One Voice Speaks for Six Million

The uses and abuses of Anne Frank's diary.

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That Anne Frank was Jewish and killed for that reason only became less significant than the comforting image of her as the ardent child who, during a barbaric time, never lost faith in the basic goodness of human beings. In the diary itself, however, Anne writes powerfully of the suffering of European Jews and ponders the reasons for their persecution. Also neglected in the Broadway/Hollywood account of the girl who kept faith is the fact that she wrote the much-quoted sentence before she was arrested and condemned to see mass murder and before she herself died wretchedly in Bergen-Belsen. As Lawrence Langer has said, the acclaimed sentence (yoked from context and used as the uplifting curtain line of the Goodrich and Hackett play) "floats over the audience like a benediction assuring grace after momentary gloom," and is "the least appropriate epitaph conceivably for the millions of victims and thousands of survivors of Nazi genocide."

Other controversies have swirled around the name "Anne Frank," some of which provoked bitter quarrels and law suits. During Otto Frank's lifetime, he was frequently involved in litigation against the individuals and groups who charged that his daughter's diary was a forgery; and in recent years disputes have arisen between the Anne Frank Stichting in Amsterdam and the ANNE FRANK-Fonds in Basel over copyrights, the uses of money generated by the vast sales of the diary, and other matters related to ownership of the child's name, image and book, and to the question of how her life and death should be memorialized. Survivors of the camps and others have also expressed indignation and sadness at what they see as the exploitation of an Anne Frank cult.

Persistent efforts, however, have also been made to counter the most sentimental and misleading aspects of the "Anne Frank mystique." Two school curricula were designend to place her story more accurately in context: Karen Shawn's The End of Innocence: Anne Frank and the Holocaust (New York, 1989, 1994); and Alex Grobman's Anne Frank in Historical Perspective (Los Angeles, 1995). Alvin H. Rosenfeld's valuable essay, "Popularizaton and Memory: The case of Anne Frank," appeared in Lessons and Legacies (Northwestern, 1991); and Robert Alter has usefully warned of the false consolation involved in trying to clutch "eternal hope from the heart of hell."

Yet despite some of the questionable uses to which the Anne Frank legend has been put, her book and legacy remain of permanent value. The diary itself is a profoundly moving testament to the fine observational powers and the swift growth of a quicksilver young girl, and to the pathos of her brutally abbreviated life. If read as the first (and not the only, the last, or the definitive) book about people persecuted by the Nazis, it can fairly serve as an unforgettable reminder of what Phillip Roth once called "the millions of unlived years robbed from the murdered Jews."

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Lawrence Graver

Lawrence Graver is Professor Emeritus at Williams College, and author of An Obsession with Anne Frank, and other books.