"In Spite of Everything": The Definitive Indefinite Anne Frank

By Larson, Thomas | The Antioch Review, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

"In Spite of Everything": The Definitive Indefinite Anne Frank


Larson, Thomas, The Antioch Review


The definitive edition of The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, published in English in 1995, restored her original entries which her father, the diary's compiler in 1947, had deleted from the first edition. Many of the new edition's reviewers (Or is it readers? Can one "review" Anne Frank's diary?) have expressed the standard adoring praise. In fact, one writer noted that even the reborn diary's 30 percent more material "does not alter our basic sense of Anne Frank." I didn't know we shared the same "basic sense" about her. What is meant, I suspect, is that despite the additions Anne remains a victim par excellence, whose afterlife must forever gather together--and give thanks to--the penitent rememberers of the Holocaust. But studied carefully, away from Anne's iconolatry, the new edition disrupts this putative notion of her goodness. This version, in Susan Massotty's brilliant translation, is an even more incisive and tangled human document than the text that preceded it. True, Anne's anger with her parents and confusion with her own feelings were in the original diary. But now the definitive edition accumulates and intensifies so much more about her inner life that Anne's self-scrutiny dissuades us from enshrining her "goodness" and challenges us to love her honesty. (Which is what all teenagers seem to want!) This complete text discloses an author whose artistic subtlety and autobiographical truth-telling alone can command reverence.

Philip Lopate has written a penetrating essay, "Resistance to the Holocaust," in which he disputes the claim that the slaughter of the Jews must have a "privileged status in the pantheon of genocides." While he concedes that the Holocaust was indeed "dreadful," he takes issue with its commemoration as "uniquely dreadful." "What surprises me," Lopate writes, "is the degree to which such an apocalyptic, religious-mythological reading of historical events has come to be accepted by the culture at large." I find the same has occurred by those who've fetishized Anne Frank's writing. But here the coin's flipped over. The diary's privileged status is now fixed as the uniquely hopeful document against Nazi--and all--atrocities. And this portrayal has along record of boosters. If we recall the expurgated diary's dissemination for junior high students beginning in the 1950s when Americans first read the book, or the robust optimism of the 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich (screenwriters of It's a Wonderful Life), in which Anne's references to Jews as victims and Germans as killers were removed, or even the most "beautiful" Anne of all, Millie Perkins, and her maudlin forgiveness in George Stevens's 1959 film of the play, it is clear we've been bequeathed a child star of major proportions.

That was then--fifties' kitsch lacking the (current) politics of memory. Today, the wheel of Anne's glory rolls on, though the road is by no means smooth. Most notable is the documentary-rich but hagiographic-intended Anne Frank Remembered, whose director, Jon Blair, won the Oscar for Best Documentary film in 1996. While Blair's portrait achieved power with the stirring memories of Miep Gies, the courageous secretary who helped the Franks survive, and Janny Brandes Brilleslijper, who knew Anne at Bergen-Belsen where she died in 1945, some have criticized Blair for evangelizing Anne's precbcity. One writer believed Blair had gone too far in "recreat[ing] and elevat[ing] Anne as some sort of commentator with absolute powers of perception" regarding the course of the war and the barbarity of the camps. In late 1997 a new version of the play opened on Broadway but to a ho-hum reception (it has since closed). The refurbishers folded in the new Anne, drawing out Jewish ethnicity, German culpability, and Anne's quarrels with her mother. But, even with more lines, Anne remained sapped of ego by the play's simplistic dialogue and saccharine emotion. The chief critic of Anne's marbled statuary is Cynthia Ozick whose 1997 New Yorker article "Who Owns Anne Frank? …

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