An Evolving Legacy: How Well Do We Know Anne Frank?

Posted: January 21, 2013 in History
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By Georg Diez

Anne Frank is a figure of hope whose diary has been read by millions of people around the world. Two new books, an upcoming film and a soon to open museum seek to create a contemporary, complicated — and more Jewish — image of the Holocaust victim.

More than 30 million copies of the "Diary of Anne Frank" have been sold around the world, but do we really know her?
DPA / Anne Frank Fonds Basel

More than 30 million copies of the “Diary of Anne Frank” have been sold around the world, but do we really know her?

For Buddy Elias, she was the girl with the smile, the girl with whom he played hide and seek, the girl who was determined to go ice skating with him; and she was his cousin, who he is still trying to protect to this day.

In her diary, she even drew a picture of the dress she would like to wear if she were to go ice skating with him.Elias beams when he talks about her, but his eyes reveal a sense of sadness. For years, Elias has been talking about his favorite cousin Anne, speaking to schoolchildren who are amazed that he exists and that Anne Frank was even a real person. Of course, they know she existed, because they’ve read her diary. The book has transported them to the back house, or Secret Annex. Her words have spoken to them and they have perhaps even trembled as she once did as they read her story. Some people even claim to have seen her, in Manila or Buenos Aires, and they are convinced that Anne Frank survived.

Anne Frank is the face of the Holocaust.

In her room at Prinsengracht 263 in Amsterdam, where she hid with her parents, her sister Margot, the Van Pels family and Fritz Pfeffer, a dentist, from July 6, 1942 to Aug. 4, 1944, she had a photo of Greta Garbo pinned to the wall. Like most teenagers, she dreamed about Hollywood.

Buddy Elias, who is 87 today, went on to become a star in the “Holiday on Ice” review. He was an actor in the theater and on television, and he lived Anne’s dream. To this day, it seems to inspire him, although it isn’t clear whether he wasn’t in fact running away, during all those years spent on tour in Egypt and America, before he assumed the public persona that would be his most significant: Anne Frank’s cousin. It’s the role of his life.

In the last entry in her diary, written on Aug. 1, 1944 — three days before she was betrayed and taken first to the Westerbork transit camp in the Netherlands, then to Auschwitz and later to Bergen-Belsen — Frank described herself as a “bundle of contradictions”.

Even today, the rest of the world is still asking who, exactly, was she?

Anne Frank was, of course, a victim who represented the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis. Her story became one, as is often stated, that keeps us from forgetting.

In the countless depictions of her that have carried on this legacy of remembrance, Anne Frank was the friend, the strong one, the difficult one, the girl in love, the girl who fought with her mother and discovered her budding sexuality, and the girl who, despite her death, tells a story of hope.

She was the saint of the Holocaust and its teenage star. But there is one thing she rarely was: herself.

A New Focus on Anne Frank

If the producers and the screenwriter of what is, surprising as it may be, the first German film about Anne Frank, have their way, that could soon change. The film, which is scheduled for cinematic release in 2014, seeks to tell the story of both her life and death. It offers viewers the whole Anne Frank, more than just the girl who lived in an annex in Amsterdam — the story of both her childhood and her life in a concentration camp.

The Frank Family Center now being built in Frankfurt may also help to change our perceptions of Anne Frank. Scheduled to be opened in 2016, it will tell the story of the deep-seated, 400-year relationship between the Frank family and the city of Frankfurt, a story that long predates the Holocaust.

Finally, the work of the Anne Frank Fund in Basel, which is currently embroiled in a lawsuit with the Anne Frank Foundation in Amsterdam, could also change the way we view her.

The organizations worked in parallel for a long time, the Basel fund, with its Jewish affiliation, and the Amsterdam foundation, which repeatedly stresses that it operates in the way Otto Frank would have wanted — even though letters from the 1960s and 70s reveal Otto Frank’s suspicions about the foundation.

The dispute between the two organizations is symptomatic, reflecting all the things that have been said about Anne Frank and all the things she has been turned into.

