Reinterpreting Anne Frank

Reinterpreting Anne Frank

Of the many enduring and iconic images of the last century, Einstein, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Churchill and FDR leap immediately to mind.

Pause for a moment and then add the name of Anne Frank to this select gallery of the famous, the powerful, and the uplifting. And note her place in this pantheon with added emphasis on Yom Hash­oah, just weeks after her yahrzeit.

Frank would have been 84 had she not died, just shy of her 16th birthday, in Bergen-Belson. The typhus epidemic that killed her overwhelmed the concentration camp in 1945, during the waning weeks of World War II. Her remains rest in a mass grave with thousands of other victims of the Shoah at a site that now bears a memorial to her and her sister, Margot, and has become a magnet for pilgrims of all faiths vowing never to forget.

The precocious, impish, rebellious, tart-tongued, sometimes petulant, and generally optimistic teen who yearned to be a writer had been seized by the Nazis after hiding for more than two years with her parents, Edith and Otto, her older sister, three members of the Hermann van Pels family, and dentist Fritz Pfeffer in a warren of rooms above and behind Frank’s modest fruit pectin and spice business at 263 Prisengracht, Amsterdam.

The staircase to this Secret Annex, as it has become known to the world, was ingeniously camouflaged in the hallway by a hinged bookcase. Seven of the eight Jews who hid there, including Peter van Pels, the consuming object of Anne’s teen affections, entered the rooms on July 6, 1942; Pfeffer followed a bit later. On August 4, 1944, Nazi and Dutch police seized them after an almost certain betrayal by a member of the Frank firm.

The disparate group had managed to coexist with varying degrees of harmony and histrionics as the months ground on. Through it all, Anne recorded her observations, aspirations, and pet peeves in the cloth-covered diary her family had given her, and then on additional sheets of paper as the writings multiplied. Ever the editor, Anne constantly revisited her entries, revising, sharpening, or nuancing them for the full-length book she hoped to complete after the war.

Of the eight, only Otto Frank survived, and he devoted the remainder of his life to acting as keeper of the flame by vetting, monitoring, and sculpting his daughter’s legacy. When he died in 1980 at 90, Frank had diligently superintended the publication of Anne’s diaries (redacted in early editions to minimize references to coming-of-age sexuality and tensions with her mother) and guided successful stage and movie versions of her story to fruition. He also established the museum-modeled Anne Frank House at 263 Prisengracht and, with his second wife, set up the Anne Frank-Fonds, or charitable trust, of Switzerland.

As these “renditions” of her harrowing story unfolded, Anne became a posthumous citizen of the world, her spectral presence celebrated with remarkable speed. The trajectory from unknown war victim to transnational superstatus was fueled initially by the publication of the diary and then by its subsequent enlargement and modification in films, plays, dance, art, digitalization, politicization, invocation, and even denigration, the last phenomenon developing in parallel or as an offshoot of the others.

While her life was being held up as a galvanizing and shining light by human rights organizations, the dead-end Holocaust deniers, jihadists, and neo-Nazis were perversely claiming the diaries were fakes – something unequivocally disproved by forensics over the years – and that proceeds from book sales and stage and movie rights were swelling the coffers of Jews. Critical voices also arose over her emergence as the symbol of the Holocaust. Did she merit the honor? Did she detract from the other victims? Was the youngster with parted hair clipped to one side and dark circles underlying wide eyes entitled to grace the cover of Life magazine as “The Face” of the Shoah, consigning the millions slaughtered to a collective, amorphous notoriety?

Difficult questions to be sure. In “Anne Frank Unbound,” 15 scholars converge to assess her legacy; the embellishments, refractions and distortions visited upon it; the back story of her family and friends, and even speculations about what might have unfolded had she or the others survived. Co-editors Jeffrey Shandler, a Rutgers professor of Jewish studies, and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, an NYU professor of performance studies, allow the contributors to range freely and authoritatively over an intellectual and generational landscape that has changed dramatically since the diary’s debut in 1947 and its subsequent iteration in many languages.

