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.

Otto’s universal message against prejudice certainly left its mark in Anne’s adopted land, where the Anne Frank Foundation, set up by Otto himself, has done a great deal to spread the good word. Newsletters are sent out. A traveling Anne Frank education program goes round the schools. Videos and comic books are distributed about black teenagers being excluded from discos, or children of Turkish immigrants being bullied in the schoolyard. None of this is bad, but this type of education is taking place in an atmosphere where symbols of collective suffering are becoming the primary source of national or ethnic or religious identification. A common lack of historical perspective, or even knowledge, might help to explain this.

When I went to elementary school in Holland in the 1950s, history meant national history, which meant learning about national heroes: William the Silent beating the Spaniards, Admiral de Ruyter beating the English, and the Dutch resistance…well, not quite beating, but fighting heroically against the Germans. For some time I was under the happy illusion that the Princess Irene Brigade had single-handedly taken the beaches at Normandy. Heroism has gone out of fashion in history education now. Indeed, education of pre-twentieth-century history has gone out of style altogether. And so, of course, has religious education, except in a few pockets of die-hard Protestantism. Instead, children learn about the evils of sexual, racial, and gender discrimination. Victims have become more familiar than heroes or saints. Anne Frank is the saintly victim every Dutch schoolchild knows. So even in this respect, Anne’s wish has come true. The Dutch have taken her to their collective bosom as the most famous Dutch victim in history.


It was a tragic misfortune that Otto Frank’s first and most fervent American promoter should have been a man whose take on Anne’s diary was utterly at odds with Otto’s own. Meyer Levin was born in Chicago, the son of immigrants from Lithuanian shtetls. His father had a shop called “Joe the Tailor.” Meyer was a gifted child, and his parents worked hard to give him a good education. Religion was not part of it. Meyer, like Otto Frank, was not bar mitzvahed. But he was called “kike” and “sheeny” by the Italian kids, and he felt ashamed of his parents’ lower-middle-class Yiddishkeit. According to Graver, he once told an interviewer how much he hated the “shame and inferiority in my elders; they considered themselves as nothing, greenhorns, Jews.”

However, after years of fretting about it, Levin found a focus for his uneasy Jewish “identity.” It came from the shock of seeing German concentration camps, as a reporter, in 1945. In a dispatch from Buchenwald, he wrote: “My mind has become in the faintest way like their minds; I am beginning to understand how they feel.” This vicarious identification would grow stronger in time. Levin felt he had to “pay for being alive,” by bearing witness, by writing about the Jewish experience, by creating, in his books, a Jewish voice or, as Cynthia Ozick might prefer, by voicing the Jewish “temperament.” But this was before Saul Bellow or Philip Roth (or Woody Allen) made Jewish voices familiar to a wide audience. Levin’s novel about his Jewish self-discovery, entitled In Search, was rejected by American publishers, and he had the manuscript printed in Paris at his own expense.

While feeling rejected and dejected, his Jewish voice cast beyond the pale, Levin once again had a revelation. He came upon Anne Frank, in French, as a kindred soul. Her diary, he said, years later, when he was fighting her father in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, “had a passion similar to mine in setting down truly the lives of these people….” He believed he understood her in a way few others, certainly no Gentiles, ever could. So he got in touch with Otto Frank, and offered to promote the publication of the diary in America. He also thought the book would make a good play, and suggested that he would be the best man to write it. Impressed by Levin’s enthusiasm, Otto agreed.

The rest of the sad story can be briefly told. The US edition of the diary, published by Doubleday, was boosted by Levin’s glowing review on the front page of The New York Times Book Review. He also wrote the play. It was rejected by various producers as unsuitable for the commercial stage. Otto was persuaded to drop Levin in favor of two established Hollywood scriptwriters, both Gentiles, who were recommended by Lillian Hellman. The husband-and-wife team, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, known for their work with Frank Capra, produced a heartwarming, uplifting work, full of laughter and tears, about a perky teenager who happens to be Jewish, but could just as well not be. The Nazis manage to snuff out her life, but not her message of tolerance and goodwill. The rest is show-biz history.

