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Prose takes us back to the familiar story and focuses our attention precisely on the physical details of Anne's text-making efforts. On June 12, 1942, Anne's thirteenth birthday, her parents gave her "the famous checked diary...the red, gray, and tan cloth-covered book." Just three weeks later, the Nazis issued a summons to Anne's sixteen year old sister Margot to report to Westerbork. The Dutch-built refugee camp had a new purpose that July, housing passengers who would fill cargo trains headed for Auschwitz every Tuesday. Margot's summons triggered the Frank and van Pels families' move into the not-quite-finished secret annex above Otto Frank's office.
Over the next two years, Anne described life with seven other people hidden behind a bookcase in the tiny attic. Like many adolescent girls, she used her diary to express feelings and adjust to changes, albeit of an extreme nature. During the day, the annex residents blacked out all the windows, living soundlessly.
Anne filled the first diary by December 5, 1942 and wrote no new entries for a year. On December 22, 1943, she began a fresh black composition book, finished four months later. On April 17, 1944, she started her third and final notebook, her last entry written August 1, 1944, three days before the betrayal and arrest of the secret annex residents.
Prose has rescued Anne Frank from another kind of betrayal, proving beyond doubt that she wanted her diary published. In the spring of 1944--perhaps driven by one of several premonitions--Anne worked feverishly to prepare her manuscript for publication. She rewrote the entire text from the start, filling 324 loose sheets of colored paper. She framed and refined the story, closing narrative gaps from the unwritten year.
The secret annex residents often listened to broadcasts from the Dutch government in exile in London. On March 29, 1944, the Dutch Education Minister said he envisioned a national archive of "ordinary documents" to help future generations understand what the Dutch people had gone through during the war. Anne immediately internalized his imperative to preserve the experience. Just two weeks later, however, she worried whether she was up to the task, confiding to her diary that the ministers would probably find no use in the "unbosomings of an ugly duckling." Though she sought to lower expectations with self-mockery, Anne also invoked the minister's sense of purpose and posterity. Clearly, as Prose demonstrates, "Anne had wanted her book to be noticed, to be read, and she spent her last months of relative freedom desperately attempting to make sure that her wish might someday be granted."
Until she began the research for her book, Prose states that she, like most readers, thought of the diary as "the innocent and spontaneous outpourings of a teenager," published after the war with her father's minor, understandably protective omissions. Yet Anne Frank's story has had many incarnations. There is the original diary as Anne first drafted it and then the revised version she wrote on loose pages. Her father combined both texts to produce a third version, which, after bitter fights with writers and producers, formed the basis for the 1955 Broadway play and the film, released in 1959.
The commercialization of Anne's diary is a sad story. Fierce debates over whether the story should be presented as "Jewish" or universal reflect tensions over mid-century American Jewish identity in light of the Holocaust, Stalinism, and McCarthyism. The playwrights who adapted the diary downplayed Anne's ethnicity, spirituality, intelligence, writing ability, and moral acuity. She is depicted as a dreamy, romantic girl. When Anne edited the diary, she toned down her obsessive statements about the boy Peter in favor of more serious reflections. Otto Frank restored those personal passages, which the playwrights and screenwriters seized upon as inherently dramatic.
After tracing the diary's complicated provenance, Prose, the author of fifteen books of fiction and numerous nonfiction works, provides a close examination of Anne Frank's craft. As the author of the New York Times bestseller, Reading Like a Writer, she is well-suited to this task. Her glowing appraisal notes "how much art is required to give the impression of artlessness, how much control is necessary in order to seem natural, how almost nothing is more difficult for a writer than to find a narrative voice as fresh and unaffected as Anne Frank's."
Prose reveals why the diary is a masterpiece through brilliant critical analysis of Anne's literary techniques. One chapter examines Anne's vivid characters-for example, how she described an ordinary day in order to portray each secret annex resident's unique personality. Another chapter compares Anne's two versions of the diary, illuminating the literary strategy behind each editing decision. Thinking of her readers, Anne kept a tight rein on how much fear and darkness she allowed into her account. She was disciplined about her writing practice. Yet, Anne's gender, age, and the form of her work almost guaranteed that her literary efforts would be overlooked.
What could be more trivial than a diary written by a moody teenage girl? When Gestapo officer Karl Silberbauer led the raid on the secret annex, he dumped out the contents of Otto Frank's briefcase (notebooks and loose papers), so he could carry confiscated cash and jewelry.
After surviving Auschwitz, Otto Frank returned to Amsterdam and reconstructed the diary, published in the Netherlands in 1947. It went out of print in 1950. Almost every major U.S. publishing house rejected it. Two very young women saved the diary from obscurity. Judith Jones, assistant to the director of Doubleday's Paris office, read it and implored her boss to send it to New York. Later at Knopf, Jones would edit another distinctive female voice-Julia Child.
Doubleday, which paid Otto Frank a $500 advance, would not have promoted the diary without prodding from Barbara Zimmerman, a twenty-three year old editor, who wrote to Anne's father: "I love the book and feel that it has value for me beyond matters of business." Zimmerman went on to cofound The New York Review of Books.
Anne Frank envisioned her book, Het Achterhuis (The House Behind), as an epistolary novel. Doubleday published it as The Diary of A Young Girl, with a photograph of Anne Frank's sweet, inquisitive, upturned face. Key to Prose's argument that the diary's literary merit has been overlooked, are the many ways that the world "uses" Anne Frank: to portray the bumpy passage from childhood to adulthood; to make the Holocaust more vivid for younger generations so they "never forget;" to temper the racial horror of the "Final Solution" by universalizing her story; to highlight contemporary atrocities; and to comfort ourselves that "people are really good at heart."
