Be­com­ing Anne Frank

WHY DID WE TURN AN ISO­LATED TEENAGE GIRL INTO THE WORLD’S MOST FA­MOUS HOLO­CAUST VIC­TIM?

Smithsonian Magazine - - Prologue - il­lus­tra­tion by LOUISA BERTMAN

Peo­ple love dead Jews.

Liv­ing Jews, not so much.

This dis­turb­ing idea was sug­gested by an in­ci­dent this past spring at the Anne Frank House, the block­buster Am­s­ter­dam mu­seum built out of Frank’s “Se­cret An­nex,” or in Dutch, “Het Achter­huis [The House Be­hind],” a se­ries of tiny hid­den rooms where the teenage Jewish di­arist lived with her fam­ily and four other per­se­cuted Jews for over two years, be­fore be­ing cap­tured by Nazis and de­ported to Auschwitz in 1944. Here’s how much peo­ple love dead Jews: Anne Frank’s diary, first pub­lished in Dutch in 1947 via her sur­viv­ing father, Otto Frank, has been trans­lated into 70 lan­guages and has sold over 30 mil­lion copies world­wide, and the Anne Frank House now hosts well over a mil­lion vis­i­tors each year, with re­served tick­ets sell­ing out months in ad­vance. But when a young em­ployee at the Anne Frank House in 2017 tried to wear his yarmulke to work, his em­ploy­ers told him to hide it un­der a baseball cap. The mu­seum’s man­ag­ing di­rec­tor told news­pa­pers that a live Jew in a yarmulke might “in­ter­fere” with the mu­seum’s “in­de­pen­dent po­si­tion.” The mu­seum fi­nally re­lented af­ter de­lib­er­at­ing for six months, which seems like a rather long time for the Anne Frank House to pon­der whether it was a good idea to force a Jew into hid­ing.

One could call this a sim­ple mis­take, ex­cept that it echoed a sim­i­lar in­ci­dent the pre­vi­ous year, when vis­i­tors no­ticed a dis­crep­ancy in the mu­seum’s au­dio­gu­ide dis­plays. Each au­dio­gu­ide lan­guage was rep­re­sented by a na­tional flag—with the ex­cep­tion of He­brew, which was rep­re­sented only by the

lan­guage’s name in its al­pha­bet. The dis­play was even­tu­ally cor­rected to in­clude the Is­raeli flag.

These pub­lic re­la­tions mishaps, clumsy though they may have been, were not re­ally mis­takes, nor even the fault of the mu­seum alone. On the con­trary, the run­away suc­cess of Anne Frank’s diary de­pended on play­ing down her Jewish iden­tity: At least two di­rect ref­er­ences to Hanukkah were edited out of the diary when it was orig­i­nally pub­lished. Con­ceal­ment was cen­tral to the psy­cho­log­i­cal legacy of Anne Frank’s par­ents and grandparents, Ger­man Jews for whom the price of ad­mis­sion to Western so­ci­ety was as­sim­i­la­tion, hid­ing what made them dif­fer­ent by ac­com­mo­dat­ing and in­gra­ti­at­ing them­selves to the cul­ture that had ul­ti­mately sought to de­stroy them. That price lies at the heart of Anne Frank’s end­less ap­peal. Af­ter all, Anne Frank had to hide her iden­tity so much that she was forced to spend two years in a closet rather than breathe in pub­lic. And that closet, hid­ing place for a dead Jewish girl, is what mil­lions of vis­i­tors want to see.

