Anne Frank Unbound: Media, Imagination, Memory

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As millions of people around the world who have read her diary attest, Anne Frank, the most familiar victim of the Holocaust, has a remarkable place in contemporary memory. Anne Frank Unbound looks beyond this young girl's words at the numerous ways people have engaged her life and writing. Apart from officially sanctioned works and organizations, there exists a prodigious amount of cultural production, which encompasses literature, art, music, film, television, blogs, pedagogy, scholarship, religious ritual, and comedy. Created by both artists and amateurs, these responses to Anne Frank range from veneration to irreverence. Although at times they challenge conventional perceptions of her significance, these works testify to the power of Anne Frank, the writer, and Anne Frank, the cultural phenomenon, as people worldwide forge their own connections with the diary and its author.

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Introduction: Anne Frank, the Phenomenon

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The list is daunting. Dozens of musical compositions, ranging from oratorio to indie rock. A dramatization given hundreds of productions annually. Thousands of YouTube videos. A museum visited by millions. To these, add a growing number of works of fine art, biography, fiction, poetry, and dance, as well as films, radio and television broadcasts, and websites. Plus tributes in the form of commemorative coins, stamps, and other collectibles, memorial sites and organizations around the world, eponymous streets, schools, and institutions, to say nothing of a “day, a week, a rose, a tulip, countless trees, a whole forest, . . . and a village.”1 All inspired by a book that has been translated into scores of languages, published in hundreds of editions, printed in tens of millions of copies, and ranked as one of the most widely read books on the planet.

These wide-ranging engagements with Anne Frank’s life and work are a phenomenon of interest in its own right and exceptional in several ways. To begin with, few public figures have inspired connections that are as extensive and as diverse, ranging from veneration to sacrilege. The expression of these connections can be playfully creative or can conform to well-established convention, and they are often deeply personal at the same time that they validate their subject’s iconic stature. Among the handful of people who have inspired this extraordinary kind of engagement—Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Albert Einstein, Elvis Presley—Anne Frank never participated, even indirectly, in her renown. The widespread interest in her rests largely on a single effort—her wartime diary—which no one else had read and few even knew existed during her brief life.

 

1 From Diary to Book: Text, Object, Structure

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Jeffrey Shandler

Most of the many mediations of Anne Frank’s diary—plays, films, artworks, musical compositions, memorials, lesson plans, even jokes—begin with the book: that is, the published diary. To speak of “the diary” as “the book,” though, is to elide the diary’s initial, key mediations. Its transformation from the different notebooks and manuscripts that Anne wrote between June 1942 and August 1944 into a published book, which first appeared almost three years after her last entry, entailed extensive editing by more than one hand, including her own. In published form, Anne’s diary appeared in a series of languages—first the original Dutch in 1947, then French and German translations in 1950 and English in 1952. These were followed by translations into over thirty more languages within another two decades, including three different Yiddish renderings—published in Bucharest, Buenos Aires, and Tel Aviv—all in 1958.1 Additional translations continue to appear, such as renderings into Arabic and Farsi in 2008 issued by the Aladdin Online Library, a Paris-based organization combating Holocaust denial in the Muslim world.2 Some translations attract public attention, hailed for promoting Holocaust awareness and combating anti-Semitism or as a touchstone of human rights. Thus, when the diary appeared in Khmer in 2002, the Dutch ambassador to Cambodia noted that

 

2 Anne Frank from Page to Stage

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Edna Nahshon

Scene: Apartment kitchen, Upper West Side, New York City.

Time: Shortly before Passover, spring 1997.

Characters: the Author of this essay; her Son, a high-school senior, helping in the kitchen.

Author (focused on chopping vegetables, chatting casually): So, what are your friends doing for the holiday?

Son: Well, David is having a seder at home, Avi is going to relatives on Long Island.

Author: And Ruth?

Son: Ruth’s family has an invitation for the second seder, but her mom doesn’t know how to prepare a seder and she wanted to do “something Jewish,” so she bought theater tickets for Anne Frank.