A focus on that one phrase, de-contextualized from Anne's full statement, is the greatest misreading of all. In 1985, then President Ronald Reagan, perhaps to neutralize his controversial visit to Bitburg Cemetery, read Anne's words at Bergen-Belsen, the site of her death:
It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the suffering of millions, and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty, too, will end, and that peace and tranquility will reign again."
This complex, one hundred word passage, contains only three hopeful phrases: "people are really good at heart, "it will all come right," and "peace and tranquility will reign again." If there was any doubt about Anne's lucidity, a text she wrote three months before the famous passage is particularly bracing. On May 3, 1944, Anne wrote: "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 destroyed and disfigured, and mankind will have to begin all over again."
Anne Frank knew that she and her people would be annihilated. Her clear-eyed, beautiful, and dark meditations on hope and despair reveal her as a complex moral thinker. She explained that she chose a positive attitude not out of denial but as a survival mechanism. It is a commanding way to assert moral agency from a position of powerlessness.
Like the diary, Francine Prose's book also refuses tidy philosophical conclusions. Unlike the usual meticulous structure of Prose's books, this one is messy. Written quickly and urgently, Prose is eager to communicate her message. In her mission to debunk the portrayal of Anne as the "perky teenage messenger of peace and love," the book's organization sometimes seems awkward. Yet the structure also reflects our collective moral uncertainty after 20th century genocide.
Teachers and public educators of all kinds use Anne Frank's story to try to move mankind toward the great change Anne knew was necessary to end hatred and war. On my first trip to the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam twenty years ago, I saw that Anne Frank had been born in 1929-the same year as my mother, who grew up in New York City. Though I'd obsessively read books about the Holocaust since girlhood, this was the first moment the Holocaust became embodied, real, and personal to me. The power of a visit to the attic at 263 Prinsengracht continues. When I walked the Prinsengracht Canal three years ago, the line for admission stretched around the corner.
Because the diary ends when the families are taken away, most readers do not know or internalize the story's real ending. Prose reviews the brutal physical realities of Anne's "life" after the Annex and her death. She rightly and mercilessly reminds us of the facts, corroborated by eyewitnesses, of Anne Frank's journey through Westerbork, Auschwitz, and Bergen Belsen. There Anne and Margot died of typhus, just weeks before the liberation.
Francine Prose fearlessly engages the question of whether "tolerance," respect for human rights, and genocide prevention can be taught. In the section "Anne Frank in the Schools," she finds most curricula and teaching guides too quick to focus on the positive, universal interpretation of the diary.
Her 2005 novel, A Changed Man, also addresses the same question. An unflinching behind-the-scenes look at contemporary human rights organizations, the satirical novel highlights the foibles of the professional moralists who try to make the world a better place. The plot centers on Vincent Nolan, a young Neo-Nazi, who appears in the offices of "World Brotherhood Watch," proclaiming his desire to help them "prevent guys like me from becoming guys like me." The central question is whether Vincent and people in general can change for the better.
That is the ultimate question behind Holocaust education. But which conveys the greater "truth" about the Holocaust-historical documentation or literature? There has been considerable discussion about whether to consider Elie Wiesel's Night a novel, an autobiographical novel, or a memoir (with the implication that all details must be true). His text has undergone significant translation, editing, shaping, and revision. The veracity of Night has been questioned because Wiesel used literary techniques to convey deep emotional truths. The Diary of Anne Frank has never undergone that kind of scrutiny. Until Francine Prose published her book, no one had suspected the extent to which a girl living in the shadow of death would revise and use literary techniques to ensure her story would be told-and told powerfully.
The book's most cursory section touches lightly on how the diary has impacted young human rights activists in other parts of the world. Yet how we interpret Anne Frank's legacy has implications for contemporary and future human rights activism.
Two major tendencies shape today's human rights enterprises. There is the effort to document recent war crimes and prosecute perpetrators at international tribunals (such as those for Rwanda and Yugoslavia) and at the International Criminal Court. This assumes that holding high level perpetrators accountable will prevent future atrocities. There have also been 40 truth commissions held around the world. Truth commissions assume that bearing witness to atrocity helps individuals and societies heal, perhaps even to "reconcile" (as proposed by the foundational institution-the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission). The ongoing atrocities in the world suggest that this is all a work-in-progress.
Literature is an equally profound tool in the struggle for human rights. PEN, the world's oldest literary human rights organization, was founded in 1921 in response to the ethnic and national divisions that led to World War I. When she was elected president of PEN in 2007, Francine Prose spearheaded a new Campaign for Core Freedoms to reinforce PEN's "commitment to free expression-to guaranteeing the human rights and saving the lives of writers throughout the world."
Many writers have sought to give literary expression to the mass horrors of the 20th century. But it was Anne Frank who demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is nothing like the power of one authentic voice which speaks magically to the dilemmas of being human. As Hannah Arendt, quoting Isak Dinesen, said in The Human Condition, "All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them."
Confronted with the horrific details of Anne Frank's death, we can derive one clear but considerable consolation. Anne Frank finally got what she wanted: she lives on brilliantly through her own writing.
|Buy Now at Amazon.com||Review by Dr. Debra L. Schultz|