Surely there is noth­ing left to say about Anne Frank, ex­cept that there is ev­ery­thing left to say about her: all the books she never lived to write. For she was un­ques­tion­ably a tal­ented writer, pos­sessed of both the abil­ity and the com­mit­ment that real lit­er­a­ture re­quires. Quite the op­po­site of how an in­flu­en­tial Dutch his­to­rian de­scribed her work in the ar­ti­cle that spurred her diary’s pub­li­ca­tion—a “diary by a child, this de pro­fundis stam­mered out in a child’s voice”—Frank’s diary was not the work of a naif, but rather of a writer al­ready planning fu­ture pub­li­ca­tion. Frank had be­gun the diary ca­su­ally, but later sensed its po­ten­tial; upon hear­ing a ra­dio broad­cast in March of 1944 call­ing on Dutch civil­ians to pre­serve diaries and other per­sonal wartime doc­u­ments, she im­me­di­ately be­gan to re­vise two years of pre­vi­ous en­tries, with a ti­tle (Het Achter­huis, or The House Be­hind) al­ready in mind, along with pseu­do­nyms for the hid­ing place’s res­i­dents. Nor were her re­vi­sions sim­ple cor­rec­tions or sub­sti­tu­tions. They were thought­ful ed­its de­signed to draw the reader in, in­ten­tional and so­phis­ti­cated. Her first en­try in the orig­i­nal diary, for in­stance, be­gins with a long de­scrip­tion of her birth­day gifts (the blank diary be­ing one of them), an en­tirely un­self-con­scious record by a 13-year-old girl. The first en­try in her re­vised ver­sion, on the other hand, be­gins with a deeply self-aware and ironic pose: “It’s an odd idea for some­one like me to keep a diary; not only be­cause I have never done so be­fore, but be­cause it seems to me that nei­ther I—nor for that mat­ter any­one else—will be in­ter­ested in the un­bo­som­ings of a 13-year-old school­girl.”

The in­no­cence here is all af­fect, care­fully achieved. Imag­ine writ­ing this as your sec­ond draft, with a clear vi­sion of a pub­lished man­u­script, and you have placed your­self not in the mind of a “stam­mer­ing” child, but in the mind of some­one al­ready think­ing like a writer. In ad­di­tion to the diary, Frank also worked hard on her sto­ries, or as she proudly put it, “my pen-chil­dren are pil­ing up.” Some of these were scenes from her life in hid­ing, but oth­ers were en­tirely in­vented: sto­ries of a poor girl with six sib­lings, or a dead grand­mother pro­tect­ing her or­phaned grand­child, or a novel-in-progress about star-crossed lovers fea­tur­ing mul­ti­ple mar­riages, de­pres­sion, a sui­cide and prophetic dreams. (Al­ready wary of a writer’s pit­falls, she in­sisted the story “isn’t sen­ti­men­tal non­sense for it’s mod­eled on the story of Daddy’s life.”) “I am the best and sharpest critic of my own work,” she wrote a few months be­fore her ar­rest. “I know my­self what is and what is not well writ­ten.”

What is and what is not well writ­ten: It is likely that Frank’s opin­ions on the sub­ject would have evolved if she had had the op­por­tu­nity to age. Read­ing the diary as an adult, one sees the lim­i­ta­tions of a teenager’s per­spec­tive, and longs for more. In one en­try, Frank de­scribes how her father’s busi­ness part­ners—now her fam­ily’s pro­tec­tors—hold a crit­i­cal cor­po­rate meet­ing in the of­fice below the fam­ily’s hid­ing place. Her father, she and her sis­ter dis­cover that they can hear what is said by ly­ing down with their ears pressed to the floor. In Frank’s telling, the episode is a comic one; she gets so bored that she falls asleep. But adult read­ers can­not help but ache for her father, a man who clawed his way out of bank­ruptcy to build a busi­ness now stolen from him, re­duced to ly­ing face-down on the floor just to over­hear what his sub­or­di­nates might do with his life’s work. When Anne Frank com­plains about her in­suf­fer­able mid­dle-aged room­mate Fritz Pf­ef­fer (Al­bert Dus­sel, per Frank’s pseu­do­nym) tak­ing his time on the toi­let, adult read­ers might em­pathize with him as the only sin­gle adult in the group, per­ma­nently separated from his non-Jewish life part­ner whom he could not marry due to anti-Semitic laws. Read­ers Frank’s age con­nect with her bud­ding ro­mance with fel­low hid­den res­i­dent Peter van Pels (re­named Peter van Daan), but adults might won­der how ei­ther of the mar­ried cou­ples in the hid­ing place man­aged their own re­la­tion­ships in con­fine­ment with their chil­dren. Read­ers Frank’s age re­late to her con­stant com­plaints about grown-ups and their

Read­ers know that the author was a vic­tim of geno­cide, but that does not mean they are read­ing a work about geno­cide.

pet­ti­ness, but adult read­ers are equipped to ap­pre­ci­ate the psy­cho­log­i­cal dev­as­ta­tion of Frank’s older sub­jects, how they en­dured not only their phys­i­cal de­pri­va­tion, but the greater blow of be­ing re­duced to a child­like de­pen­dence on the whims of oth­ers.