She has been used to preach humanism, and she has been transformed into a universalistic icon, a cautionary tale of what humans do to humans, one meant to keep us alert so that we won’t turn our backs on contemporary atrocities like the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda. At times, the cost of this is that the specifically Jewish part of Anne Frank’s life, her suffering and her thoughts are minimized or suppressed.

She has been used to explain the Holocaust, even though it isn’t mentioned in her diary and its horrors only play a marginal role in her story from the annex in Amsterdam. But perhaps this is what made her story such a success, because it was the story of the crime of the century without actually focusing on that crime, the tale of a dark fate without the mention of death, but with the constant belief in survival, one that persisted, contrary to all reason.

Frank Talk About Anne

The contradictions that Anne Frank discovered in herself shape her story. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” is not only the perpetual question that pops into the mind when thinking about her legacy, but also the title of a volume of short stories by Nathan Englander, one of two recent works of fiction by American Jews now coming out in German on the subject of Anne Frank, works that are funny, political, bitter and brilliant, two books that show what a vital part of post-Holocaust Jewish identity Anne Frank has become.

Englander’s stories are clear-sighted and humorous, full of fear and violence, revenge and dogmatism. His characters include settlers and their tragedy, a top lawyer at a peepshow, two Auschwitz survivors and schoolchildren in a summer camp.

Englander is constantly redefining morality. An eternal question — Who am I? — addresses how this is done, and how moral decisions shape an identity. In Englander’s Jewish world, the question is constantly connected to another one: Who was I?

“The entire book is about the question of who owns identity, who owns history and what memory is,” says Englander, 42, on a morning in Berlin, where he is on a book tour. He likes Berlin. In fact, the book took shape at the American Academy on Wannsee lake, the very site where the Nazis discussed the “final solution of the Jewish question.” Englander sat there, expressing his surprise over how obsessed he was with the Holocaust. It made him feel uncomfortable, he says. “I didn’t know why I am the way I am,” he says.

As a child growing up in New York, he was convinced that there would be a second Holocaust. “It was pathological and ridiculous. America is the best country the Jews have ever had. On the other, things have never ended well for the Jews, have they?”

As a child, he and his sister invented a game, one that revolved around an outrageous, dangerous morality: Who would hide us, and who would betray us if there were another Holocaust? Would it be a neighbor, a son or a husband who turned us in?Englander describes this game in the central story of his latest book. “We Jews talk about ourselves, about our fear and about this very Jewish feeling,” he says, “that nothing in the world is safe.” “For many people, the Holocaust is Anne Frank. What do you see when you think about the Holocaust: A mountain of dead bodies or this girl?”

In his book, Englander describes how memory becomes policy and how policy influences our memory of the individual. It’s also a reflection on the role and importance of the Holocaust today in discussing the question of identity, including the identity of nations. In a Germany that is powerful once again — this question arises with each new film about Hitler or Rommel. In Israel, on the other hand, the question is posed very differently: Was this country born out of the Zionist dream or the nightmare of the Holocaust?

Part 2: A Literary Event

It’s a question that Shalom Auslander, 42, finds amusing. “Israel?” he asks. “Just bomb the place. I hated it. Everyone’s in a bad mood. Everyone’s afraid. The whole time I was there I felt like my father was at the back of my neck. When I returned to New York after a year-and-a-half, I treated myself to a cheeseburger and a blowjob.”

Auslander’s a punk. He’s drinking his second glass of red wine at Joshua’s Café, as a storm rages outside. It’s lunchtime in Woodstock, two hours north of New York, the setting of his novel “Hope: A Tragedy,” to be published in German in late February. He shreds many of the certainties people thought they had about the Holocaust in general and Anne Frank in particular. Optimism is the enemy, says Auslander, hope is a lie and identity doesn’t arise from destruction, that is, the Holocaust. In other words, identity that arises from destruction, according to Auslander, deserves to be destroyed.

“I’m often asked whether I’m a self-hating Jew,” says Auslander, “and my answer is: I’m a person who hates himself. In that sense, I’m like Anne Frank. We liked self-loathing people. Self-loathing is the way forward. Anne Frank was someone my mother most certainly wouldn’t have liked.”