Certainly two of the most important publishing milestones occurred with the arrival “The Diary of Anne Frank: The Critical Edition,” in 1986 from the Netherlands State Institute for War Documentation and “The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition” brought out in the English version in 1995 by the Anne Frank-Fonds.

“The Critical Edition” yields a rich series of prologues, containing the Dutch government’s admission that it initially overlooked the literary and historical merit of the diaries and interceded only when their authenticity was questioned. Readers of the “Critical Edition” are also granted considerable interpretive amplitude because the entries are presented in triplicate, consisting of Anne’s initial writings, her revisions, and her father’s bowdlerized versions. Meanwhile, the “Definitive Edition” adds 30 per cent to the length of Otto Frank’s original melding and interweaving of Anne’s jottings, with the bonus of new front-loaded material.

The headwinds facing “Unbound” might seem considerable at first blush. What more can be written or digested about Anne Frank? Three generations, each less reverential than the preceding, stand between the diaries and current cultural divides. To its credit, the essays supply a generous reserve of context and perspective while containing only a whiff of academic jargon. The format adopted by the co-editors serves the evolving subject admirably. It consists of four groupings: “Mediating,” “Remembering,” “Imagining,” and “Contesting.”

In “Mediating,” readers engage with the Anne Frank phenomena as it moves from the original diary, found in the annex by family friend and lifeline Miep Gies, to book publication, stage adaptation, film and televised dramatization, and expressions through digital social media. The “Remembering” section highlights the efforts of governments, grassroots organizations, and religious institutions to commemorate or seize on the Frank family’s symbolic value, with motives ranging from lofty to self-aggrandizing.

“Imagining” concentrates on the works by musicians, visual artists, and writers of different postwar generations, offering a wide range of hues and sounds in a multiplicity of venues. A musicography and videography complement this nicely. The final section, “Contesting,” chronicles the efforts of scholars and humorists as they grapple with shifting perceptions and interpretations of Anne, including the irreverent, the downright hostile, or the openly revisionist.

Otto Frank’s exertions to bring his daughter’s story to Broadway and the movies with both integrity and protectiveness still are of exceptional interest. His thorny legal interactions with author Meyer Levin and subsequent harmonious relationship with director Garson Kanin and husband-and-wife dramatists Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, plus the search for an ingenue to play Anne, remain compelling. “Diary” opened to mostly glowing reviews in October 1955 with Susan Strasberg as Anne (Natalie Wood was considered) and Joseph Schildkraut as Otto. Subsequent productions across Europe, especially in Germany (a too easy national catharsis?) and by the Habima Theater in Israel, assumed the level of national events. The 1959 Hollywood film was directed by George Stevens and featured newcomer Millie Perkins as Anne, with Schildkraut reprising his role and Richard Beymer cast as Peter van Pels. Melissa Gilbert portrayed Anne in the 1980 telecast of “Diary.”

Fittingly, “Unbound” concludes with an epilogue by Kirshenblatt-Gimblett on the aged but magificent chestnut tree that stood almost as a sentinel outside the annex and provided Anne with her only close-up of the natural world she was being cruelly denied. The diseased and debilitated boughs were brought down by a storm in 2010, but live on through the propagation of shoots. Saplings have been sent to 11 locations in the United States, including the Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial in Boise, Idaho, on the former site of a white supremacist camp, and one in quarantine and earmarked for 9/11 Memorial Plaza in New York, just outside the Anne Frank Center’s new home.

Frank’s “branding” is by now universal, although, mercifully, it has not reached a pervasive T-shirt and coffee mug level, the result of both her father’s protective efforts and the feeling that some subjects should escape shabby commercialization. Her earthy, earnest, and oft-quoted mantra, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart,” tugs even more tellingly after reading “Unbound.” The essays are rigorous in their scholarship while still managing to generate emotional vibrancy. And for those who read the diary years ago, “Unbound” will whet the appetite for a fresh look at the beguiling and unvarnished observations of this very special teen, who came of age in a traumatized world.

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