I was ready, site open and fingers poised, to purchase those “hot” on-line tickets, going on sale precisely at noon. One fumble and then . . . success! I had snagged our spots—tickets we would use exactly two months later, during our weeklong stay in Amsterdam. I felt like a Springsteen or Twins fan who had just won the Ticketmaster “‘lottery” for an upcoming, highly anticipated event. But the prized openings I had secured were to a Holocaust memorial—the Anne Frank House. How and when did Anne Frank become a household name and tickets to the Anne Frank House such an in-demand commodity?
Visitors world-wide today flock to this building, since 1979 a museum commemorating that young victim of the Holocaust, made famous in the diary she left and its later incarnations as a play and movie. The Diary of a Young Girl, as it is frequently titled, has since 1947 been published in more than 60 languages in thirty countries around the globe. It is often tweens’ first introduction to the Holocaust, part of many school curricula. Now Anne Frank’s diary is also available in a new, compelling graphic novel adaption, a book I reviewed after our trip last month to Amsterdam.
Both versions give us some of the intimate thoughts and daily experiences of this Jewish teenager who, along with her family and four others, during World War II hid in that very house to avoid Nazi capture. The steep stairs today’s visitors climb are the same ones those desperate people trod to reach the sheltering, three level “Secret Annex” in the 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. They tell much about the years between 1942 and 1944, when daring Dutch friends helped the endangered Jews hide, before the Nazis burst in on the morning of August 4, 1944. Visitors usually know that only Otto Frank survived the war to return to Amsterdam, after deportation and imprisonment in concentration camps. Dutch friends then gave him Anne’s diary and other family papers they had rescued and saved.
Visiting the Anne Frank House is a solemn, often emotional experience. I saw a backpacking, bearded young man—listening to an audio version of one display—cover his eyes with one hand as his shoulders quaked with tears. As a film buff, I was particularly touched by the movie star items adorning one wall of Anne’s room. From her diary, we know how often she daydreamed about the photos she had put up there of such popular actors as Sonja Henie, Ginger Rogers, Robert Taylor and Robert Stack. This typical teenage enthusiasm is such a contrast to the circumscribed, terror-driven life Anne and the others led in the Secret Annex. I did not understand until recently, however, how Anne’s accessibility as a typical teen figures in the many controversies about her and her diary.
Even before our Amsterdam visit, I knew there long had been revelations about her father Otto Frank’s original editing of the diary. He removed any mention of sex or sexuality and negative remarks about Anne’s mother or her parents’ marriage. Not until the 1990s appearance of several “Definitive” and “Critical” editions were these cuts restored. Those versions also explained that Anne had begun to revise her diary for possible publication, with this revision also covering several months absent from the original diary restored to Otto Frank. This month’s publication of Anne Frank: The Collected Works (2019) contains the different versions of the diary, along with short stories Anne wrote, and also contains for the first time five loose pages from the diary found after the Nazi raid. This history—along with fate of each Annex dweller—is on display at the museum. Yet there is much about the diary’s history that is not mentioned or only briefly touched upon there.
For instance, until researching this essay I had not known that Mr. Frank also omitted most of Anne’s comments about Jewish beliefs and practices and some of her fearful remarks about Germans. I also did not know that until 1991 the German translations of Anne’s diary omitted all negative remarks about Germans and Germany, substituting instead words such as “soldiers,” “people,” and “the enemy”! Mr. Frank approved these changes because he viewed the Holocaust in terms of people’s general inhumanity rather than anti-Semitic genocide. This controversial view, I have learned, also probably influenced the diary’s award-winning play and film adaptations.
American author Meyer Levin, with Otto Frank’s approval, wrote the first dramatic adaptation of The Diary of a Young Girl (1952). Levin, a Jew, saw both the diary and his play as part as part of the ongoing, necessary outcry about the Nazis’ genocide of six million Jews. This is not the play we know. Otto Frank decided, on the recommendation of theater professionals and literary luminaries, to commission a different adaptation. It would downplay Anne’s Judaism, as was his own wish, instead emphasizing the human drama of life in the Secret Annex. That emphasis, his advisors said, would produce a more popular and successful play—a so-called “hit.”
It is this play—by veteran playwrights Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and first produced in 1955—which we know because it did become both a popular and critical success. Their Diary of Anne Frank won the Pulitzer Prize for best play and other major awards in 1956 and, decades later, won new kudos for revival productions. Goodrich and Hackett’s play was also the basis for the film, debuting in 1959, that won several Academy Awards. Levin, though, remained incensed at his work’s rejection. He sued Otto Frank and the successful play’s producers, claiming breach of contract and plagiarism of his writing. This suit was settled out of court, but Levin went on to write a memoir and a novel about this conflict, rooted in his different, strong views of Anne Frank’s experiences and diary.
Some opposing views of Anne Frank, though, are on display at the museum bearing her name. For instance, some Holocaust survivors such as authors Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi applaud the way Anne’s words, baring her soul, make the Holocaust real to people who cannot identify with the vast numbers of people actually slaughtered then. Others say that an ordinary girl unreasonably has been turned into an “icon” or saint, turning the Annex into a kind of pilgrimage “shrine.” Another criticism is that Anne’s youthful, upbeat responses have been spotlighted while her discouraged or bitter remarks have been overlooked. Many people recall the staged and filmed versions of Anne Frank saying, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” Far fewer know or remember that fifteen-year old Anne, after two discouraging years in the Secret Annex, also wrote “There’s a destructive urge in people, the urge to rage, murder, and kill.”
