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Jewish Journal

Anne Frank’s Changing Image

The earlier, sanitized version muted her Jewishness and her pain.

by Tom Tugend

May 17, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Hannah Taylor Gordon, here receiving her tattoo after her arrival at Auschwitz, plays the title role in the ABC miniseries

Hannah Taylor Gordon, here receiving her tattoo after her arrival at Auschwitz, plays the title role in the ABC miniseries

Fifty-six years after Anne Frank perished in Bergen-Belsen, her life and legacy loom larger than ever.

A powerful four-hour miniseries, taking Anne from her happy schooldays, through her two years in hiding in Amsterdam, to her final days in the concentration camp, airs nationally over ABC-TV on May 20 and 21.

The 20th Century Fox studio is developing a feature movie based on "The Diary of Anne Frank."

A new edition of the diary, including five previously secret pages describing her parents' difficult marriage, was released in March. Since its initial publication, the diary has sold 25 million copies in 55 languages.

The Helios Dance Theater last month premiered "About Anne: A Diary in Dance" in Los Angeles.

An interactive CD-ROM, titled "Anne Frank House: A House With a Story" was released earlier this year and offers a virtual tour of the warehouse and its secret annex where the Frank family hid.

In Boise, Idaho, ground has been broken for a $1.6-million Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial and Park.

What accounts for the continuing, even escalating, worldwide fascination with Anne Frank and her elevation to, arguably, the foremost icon of the Holocaust?

"The basic story is extraordinarily engrossing. It has suspense, romance, tragedy and potential uplift," said Prof. Lawrence Graver of Williams College in Massachusetts, who has written extensively on Anne Frank, including the 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 added. "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," observed Prof. Marvin Prosono, a sociologist at Southwest Missouri State University and a respected authority on Holocaust literature.

"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," noted Prof. Emeritus Lawrence L. Langer of Simmons College in Boston, who has published widely on the literature and testimony of the Holocaust.

"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.

The father and the publisher agreed to excise parts 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.

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

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

To Langer, however, "The play was dreadful, and the movie [in 1959] even worse." He suggests that had Anne survived Bergen-Belsen, she would have repudiated the curtain line and other feel-good homilies contained in her diary.

What upsets serious Holocaust scholars most is that through her commercial popularity, Anne is seen widely as the primary spokesperson for the Holocaust.

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

Agreeing, Graver said, "The impact [of the diary] is all out of proportion to its part in the Holocaust."

Cynthia Ozick, in a 1997 New Yorker essay, 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 that had a picture of Jesus on one wall and a picture of Anne on the other side.

But even as the critics were nagging, the interpretation of the diary and hence the persona of Anne Frank were changing. One factor in the ongoing re-evaluation was the discovery of five pages given by Otto Frank to a friend that contained much of the material Frank had earlier expunged.

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

One result was a 1995 Oscar-winning British documentary, "Anne Frank Remembered." Then, in 1997, Wendy Kesselman wrote a tougher adaptation of the earlier Broadway play. And one year later, Austrian writer Melissa Muller published a thoroughly researched biography of Anne, which formed much of the basis of the ABC miniseries.

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

From the very beginning of the diary's initial publication, the late American writer Meyer Levin fought an obsessive and unsuccessful battle 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 unseemly public 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," said Kirk Ellis, who wrote the script for the telefilm.

Whatever the revisions by scholars or objections by critics, it is likely that the compelling figure of Anne Frank will continue to live in the minds of millions of schoolchildren and other readers far into the future.

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