In the Footsteps of Anne Frank

Anne Frank diary 1They were the hardest sets of stairs to climb.  Last month in Amsterdam, I visited the Anne Frank House  , since 1979 a museum commemorating that famous young victim of the Holocaust.  Through the diary she left (and its later incarnations as a play and movie), many people world-wide have come to know some of the intimate thoughts and daily experiences of this Jewish teenager.  During World War II, Anne, her family, and four others hid in that very house to avoid Nazi capture.  The steep stairs I climbed were the same ones they trod to reach the sheltering, three level “Secret Annex” in the business building where Mr. Frank had worked.  The museum reproduces some of the décor of the Annex back then, but its rooms are empty of furniture.  Visitors must imagine what life was like in those cramped quarters, drawing upon exhibits in other parts of the House.    

Anne Frank coverAs we now know, 13 year-old Anne and the others escaped capture for more than two difficult years, from 1942 to 1944.  Then, the Nazis burst in on them.  Fifteen year-old Anne—who in her diary once poignantly wrote, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart”—and her 17-year old sister Margot later died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.  Only their father Otto Frank, of the eight people once hidden in the Secret Annex, survived to return to Amsterdam.  His decision to publish parts of Anne’s diary in 1948 led to this moving memoir’s eventually becoming a regular part of school curricula around the world.  Often, The Diary of a Young Girl, as it is frequently titled, is tweens’ first introduction to the Holocaust.  Today, the Anne Frank House draws visitors from around the globe.  I heard several languages during my visit there but never did learn the nationality of one back-packing, bearded young man, whose hand covered his eyes as his shoulders quaked with tears. 

Anne Frank sisterToday I want to tell you how extraordinarily powerful and wise the latest graphic version of Anne’s diary is.  It was initiated by the Anne Frank Fonds, the foundation holding copyright to the diary, specifically to appeal to the growing audience for graphic works.   Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation (2018), adapted by Ari Folman and illustrated by David Polonsky, condenses while preserving Anne’s own insights.  For example, her many comments about her loving but fraught relationship with sister Margot appear here on just one page, replicating the multiple, painful comparisons adults often made between the girls.  It is through such condensing that this graphic work at 150 pages is roughly half the length of the autobiography now published in more than sixty languages. 

Those who have visited the House will also note how Polonsky has used some of the sparse, precious memorabilia we have of Anne’s short life in his illustrations.  Anne’s fearful imaginings of how Nazis treat the Jews they round up, here depicted Anne Frank Kittyas slaves working on a pyramid, resonate anew in light of Anne’s completed school project on ancient Egypt.  Seeing the notebooks for that project in display cases also adds resonance to a double page spread capturing adult conflicts in the Annex.  Mrs. Frank, Mrs. van Daan, and Mr. van Daan, arguing  fiercely, are all shown as hissing sphinxes, twined round the words of their running disagreements.  Sphinxes are among Anne’s drawings for her report.  And, of course, seeing the surviving red-plaid diary itself adds immense emotional heft to the way she personalized her diary entries, writing them as letters to an imaginary best friend named “Kitty.” 

Yet one does not have to have visited the House to appreciate this graphic adaptation’s emotional punch.  Polonsky’s illustrations, in particular, advance and deepen Folman’s verbal retelling of Anne Frank’s thoughts and experiences.   When she is depressed, we see her literally upside down, falling as it were into a shaded gloom.  At other points, her fears about being discovered and captured by the Nazis are shown in doublewide images.  Such despairing scenes have shadows in the way that most of the images in this adaptation—drawn in the “clear line” (ligne claire) style of many European comics—do not.  For instance, when Anne thinks for a time that she and Peter van Daan, the other teen in the Annex, are falling in love, nothing shadows those moments.  Instead, Polansky enhances them by depicting the teens with reflections of one another in their eyes.

Anne-Frank-residentsInterposed with these serious moments are the angrily humorous thoughts teenaged Anne has about her ever-present companions.  On one page, her noting their annoying repetition of the same complaints and concerns is emphasized by Polonsky’s drawing them satirically as wind-up toys.   On another doublewide spread, their eating preoccupations are captured at dinner, with everyone shown as an animal whose typical gobbling or nibbling matches the person’ habits.  In this adaptation, as in the diary Anne herself had begun to revise for possible publication, the full depiction we get of a very bright teen’s insights, hopes, and questions makes the truncation of her life—the weight of that loss—so shocking and painful. 

Famed Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who wrote eloquently about his own  experiences then and their aftermath, once said of Anne Frank after her capture, Elie Wiesel Nightthat “No one can answer  . . . questions” about what she might have written about that time, that “no one has the right to.”  Yet in effect that is the next project that the Anne Frank Fonds has sanctioned.  It has commissioned Ari Folman and David Polonsky to create an animated movie about the last seven months of Anne’s life, from her capture until her death in February or March, 1945.  The creative Israeli duo—whose animated movie Waltz with Bashir (2008) , about Israel’s 1980s war with Lebanon, won or was nominated for multiple awards—feels their graphic adaption of Anne Frank’s diary prepared them for this monumental task.

They have completed filming of Where is Anne Frank?, now planned for Spring, 2020 release.  This film, combining 2 D characters with stop-motion animation, is told from the viewpoint of “Kitty,” Anne’s diary magically brought to life after Anne’s capture.  Thinking Anne is still safely hiding in the Secret Annex, Kitty goes where-is-anne-frankthere before catching up with and following Anne during the next pain and terror-wracked months.  I anticipate seeing Where is Anne Frank? with both high interest and dread. Drawing upon accounts from the handful of survivors already acquainted with the Franks, who saw Anne, Margot, and their mother during those post-capture months, this film is bound to be harrowing.  I anticipate once more feeling as though I am walking in Anne Frank’s footsteps!

Anne Frank collectedI do not know if the film will also shed light on the lingering question of how the Nazis learned about the Annex’s occupants.  As I mentioned last fall while reviewing two Dutch graphic novels, some brave Dutch individuals aided Jews while others collaborated with the Nazis.  That possibility is another of the pervasive fears articulated in both The Diary of a Young Girl ( now also available in a new edition of Anne Frank: The Collected Works [2019])  and its recent, gripping graphic adaptation.







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