Frank her­self sensed the lim­its of the adults around her, writ­ing crit­i­cally of her own mother’s and Peter’s mother’s ap­par­ently triv­ial pre­oc­cu­pa­tions—and in fact these women’s pre­war lives as housewives were a chief driver for Frank’s am­bi­tions. “I can’t imag­ine that I would have to lead the same sort of life as Mummy and Mrs. v.P. [van Pels] and all the women who do their work and are then for­got­ten,” she wrote as she planned her fu­ture ca­reer.

“I must have some­thing be­sides a hus­band and chil­dren, some­thing that I can de­vote my­self to!” In the pub­lished diary, this pas­sage is im­me­di­ately fol­lowed by the fa­mous words, “I want to go on liv­ing even af­ter my death!”

By plas­ter­ing this sen­tence on Frank’s book jack­ets, publishers have im­plied that her post­hu­mous fame rep­re­sented the ful­fill­ment of the writer’s dream.

But when we con­sider the writer’s ac­tual am­bi­tions, it is ob­vi­ous that her dreams were in fact de­stroyed—and it is equally ob­vi­ous that the writer who would have emerged from Frank’s ex­pe­ri­ence would not be any­thing like the writer Frank her­self orig­i­nally planned to be­come. Con­sider, if you will, the fol­low­ing imag­i­nary obit­u­ary of a life un­lived:

Anne Frank, noted Dutch nov­el­ist and es­say­ist, died Wed­nes­day at her home in Am­s­ter­dam. She was 89.

A sur­vivor of Auschwitz and

Ber­gen-Belsen, Frank achieved a mea­sure of fame that was hard won. In her 20s she strug­gled to find a pub­lisher for her first book,

The House Be­hind. The two-part mem­oir con­sisted of a short first sec­tion de­tail­ing her fam­ily’s life in hid­ing in Am­s­ter­dam, fol­lowed by a much longer and more grip­ping ac­count of her ex­pe­ri­ences at Auschwitz, where her mother and oth­ers who had hid­den with her fam­ily were mur­dered, and later at Ber­gen-Belsen, where she wit­nessed her sis­ter Mar­got’s hor­rific death.

Dis­fig­ured by a bru­tal beat­ing, Frank rarely granted in­ter­views; her later work, The Re­turn, de­scribes how her father did not rec­og­nize her upon their re­union in 1945. The House Be­hind was sear­ing and ac­cusatory: The fam­ily’s ini­tial hid­ing place, mun­dane and lit­eral in the first sec­tion, is re­vealed in the sec­ond part to be a metaphor for Euro­pean civ­i­liza­tion, whose fa­cade of high cul­ture con­cealed a de­monic evil. “Every flat, every house, every of­fice build­ing in every city,” she wrote, “they all have a House Be­hind.” The book drew re­spect­ful re­views, but sold few copies.

She sup­ported her­self as a jour­nal­ist, and in 1961 traveled to Is­rael to cover the trial of Adolf Eich­mann for the Dutch press. She earned spe­cial no­to­ri­ety for her fierce re­port­ing on the Nazi hench­man’s cap­ture, an ex­tra­di­tion via kid­nap­ping that the Ar­gen­tine elite con­demned.

Frank soon found the trac­tion to pub­lish Mar­got, a novel that imag­ined her sis­ter liv­ing the life she once dreamed of, as a mid­wife in the Galilee. A sur­real work that breaks the bound­aries be­tween novel and mem­oir, and leaves am­bigu­ous which of its char­ac­ters are dead or alive, Mar­got be­came wildly pop­u­lar in Is­rael. Its English trans­la­tion al­lowed Frank to find a small but ap­pre­cia­tive au­di­ence in the United States.