Although this conversation—which took place when The Diary of Anne Frank enjoyed its first Broadway revival in forty-two years—may seem trivial, it raises key issues about the play. First is the use of theater as a “sacred space” to affirm an ethno-religious identity and moral code. Attending a performance of this play in lieu of a Passover seder may not be a common practice, but the notion that seeing The Diary of Anne Frank is an exceptional, morally galvanizing experience has a considerable history, dating back to the play’s first production. As literary scholars Peter Brooks and John G. Cawelti have argued, the dramatic and literary form of melodrama, of which The Diary of Anne Frank is an example, developed in post-sacred cultures in order to satisfy their need for a secular system of ethics. When replacing the church or synagogue as the forum for contemplating the nature of good and evil, the theater has the power of endowing everyday life with a moral order.1

 

3 Anne Frank’s Moving Images

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Leshu Torchin

I have a vivid memory of watching the 1980 television adaptation of the Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett play The Diary of Anne Frank, especially my response to Melissa Gilbert, who played the role of Anne. Gilbert was then best known for portraying Laura Ingalls Wilder on the television series Little House on the Prairie (NBC, 1974–1983). Her Anne did not resemble the one I had imagined in my own prior reading of the diary. I didn’t care for the dramatic adaptation—I found the characterization of Anne too childish—and I suspect that the casting of Gilbert buoyed my annoyance, because I associated her primarily with what I perceived to be another unsatisfying interpretation of a beloved memoir: Wilder’s Little House series, rendered sentimental and borderline histrionic in the adaptation. This was not the stoic, complex, and vivid portrait of American pioneers that had proven so compelling in the original books.

Casting Gilbert as Anne demonstrates how media works inform one another, here adding layers of meaning that are extrinsic to the original work in question. To use a concept drawn from Chris Rojek’s work in tourist studies, Gilbert “drags” Wilder and her distinctly American memoir into a European narrative.1 This casting decision reinforces the Americanness of the telecast, rooted in the English-language adaptation of Anne’s diary for the Broadway stage. Gilbert’s performance as Anne exacerbated my dissatisfaction with the Hackett and Goodrich script. Yet for some other viewers—and for those who produced the 1980 telecast—Gilbert’s presence may have added value to the production precisely by enhancing its presentation of Anne Frank’s story as comparable to that of an American heroine. What is at issue here is not a question of what constitutes fidelity to the source text, its stage adaptation, or even the target audience. Rather, my recollection of this telecast points to the importance of considering the specific ways that the media of moving images contribute to public understandings of Anne and her diary. This issue concerns not only a sizable body of work—dozens of films and television programs, as well as countless online videos, all produced internationally over the past half-century in an array of genres. The issue also entails audiences, sometimes quite large, including both those who are also among the diary’s many readers and those who have no other acquaintance with Anne’s life and work.

 

4 Hauntings of Anne Frank: Sitings in Germany

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Henri Lustiger Thaler and Wilfried Wiedemann

In stark contrast to the extensive attention paid to Anne Frank’s life since the first publications of her diary, especially the years she spent in hiding in Amsterdam, the story of her death in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, which took place at some time in March 1945, was long neglected. There is an inherent disparity between her life and her death as encountered in the diary. For readers who come to the diary already knowing her fate, the text foreshadows her eventual capture and death with every turn of the page—and yet, these events are extrinsic to the diary itself, as its final entry is dated several days before Anne’s arrest. The unknowing reader learns about Anne’s final months in an epilogue that appears at the end of published versions of the diary. The diary reveals to the public in great detail the story of Anne’s life in hiding, as well as this singular young woman’s private thoughts, in her own voice. But Anne’s death at Bergen-Belsen, even as it is a widely known fact, was for many years enveloped in silence and obscurity. Until 1999, no memorial had been erected to commemorate her imprisonment and death at the camp, where the location of her remains is unmarked. Nevertheless, the site of Anne’s death is key to understanding the impact of her life and work in the Federal Republic of Germany throughout the postwar years, where her remembrance exemplifies Germany’s postwar grappling with the crimes of National Socialism.1

 

