Now a veritable metonym for the Holocaust, Anne Frank was a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl who—together with her own and another family (the Van Pels) and one additional refugee (Fritz Pfeffer) whom they took in later—lived for two years in hiding from the Germans and their Dutch collaborators in a secret, semi-sealed nest of rooms and attic in German-occupied Amsterdam, until their inevitable discovery, seizure, and deportation in 1944 to concentration and death camps, where all except Anne’s father, Otto, were murdered by the Germans. During those two years, Anne kept an extraordinarily perceptive, eloquently cadenced, and touching diary, in which she had begun to write just prior to the implementation of her father’s decision to take his family into hiding. That decision was his ultimately futile—and, in some clinically dispassionate postwar judgments, unwise, unduly naïve, and even delusional—response to the German’s commencement of their roundup of Dutch Jews, which began for the Franks when Anne’s older sister, Margot, received her call-up notice to report for deportation (ostensibly to a forced-labor camp).
The Franks were prosperous but basically nonreligious and unaffiliated German Jews who had lived in Frankfurt am Main until 1933. Shortly after the German elections resulted in the invitation to the National Socialists to join the government, and their subsequent attainment of power with Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, the state persecution and disenfranchisement of Jews began in earnest, and the Franks sought refuge and a new life in Amsterdam. Otto Frank reestablished himself successfully in business, and the family resumed its comfortable life until the German invasion and occupation of Holland, in 1940. During the two years in hiding, as Anne’s diary records, the family attempted to preserve as large a measure of normalcy as possible, with the children continuing their daily secular studies under their parents’ tutelage. The occupants lived not only in obvious fear of capture but also with the unrealistically optimistic, almost contrived assumption that the accelerating maelstrom outside would somehow soon be reversed and their plight would be resolved—presumably, that Germany’s defeat, or at least the arrival of the Allies, would precede their detection, after which they would emerge intact and be able to resume their former lives.
The Franks thus sequestered themselves, unarmed, in an annex above Otto Frank’s former place of business, where the entrance staircase was concealed behind a movable bookcase. There was no other escape route. During business hours the warehouse and offices below were occupied by non-Jewish Dutch workers. The Franks and their housemates were aided by several compassionate and courageous Dutch people—ḥasidei ummot ha’olam, or “righteous among the [non-Jewish] nations,” as non-Jews who aided Jews during the Holocaust are known—the best-known of whom is Miep [Hermine] Gies, a friend and former employee of Otto Frank. Her husband was also a member of the Dutch underground. At great risk to their lives, these people provided the secret inhabitants with smuggled food and other necessities (including shares of their own limited wartime rations), and they provided the only link to news from the outside. Eventually the occupants were betrayed to the Gestapo, probably by a worker in the warehouse, or perhaps by a thief. (More than one putative betrayer has been identified, and the issue remains in dispute.) The Gestapo raided the annex and deported all eight inhabitants to camps. Mr. Van Pels was gassed upon arrival at Auschwitz, and his wife was murdered in the Theresienstadt KZ camp in Czechoslovakia. Their son, Peter, was murdered at Mauthausen after a forced march from Auschwitz. Fritz Pfeffer was murdered at Neuengamme concentration camp, and Anne’s mother was slain at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Anne and her sister were murdered at Bergen-Belsen, where, fatally weakened by deliberate and systematic starvation, they succumbed to the unrestrained presence of typhus that was encouraged by the camp’s conditions. Only a few weeks later, Bergen-Belsen was liberated by the British.
When Otto Frank returned to Amsterdam after the war, Miep Gies gave him Anne’s diary. She had retrieved it from the debris of the raid before the Germans had a chance to destroy the annex’s contents, and she had kept it in the hope that Anne, too, might return. Although publishers were initially reluctant to consider it, the diary was published in 1947 in Dutch and, shortly afterward, in a few other languages—although in abridged and expurgated form, with certain passages deleted in accordance with Otto Frank’s legally entitled demands. The complete, uncensored edition was not published until 1986. Meanwhile, the “authorized” abridged version was published in an English translation in the United States in 1951, as Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, with an introduction by former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. It was an almost immediate literary as well as commercial success, gaining a wide American readership and quickly climbing to best-seller lists on both coasts.