Frank’s sub­se­quent books and es­says con­tin­ued to win praise, if not pop­u­lar­ity, earn­ing her a rep­u­ta­tion as a clear-eyed prophet care­fully at­tuned to hypocrisy. Her read­ers will long remember the words she wrote in her diary at 15, in­cluded in the oth­er­wise naive first sec­tion of

The House Be­hind: “I don’t be­lieve that the big men are guilty of the war, oh no, the lit­tle man is just as guilty, oth­er­wise the peo­ples of the world would have risen in re­volt long ago! There’s in peo­ple sim­ply an urge to de­stroy, an urge to kill, to mur­der and rage, and un­til all mankind with­out ex­cep­tion un­der­goes a great change, wars will be waged, ev­ery­thing that has been built up, cul­ti­vated and grown will be cut down and dis­fig­ured, and mankind will have to be­gin all over again.”

Her last book, a mem­oir, was ti­tled To Be­gin Again.

The prob­lem with this hy­po­thet­i­cal, or any other hy­po­thet­i­cal about Frank’s nonex­is­tent adult­hood, isn’t just the im­pos­si­bil­ity of know­ing how her life and ca­reer might have de­vel­oped. The prob­lem is

that the en­tire ap­peal of Anne Frank to the wider world—as op­posed to those who knew and loved her—lies in her lack of a fu­ture.

There is an ex­cul­pa­tory ease to em­brac­ing this “young girl,” whose mur­der is al­most as con­ve­nient for her many en­thu­si­as­tic read­ers as it was for her per­se­cu­tors, who found un­armed Jewish chil­dren eas­ier to kill off than the Al­lied in­fantry. Af­ter all, an Anne Frank who lived might have been a bit up­set at the Dutch peo­ple who, ac­cord­ing to the lead­ing the­ory, turned in her house­hold and re­ceived a re­ward of ap­prox­i­mately $1.40 per Jew. An Anne Frank who lived might not have wanted to rep­re­sent “the chil­dren of the world,” par­tic­u­larly since so much of her diary is pre­oc­cu­pied with a des­per­ate plea to be taken se­ri­ously—to not be per­ceived as a child. Most of all, an Anne Frank who lived might have told peo­ple about what she saw at Wester­bork, Auschwitz and Ber­gen-Belsen, and peo­ple might not have liked what she had to say.

And here is the most dev­as­tat­ing fact of Frank’s post­hu­mous suc­cess, which leaves her real ex­pe­ri­ence for­ever hid­den: We know what she would have said, be­cause other peo­ple have said it, and we don’t want to hear it.

The line most of­ten quoted from Frank’s diary—“In spite of ev­ery­thing, I still be­lieve that peo­ple are re­ally good at heart”—is of­ten called “in­spir­ing,” by which we mean that it flat­ters us. It makes us feel for­given for those lapses of our civ­i­liza­tion that al­low for piles of mur­dered girls—and if those words came from a mur­dered girl, well, then, we must be ab­solved, be­cause they must be true. That gift of grace and ab­so­lu­tion from a mur­dered Jew (ex­actly the gift, it is worth not­ing, at the heart of Chris­tian­ity) is what mil­lions of peo­ple are so ea­ger to find in Frank’s hid­ing place, in her writ­ings, in her “legacy.” It is far more grat­i­fy­ing to be­lieve that an innocent dead girl has of­fered us grace than to rec­og­nize the ob­vi­ous: Frank wrote about peo­ple be­ing “truly good at heart” three weeks be­fore she met peo­ple who weren’t.

Here’s how much some peo­ple dis­like liv­ing Jews: They mur­dered six mil­lion of them. Anne Frank’s writ­ings do not de­scribe this process. Read­ers know that the author was a vic­tim of geno­cide, but that does not mean they are read­ing a work about geno­cide. If that were her sub­ject, it is un­likely that those writ­ings would have been uni­ver­sally em­braced.