5 Teaching Anne Frank in the United States

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Ilana Abramovitch

Millions of readers around the world have encountered Anne Frank’s diary in the classroom, perhaps more than in any other setting.1 The diary was first published as a text for all readers, not especially for young people or for students, but within a few years of its first appearance in print, teachers began to assign it to their classes. By 1960, this grassroots interest by individual educators led to the adoption of The Diary of a Young Girl as required reading in school systems throughout the United States. It remains a fixture of American pedagogy: according to a 1996 survey cited on the Anne Frank Museum website, 50 percent of American high school students had read Anne Frank’s diary as a classroom assignment.2

Teaching Anne’s diary mediates the encounter with her life and work in distinctive ways. As with any other text, when the diary enters the classroom, it is situated within particular disciplines, courses, lesson plans, and assignments. The book has long been taught in the United States in courses on world literature and modern history, sometimes in courses that focus on World War II or the Holocaust. Teachers have long recognized the diary’s potential to raise with students a wide range of topics, not necessarily related to the Holocaust. By the early 1970s, one educator listed twenty such topics, ranging from “the way of history and historical personalities” to “thoughts for the future,” “understanding our parents” to “race relations,” and “self expression” to “sex education and the relationships between boys and girls.”3 Accordingly, Anne Frank’s life and work appear in less traditional curricula, including courses in genocide studies, peace studies, and conflict resolution, as well as character education programs, especially those concerned with combating prejudice and promoting ethics, with names such as “Teaching Tolerance,” “Respect for Differences,” “The Importance of Democracy,” and “The Importance of Individual Responsibility.” More recently, the diary is sometimes taught in primary schools and in a broadening range of interdisciplinary settings, such as classes that integrate dance or art with English language and literature, and has even appeared in health education. This array of approaches to teaching the diary evinces the great value invested in it as a text that engages young people.

 

6 Anne Frank as Icon, from Human Rights to Holocaust Denial

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Brigitte Sion

Anne Frank was one of Time magazine’s twenty “heroes and icons of the 20th century,” along with such honorees as Albert Einstein and Princess Diana.1 Unlike these other figures, Anne gained this status post-humously, through the publication of her diary and its later mediations. Translated into dozens of languages, the diary has become a canonical text of Holocaust writing—often the first, and sometimes the only, introduction to this subject for many readers, especially the young. However, the diary is an incomplete account of Anne’s victimization by the Nazis. Her entries end before her arrest by the Gestapo and deportation to the Westerbork transit camp, then to Auschwitz, and finally to Bergen-Belsen, where she was a slave laborer before dying from typhus in March 1945. Anne’s diary is therefore considered what the historian Tony Kushner terms a Holocaust text “without tears, without bloodshed, without . . . the mass production of death.”2 The incomplete nature of the diary and its publication years after Anne’s murder have enabled wide-ranging interpretations of the meaning of her life story. Even as the extensive popularity of the diary has transformed Anne into an iconic figure, her symbolic value has been far from uniform.

 

7 Anne Frank, a Guest at the Seder

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Liora Gubkin

Anne Frank never mentions the Jewish holiday of Passover in her diary. There is no evidence in the diary that Anne ever attended a seder, the ritual meal traditionally held in Jewish homes on the first and second nights of Passover. Yet, every year when Jews recount the story of their freedom and redemption from slavery in ancient Egypt, Anne is a “guest” at many a seder through her presence in several American Passover haggadahs. Her appearance speaks not only to her familiarity and popularity, but also to the extent to which her writing has been readily adapted. The best-known words of Anne Frank—“I still believe that people are really good at heart,” part of a diary entry written on July 15, 1944—foster creative engagements with diverse understandings of slavery and freedom and their implications for American Jews wrestling with the legacy of the Holocaust.