It’s this tone, this tempo and this furor that propels Auslander’s novel forward. The protagonist, Solomon Kugel, has three problems: How does he fix his marriage, how does he get his mother out of his house, and what is Anne Frank doing in his attic? Is it even her, that cursing, ill-tempered, unkempt fury who sends him out to buy matzo bread?

“I don’t know who you are,” says Kugel, “or how you got up here. But I’ll tell you what I do know: I know Anne Frank died in Auschwitz. And I know that she died along with many others, some of whom were my relatives. And I know that making light of that, by claiming to be Anne Frank, not only is not funny and abhorrent but it also insults the memory of millions of victims of Nazi brutality.”

“It was Bergen-Belsen, jackass,” Anne Frank replies. “And as for the relatives you lost in the Holocaust?” she continues. “Blow me.” Auslander laughs heartily at the obscenity of his character’s words. “I had worked on the book for three years and was stuck. Then that sentence occurred to me: ‘Blow me, said Anne Frank.’ First I called my wife and said: I’ve got it. Then I called my psychiatrist.”

The obscenity that informs this book is Auslander’s response to the obscenity of the Holocaust. He unfolds an entire panorama of Holocaust entanglements and confusion. There is the mother who blames her troubles with the world on the fact that she was in a concentration camp, even though she wasn’t born until after the war. There is the publisher who wants nothing to do with Anne Frank when she pays him a visit after the war, because only a dead Anne Frank guarantees him success in publishing her diary. And then there is Anne Frank herself, who has been sitting in the attic for years, working on her novel, and is now under immense pressure. “Thirty-two million,” she keeps saying. “Do you think it’s easy? Thirty-two million copies, Mr. Kugel. And what do I get from you for it? Elie Wiesel. Oprah Winfrey!”

A dark, humorous energy emanates from Auslander, an energy that enables him to write dark, humorous books that one could easily characterize as brilliant, if only Auslander didn’t see that characterization as ridiculous. For him, writing is self-defense. “I grew up with the certainty that I would be brutally murdered one day. For my parents, the Holocaust was a sort of disciplinary measure: We’re safe as long as we’re afraid.”

Auslander isn’t the first writer to allow Anne Frank to survive. Philip Roth did it in “The Ghost Writer.” But what makes Auslander’s “Hope” a literary event is the way the culture of mourning is condensed into punch lines that are so much cleverer and truer and more painful than much of what happens on the annual Nov. 9 mourning that takes place at St. Paul’s Church in Frankfurt remembering the Kristallnacht pogroms against Jews; the way Anne Frank complains about being “the suffering one,” “the dead girl,” “Miss Holocaust, 1945” and “the Jewish Jesus”; and how Auslander tries to liberate Anne Frank from the role of victim and give her a life, a character and a personality.

“Anne Frank was everywhere when I was growing up,” says Auslander. “I always asked myself what I would do, where I would flee to and who would hide me. That is, after all, the function Israel fulfills for the Jews. I don’t know what the Holocaust means for non-Jews; I just know what it means for Jews. And I know that Anne Frank, if she had survived, would have been angry about what we’ve turned her into.”

A Cousin’s Outrage

Buddy Elias can only shake his head and look extremely sad. He is somewhat outraged over both books. He is proud of what he says “my cousin achieved.” In his mind, there is something just as calculating about a writer publishing a book with the name Anne Frank in the title as a company using the name in a jeans label. He grows suspicious when he sees people profiting off her fate.

And there is certainly a lot of money at stake. The “Diary of Anne Frank” has been translated into about 60 languages, and more than 30 million copies have been sold worldwide. The girl Anne, the photos, puberty, being in love, self-doubt, strength, and everything set against the background of the ultimate crime — it’s so perfect that old and young Nazis alike hit upon the idea that the diary must be a fake.

It’s an ugly discussion. All it takes is to read a few pages of the diary, to experience the tone, directness and language, to recognize that this searching text, sometimes self-confident and sometimes doubting, is beautiful and great, and that it is precisely because of its literary quality that the diary is so open and accessible for young people, as it has been for so many years and in so many countries.