For the general reading public, the sudden revelation of so young and so helpless a victim, coupled with the discovery that such precocious literary gifts and promise had been brutally extinguished by the consequences of sheer evil, naturally inspired spontaneous sympathy. Whether appropriately or not, Anne Frank the child—as separate from Anne Frank the author—was soon adopted as the most palpable symbol of the collective German atrocity against European Jewry, which only later came to be perceived in more complex terms and to be enveloped under the questionable rubric of “the Holocaust.” By extension—also whether aptly or not, in view of the historical uniqueness and particularity of the Holocaust as a Jewish and Jewish-related phenomenon—she also became, for the world at large, a symbol of the wider potential dangers of ethnic, religious, racial, or national bigotry, prejudice, and hatred. In both those roles, the book eventually made its way onto assigned reading lists in schools throughout the country and abroad. Over the ensuing half century it was translated into more than fifty languages, and estimates of its sales have approached twenty-five million.
Meanwhile, in 1955, a play based on the diary, The Diary of Anne Frank, with a distinguished cast that included Joseph Schildkraut, Susan Strasberg, Jack Gilford, and Lou Jacobi, opened on Broadway and became—despite its inherent dramatic weaknesses, trite sentimentality, banal platitudes, and at best marginal Jewish connection—a major success of that New York theatrical season. It played for more than a year and a half (717 performances), toured many other cities, and, by the mid-1960s, was already also being seen in hundreds of amateur presentations as well as high school and college productions throughout the United States. Those staged versions extended Anne Frank’s exposure and proliferated her familiarity and symbolism well beyond the reading or literary public. A 1959 feature film based on the play was less successful artistically as well as commercially, but it succeeded in further expanding that general recognition.
Taken together, the book and the play offered the general public its first real and personalized glimpse into the Holocaust. The earlier news reports of camp liberations and coverage of the postwar trials at Nuremberg had ignited a brief reaction of shock and outrage, especially at a handful of individual so-called war criminals, who many assumed—or wanted to assume—represented isolated cases of bestiality. But those revelations were more generally tied in common perception to war crimes and wartime collateral atrocities than to independent genocide on a national level. And, by their nature, the news media disclosures had a much shorter shelf life than a human-interest story, especially in a society that, never prone to linger over the past, was eager by the 1950s to put the war behind it, to refocus its anger toward its new enemy in the cold war, and to grasp at some faith in humanity. Moreover, not even the ghoulish photographic evidence that accompanied journalistic reporting—with graphic depictions of thousands of mutilated and starved corpses stacked for disposal, crematoria filled with bodies, and mass graves—had the personal immediacy or the lasting emotional resonance that a story relating to a single child could generate. To those who saw them in magazines, newspapers, or Movietone newsreels, the corpses in those pictures had neither names nor personae; Anne Frank had both. Thus she became the first vehicle through which millions were first introduced to the very subject of the genocide of European Jewry.
On a relative plane, though, and apart from Anne Frank’s diary and story, the Holocaust was only minimally discussed during the 1950s, even in Jewish circles outside the more circumscribed ones of survivors’ and victims’ families (where in many cases it was de-emphasized as well). It was not much mentioned in Jewish school settings—or at most in passing—and was certainly not the subject of formal study there. Nor was the Holocaust the focus of sermons to anywhere near the extent it was from the 1960s on. Much less was the attention paid to it in the non-Jewish world, and few Holocaust-related books received wide public attention prior to Anne Frank’s diary. It was not until the Eichmann trial in 1961–62 in Jerusalem that Americans—and most of the world—even began to gain any real awareness of the extent of the Holocaust: its systematic planning, its scope, its actual horrors, its manifestation of pure evil, and the sheer size of its cast of perpetrators and collaborators. And still, even those internationally followed courtroom proceedings, despite the reporting and literature they generated, eluded many segments of the population. It took much more time until the unbridled horrors and barbarous details were addressed uncushioned in serious feature films, documentaries, and television programs. But by then Anne Frank was already so firmly entrenched as the most familiar personal Holocaust symbol that no other alternative one could dislodge her.
Thus, even in view of our vastly more sophisticated factual knowledge since the 1950s about so many facets of the destruction of European Jewry, and with the identification through popular as well as intellectual literature of many other truly heroic victims—including children—whose stories might render them more appropriate (not necessarily more sympathetic) symbols of the genocide and its aggregate suffering, Anne Frank remains the primary associative personification of the Holocaust in international popular imagination. Such was the case in 1989, when Foss responded to a request for a work related to her legacy. And no other single individual has inspired as many Holocaust-related musical expressions, from symphonic works such as From the Diary of Anne Frank by Michael Tilson Thomas, to song cycles such as José Bowen’s Songs from the Attic. Yet over the course of the past four decades, serious reservations have been voiced concerning the wisdom of assigning to Anne that role.
The diary itself is necessarily an indirect Holocaust-related document, in the sense that it cannot have described the actual horrors or sufferings associated with ghetto confinement, institutionalized torture, camp incarceration and starvation, and wholesale slaughter. Nor could it have addressed such Holocaust-related issues as the historical course of European Christian anti-Semitism and its twisted “philosophical” justifications that, in some respects at least, may have facilitated and culminated in the Holocaust’s eventuality. That, of course, was not Anne’s intent, even as she mused on the destructive and self-destructive nature of man:
There is in people simply an urge to destroy—an urge to kill, to murder and rage. Until all mankind 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.
No one could want to belittle those thoughts or to dismiss their writer. But her words apply more to the war than to the planned annihilation of Jewry. And they could apply to countless episodes throughout history. Those words—even if unintentionally—avoid both the specifically Jewish particularity and the demonic purposelessness (even in so-called Nazi “ideology”) of the German enterprise against the Jews as Jews. That avoidance was deliberate in the play, however. And that very indirectness, with its universal tone, has been seen as fostering and encouraging the acceptance by 1950s audiences of Anne Frank as their symbolic and sympathetic acknowledgment simply that, in a relatively vague sense, something terrible had happened to many European Jews “during the war.” The book and the play were thus received as a generic moral warning of the consequences of inhumanity, at a time when the general public was even less comfortable than it is today about engaging either the horrible details or the underlying reality of what the Holocaust signifies in terms of Jewish and European history.
Overall, the diary is an exceedingly discerning and open-pored account of adolescent growing pains and of interpersonal family relationships, conflicts, tensions, and emotions—magnified by the increased loneliness endemic in such total confinement and concealment from the outside world, as well as from daylight itself. In many respects, although the diary is punctuated by the occupants’ ever-present fear of discovery—usually neutralized by Otto Frank’s almost inappropriately optimistic reassurances and paternalistic resoluteness—it represents an uncannily mature young teenager’s commentary on human nature from universalistic perspectives, with only occasional references to Jewish identity. At times Anne expresses naïve faith in the goodness of human nature, although she usually reminds us that she only wishes it were so. At the same time, the diary records the family’s urgency to continue, to every extent possible, living life as before.
The diary shows Anne as a keen youthful psychological observer, who, by many critical assessments, would likely have become an important introspective writer. If the diary and its unwritten postscript of the family’s subsequent physical suffering and murder cast her as a helpless victim who died for nothing and to no purpose—rather than as a heroic figure whose death might have had some meaning and some purpose, however small—that of course cannot be her fault. To question the appropriateness of Anne Frank the helpless victim as the foremost Holocaust symbol—even with regard to the one million murdered children—or as a symbol of Jewish history, is not, therefore, to diminish either the poignancy of her plight or the quality of her literary talent. Indeed, the book can still stand as a significant document of humanistic literature about internal as well as outer daily life, lived under the continual if not always articulated threat of doom.
Not so for the play, however, which, together with its cinematic version, must nonetheless be considered and acknowledged for its central role in confirming the primacy of the Anne Frank symbol in mass consciousness. For it cannot be denied that it trivialized the diary itself and the horrors, as well as the implications, of the Holocaust. The play was confined for the most part to excerpted charitable sentiments and orientations that the playwrights and producers thought the audiences wanted to hear, thereby providing an overdue but minimal brush with the Holocaust through a relatively painless theatrical experience, without forcing anyone to confront its realities head-on. (The play that reached Broadway and beyond, by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, and directed by Garson Kanin, was neither the only nor the first one based on Anne Frank’s diary; but it was the only one accepted by producers as commercially viable. An earlier dramatization by the well-known journalist and novelist Meyer Levin, for example, was rejected as too direct, too provocative, and too Judaically infused. “You simply can’t expect an audience to come to the theater to watch on stage people they know to have ended up in the crematorium,” he was told when he first conceived his idea for a play. At least, for the producers, the Goodrich and Hackett version muted that projected discomfort.)
