Anne Frank, the single most famous name among the six million victims of the Shoah, entered the realm of history and literature with the posthumous publication of her own diary and has been used — and, some would argue, abused — by others who have depicted her on the stage and screen, in novels and comic books. So much so that the flesh-and-blood Anne Frank has wholly disappeared under the accretion of myth and magical thinking.
Now comes another answer to the provocative question that Nathan Englander posed in the title of his controversial story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.” Remarkably, it originates with the ones who knew her best — her own family.
“Anne Frank’s Family: The Extraordinary Story of Where She Came From” by Mirjam Pressler with Gerti Elias, translated from the German by Damion Searls (Anchor: $14.95), is a chronicle of the Frank family based on some 6,000 letters, diaries, poems, photographs, drawings and other documents that were discovered in the Basel home of her first cousin, Buddy Elias. Once retrieved and edited by Buddy’s wife, Gerti, the archive was turned over to Pressler, who has fashioned a vivid, poignant and revelatory account of Anne Frank’s family of origin.
The book opens, for example, with a hide-and-seek game played by 10-year-old Buddy and 6-year-old Anne on the idyllic grounds of the home in Switzerland where one branch of the Frank family took refuge after the Nazis came to power in Germany. The snapshot of smiling little Anne in her sun-suit is heartbreaking precisely because we know what awaits her only a few years in the future and she does not, but it also allows us to see her not as a suffering martyr but as a happy little girl, something that makes the heartbreak even sharper.
Much of the story is told in the letters and diaries of Alice Frank, neé Stern, Anne’s paternal grandmother, the elegant but also affectionate grand dame who served as the family historian. Alice is the one who preserved and passed along the stories of how the Cahns and the Sterns and the Franks fared in Frankfurt during the tumultuous years of the 19th century, when Jews were struggling to move out of the ghetto and into German society.
Indeed, “Anne Frank’s Family” is as much about Anne’s family of origin as it is about Anne herself. We witness the richness of their lives in Germany before the Nazi era, as when Alice composed an invitation for a gathering at the stately Frank home in Frankfurt in 1898: “Peace and calm are virtues in truth/Not often practiced by our youth/But today no squabbles or breaking ranks/At the children’s party at the Franks.”
Alice was widowed in 1910 at the age of 43, and her son, Otto — Anne’s father — encouraged her to resist the urge “to withdraw further & further into yourself.” The young man exhorts her in words that resonate for us in curious ways: “It’s no wonder that you feel so empty & hollow, but if you crawl back into your suffering, that won’t bring you any peace,’ Otto wrote. “Don’t close yourself off, open your eyes again & make sure that at least some of all the experiences you’ve been holding back for a long time will live again & put down roots.”
Yet more irony attaches to the military service of all three Frank brothers during World War I. “You would have enjoyed my calling-up yesterday as much as I did,” wrote a cheerful Otto wrote when he joined his artillery regiment in 1915. “On the whole, I am very lucky to be here.” A battlefield postcard from his brother Robert shows a soldier hunkered down in a bunker underneath a corpse-strewn battlefield.
None of their sacrifices for the Fatherland in the First World War mattered in 1933, when the Nazis came to power, and the Franks scattered across Europe — Otto and his family went to Amsterdam; Alice followed her daughter and son-in-law to Switzerland; Robert went to London and Herbert to Paris. Now the family letters take on a grim and fearful tone: “Dear Granny,” Anne wrote to her grandmother in 1938, “I’m getting a new dress now, it’s terribly hard to get fabric and you have to use a lot of ration cards for it.” By July 4, 1942, Otto Frank was prepared to go into hiding with his family in the Secret Annex, and he sent one last message to his mother in Basel: “We think of you all the time & know that you’re thinking of us, but you can’t change anything here & you have to take care that you make it through yourselves.”
Otto, of course survived, and his first letter to his mother in Basel was hopeful: “Sadly, the strain was too much for [his wife] Edith,” he wrote. “All my hopes are for the children. I cling to the firm belief that they are still alive and that we will be together again soon.” Soon, of course, the family learned of the death of Anne and Margot at Bergen-Belsen, and letters that they exchanged with each are suffused with both frankness and tenderness.
“I found in Anne’s diary the description of a waltz on ice that she performed with [Buddy] in a dream,” wrote Otto, who had learned that Anne’s cousin was now a performer. “What I read there is indescribably upsetting, but still I read it.”
The Frank family, like all of the families of Holocaust victims, experienced a private loss whose enormity only they can know. But the Franks were compelled to share their loss with the whole world. Thanks to “Anne Frank’s Family,” they have now permitted us to know and understand Anne in ways that a comic book or a stage play cannot.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan,” which will be published under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary year of Kristallnacht. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.