Anne Frank in the Twenty-First Century
by Rachael Mclennan
In April this year, BBC Radio 4′s Front Row devoted a programme to Anne Frank, a young Jewish girl who went into hiding with her family in an Amsterdam annexe during the Second World War. When Frank turned thirteen in 1942, she received the present of a diary, which she kept during the period of just over two years in which she lived in hiding. The diary was published after Frank died in 1945, aged fifteen, in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and has become one of the most famous texts in the world.
The Radio 4 programme took as its starting point the fact that Frank continues to ‘live on’ in artistic representations, and considered why this might be the case. The programme and its concerns were timely: firstly, because it was approaching the date of what would have been Frank’s eighty-third birthday, had she lived – she was born eighty three years ago today – June 12, 1929. Secondly, it’s true that a number of fictional texts which consider Frank’s life and legacy have been published over the last few years, such as Ellen Feldman’s novel The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank (2005), and Nathan Englander’s short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (2012). Towards the end of the programme, I was struck by a comment made by Feldman, to the effect that using Frank in literary works provides a means of addressing a felt need to tell certain stories ‘in new ways’. What does this mean? What stories is Frank used to tell? To think about this, I want to consider another very recently published novel, Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy (2012), which invokes Frank in inventive and problematic ways. In Auslander’s novel the protagonist, Solomon Kugel, discovers an old woman living in the attic of the house he and his family have just moved into. She insists that she is Anne Frank. I want to think about what is at stake in Auslander’s depiction of an elderly Anne Frank, and how this depiction of Frank might shed light on Feldman’s comment.
Most obviously, writing a novel in which Anne Frank in invoked in any way necessitates that Auslander’s work engages with the difficult ethical questions attendant on any fictional discussions of the Holocaust: questions which have been considered vital ever since Theodor Adorno’s claim that it would be barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz. Who can write about the Holocaust, and how should it be written about? Today, many writers, readers and critics argue that the Holocaust should be depicted in art in efforts to ensure that history will never be repeated, in the interests of observing the injunction ‘never forget.’ This is exactly what Feldman has in mind when she talks of the stories Frank is used to tell, and it is how she convinces herself that using Frank’s story in fiction is justifiable and not exploitative. However, in imagining an Anne Frank who has apparently survived the Holocaust, Auslander creates one of the most controversial versions of Anne Frank in recent years. This is because his novel counters the facts of Frank’s death, creating an alternative history. Frank’s death at a young age has been a vital element in the mythologising of her life and diary, and it is central to the ways she is so often invoked to symbolise innocent victimhood, at once tragic and redemptive. Imagining that Frank survived is a dangerous strategy, but not without (notable) precedent; in Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer (1979), the protagonist Nathan Zuckerman imagines that a young woman he meets, Amy Bellette, is actually Anne Frank, who has undertaken a new identity in 1950s America. Auslander’s decision to imagine an alternative history for Frank is undertaken, like Roth’s, in order to unsettle and challenge the stories told about the Holocaust in general and Frank in particular.
It is telling that in the Front Row programme, Feldman does not quite specify what the stories told ‘in new ways’ actually are, beyond her insistence on the importance of remembering Frank (‘never forget’). The implication is that the stories remain the same, but the ways in which they are told do not; but also that everyone knows the stories, they hardly need to be spelled out. For Auslander, this familiarity with Frank – her story, her symbolic function – is not a good thing. Before considering the nature of Auslander’s challenge, it’s worth charting how this familiarity came about. When Frank and the other annexe inhabitants were arrested by the Gestapo in 1944, the diary was kept by Miep Gies, one of a small group of people who had supported them in hiding. After the war, Gies presented the diary to Otto Frank, Anne’s father, the only member of the annexe to survive the concentration camps. The diary was published in the Netherlands in 1947, but it was with publication of the English translation in 1952, and subsequent adaptations in America – a play in 1955, a film in 1959 – that Frank’s story reached a large audience. It is now generally accepted that these adaptations universalise Frank’s story, downplaying her Jewish identity in favour of making her a victim of generalised evil. They Americanise her, most obviously, by transforming her into an American teenager. They give her story a sentimental, optimistic ending. While all of these elements are problematic, they still influence many representations and memorialisations of Frank. Auslander, like Roth, takes issue with this.
At Auslander’s talk at the Jewish Book Week Festival in London a couple of months ago, I listened in the audience as he was asked if The Ghost Writer had been much on his mind when he wrote Hope: A Tragedy. Auslander replied that he hadn’t even realised that Roth had written about Frank until he had finished writing his novel. Tongue-in-cheek and provocative, like many of Auslander’s comments during that talk (and like the novel itself, its title a good indicator of the contradictions and contrariness to expect), this response reveals an intriguing reluctance to openly engage with Roth’s novel. The Ghost Writer can’t be ignored in any discussion of artistic representations of Frank – was Auslander haunted by the long shadow cast by this novel? Was he, more specifically, haunted by the plot similarities – Roth’s Frank, like his own, survives the Holocaust and makes a new life in America? Whatever the reason, Auslander’s text makes its own contribution to representations of Frank in literature, because he thinks about Anne Frank very differently from Roth. Auslander’s distinctive contribution is predicated on the fact that his Anne Frank is old, in her eighties (Amy Bellette appears again as an elderly woman in Roth’s Exit Ghost (2007), but in this novel it is made clear that any notion she was Anne Frank was Zuckerman’s youthful fantasy). In ways even more pronounced than Roth’s version, Auslander’s Anne Frank is designed to cause readers discomfort, and her age is crucial in achieving this.
