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New York Public Library's Books of the Century
I've no idea why I hadn't read--nor, considering the fact I went to a predominantly Jewish High School, why someone hadn't required me to read--Anne Frank's great memoir, Diary of a Young Girl. I suppose it just seemed like it would be too depressing. Our school had left little to the imagination; in 9th grade we saw films of the liberated death camps--the horribly emaciated survivors, the gruesome piles of corpses, the piles of hair and eye glasses, the showers, the ovens... They made damn sure we knew exactly what went on in Nazi Germany.
In the years since, I've read plenty of books on the Holocaust. I've seen the requisite movies and mini-series and documentaries. What is it then about Anne Frank's story that filled me with such dread? In retrospect, it's easy to figure out. The telling of the story of the Holocaust so often seems to start and end with the six million dead. It is a horror so massive that even after all the books and movies it is just too awesome to comprehend. The sheer size and criminal audacity of the slaughter somehow makes it seem unreal.
The story of Anne Frank, on the other hand, begins with a teenage girl, her family and some friends hiding in an attic. The Holocaust, though it's menace is omnipresent, is far in the background. It is this girl who is real, her experience immediate. And it ends abruptly, on August 4, 1944, without Nazis, without death camps, without dogs, without barbed wire, without gas chambers. The diary just ends. Yet, somehow, this only serves to make the story all the more powerful. Consider only what is between the covers. At the end of the book, here is all you know : this perfectly normal, perhaps even gifted, teenage girl was killed for no other reason than that she was Jewish. In the most affecting passages of the book, she herself futilely tries to understand how her lightly held Jewish beliefs can have led to this dire circumstance. No one reading the diary could ever perceive her as any kind of threat. It is just not possible to imagine that she is evil. Take only the best known passage from the diary:
It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all ideals,
because they seem so absurd and impossible to
What conceivable purpose could ever be served by destroying the child who wrote those impossibly idealistic words? And so, the Holocaust, which is so hard to wrap your mind around when you consider the six million, becomes real and personal and all the more horrific when we consider just one of it's victims. By it's very specificity the book takes on universal qualities.
Of course, this is the reaction this book has provoked since the day it was published, or at least one of the reactions. The question of whether it is the only or the most justifiable reaction led to a truly bizarre and tragic coda to the story, which Lawrence Graver relates in the terrific book, An Obsession with Anne Frank. Meyer Levin was a moderately successful mid-Century novelist (perhaps best known now for Compulsion, a novelization of the Leopold and Loeb murder case) . Though raised in Chicago, he was a dedicated Zionist and, despite or because of feelings of persecution and inferiority, was fiercely proud of his Jewish heritage, a descendant of shtetl Jews from Eastern Europe. As World War II wound down, working as both a journalist and a filmmaker, he documented some of the first survivors stories of the death camps. He grew certain that this was to be his mission in life: to present to the world the story of the fate of Europe's Jews. So when he first read the Diary, he recognized that here was the ideal medium through which to reach a mass audience.
He established contact with Anne Frank's father, Otto, who had survived the War and been responsible for publication of the original expurgated diary. Levin was helpful, he claimed instrumental, in getting the book published in America and even hoodwinked the New York Times into letting him write their review--which was naturally a glowing review, running some 5000 words. In exchange, Frank gave him the right to take the first crack at adapting the book for the stage. Here's where the trouble began.
Otto Frank was a cosmopolitan, Europeanized Jew. He envisioned the Diary as a universal text. Levin, on the other hand, was interested in it specifically as it related to the Jewish Holocaust experience. So Levin produced a draft which was considered a good start and stageable, but it was by no means up to the quality of the big money treatment the show was going to get. After much wrangling, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, non-Jews best known for their It's a Wonderful Life script, were brought in and it was they who wrote the familiar version which was first staged in 1955. Levin was enraged by what he saw as an attempt to freeze him out, to even further reduce the Jewish elements of the story and by what he came to believe was an actual conspiracy to achieve these goals, a conspiracy in which he eventually included everyone from Lillian Hellman to Otto Frank himself. Eventually he filed several law suits and even sued Otto Frank. The whole matter became an obsession which consumed the remaining quarter century of his life, estranged him from friends and unsettled his family.
This story is fascinating on it's own, but read in conjunction with the Diary, it raises really interesting questions about how the story should be understood. Is it in fact a good thing that the story is so universal, or should it really put more emphasis on the Holocaust as a unique event and a fundamentally Jewish experience? Must these events be understood as a function of a particular time and place or are they part of a larger human pattern? What is the meaning of Anne Frank's life and her too early death? And who gets to decide these questions, her father and family or the larger community of Jews or the reader himself?
This book adds a definite texture and nuance to the story, but the Diary certainly stands on it's own as a great work of literature and a vital document of one of history's darkest chapters. It is all the more remarkable for having been written by a teenager under such oppressive circumstances.
Amazon.com Top 100 Books of the Millenium
Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Non-Fiction
New York Public Library's Books of the Century
World Magazine Top 100 of the Century
ANNE FRANK (1929-45)
MEYER LEVIN (1905-1981)