In the Goodrich and Hackett play, Anne and her family are “Americanized” and accordingly portrayed in typical family situations—including a manifestly American-type and superficial Hanukka observance—all of which, apparently, were designed to render them more appealing to American audiences. They are stripped of any real Jewish identity, even though the diary does reflect the admittedly assimilated family’s recognition of its plight as a Jewish one, and even though the diary contains Anne’s own reference to martyrdom. Allusions in the diary to news of the camps and to imminent doom were omitted. An overall state of denial is, in effect, celebrated through the optimistically passive waiting for the eventual capture and death that the audience knows will occur. And when it does, Otto Frank’s “consolation” to the occupants that, having lived for two years in fear, they can now live in hope, almost suggests their deportation as an opportunity. Through its agenda-driven selection of Anne’s comments, the play also seems to suggest that some redemptive truth can be gleaned from the Holocaust experience, some measure of hope for mankind. But in fact, one of the most significant aspects of the Holocaust, one that denies it any analogue in history, is that it can contain no benefit of lessons, no such reaffirmations, no message of hope—and, in the end, no meaning. “Auschwitz destroyed all meaning,” declared one of its most eloquent survivors. To allow it the tiniest degree of meaning, to grasp idealistically at some potential lesson, is to accord it a measure of beneficial status for humanity, which is the least acceptable memorial to the millions who were murdered for nothing—for no cause, to no purpose, to no benefit to their murderers—for no meaning.
Nonetheless, the playwrights co-opted a child’s innocent faith in humanity’s goodness—“to serve,” as the Holocaust literary critic Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi observed, “the defense of American liberal optimism against the evidence of pure evil.” Most offensive of all is Anne’s concluding line in the play, which the audience hears in audio flashback at the end of the epilogue, after learning of her and her family’s murder, which her father reads for the first time in her diary (taken out of order and out of context) on his return to the annex after the war: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
It is almost as if the audience is supposed to be relieved and consoled. But with those words, Anne Frank has been turned into one of the first Holocaust deniers. For if that statement is true, then the Holocaust did not happen. “If all men are good at heart,” responded the Freudian psychologist and author Bruno Bettelheim, then “there really never was an Auschwitz.” And that faith in ultimate human goodness relieves us from any fear of its recurrence.
Regrettably, it was precisely that theatrical pandering to the collective amnesia of 1950s America—through those very distortions, simplicities, and omissions—that drew increased public admiration for Anne Frank. And ironically, her popularization, as suggested by Alex Philip Sagan in his study of the phenomenon, “depended on limiting the depiction of her persecution.”
Central to the objection to Anne Frank as the predominant Holocaust symbol is the unflattering and false image of the Jew as a defenseless and passive victim of persecution, an image that has pervaded misconceptions about Jewish history in general, which some historians have suggested might have encouraged the Germans to predict that their planned genocide could be accomplished easily and with little risk of resistance. Bettelheim, himself a survivor who was probably the harshest critic of the Anne Frank symbol (but in no way of Anne herself), went further than others in asserting that the family’s doom was sealed by unrealistic hope when Otto Frank put them in so defenseless a position, and when family preservation took precedence over individual survival. Bettelheim suggested that a more determined resolution of survival would have required facing the dangers of the new situation more squarely, which (if indeed it was too late for even some of the family to escape Holland altogether) in turn might have dictated breaking up the family and placing each member separately in one of the many Dutch homes that were willing to hide Jews. That strategy, he maintained, which other families did pursue, would have increased the odds for survival of at least one, if not more of them. Apart from the decision to go collectively into hiding, he reproached the Franks for not devising any escape route from the annex in anticipation of the inevitable event of their discovery. And he faulted them for not taking with them defensive weapons, so that even if all would have died in a battle with the arresting Gestapo, they might have “sold their lives for a high price” if even one of the Gestapo had been killed as well. In that case, their deaths could have had a measure of meaning. But he also allowed for the possibility that at least one of the family might have been able to escape in the confusion of such a fray, while the Gestapo would be momentarily detained at the entranceway. Although opposing viewpoints have interpreted the Franks’ refusal to readjust their values as a form of admirable, even noble, defiance, for Bettelheim, those failures represented a basic denial of reality and of the severity of the dangers of the new situation in Amsterdam, which signified the lack of a necessary will to survive. The universal acceptance of the Anne Frank symbol therefore implied—by extension—unwarranted and unwanted admiration for the flawed strategy the Franks chose for dealing, or not dealing, with the threat to their lives.