We know this be­cause there is no short­age of texts from vic­tims and sur­vivors who chron­i­cled the fact in vivid de­tail, and none of those doc­u­ments has achieved any­thing like the fame of Frank’s diary. Those that have come close have only done so by ob­serv­ing the same rules of hid­ing, the ones that in­sist on po­lite vic­tims who don’t in­sult their per­se­cu­tors. The work that came clos­est to achiev­ing Frank’s in­ter­na­tional fame might be Elie Wiesel’s Night, a mem­oir that could be thought of as a con­tin­u­a­tion of Frank’s ex­pe­ri­ence, re­count­ing the tor­tures of a 15-year-old im­pris­oned in Auschwitz. As the scholar Naomi Sei­d­man has dis­cussed, Wiesel first pub­lished his mem­oir in Yid­dish, un­der the ti­tle And the World Kept Silent. The Yid­dish book told the same story, but it ex­ploded with rage against his fam­ily’s mur­der­ers and, as the ti­tle im­plies, the en­tire world whose in­dif­fer­ence (or ac­tive ha­tred) made those mur­ders pos­si­ble. With the help of the French Catholic No­bel lau­re­ate François Mau­riac, Wiesel later pub­lished a French ver­sion of the book un­der the ti­tle Night— a work that repo­si­tioned the young sur­vivor’s rage into the­o­log­i­cal angst. Af­ter all, what reader would want to hear about how his so­ci­ety had failed, how he was guilty? Bet­ter to blame God. This ap­proach did earn Wiesel a No­bel Peace Prize, as well as a spot in Oprah’s Book Club, the Amer­i­can epit­ome of grace. It did not, how­ever, make teenage girls read his book in Ja­pan, the way they read Frank’s. For that he would have had to hide much, much more.

What would it mean for a writer not to hide the hor­ror? There is no mys­tery here, only a lack of in­ter­est. To un­der­stand what we are miss­ing, con­sider the work of an­other young mur­dered Jewish chron­i­cler of the same mo­ment, Zal­men Grad­owski. Like Frank’s, Grad­owski’s work was writ­ten un­der duress and dis­cov­ered only af­ter his death—ex­cept that Grad­owski’s work was writ­ten in Auschwitz, and you have prob­a­bly never heard of it.

Grad­owski was one of the Jewish pris­on­ers in Auschwitz’s Son­derkom­mando: those forced to es­cort new ar­rivals into the gas cham­bers, haul the newly dead bod­ies to the cre­ma­to­ri­ums, ex­tract any gold teeth and then burn the corpses. Grad­owski, a young mar­ried man whose en­tire fam­ily was mur­dered, re­port­edly main­tained his re­li­gious faith, recit­ing the kad­dish (mourner’s prayer) each evening for the vic­tims of each trans­port—in­clud­ing Peter van Pels’ father, who was gassed a few weeks af­ter his ar­rival in Auschwitz on Septem­ber 6, 1944. Grad­owski recorded his ex­pe­ri­ences in Yid­dish in doc­u­ments he buried, which were dis­cov­ered af­ter the war; he him­self was killed on Oc­to­ber 7, 1944, in a Son­derkom­mando re­volt that lasted only one day. (The doc­u­ments writ­ten by Grad­owski and sev­eral other pris­on­ers in­spired the 2015 Hun­gar­ian film Son of Saul, which, un-

“. . . that my doomed life may at­tain some mean­ing, that my hellish days and hope­less to­mor­rows may find a pur­pose in the fu­ture.”

sur­pris­ingly, was no block­buster, de­spite an Academy Award and crit­i­cal ac­claim.)

“I don’t want to have lived for noth­ing like most peo­ple,” Frank wrote in her diary. “I want to be use­ful or give plea­sure to the peo­ple around me who don’t yet know me, I want to go on liv­ing even af­ter my death!” Grad­owski, too, wrote with a pur­pose. But Grad­owski’s goal wasn’t per­sonal or pub­lic ful­fill­ment. His was truth: sear­ing, blind­ing prophecy, Jeremiah lament­ing a world aflame.

“It may be that these, the lines that I am now writ­ing, will be the sole wit­ness to what was my life,” Grad­owski writes. “But I shall be happy if only my writ­ings should reach you, cit­i­zen of the free world. Per­haps a spark of my in­ner fire will ig­nite in you, and even should you sense only part of what we lived for, you will be com­pelled to avenge us—avenge our deaths! Dear dis­cov­erer of these writ­ings! I have a re­quest of you: This is the real rea­son why I write, that my doomed life may at­tain some mean­ing, that my hellish days and hope­less to­mor­rows may find a pur­pose in the fu­ture.” And then Grad­owski tells us what he has seen.

