Anne Frank is a unique figure in the iconography of Judaism. Of the 6 million victims of the Holocaust, her face is the only one we all know intimately and even subliminally. It has been said, and it’s perfectly true, that she has become the Jewish equivalent of a saint — cherished and revered. How else to explain the thrill and terror that I felt when a long-lost film clip showing Anne Frank recently surfaced on the Internet?
But it’s also true that Frank has been studied and debated, used and abused, exploited and expropriated, during the 50-plus years since “The Diary of a Young Girl” was first published. Novelist Cynthia Ozick, for example, complained that Frank’s writings have been “infantilized, Americanized, homogenized, sentimentalized [and], in fact, blatantly and arrogantly denied.” Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim cited the Frank family as exemplars of a fatal failing among European Jews, because they sought refuge in a hiding place with no possibility of escape or defense. And Philip Roth dared to imagine a fictional character, based on Anne Frank, who survives Bergen-Belsen and ends up the mistress of a famous writer in America, all as depicted in his novel, “The Ghost Writer.”
Now Francine Prose, author of more than two-dozen works of fiction and nonfiction (including the novels “Goldengrove,” “A Changed Man” and “Blue Angel,” and the nonfiction meditation “Reading Like a Writer”), offers her own contribution to the vast literature of Anne Frank in “Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife” (HarperCollins, $24.99). To Prose’s credit, she has something new and important to say.
Prose studies the various versions of the diary as Anne herself composed and revised it. She analyzes the textual variations in the published editions and the editorial tampering by Anne’s father, who sought to conceal references to conflicts between Anne and her mother and to the young girl’s budding sexuality. Prose traces the strange route the book traveled to Broadway and Hollywood, one that “involved lawsuits, betrayals and alliances, accusations of plagiarism and breach of contract, and obsessive paranoia concerning Zionist or Stalinist plots.” She even pauses to deconstruct the precious footage of Anne Frank leaning out of the window of her family’s Amsterdam apartment that only last month became such a phenomenon on YouTube.
“As familiar as we are with images of Anne Frank, as inured as we may think we are to the sight of her beautiful face,” she writes, “the film pierces whatever armor we imagine we have developed.”
What interests Prose is Anne Frank as an author rather than a victim, but Prose’s incidental retelling of the girl’s life experiences is deeply moving because Prose adds back in the details that are necessarily missing from the diary itself. Prose, for example, depicts the remarkable scene in which the Gestapo officer who broke into the secret annex and arrested the Jews in hiding there dumped out the contents of a briefcase so he could use it to carry off cash and jewels. The papers he scattered on the floor were the drafts of Anne’s diary.
“But how could he have imagined that what he had discarded — loose sheets of paper, exercise books — was not only a work of literary genius, not only a fortune in disguise, not only a record of the times in which he and its author lived,” Prose writes, “but a piece of evidence that would lead to the exposure of his role in the Nazis’ war against the Jews, even as so many like him slipped back into their old lives and kept up their furniture payments?”
Prose’s book is a superb work of history, biography and criticism, but it is something more, too. She has produced a midrash on “The Diary of a Young Girl,” a fresh reading of an old and familiar text, full of insight and illumination. Prose rejects the common perception of Frank as “the perky teenage messenger of peace and love” and argues that “Anne’s book is a testament to certain individuals’ ability to develop, at an early age, a sophisticated moral consciousness, and to maintain compassion and humor under the most intense stress.”
Prose confronts the notion that Frank’s diary is untouchable because its author died under such tragic circumstances, the notion that, as Harold Bloom asserted, “Since this diary is emblematic of hundreds of thousands of murdered children, criticism is irrelevant.” She insists that it is not only permissible but also necessary to apply the tools of literary criticism to the celebrated text. In doing so, Prose rescues the girl from the high perch of a plaster saint and restores her to us as a gifted but mortal human being. And thus does Prose take a kind of revenge against the murderers of Anne Frank.
Jonathan Kirsch is the book editor of The Jewish Journal and the author of, most recently, “The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God.” His book blog, 12:12, appears at jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve.