in Wendy Kesselman’s rewritten version, Levin’s defenders, including, most stridently, Cynthia Ozick, seem to be winning the day. In an age of “identity politics,” where universalism has acquired a bad odor, this is hardly surprising.

Ozick, following Levin, accuses Otto of falsifying his daughter’s diary, and blames it on his “deracinated temperament.”2 Accusing Jews of rootlessness is an old anti-Semitic ploy. I suppose what Ozick means by this repellent phrase is that Otto’s “temperament” should have been more Jewish. I am not sure what a Jewish “temperament” is, but Otto’s roots were German, and it was the Nazis who cut them off.

Otto Frank was born in Frankfurt-am-Main, in a family of cultivated, liberal German Jews, the kind of people who listened to Beethoven and Brahms, read Goethe and Schiller, attended the Gymnasium, and felt patriotic about Germany. During the First World War, Otto was made a lieutenant in the German army. He was not a religious man. If that means he was “deracinated,” then so be it. But there is no reason to believe he was ashamed of his Jewish ancestry. He claimed never to have experienced anti-Semitism before the Nazis, even in the army, which may be true. His privileged background, shared by many other Jews in France or Hungary or Holland, meant that being persecuted in his own country as a member of an “inferior race” was a particularly sickening blow. A detail about his arrest by the Nazi police in 1944 shows the complexity of his position. When the Austrian policeman who broke into the annex spotted a trunk with Otto’s military rank written on the lid, the wretched man’s attitude changed instantly. “Inwardly,” Otto later recalled, “this police sergeant has snapped to attention.”3 This tragi-comic scene was not used in any theatrical version of the diary.

Otto Frank admitted that the Holocaust made him more conscious of being a Jew—how could it not have? But any form of Jewish essentialism, any attempt by Jews or Gentiles to once again single him out and put him in a unique category, would have been abhorrent. This attitude was not uncommon among survivors. Most French Jews were happy to be defined by General de Gaulle as French citizens, nothing more, nothing less, who had suffered under the Nazis, like all French patriots. This was a distortion of history, to be sure, but perhaps not a distortion of identity: after all, in many cases, they always had felt more French than anything else, and were pleased to be welcomed back to the fold. It was left to their children to redress the historical balance.

So when Otto Frank returned to Amsterdam, as the lone survivor of his family, and was handed his daughter’s diary by Miep Gies, the Dutch woman who had helped to hide the Franks during the war, he was not inclined to view it as a “Jewish” document. First of all, it was his daughter’s document. Reading it, knowing what had happened to her, must have been unutterably painful. The idea that she had died for nothing, as just another grisly statistic, would have sharpened his pain. But in the end, there were her words, and she had intended them to be published. Only they would give meaning to her death. The question was, however, precisely what meaning they should convey. How to be a good Jew, keep to the ancestral faith, and bear witness to Jewish suffering? That is certainly one way of reading them. Jews “will be held up as an example,” she wrote. She also said: “Who knows, it might even be our religion from which the world and all peoples learn good….” She even struck a Darwinist note: “Right through the ages there have been Jews, through all the ages they have had to suffer, but it has made them strong too; the weak fall but the strong will remain and never go under!”

Otto, however, chose to read his daughter’s words in a different, more universal light. If the world and all peoples are to learn good, he thought, then all forms of discrimination must be tackled at once. When an Israeli journalist asked him whether he intended to continue his struggle against anti-Semitism, Otto answered: “No, not against anti-Semitism, but against discrimination, against lack of human understanding, and prejudice. AntiSemitism is the primary example of these three. To fight anti-Semitism one has to touch the root of the evil.”4

The reasoning is impeccable. But the problem with using a historical example for such a universal aim is that the specific is too easily overlooked. The Nazi attempt to exterminate all Jews was not simply an unusually extreme form of human prejudice; nothing quite like it had ever been attempted before. When the movie version of Anne’s diary, or, more accurately, the movie version of the staged version of the diary, first came out, the critic for the Hollywood Reporter hailed it as an expression of “Anne’s final philosophy.” And this was “that other peoples have also suffered persecution but always there have been some people…who have taken a stand for decency. This proved to her that the world is fundamentally and enduringly good.” 5 In fact, Anne didn’t have a “final philosophy,” and what she wrote was less comforting. But the Hollywood Reporter accurately reflected Otto’s idealism, as well as the simple, uplifting message that Broadway and Hollywood producers liked to sell.

  1. 1

    The Diary of Anne Frank: The Critical Edition, edited by David Barnouw and Gerrold van der Stroom (Doubleday, 1989) p. 587.

  2. 2

    Cynthia Ozick, “Who Owns Anne Frank?” The New Yorker, October 6, 1997, p. 82.

  3. 3

    Quoted in Ernst Schnabel’s Anne Frank: A Portrait in Courage (Harcourt Brace, 1958), p. 136.

  4. 4

    Ralph Melnick, The Stolen Legacy of Anne Frank, p. 177.

  5. 5

    Melnick, The Stolen Legacy of Anne Frank, p. 178.

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