The Diary of Anne Frank

The controversy over Anne Frank's legacy.

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Reprinted with permission from JTA.

Fifty-six years after Anne Frank perished in Bergen-Belsen, her life and legacy loom larger than ever…What accounts for the continuing, even escalating, fascination with Anne, which arguably has made her the foremost icon of the Holocaust?

"The basic story is extraordinarily engrossing. It has suspense, romance, tragedy and potential uplift," says Lawrence Graver of Williams College in Massachusetts, who has written extensively on Anne, including her entry in the current Yale Encyclopedia of the Holocaust.

"Reading her diary is a convenient way, a hook, to introduce the Holocaust to, say, eighth graders in Iowa," Graver adds. "It still has its uses if you put it in the proper context."

"Anne wrote with great insight. She was an appealing girl, but one who can be easily exploited," observes Marvin Prosono, a sociologist at Southwest Missouri State University and an authority on Holocaust literature.

Others warn of the dangers of relying too heavily on Anne's diary for an understanding of the period.

"People read the 'Diary' because they think they are learning about the Holocaust. But what they are getting is a safe and sanitized version, without the pain," notes Lawrence Langer of Simmons College in Boston, who has published widely on the literature and testimony of the Holocaust.

Two Versions

Anne in fact wrote two versions of her famous diary. The second version, written on loose-leaf paper, was in literary form, with the people hiding with her disguised by pseudonyms.

Her nonfiction memoir is by far the more popular of the two versions. "Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl," first came out in 1947 when Otto Frank, Anne's father and the sole survivor of the family, persuaded a Dutch publisher to print 1,500 copies. Since then, the "Diary" has sold 25 million copies in 55 languages.

However, Otto Frank and the publisher agreed to excise parts of the "Diary" they felt unsuitable, mainly those dealing with Anne's feelings about her identity as a Jew, her sexual awakening and her ambivalence about her mother and her parents' loveless marriage.

On Stage, On Screen

The edited book's attempt to homogenize Anne's character and universalize her fate was exacerbated, in the eyes of critics, in the 1955 play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.

Peaking with Anne's uplifting curtain line, "I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart," the Broadway production was a commercial success and won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony.

To Langer, however, "the play was dreadful and the movie"--made in 1959--"even worse."

Had Anne survived Bergen-Belsen, Langer suggests, she would have repudiated the curtain line and other feel-good homilies in her diary.

The Cult of Anne Frank

What upsets scholars most, however, is that Anne's commercial popularity has made her, posthumously, into the primary spokesperson for the Holocaust.

"Anne was, excuse me, a pisher"--a young, inexperienced person--Langer said. "She was smart, but she was 14 to 15 years old, you couldn't expect her to be profound."

Graver agrees that the diary's "impact is all out of proportion to its part in the Holocaust."

In a 1997 New Yorker essay, Cynthia Ozick went so far as to ask whether history might have been better served if the diary, so easily reduced to kitsch, had been lost or destroyed.

The Anne Frank cult has taken some bizarre forms. Otto Frank's second wife told Graver of her correspondence with an Anne Frank Protestant Church in Japan, which had a picture of Jesus on one wall and a picture of Anne on the other.

But even as critics were nagging, the interpretation of the diary and Anne's persona were changing.

One factor was the "discovery" of five pages that Otto Frank had given to a friend, which contained much of the material Anne's father earlier had expunged.

In addition, writers and filmmakers started talking to classmates and friends who had known Anne either during her school days, while she was in hiding or during her last months in the concentration camp.

Reinterpreting Anne

One result was a 1995 Oscar-winning British documentary, "Anne Frank Remembered." Then, in 1997, Wendy Kesselman wrote a toughened adaptation of the earlier Broadway play.

One year later, Austrian writer Melissa Muller published a thoroughly researched biography of Anne, which formed the basis for [an] ABC miniseries.

As the perception of Anne has changed, however, so has the infighting about who owns the "real" Anne Frank.

Ever since the diary's initial publication, the late American writer Meyer Levin fought unsuccessfully to present a more realistic and Jewishly identified picture of Anne to the public.

In recent years, the Anne Frank-Fonds in Basel, which owns the copyright to the diary, and the rival Anne Frank House in Amsterdam have been jealous and litigious guardians of her legacy.

Pressure from the Fonds forced ABC to drop its original plan to film the "Diary," and to draw instead on the Muller biography. Steven Spielberg, who had signed on to produce the ABC project, withdrew to avoid controversy.

One of the virtues of the ABC version is to place Anne and her family firmly within a Jewish context.

"There have been past attempts to universalize Anne, but the fact is that she died because she was a Jew," says Kirk Ellis, who wrote the script for the telefilm.

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Tom Nugend is JTA's Los Angeles correspondent. A veteran journalist, he also writes for theJerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the London Jewish Chronicle.