To Levin this was not just a career setback; it was a conspiracy of Stalinists, Broadway hucksters, and self-hating Jews to stifle his authentic Jewish voice. The main Stalinist, in his opinion, was Lillian Hellman. Through her manipulations, Anne had been robbed of her Jewish identity and became an unwitting propagandist for progressive internationalism, which crushed every national sentiment, and Zionism in particular. The Broadway huckster was Garson Kanin, the director, who smothered Anne in all-American schmaltz. And the self-hating Jew was of course Otto himself, who masked his (and his daughter’s) true identity in vacuous universalism.

And Levin? More and more, he began to see himself as Anne’s alter ego, or even as Anne herself. He compared the Broadway producers who championed the Hacketts’ play to Nazis who took away business from Jews. His own play, Levin said, had been “killed by the same arbitrary disregard that brought an end to Anne and six million others. There is, among the survivors, a compulsion to visit on others something of the evil that was visited on them.” This particularly low blow was aimed at Otto, of course. And for good measure: “Oh how your daughter would weep for the evil use to which you have allowed her work to be put.” But Levin would wage a “Warsaw ghetto resistance” against the Broadway production. He sued Otto for breach of contract, unsuccessfully. He then asked Simon Wiesenthal to look into Otto’s behavior at Auschwitz. But Wiesenthal had better things to do.

It was all desperately sad and unedifying. The difference between the two accounts of Levin’s tribulations is that Graver writes as an historian, and Melnick as a passionate advocate of his hero’s conspiracy theories. Graver is not unsympathetic to Levin. He thinks Levin’s version was indeed closer to the spirit—and words—of Anne’s diary. But he demolishes the Broadway-Stalinist-self-hating-Jewish conspiracy theory. Instead, he blames the “Zeitgeist” of the 1950s, which combined the popular demand for universal uplift, the Broadway producers’ interest in providing it, the “assimilationist mood” among many American Jews, the postwar pressure to be friendly to Germany, and the anti-anticommunism of the left. The Zeitgeist, as well as Levin’s “self-defeating behavior,” were responsible, in Graver’s view, for obscuring Levin’s play and “his efforts to deepen public understanding of the significance of what was done to the Jews of Europe….” This is being very fair to Levin.

Melnick is less fair toward Levin’s critics. Lillian Hellman is Melnick’s and Levin’s most heinous bête noire. In their view, she led the conspiratorial pack. Melnick’s tactic is guilt by association. Stalin’s Soviet Union was anti-Semitic, Hellman defended Stalin’s Soviet Union and was “a thoroughly self-hating Jew,” so it stands to reason that Hellman was Stalin’s agent on Broadway. After reminding us of Stalin’s persecution of Jewish writers, Melnick states: “This silencing of the Jewish artistic voice found its parallel in Hellman’s treatment of Meyer and the Diary at the very time when Stalin’s most notorious and potentially dangerous anti-Semitic attack was beginning to unfold, in the guise of what came to be know as the Doctors’ Plot of 1953.”

Now, Lillian Hellman had indeed been a Communist; she had no time for Zionism, could be mean and vindictive, and had a cavalier attitude toward the truth. But according to most accounts, including Graver’s, her involvement with the Anne Frank play was not very significant. She was asked to write the play herself, but declined, saying: “I think [the diary] is a great historical work which will probably live forever, but I couldn’t be more wrong as the adaptor. If I did this it would run one night because it would be deeply depressing. You need someone who has a much lighter touch.”6 This suggests show-biz wisdom, rather than self-hatred or Stalinism. She was friendly with the Hacketts and gave them advice when they asked for it. According to the Hacketts, her most useful tips were structural.

The Soviets denied the uniqueness of the Holocaust, to be sure. The Hacketts’ play skates lightly around it. It is made clear that the victims were Jewish, and the death camps their final destination. But Anne is given the line: “We’re not the only people that have had to suffer.” Levin saw this as Hellman’s smoking gun, for didn’t she voice the same opinion, using the same phrase, in her memoir Pentimento? Melnick picks up on this too, in high dudgeon. The same words are indeed spoken in Pentimento, not by Hellman however, but by Julia, the fictionalized resistance heroine Hellman claimed to have performed brave deeds with. “Julia” tells “Lillian” (in the late 1930s, so before the Holocaust) that she will use her money to save victims of the Nazis. “Jews?” asks Hellman. And Julia says: “About half. And political people. Socialists, Communists, plain old Catholic dissenters. Jews aren’t the only people who have suffered here.” In that context, Julia was of course right.