Grad­owski’s chron­i­cle walks us, step by dev­as­tat­ing step, through the mur­ders of 5,000 peo­ple, a sin­gle large “trans­port” of Czech Jews who were slaugh­tered on the night of March 8, 1944—a group that was un­usual only be­cause they had al­ready been de­tained in Birke­nau for months, and there­fore knew what was com­ing. Grad­owski tells us how he es­corted the thou­sands of women and young chil­dren into the dis­rob­ing room, mar­veling at how “these same women who now pulsed with life would lie in dirt and filth, their pure bod­ies smeared with hu­man ex­cre­ment.” He de­scribes how the moth­ers kiss their chil­dren’s limbs, how sis­ters clutch each other, how one woman asks him, “Say, brother, how long does it take to die? Is it easy or hard?” Once the women are naked, Grad­owski and his fel­low pris­on­ers es­cort them through a gant­let of SS of­fi­cers who had gath­ered for this spe­cial oc­ca­sion—a night gassing ar­ranged in­ten­tion­ally on the eve of Purim, the bib­li­cal fes­ti­val cel­e­brat­ing the Jews’ nar­row es­cape from a planned geno­cide. He re­calls how one woman, “a lovely blond girl,” stopped in her death march to ad­dress the of­fi­cers: “‘Wretched mur­der­ers! You look at me with your thirsty, bes­tial eyes. You glut your­selves on my naked­ness. Yes, this is what you’ve been wait­ing for. In your civil­ian lives you could never even have dreamed about it. [ . . . ] But you won’t en­joy this for long. Your game’s al­most over, you can’t kill all the Jews. And you will pay for it all.’ And sud­denly she leaped at them and struck Ober­schar­führer Voss, the di­rec­tor of the cre­ma­to­ri­ums, three times. Clubs came down on her head and shoul­ders. She en­tered the bunker with her head cov­ered with wounds [ . . . ] she laughed for joy and pro­ceeded calmly to her death.” Grad­owski de­scribes how peo­ple sang in the gas cham­bers, songs that in­cluded Hatik­vah, “The Hope,” now the na­tional an­them of Is­rael. And then he de­scribes the moun­tain of open-eyed naked bod­ies that he and his fel­low pris­on­ers must pull apart and burn: “Their gazes were fixed, their bod­ies mo­tion­less. In the dead­ened, stag­nant still­ness there was only a hushed, barely au­di­ble noise—a sound of fluid seep­ing from the dif­fer­ent ori­fices of the dead. [ . . . ] Fre­quently one rec­og­nizes an ac­quain­tance.” In the spe­cially con­structed ovens, he tells us, the hair is first to catch fire, but “the head takes the long­est to burn; two lit­tle blue flames flicker from the eye- holes—these are the eyes burn­ing with the brain. [ . . . ] The en­tire process lasts 20 min­utes—and a hu­man be­ing, a world, has been turned to ashes. [ . . . ] It won’t be long be­fore the five thou­sand peo­ple, the five thou­sand worlds, will have been de­voured by the flames.”

Grad­owski was not po­etic; he was prophetic. He did not gaze into this in­ferno and ask why. He knew. Aware of both the long re­cur­ring arc of de­struc­tion in Jewish his­tory, and of the univer­sal fact of cru­elty’s ori­gins in feel­ings of worth­less­ness, he writes: “This fire was ig­nited long ago by the bar­bar­ians and mur­der­ers of the world, who had hoped to drive dark­ness from their bru­tal lives with its light.”

One can only hope that we have the courage to hear this truth with­out hid­ing it, to face the fire and to be­gin again.

“Those of us who went through the war and tried to write about it . . . be­came mes­sen­gers,” wrote Elie Wiesel, shown as a young man. “We have given the mes­sage and noth­ing changed.”

Zal­men Grad­owski, a Pol­ish Jew in his early 30s, kept a diary at Auschwitz. It was dis­cov­ered af­ter his death, buried on the grounds of the cre­ma­to­rium.

Buchen­wald in April 1945. Elie Wiesel is in the sec­ond row, sev­enth from left. Ber­gen-Belsen,where Anne Frank died, was also lib­er­atedthat week.

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