Passover is one of the most popular holidays for American Jews, and the haggadah, the text used to conduct the seder, is the most widely published Jewish text in the United States.1 Thousands of versions of the haggadah have been created over the centuries.2 Today, one can purchase or download a haggadah for a wide array of interests, including haggadahs with traditional commentary, a haggadah for Jews and Buddhists, a haggadah for a thirty-minute seder (the traditional ritual can last several hours), and haggadahs for activists committed to a variety of political causes. These politically engaged haggadahs follow the models of self-published haggadahs by left-wing activists in the 1960s and ’70s and, before those, haggadahs issued by secular Yiddishists and Zionists beginning in the 1930s. The traditional haggadah exhorts seder participants to reflect upon the personal nature of oppression and its relevance in the present by encouraging an imaginative ritual performance of identification with the oppressed and by issuing a call to end all subjugation. While innovative haggadahs typically follow the basic structure of the traditional text, they may complement ritual instructions, biblical passages, and early rabbinic commentaries with selections from modern and contemporary texts, including Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, that span the dimensions of time and place. Many innovative haggadahs published in the United States during the last forty years use these additional texts to deliberately link the ancient Israelite journey from slavery to freedom with such contemporary social and political issues as the threat of nuclear war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, vegetarianism, feminism, the oppression of Soviet Jewry, and the Holocaust.

 

8 Literary Afterlives of Anne Frank

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Sara R. Horowitz

As a book in which the act of writing figures so centrally and self-consciously, Anne Frank’s widely read diary has, not surprisingly, engendered an especially rich array of literary responses. These include the literary efforts of inspired teenagers as well as poems and prose fiction by accomplished adult authors and extend to other works—exhibitions, films—in which Frank’s writing and the act of reading it become subjects of interest in themselves. As she is known as a chronicler and a symbol of something beyond her own life and historical moment, the literary figuring of Anne Frank and her diary gives a sense of the ways in which her life and writing have been engaged and given meaning. Her diary provides a model for later journaling under oppressive regimes or difficult economic, social, and personal circumstances. The matters that Frank mulls as she waits out the war—issues of divine and human nature, meaningfulness, identity, sexuality—as well as the unknowingness of the diary, and the imponderability of her fate—take on new dimensions in the hands of later novelists and filmmakers. Reaching across time and continents and in a range of languages, the reimagined Anne is understood as speaking not only to such things as anti-Semitism, human nature, and good and evil, but also to contemporary Jewish identity, fascism, sexuality, psychic pain, abuse, and resistance.

 

9 Suturing In: Anne Frank as Conceptual Model for Visual Art

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Looking beyond the iconic smiling girl portrayed in a handful of widely circulated photographs of Anne Frank, contemporary artists have used diverse strategies to clear a path through the dense thicket of cultural construction around Anne Frank for a more personal and direct reconnection to her. Together, the diary and images offer a profound way into the Holocaust for European and American artists who have no personal or familial connections to the horror, but who were deeply affected as adolescents by their encounter with Anne Frank and her diary.1 Indeed, for some of them, Anne Frank and her diary became indistinguishable from their own hopes, fears, anxieties, and concerns, prompting them to seek formal means to gain distance from Anne Frank and her diary.

While some artists revalue Frank as a creative artist in her own right—as an active authorial voice and compelling subjectivity that could serve as a model and catalyst for their own creativity—or as a human rights icon, others focus on Anne Frank’s iconic image and the images with which she surrounded herself. However different the media or motivation for their works, the artists discussed here engage with Anne Frank, her image and her diary, through a path of identification, disengagement, and selective reintegration.

 

10 Sounds from the Secret Annex: Composing a Young Girl’s Thoughts

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Judah M. Cohen

In her diary entry of December 7, 1942, Anne Frank recounted a rare musical moment in the Annex. “We didn’t make much fuss about Chanukah,” she wrote. “[W]e just gave each other a few little presents and then we had the candles. Because of the shortage of candles we only had them alight for ten minutes, but it is all right as long as you have the song.”1 Obliquely referenced and made to balance the abbreviated Hanukkah ritual, this moment presented the diary’s sole account of communal music making. Aside from a few references to local bell tower chimes and radio music broadcasts, Anne’s descriptions more often noted enforced quiet in the Annex.2

After the diary appeared in print, those who wished to bring Anne’s voice beyond the text used this passage as a source for musical extrapolation, most notably when creating the diary’s dramatization. Otto Frank, for his part, recalled the “song” as “Ma‘oz Tsur” (“Rock of Ages”), a stately Hanukkah hymn believed to be of Central European origin.3 Meyer Levin, Anne Frank’s first American champion, honored this recollection and used “Ma‘oz Tsur” in the Hanukkah scene ending the middle act of his 1952 play based on the diary.4 The song’s Hebrew lyrics, pining for divine intervention against oppressors, complemented Levin’s portrayal of Anne as a proud Jewish nationalist.