In fact, if anyone was chiefly to blame for the “revisionism” of the 1950s play, it was the director Garson Kanin, another Jew swabbed by Levin with the self-hating, Stalinist brush. He insisted on taking out Peter van Daan’s line about having to suffer “Because we’re Jews! Because we’re Jews!” He told the Hacketts to substitute the jaunty “Oh, Hanukah!” song for the more sober and dignified “Ma’oz Tzur.” And Kanin argued that Anne’s statement about Jews having had to suffer through the ages was an “embarrassing piece of special pleading. Right down the ages, people have suffered because of being English, French, German, Italian, Ethiopian, Mohammedan, Negro, and so on.” This is missing the mark so widely, you wonder whether he ever had it in his sight.

Levin’s play has hardly ever been performed, since Otto owned the rights to the diary. This is a shame, for now we shall never know whether his version would indeed have been more effective in deepening public understanding of the Holocaust. I think the Broadway producers and Otto Frank were right to assume that the Hacketts’ version would reach a wider audience, which is not to say it was the better play. But popular entertainment can sometimes deepen people’s understanding. Depth is a relative concept. Show biz can be remarkably effective, for better or worse. The Hackett play stunned audiences in Germany, just as the American TV soap opera Holocaust would a generation later. People are moved precisely because they identify with the victims as characters—though not of course with their fate. Hollywood’s international appeal always has been its stress on character instead of milieu. Cultural and historical accuracy suffers. But making German audiences identify with Jewish victims is better, it seems to me, than teaching them lessons on how to be a good Jew. Such identification can result in sentimental self-pity, but it is more likely to give people at least some idea of the evil that was done.

I am in any case not sure that Levin’s play was less of a distortion of the diary than the Hacketts’ version. I have only read a late, much revised version of Levin’s script. It is clumsy and hopelessly didactic. It isn’t easy to recreate the atmosphere of the secret annex in Amsterdam, where eight terrified people argued about all manner of things, including the Jewish Question, in a mixture of German, Dutch, and broken Dutch (mimicked by Anne in the diary). But I find the following dialogue between Otto Frank and his wife Edith somewhat implausible:

Mrs. Frank: We haven’t taught our children, Otto. We ourselves know so little, and they know less. Perhaps God wants to wipe out our people because we have failed him.

Mr. Frank: We taught our children to believe in God. In our day that is already something. We never believed the forms were so important, Edith.

Mrs. Frank: We haven’t loved our God, Otto. And since being here, it is strange, but I feel more and more His love for us.

This is what Levin wanted his characters to say. And Mrs. Frank, in a liberal way, was more religious than her husband. But it sounds more like an interior dialogue in Levin’s own head. He “got” religion late in life. When Otto visited New York, Levin took him to his synagogue, hoping that Otto would share in his discovery of Judaism. Then there is Mr. van Daan, a solid German businessman, who alternates in Levin’s version between sounding like a friendly rabbi and a character in a Yiddish soap opera. When his son, Peter, asks him why only religion should help us to tell right from wrong, he preaches: “That is the way it came to us. The Jewish way. Everybody in the world, Peter, has the right to be what they are, and we have the right to be Jews.” Again, this sounds like Levin being pious more than the van Daan we know from the diary.

If the Hacketts’ sin was to take the Jewishness out of the Franks and van Daans, Levin’s sin is to put too much of it in. These were people, after all, who celebrated Saint Nicholas (which has no religious significance in Holland) with greater gusto than Hanukah. Otto actually wanted to give Anne a copy of the New Testament on Hanukah, for her education. Mr. van Daan’s pork sausages were the highlight on the annex menu. Levin was right to insist on the uniqueness of the Holocaust, but making the characters appear more Jewish than they did in real life was the wrong way to make the point. For one of the horrors of Nazi anti-Semitism was that it didn’t matter how Jewish or un-Jewish you were, appeared, or wanted to be, they would get you anyway. And here, I think, we have arrived at the center of Levin’s antagonism. Levin resented Otto, and his kind, for not being willing, in Levin’s eyes, to be good enough Jews. He condemned Otto for his assimilationism. The ferocity of Levin’s battles with Otto, which are still being fought by his defenders, has less to do with the diary itself than with class and “identity” politics.

