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Anne Frank as a symbol of her people

Published Oct. 2, 2005

My inexpensive paperback edition of The Diary of Anne Frank, the fuller version published in 1995, has a kind of telltale publicity blurb printed on the back cover: "Her story," it says, referring to the girl killed by the Nazis after hiding with her family for two years in an Amsterdam attic, "is that of every teenager, lived out in conditions few teenagers have ever known."

The second half of that sentence is certainly true; the first half is the kind of commercial treacle that Cynthia Ozick, writing brilliantly, furiously and occasionally intemperately in the New Yorker a few weeks ago, warned us about. In the most sensational, and therefore the most commented upon portion of her essay on the distorted and manipulated legacy of Anne Frank, Ozick wrote that it might have been better if the famous diary had been burned rather than published. Through the commercial and sentimental exploitation of the diary, she wrote, "a deeply truth-telling work has been turned into an instrument of partial truth, surrogate truth or anti-truth."

The persistent tendency to turn The Diary of Anne Frank into a triumph-of-the-spirit cliche deserved every sharp needle of Ozick's contempt. For the fact is that Anne's spirit did not triumph; evil triumphed, and all the homiletic chatter about the universality of her message (whatever that is) cannot obscure that fact.

Still, I personally am very glad that Anne's diary was not burned when it was found in that Amsterdam annex. And I respectfully suspect that if Ozick had to choose between a world with the diary and one without it, she would prefer it to exist as well. She affirmed to me in a brief phone conversation that her comment about burning the diary was intended as Swiftian satire, not to be taken literally. Franz Kafka's often cited remark was, "We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves." If ever there was such a book, it is Anne Frank's diary.

Moreover, we do learn things, if slowly. I would argue that we are becoming at least somewhat more morally lucid about Anne Frank now that, for some reason, more than half a century after her luminous flame was snuffed out by Nazi malevolence, she is receiving more attention than she has since her diary was first made into a play in the 1950s.

Two years ago, the first expurgated version of the diary was replaced by a more complete version. More recently, two readably scholarly books _ An Obsession with Anne Frank, by Lawrence Graver, and The Stolen Legacy of Anne Frank, by Ralph Melnick _ have for the first time pieced together the disturbing story of the battle to seize control of Anne's message and image. A new production on Broadway partly restores to Anne what the earlier theatrical production took away _ her Jewish identity and the specifically Jewish character of her persecution. At the same time, Ozick's widely discussed essay exposed for all to see the tendency to cover Anne's tragedy in a blanket of denial and false comfort.

The main element in the falsely universalized image of Anne was the play, written by the husband-and-wife Hollywood screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and produced to great fanfare in 1955. Anne's father, Otto Frank, refused to grant the rights for a rival theatrical version, written by the novelist Meyer Levin, to be performed. The Levin play, by most accounts, was truer to the diary. In Graver's and Melnick's accounts, the stripping away of Anne's Jewishness emerges as a shocking and sorrowful tale.

"The fact that in this play the symbols of persecution and oppression as Jews is incidental," said Garson Kanin, the director of the 1955 play. Of Anne's own recognition of the specifically Jewish nature of her plight, Kanin wrote, in a statement that now seems knavish and stupid, that it "reduces her magnificent stature." Even Anne's father was persuaded that to be a Jewish victim, rather than a universal victim, was to be diminished. "I always said that . . . it is not a Jewish book," he wrote to Levin. "So do not make a Jewish play of it."

There should be no mistake about this. The diary is a Jewish book. Anne's legacy, her very words, her values and her ideas were indeed deformed.

But it is important to remember at least two things. First, people who saw even the 1955 play or the movie version of 1959 understood that Anne was a Jew and that that was the sole reason for her persecution. Second, to see the dilution of her Jewishness as an unpardonable atrocity is to read into the past the prevailing values of today. It is certainly too bad that Kanin and Frank and others were not more courageous. The plain fact is, however, that the Jewish insistence on the Jews' uniqueness as a victimized people is recent. It is something that many Jews, perhaps even most of them, were unprepared for decades ago.

I am reminded of an incident in France that had to do with a set of other child victims of the Holocaust, the 44 Jewish refugees, ages 3 to 15 or so, who were taken from a secret home in a village near Lyon called Izieu and sent to their deaths at Auschwitz. The deaths of the children were laid at the feet of Klaus Barbie, the wartime Gestapo chief of Lyon, who was tried and convicted of crimes against humanity in 1987.

While preparations for the trial were under way, Jewish leaders in Lyon and Paris complained bitterly that the monuments to the murdered children, set up in the village where they lived and in a neighboring village, did not include the word Jew on their inscriptions, thereby depriving the victims of their identities.

The mayors of the two towns replied that the wording on the monument had been dictated to them by the Jewish woman who had organized the refuge in the first place. Sabrina Zlatin, a genuine Jewish heroine, had, it seems, not wanted to associate Jews with special victim status. Zlatin, a doer but not a moral philosopher, yearned for the children to be seen as universal victims of universal inhumanity, not specific ones of a specific evil.

We can't be sure of this, but a similar impulse seems to have governed Frank, who until the rise of Hitler lived as an assimilated Jew in Germany. In the postwar years, the normally complicated and sometimes tortured Jewish struggle with particularity and assimilation became more complicated and tortured than ever before. Some Jewish survivors converted to Christianity. Some, like Frank, remained Jewish, but they seemed embarrassed to have been victims, as if they had internalized the very view of them held by the victimizer. Still others, great and courageous figures like the Italian writer Primo Levi, were moved to assert their Jewishness as never before.

In these more distanced times, especially when anti-Semitism is more a leftover inconvenience than an imminent danger, it is a good deal easier to insist on the central truth about the Holocaust: that it was an attempt at the annihilation of an entire people, the Jews and only the Jews. And despite the maudlin dust-jacket blurb on my paperback edition of the diary, that fact is what makes the difference between Anne and other teenagers. Our ability to see that difference now when many members of an earlier generation were unable to see it may be a sign that, at long last, our vision is getting clearer.