 

11 Critical Thinking: Scholars Reread the Diary

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Sally Charnow

The publication of De Dagboeken van Anne Frank by the Netherlands State Institute for War Documentation in 1986 marks a threshold in how Anne’s diary has been read, taught, and discussed. An English translation, The Diary of Anne Frank: The Critical Edition (referred to hereafter as the Critical Edition), appeared in 1989, followed by translations into German, French, and Japanese; a revised edition was issued in Dutch and in English in 2003.1 This new version of the diary initiated a wave of new scholarly scrutiny of the already iconic work long known to American readers as The Diary of a Young Girl. Whereas the diary had long received attention from historians as a document of Jewish resistance to Nazi persecution during World War II, more recent scholarship has read and discussed Frank’s work as an example of women’s or adolescent writing, autobiography, coming-of-age narrative, or Holocaust literature. Cultural historian Berteke Waaldijk, for example, argued in 1993 that “Anne Frank’s symbolic value as an innocent victim of fascism should not prevent us from reading her diaries as a literary work. The outrage of her death is in no way diminished by taking her seriously as a writer.”2 More recently, author Francine Prose explains: “Like most of Anne Frank’s readers, I had viewed her book as the innocent and spontaneous outpourings of a teenager. But now, reading it as an adult, I quickly became convinced that I was in the presence of a consciously crafted work of literature.”3 Waaldijk, Prose, and other scholars and writers offer, in effect, new mediations of the diary through a distinctive approach to reading the text made possible in large measure by the publication of the Critical Edition. These new readings also reflect recent developments both in the academy and in public discussion. In particular, more recent scholarship on Anne’s diary draws on historians’ interest in diary writing as social practice, on literary scholars’ attention to diary writing as a form of women’s writing and literature, and on the study of adolescence from a variety of perspectives.4

 

12 Anne Frank on Crank: Comic Anxieties

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Edward Portnoy

There was a certain actress, a terrible actress, that played Anne
Frank. She was so bad that when the Nazis came on [stage],
the audience yelled out, “She’s upstairs in the attic!”

Fyvush Finkel in Der Komediant, 1999

Making a joke about Anne Frank seems to be widely regarded as an act of bad taste. Why, then, would someone do so? Such jokes may engage some of the same challenging ideas about Anne’s significance in contemporary culture as do works of avant-garde video, performance, or visual art, but joking lacks the protective valence of these “high-culture” media. In addition to being provocative, these jokes are lowbrow; they are vulgar in both senses of the term. Seeking to explain this kind of humor, the psychologist Martin Grotjahn argued that “jokes grow best on the graves of fresh anxieties.”1 What then, are the anxieties on which Anne Frank jokes rely, and what makes them fresh, nearly seventy years after her death?

 

Epilogue: A Life of Its Own—The Anne Frank Tree

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If not for Anne Frank’s diary, the chestnut tree that stood behind 263 Prinsengracht in Amsterdam would have lived and died unnoticed during the almost 180 years of its life. But once news spread that this tree was ailing, it acquired a life of its own—moreover, a life that seems destined to continue in perpetuity. Alive or dead, the Anne Frank Tree, as it has come to be known, has become the most protean of metaphors. Many people have found meaning and solace in the tree in ways they never seem to have found in the diary, although the diary is always cited as the source text for the tree’s singular significance. The tree joined the other two material icons of Anne Frank’s story, the original diary notebook and the building at 263 Prinsengracht, well after their stature was secured and is inherently dependent on them for its significance. However, the tree’s ontological status as a living organism endows it with an immortality of a different order. And what truly gives the tree its immortality—what makes it more than just another tree—are the creative responses it has generated within a wide public.

 

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