Melnick sets the tone of his book by stating in the preface that Stalinist propaganda was only one reason for cutting out Anne’s “Jewish avowal” in the play. There were other “equally egregious reasons for this decision, both commercial and assimilationist.” Having established that Stalinism and assimilationism are equally egregious, Melnick quotes Levin’s view that assimilationists suffer from “psychic cancers, ugly secret growths that our people have so long buried in their souls.”

The Jews most associated with assimilationism, not just in the US, are of course, the prosperous German Jews. Ill feeling against them is deep and goes back a long way. German Jews tended to disassociate themselves from the poor, religious immigrants and refugees from the east. The Ostjuden were regarded as riffraff who gave respectable Jews a bad name. Later on, too many assimilated Jews, lucky enough to be in Britain or the US, looked the other way when Hitler went about annihilating their less fortunate brethren. Walter Lippman’s refusal to write even one column forthrightly denouncing the persecution of Jews is a well-known and indeed shameful example. So a degree of resentment is understandable. But when resentment about German-Jewish snootiness slips into paranoia, as it does in some of the recent comments on the case, including Melnick’s, reasonable argument is cut short.

It has become fashionable to assert one’s minority status, especially in the US. And this can be a positive thing. Diversity is good. Jews who wish to live according to the customs and religious beliefs of their ancestors contribute to it. But this is no reason to feel such contempt for those who choose not to do so. Wanting to be assimilated does not necessarily imply self-hatred. The person who had felt ashamed of his parents’ Jewishness was Levin, not Otto Frank. The fact that people such as the Franks were not able to live out their lives as ordinary Germans was not their fault, but Hitler’s. To think that they were punished by God for not being good Jews is to say that God is a Nazi. If Mrs. Frank really said such a thing, she was deluded. If Levin invented it, he was being grotesque.

Buchenwald is perhaps not the best place to find one’s identity. But Levin unfortunately was a pioneer in modern identity politics. Some Chinese-American groups talk about the Nanking Massacre of 1937 as though this Japanese atrocity were the key element of their patrimony. African-Americans, with more justification, talk about slavery, Armenians about the Turks. And Serbs go on about Kosovo. History is full of atrocities, some of them unique in scale or intent. And they must be remembered and recorded as part of history. But basing one’s sense of belonging, whether it is national, religious, or ethnic, mainly on identification with collective victimhood is destructive. I said it was good for Germans to identify with Jewish victims, as people. But the tendency, not only of Jews but of many others as well, to identify with suffering itself, to, as it were, gain virtue from vicarious victimhood, is our modern form of sentimentalism.

Of the three theatrical versions of Anne Frank’s diary, Wendy Kesselman’s rewrite of the Hacketts’ play strikes the fewest false notes. It provides a sharper historical perspective. And Anne’s famous lines of redemption—“In spite of everything…”—are given a dark twist of irony, for they are spoken moments before the Nazis arrive to claim their victims. Critics have praised the current production for its toughmindedness: “A Darker Anne Frank,” as one headline put it. This is right. But before condemning the “Fifties Zeitgeist” too smugly for its sentimentalism, we should reflect on our own variety. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Linda Lavin, who plays Mrs. van Daan, describes how people come back “into our dressing rooms, sobbing at the end of the evening—sobbing. And I’m holding friends—strangers, people who’ve come to say—what—to show us what they have just been through. We know what they’ve been through because we’ve presented it and they’re afraid for us.”

What they went through was a theatrical performance. Reviewing the play in Time magazine, Richard Zoglin called Anne Frank’s diary a “communal rite of grief.” That was indeed the mood of the audience with whom I “shared” the experience of watching the play in December. The more I see people expressing their “identities” in communal rites of grief, the more I am inclined to admire Otto Frank’s dignity, and his perhaps naive, but nonetheless admirable, wish to put his own grief to a more universal purpose.

This Issue

February 19, 1998