The Afterlife of Anne Frank

The Diary of Anne Frank

a play by Frances Goodrich and 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…

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