Many other students of the Holocaust, however, have found Bettelheim’s judgment of the Franks, and others who responded similarly, overly severe, even as they acknowledge his contribution (with the wisdom of hindsight) in pointing to alternative responses to persecution and danger. Indeed, it may be not only impossible but also entirely inappropriate for any of us to judge, or to imagine how we might have reacted under such unprecedented circumstances, for which no psychological preparation might have been adequate. The Jews’ inability to comprehend the reality has also been analyzed as a function of sheer disbelief in the extent to which insidiousness and pure evil could have overtaken the Germans or any other people, for evil’s sake and no other reason. And even though Jewish martyrdom historically implies a situation in which Jews have a choice to save their lives—which the Germans did not give them—by renouncing their religion instead of dying willingly “for the sanctification of God’s name,” we know that as long ago as the Middle Ages, Moses Maimonedes formulated the doctrine that all Jews who are killed because they are Jews do thus ipso facto sanctify the name of God. Anne Frank would, in that view, qualify as a martyr, as would all the six million murdered Jews. But that does not necessarily make her the most wisely chosen symbol, and Bettelheim’s and others’ repudiation of the Anne Frank symbolism can retain its validity without condemnation of the victims.
“We still don’t understand what happened to the Jews of Europe,” declared the Holocaust writer Isaac Rosenfeld in his commentary a few years after the war, “and perhaps we never will. There have been books, magazine and newspaper articles, eyewitness accounts, letters, diaries, documents....By now we know all there is to know. But it hasn’t helped; we still don’t understand.” Unfortunately, the story of Anne Frank does nothing to help us understand, as Rosenfeld could easily have added.
Yet despite all those serious reservations, we must accept by now that the Anne Frank symbol is not going to give way to any other. That the 60th anniversary of her birth as recently as June 1989 occasioned a major observance and commemorative concert, entitled Remembering Anne Frank, at New York’s Episcopal Cathedral of Saint John the Divine—the seat of the American episcopate, the American branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion—is testament itself to its endurance. That concert, jointly sponsored by the cathedral, the American Friends of the Anne Frank Center, and the International Center for Holocaust Studies of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith, was a centerpiece of “Anne Frank in the World: A 60th Anniversary Retrospective,” which comprised a monthlong series of events, new publications, an international symposium, the introduction of a curriculum for secondary schools and a teacher-training conference, a nationally televised round table hosted by Bill Moyers, and an exhibition of 600 rare photographs and documents. Admirably, that exhibition did not shy away from including a history of both Dutch anti-Semitism and Dutch collaboration. Speakers included the Dean of the cathedral, The Very Reverend James Parks Morton, actresses Claire Bloom and Liv Ullman, and Eva Schloss, a childhood friend of Anne Frank’s, whose mother married Otto Frank after the war. The Brooklyn Philharmonic was featured under Lukas Foss’s baton, and in addition to works from the standard repertory, Foss was invited to compose a piece for the concert that would relate directly to Anne Frank. The result was Elegy for Anne Frank, performed that night in its purely instrumental version (piano obligato and chamber orchestra), but with an alternative version in which a narrator reads excerpts from the diary. Critics have generally preferred the uninterrupted instrumental version, in which the piano part represents Anne Frank, and which Foss later incorporated into his third symphony as its second movement. The independently published Elegy allows for some variation in the instrumentation, with the minimum stipulation of solo piano, two brass (one high, one low), one percussionist, and strings. Optional additional instruments include two B-flat clarinets, two bassoons, and two additional brass instruments.
“It is one of the most soulful things I’ve ever done,” Foss reminisced in a 1998 interview, in which he took no position on the suitability of the Anne Frank symbol. He had merely responded to specific requirements of the commission, and he acquitted himself admirably—especially in the compactness and freshness of the piece, in which he avoided both his aleatoric and his serial sides, describing it as a surrealistic picture of Anne Frank’s story. A mournful, elegiac opening is followed by a simple childlike motive in the piano—presumably referring musically to the young Anne Frank—played over an underlay of haunting string timbres. There are rhythmic punctuations in the percussion, and manipulated fragments of the German national anthem that lead to an ominous climax followed by an abrupt cessation—after which the music returns to its initial mournful mood coupled with a reminder of the childhood motive.
Publisher: Pembroke Music Co. Inc. thru Carl Fischer. Available at: http://www.carlfischer.com/magento/elegy-for-anne-frank.html
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