An elderly Anne Frank forces recognition of the uncomfortable fact that today, Holocaust survivors are likely to be in their eighties and older, something which may make the task of teaching about the Holocaust particularly urgent now, as Feldman notes. Auslander’s Frank additionally flouts all the features that have frequently marked her representation. She is unattractive, she is grumpy, she is cynical and bitter, she is obscene. In The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman’s curiousity about Amy is primarily piqued by her striking appearance; she is young and attractive. These details are not inconsequential, as they facilitate Zuckerman’s fantasy about marrying Anne Frank in order to endear himself to his family and the wider Jewish community. In contrast, Auslander’s Frank hides in her attic, in retreat from the world. Like Roth’s Amy, she decides that it is for the best that she keep the fact of her survival a secret, but unlike Roth’s character, she is much less vibrant and life-affirming. She is pessimistic, exhausted by discussion of the topic of the Holocaust (a point is surely being made here about its endless commodification, an unavoidable aspect of artistic portrayals), as well as being overwhelmed by her own (that is, Frank’s) role as representative of all its victims. None of these attributes bear any resemblance to how, the novel implies, we would prefer to remember Anne Frank (as noble, saintly, uplifting, sweet, young). In fact, it is strongly suggested, Anne Frank has grown old so discomfitingly because of how she has been memorialised over the past sixty years. Auslander’s novel provides a counter, then, to the romanticising of Anne Frank, something which may be particularly intense in American culture, and prompts consideration about its consequences.
Perhaps the greatest strength of the creation of an elderly Anne Frank is that it enables consideration of the Holocaust in the twenty-first century, especially in America. Anne Frank competes with Kugel and his family for space in a house and for ownership of that space, nicely dramatising one model of collective memory. In this model collective memory seems to resemble, as Michael Rothberg observes, ‘real-estate development’ (different memories compete in the public sphere for visibility and value, and if one memory receives space and attention, something else is crowded out). It’s explained that in purchasing this new home, Kugel and his family are themselves going into hiding. New York, where they lived previously, is for them a place of danger and disease. The near-death of their son from illness is the major cause of their fears. However, the removal of the family from New York to the village of Stockton, which is ‘famous for nothing’, is marked by a desire to escape history, paranoia, and a focus on private, local and domestic affairs – all of which are important features in several 9/11 American fictions. Of course, in using the Holocaust to comment on post-9/11 America (as Auslander notes wryly, discovering Anne Frank in one’s attic shows the impossibility of escaping history), Auslander adds more controversies. Theoretical and critical debates on the Holocaust often focus on the question of whether the Holocaust should be understood as an event which is somehow unique, or an event which can be comparable to other traumas – in William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice (1979), for example, the Holocaust is explored in relation to the history of slavery in America.
The problem is that such approaches may risk relativising the Holocaust, or even worse, displacing it in favour of other traumas. For Rothberg, who contests the real-estate model of collective memory (and I agree), comparison of the Holocaust with other historical and cultural events can nonetheless be productive and may even be encouraged. The fact that Frank’s story can be used to comment on twenty-first century America in Auslander’s novel (though it is largely left to readers to work out exactly how so) is evidence of a point that shouldn’t be taken for granted: that the Holocaust is still relevant, and can tell us something about the present moment. More depressingly, placing debates about the Holocaust in the context of post-9/11 America suggests that the need to combat prejudice and violence is no less pertinent now, sixty years after Anne Frank died. The notion that stories need to be told ‘in new ways’ becomes a cause for concern.
For all the important questions posed by Hope: A Tragedy, its avoidance of sentimentality or romanticism when portraying Frank does not mean that she is humanised. Rather, as a grotesque figure who provokes disgust, Frank is not someone with whom readers are likely to identify. Of course, Auslander’s point is to estrange readers from typical renderings of Frank, to defamiliarise them in efforts to encourage critical thinking about her legacy. However, it is difficult not to think that the fear and disgust which often attends ageism – usually intensified when directed at the aging woman – is operative here. (At Auslander’s talk at Jewish Book Week, the possible presence of ageism in Kugel’s response to Frank was noted by the chair, Bidisha.) Are readers supposed to censure the ageism manifest in Kugel’s reaction to her, or is it assumed that they share it? Depiction of an elderly Anne Frank could have offered an occasion to further develop the ways in which Frank’s legacy has been rendered monstrous, via an examination of attitudes towards the elderly in American culture, another important twenty-first century concern. But since it is unclear whether readers are supposed to critique the horrified response to Frank’s physical aging, these possibilities aren’t developed. Both Roth and Auslander are extremely aware of the problems of representing Frank, and neither author evades the fact that The Ghost Writer and Hope: A Tragedy participate in and even perpetuate some of the elements they critique. But both texts use Frank’s age and gender in ways which may be problematic because they are unexamined.
Feldman is correct – many stories are told about Frank. These stories are provocative and contradicatory, and often don’t make for easy reading. This is a good thing, as telling a variety of stories about Frank enables productive consideration of the Holocaust in relation to other historical events. It also ensures that both the lesson of ‘never forget’, and the symbolisation of Frank as innocent victim do not succumb to agelessness; that is, becoming static and unchanging, abstracted from and unresponsive to ever-changing contemporary concerns.
BBC Radio 4, Front Row, 11 April 2012, ‘Anne Frank Special’.
Rothberg, Michael, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Stanford University Press, 2009).
About the Author:
Rachael McLennan is lecturer in American Literature and Culture in the school of American Studies at the University of East Anglia, UK, currently working on representations of Anne Frank in American culture. She is the author of Developing Fictions: Adolescence, America, and Postwar Fiction (Palgrave, 2009), and of the forthcoming American Autobiography (Edinburgh University Press, 2012). Twitter: @RachMcLennan