The sentences Anne Frank writes are clear, like her thoughts, and they reveal the literary quality of the Frank family’s letter-writing tradition. “I see the eight of us with our ‘Secret Annex’ as if we were a little piece of blue heaven, surrounded by heavy black rain clouds,” she writes in November 1943. “We all look down below, where people are fighting each other, we look above, where it is quiet and beautiful, and meanwhile we are cut off by the great dark mass, which will not let us go upwards, but which stands before us as an impenetrable wall.”

This first diary had a red-and-white checkered cover and a brass clasp. Elias has a copy in his house, a facsimile. He flips through it gingerly, as if being careful not to hurt Anne. Miep Gies, one of the Dutch citizens who hid Anne, rescued the diary from the annex. There were two versions, because Anne had planned to publish it after the war and was editing the first version. Her father Otto created a third version, one that was more innocent sexually and in which the conflict with her mother was toned down. In a later German translation, anti-German passages were also toned down.

This revised version was published in Dutch in 1947, in German in 1950 and in English in 1952. Many publishing houses had turned down the book, which eventually found its way to the United States through France. But it was only the success of the theater version on Broadway that turned Anne Frank into what she is today: an icon, a beacon of hope and a source of courage.

Part 3: Politicized in Amsterdam

Writer and journalist Meyer Levin was originally supposed to write the stage adaptation of the diary, but when two Hollywood writers were hired instead, Levin was convinced it was a conspiracy, because his version had been deemed “too Jewish,” too dark and too depressing.

The message of the Broadway adaptation, on the other hand, was clear: “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” It was with that sentence by Anne Frank that the 1955 Broadway play ended, as did the 1959 Hollywood film.

The poster for the film billed it as a “song to life,” promising viewers a glimpse of her “first kiss” and the sound of “her wonderful laugh.” But the Anne Frank of the diary is a different person. “There’s in people simply an urge to destroy,” she writes, “an urge to kill, to murder and rage, and until all mankind, without exception, undergoes a great change, wars will be waged, everything that has been built up, cultivated, and grown will be destroyed and disfigured, after which mankind will have to begin all over again.”

That wasn’t the Anne Frank people wanted to see in the 1950s. Youth culture was coming into its own, pop music had been born, and this puberty drama in the deep night of our civilization seemed to fit perfectly.

A Dispute Over Frank’s Legacy

Anne Frank’s fame has endured until today, and so has the dispute surrounding it.

One of the driving forces behind that dispute is Yves Kugelmann, 41, a member of the board of the Anne Frank Fund in Basel, who has harsh words for the Anne Frank Foundation in Amsterdam: “The Fund is the universal heir appointed by Otto Frank,” he says. “It was always opposed to a pilgrimage site. It was opposed to someone making money off of Anne Frank. Now there is a museum in Amsterdam that largely de-contextualizes and de-Judaizes the Frank family. Anne Frank was first politicized in Amsterdam and then made the figure of a universalistic message.”

Long lines form every morning outside the house at Prinsengracht 263, lines filled with young, expectant, uncertain faces. The house gets more than a million visitors a year, making it a historical pilgrimage site for globalized youth. They climb the narrow stairs, they stand in the empty living room, they admire the postcards in Anne Frank’s room and they walk around a house that has been emptied, of both furnishings and significance.

This, says Ronald Leopold, is the way it should be. Leopold, 52, a quiet, thoughtful man, has been the director of the Anne Frank Foundation for the last two years. His predecessor held the position for more than 25 years. Leopold says that he wants to give Anne Frank her story back.

The house is a hybrid, a place of residence, the scene of a crime and a memorial, all rolled into one, which makes it unique. But it is also possible to leave it without a deeper understanding of the Holocaust. There is some talk of Hitler at the beginning, the residents of the house die at the end, and in between an aura of reverence prevails. But who were the Franks, where did they come from, what was the situation in the Netherlands during the war, how many Jews were there before and after the war and — a question that isn’t entirely unimportant — were the Dutch also perpetrators? Why was the percentage of Jews deported from the Netherlands higher than in other Western European countries?

