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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
    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 tranquillity will
    reign again.

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.


Grade: (B+)


See also:

Book-related and General Links:

    -Lawrence Graver (Williams College English Department Faculty)
    -REVIEW: of THE REMAINS OF THE DAY By Kazuo Ishiguro (Lawrence Graver, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of READING AMERICA Essays on American Literature. By Denis Donoghue  (Lawrence Graver, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of ACROSS By Peter Handke. Translated by Ralph Manheim (Lawrence Graver, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of SELECTED LETTERS OF E. M. FORSTER Volume Two: 1921-1970 (Lawrence Graver, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of SCENES FROM MARRIED LIFE and SCENES FROM LATER LIFE By William Cooper (Lawrence Graver, NY Times Book Review)
    -ARTICLE: Anne Frank's diary still generates controversy (Howard Kissel, New York Daily News)
    -REVIEW: Feb 19, 1998 Ian Buruma: The Afterlife of Anne Frank, NY Review of Books
        The Diary of Anne Frank a play by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett
        An Obsession with Anne Frank: Meyer Levin and the Diary by Lawrence Graver
        The Stolen Legacy of Anne Frank: Meyer Levin, Lillian Hellman, and the Staging of the Diary by Ralph Melnick
    -REVIEW of AN OBSESSION WITH ANNE FRANK Meyer Levin and the Diary By Lawrence Graver (Richard Bernstein, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of AN OBSESSION WITH ANNE FRANK Meyer Levin and the Diary. By Lawrence Graver (Frank Rich, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Stolen Legacy of Anne Frank Meyer Levin, Lillian Hellman, and the Staging of the ''Diary.'' By Ralph Melnick (Robert Leiter , NY Times Book Review)

ANNE FRANK (1929-45)
    -Anne Frank Online
    -Anne Frank (1929-1945)(kirjasto)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Your search: "anne frank"
    -Anne Frank House
    -Anne Frank Center USA
    -Anne Frank Diary Reference
    -Anne Frank on Broadway
    -Anne Frank: Lessons in Human Rights and Dignity (St. Petersburg Times)
    -Anne Frank Webquest
    -Anne Frank : Victim of the Holocaust (Miami-Dade County Teachers Association)
    -Miep Gies : Keeping Anne Frank's Story Alive (MSNBC)
    -Anne Frank In the World: 1929-1945
    -LINKS : The Anne Frank Internet Guide
    -LINKS : Anne Frank Resources (The Franklin Institute)
    -Anne Frank and Oskar Schindler in Memoriam
    -Nicole's Anne Frank Page
    -The Anne Frank Page  (Chooi Mei & Michelle)
    -BOOKNOTES: Author: Melissa Muller  Title: Anne Frank: The Biography Air date: November 29, 1998 (CSPAN)
    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE: The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank (SparkNote by Debra Grossman)
    -PROFILE: TIME 100 : Heroes & Icons : Anne Frank (Roger Rosenblatt, TIME)
    -ARTICLE: Anne Frank's diary still generates controversy (Howard Kissel, New York Daily News)
    -ESSAY: Anne Frank, On and Off Broadway (Molly Magid Hoagland, Commentary)
(Anthony Anderson, University of Southern California)
    -ESSAY: Anne Frank: the Cultivation of the Inspirational Victim  (Catherine A. Bernard, Women Writing the Holocaust)
    -ESSAY: Writing Herself Against History: Anne Frank's Self-Portrait as a Young Artist (Rachel Feldhay Brenner, Modern Judaism)
    -BOOK LIST: The New York Public Library's Books of the Century

    -A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust (Florida Center for Instructional Technology)
    -Nizkor Project (Your Holocaust Educational Resource)
    -Survivors of the Shoah : Visual History Foundation
    -The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
    -Simon Wiesenthal Center
    -Holocaust History Project
    -A Cybrary of the Holocaust (
    -The Mazal Library : A HOLOCAUST RESOURCE
    -Museum of Jewish Heritage (Manhattan, NY)
    -Yad Vashem Home Page
    -Braun Holocaust Institute of the Anti-Defamation League
    -I*EARN'S Holocaust/Genocide Project : Youth Using Telecommunications to Make a Difference in the World
    -The Holocaust: A Tragic Legacy (ThinkQuest project on the history and legacy of the Holocaust)
    -Holocaust Survivors
    -Holocaust Memorial Center (Detroit, USA)
    -Memorial Museums for the Victims of National Socialism in Germany
    -The Holocaust Album : A Collection of Historical and Contemporary Photographs
    -The Nuremberg War Crimes Trials (The Avalon Project at the Yale Law School)
    -World War Two in Europe (History Place)
    -Documentary Resources on the Nazi Genocide and its Denial
    -LINKS: Holocaust Resources on the World Wide Web (Stanley Feldberg)
    -LINKS: meyer's holocaust links, 3rd ed
    -Literature of the Holocaust (Al Filreis, English 293, U of Penn)
    -Museum of Tolerance
    -REVIEW: Mar 9, 2000 Eva Hoffman: The Uses of Hell, NY Review of Books
        The Holocaust in American Life by Peter Novick
    -REVIEW: Sep 28, 1989 Istvan Deak: The Incomprehensible Holocaust, NY Review of Books
        Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? The "Final Solution" in History by Arno J. Mayer
        The Kraków Ghetto and the Plaszów Camp Remembered by Malvina Graf
        Some Dare to Dream: Frieda Frome's Escape From Lithuania by Frieda Frome
        Double Identity: A Memoir by Zofia S. Kubar
        Life With a Star by Jirí Weil
        From That Place and Time: A Memoir, 1938-1947 by Lucy S. Dawidowicz
        The Jews and the Poles in World War II by Stefan Korbonski
        And I Am Afraid of My Dreams by Wanda Póltawska
        Doctor #117641: A Holocaust Memoir by Louis J. Micheels, M.D.
        Eva's Story: A Survivor's Tale by the Step-Sister of Anne Frank by Eva Schloss
        Unbroken: Resistance and Survival in the Concentration Camps by Len Crome
        Lódz Ghetto: Inside a Community Under Siege
        Soldiers of Evil: The Commandants of the Nazi Concentration Camps by Tom Segev
        The Holocaust in History by Michael R. Marrus
        Unanswered Questions: Nazi Germany and the Genocide of the Jews edited by Francois Furet
        Modernity and the Holocaust by Zygmunt Bauman
    -ARCHIVES: "Holocaust" (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: Was the Holocaust a unique evil that must be studied for its lessons, or a promotional tool used to mobilise support for Israel? David Cesarani weighs up two points of view: THE HOLOCAUST AND COLLECTIVE: The American Experience By Peter Novick & THE NAZI TERROR: Gestapo, Jews & Ordinary Germans By Eric Johnson (London Times)
    -REVIEW: "The Holocaust in American Life" and "The Americanization of the Holocaust" : Two books ask how -- and why -- a European catastrophe became central to American culture. (JESSE BERRETT, Salon)

MEYER LEVIN  (1905-1981)
    -ESSAY: Re-writing "Anne Frank" - A distorted legacy (Jonathan S. Tobin, Jewish World Review)
    -REVIEW: of Martin Litvin, Audacious Pilgrim. The Story of Meyer Levin (William L. Urban, The Zephyr Online)
    -Leopold & Loeb Trial Home Page (Doug Linder, UMKC Law School)
    -REVIEW: of COMPULSION (1959)(And You Call Yourself a Scientist!)
    -REVIEW: Feb 20, 1964 Stanley Kauffmann: Season In Hell, NY Review of Books
        Blood From the Sky by Piotr Rawicz
        The Fanatic by Meyer Levin