I myself like the comments made by actress Whoopi Goldberg, who said that for her Anne was both an ordinary teen who could annoy others and a person who coped bravely with extraordinary experiences. This balanced approach acknowledges the broad spectrum of responses to Anne Frank’s fame. Some teens respond most to parts of the diary that mirror their own typical emotional “growing pains,” while other young readers have been inspired by Anne’s experiences to rethink their own roles and opportunities in life. For instance, Cara Weiss Wilson’s decades-long correspondence with Otto Frank, begun when she was a teen and later documented in two books she published, seems remarkable mainly for its American author’s focus on her own life. Yet studying Anne Frank’s diary with teacher Erin Gruwell also led at-risk, bigoted California teens to transform their lives and community. Their experiences as “Freedom Writers” are documented in a book and a movie.
Other books, a play, and films have sprung from or employed Anne Frank’s fame. In fiction, American novelist Philip Roth bizarrely employed her as a secondary character in his novels The Ghost Writer (1997) and Exit Ghost (2007). These satirize his main character, a writer, who meets an imaginary Anne who survived the Holocaust, using a different name. Anne Frank also appears as a secondary character, having survived the Holocaust, in American writer Shalom Auslander’s satirical novel Hope: A Tragedy (2012), while David Gillham’s recent novel Annaliese (2019), seriously explores what Anne Frank’s post-Holocaust life might have been like. In 2014, a play sanctioned by the Anne Frank Fond, the Swiss foundation started by Otto Frank to maintain his daughter’s memory, also explored what Anne’s life might have been like had she survived the war. Sharon Dogar’s novel Annexed (2010), set during the war years, is speculative in a different way, imagining the thwarted feelings between Anne and Peter van Pels in the Secret Annex—speculations that drew strong, mixed responses from readers.
Opposing these fictions is a wealth of real life books by those who sheltered Jews in the Secret Annex, knew Anne before her family went into hiding, or through Otto Frank’s post-war marriage joined him in honoring Anne’s brief, bright life. Several television programs and an Academy Award-winning feature documentary have also been made about Anne Frank. These recollections and visible reminders of her place in Dutch and Jewish history stand in stark contrast to the mis-statements and lies of Holocaust deniers, some of whom have targeted the diary of Anne Frank as a forgery written for profit by Otto Frank!
Ironically, when the Fond’s copyright to Anne’s diary expired in 2015, its move to have a new copyright instated by listing editor Otto Frank as a “co-author” delighted Holocaust deniers. They seized upon this motion as proof that the diary is fake. That outrageous claim is one despicable result of what has been an ongoing dispute between the Fond and the Anne Frank House. Each organization believes it has (or should have) legal ownership of Anne’s diary and the Frank family memorabilia. The paper trail there is unclear, exacerbating the organizations’ different takes on how to present Anne’s story. Generally, the Fond sees this in broad humanist terms, as Otto Frank did, while the Anne Frank House is more focused on the genocide of Jews. Recently, a third organization—the Anne Frank Center USA—has also become more active in this dispute. Yet this group’s validity and authority as a Holocaust memorial organization is also a subject for debate. The commodification of Anne Frank—in terms of the lucrative grants and donations to organizations bearing her name and dedicated to her memory—continues.
This commodification is ongoing in incremental ways, too. Entry fees to the Anne Frank House—such as the ones I paid—help support it, as do purchases at its small gift shop. That store sells relevant books and post cards and also, for children, a “build your own Secret Annex” kit. (Though I understand that children learn in different ways, I still find that item in questionable taste.) Similarly, the Anne Frank Fond received a portion of each ticket purchased to the play it sanctioned. I assume the Fond has or will be receiving income from the animated film it recently commissioned about Anne’s final months, after her capture. Where is Anne Frank?, developed by the same duo who created the excellent recent graphic adaption of the diary, is scheduled to debut in Spring, 2020. Paradoxically, this commercialization of history is also keeping that history alive, however different the interpretation of facts may be.
Finally, I want to point out relevant pieces by two authors whose works I greatly admire. Award-winning Jewish-American writer Nathan Englander referenced Anne Frank’s fame and conflicting images when he wrote and titled one of his complex short stories “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.” (2012). That story highlights different views of Judaism among Jews ourselves, also foregrounding a question Englander and his sister began asking themselves as children: “Who would shelter us—as Anne was sheltered—if we are persecuted for being Jews?” Dara Horn, another award-winning Jewish American novelist and scholar, examined Anne Frank’s life and fame even more overtly in a recent essay. She concluded that for many people it is easier to talk about dead Jews than live ones, particularly in terms of antisemitism and Israel. Horn also critiqued the Anne Frank House while foregrounding another eloquent voice from the Holocaust.
This week, when we marked the day that would have been Anne Frank’s 90th birthday, as knowledge of the Holocaust continues to fade until high school students see nothing wrong in giving Nazi salutes, I think it is more important than ever to keep some memory of Anne Frank alive. The meaningfulness of her life and death—whether we view her as an normally flawed human or a more saintly figure—is being lost in our meme-driven, Instagram world. Just within the last month, her name and image have been the butt of superficial, offensive jokes by popular online and on-air humorists. That thoughtless, contextless humor is the only part of the Anne Frank “industry” I find odious. Otherwise, I believe the price we pay—whether in museum or other admissions, book and memorabilia purchases, or donations and grants—is well worth what we gain in historical knowledge and self-awareness.
Tim Cole examines the role of The Diary of Anne Frank in developing a myth of the Holocaust in his essential Selling the Holocaust.