It’s because this question still hasn’t been answered satisfactorily, and because the country found it difficult to describe its role during the German occupation, that such a sober and auratic exhibition, one that is expanded into generalities, seems almost transfiguring.

“One victim is better than many perpetrators,” says Kugelmann. “Anne Frank is a Holocaust Tamagotchi.”

The dispute between the fund and the foundation is marked by skepticism toward the historico-political position. There is talk of the foundation’s pro-Palestinian positions in earlier years, and there are documents that show how dissatisfied Otto Frank was with the foundation in Amsterdam. But the issues being addressed in court are more specific.

Legal Disputes

A trial in Hamburg revolves around a graphic novel of Anne Frank. The fund is suing the publisher, claiming it neglected to obtain the rights. The foundation says it “regrets” the legal dispute and speaks of a “change of course” at the fund.

Another trial, this one in Amsterdam, has to do with letters, documents and objects that were lent to the foundation and that the fund now wants back. “The ownership is defined in the will,” says Kugelmann, who describes what has happened as a “second expropriation of the Frank family.”

In 2011, the Anne Frank Foundation used the €14.3 million ($18.9 million) in revenues from tickets and merchandising to pay for its staff and activities worldwide, including exhibitions from Berlin to Buenos Aires, brochures against racism and extremism and educational materials.

“No one earns any money at the Anne Frank Fund,” says Kugelmann. “That was what Otto Frank wanted. It was what he decided when he didn’t have any money himself. The family was to receive nothing, and all the money was to go into the fund and the projects.”

Those projects include a girls’ dormitory in Nepal, a project for the disabled in Switzerland and the Leo Baeck Education Center in Israel. Under copyright law, the diary will soon become part of the public domain, which is why some projects are being pushed through at the moment. A collective edition of the works of Anne Frank is planned for 2013, and then the filming for the fund’s most important current project will commence: the first German film version of this very German material.

Anne Frank ‘Belongs To Everyone’

The screenplay, by Fred Breinersdorfer, has just been completed. Breinersdorfer, 66, who also wrote the screenplay for the film “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days,” takes the matter personally. “I had Nazi parents,” he says. “My father was appalled when he saw ‘Sophie Scholl.’ These people, he said, plunged daggers into our backs at the front.”

Who will his Anne Frank be? A victim, a saint, a figure of hope?

“Anne Frank isn’t a German character,” says Breinersdorfer. “And she isn’t an exclusively Jewish character, either. She is the prototype of a human being who becomes the victim of a brutal system and, despite it all, creates her own freedom and develops herself with optimism. She is an enlightened, emotional border crosser. She belongs to everyone.”

He will have her die of typhus in the death camp, two days after her sister Margot. “It’s also a question of how it can be presented,” says Breinersdorfer.

For the period in the annex, he will remain true to Anne Frank’s text, a part he characterizes as an “extraordinary coming-of-age story.” The life of the Frank family before it was persecuted will also play an important role, and this is where the film intersects with the plans of the Frank Family Center.

They were a German family, the Franks, one with strong women. Buddy Elias has decided to turn over his rich legacy to the new Frankfurt center. He proudly brings out the good porcelain from a gleaming old cabinet. Hanging on the wall next to it is a picture of his grandmother Alice, who was also Anne’s grandmother. “She was pure culture,” he says, and he’s referring to German culture.

Most of the material is still in Basel, in the house where Buddy grew up and where Otto Frank lived after the war. There is a cabinet there with a photograph on it, the photograph Elias likes so much, of Anne Frank holding a pen and looking into the camera. And then there are the hats in the attic, the clothes and all the other valuable objects, and the documents and letters describing what Jewish life was like, the life the Nazis destroyed.

Next to Elias is a small wooden chair that looks almost like a miniature throne. “Anne always liked to sit there,” he says, chuckling like a little boy. When children come to visit him in his house and hear about his cousin, he lets them sit on the chair. Otherwise it remains empty.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

Original Spiegel article can be found here.

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