By Georg Diez
It's a question that Shalom Auslander, 42, finds amusing. "Israel?" he asks. "Just bomb the place. I hated it. Everyone's in a bad mood. Everyone's afraid. The whole time I was there I felt like my father was at the back of my neck. When I returned to New York after a year-and-a-half, I treated myself to a cheeseburger and a blowjob."
Auslander's a punk. He's drinking his second glass of red wine at Joshua's Café, as a storm rages outside. It's lunchtime in Woodstock, two hours north of New York, the setting of his novel "Hope: A Tragedy," to be published in German in late February. He shreds many of the certainties people thought they had about the Holocaust in general and Anne Frank in particular. Optimism is the enemy, says Auslander, hope is a lie and identity doesn't arise from destruction, that is, the Holocaust. In other words, identity that arises from destruction, according to Auslander, deserves to be destroyed.
"I'm often asked whether I'm a self-hating Jew," says Auslander, "and my answer is: I'm a person who hates himself. In that sense, I'm like Anne Frank. We liked self-loathing people. Self-loathing is the way forward. Anne Frank was someone my mother most certainly wouldn't have liked."
It's this tone, this tempo and this furor that propels Auslander's novel forward. The protagonist, Solomon Kugel, has three problems: How does he fix his marriage, how does he get his mother out of his house, and what is Anne Frank doing in his attic? Is it even her, that cursing, ill-tempered, unkempt fury who sends him out to buy matzo bread?
"I don't know who you are," says Kugel, "or how you got up here. But I'll tell you what I do know: I know Anne Frank died in Auschwitz. And I know that she died along with many others, some of whom were my relatives. And I know that making light of that, by claiming to be Anne Frank, not only is not funny and abhorrent but it also insults the memory of millions of victims of Nazi brutality."
"It was Bergen-Belsen, jackass," Anne Frank replies. "And as for the relatives you lost in the Holocaust?" she continues. "Blow me." Auslander laughs heartily at the obscenity of his character's words. "I had worked on the book for three years and was stuck. Then that sentence occurred to me: 'Blow me, said Anne Frank.' First I called my wife and said: I've got it. Then I called my psychiatrist."
The obscenity that informs this book is Auslander's response to the obscenity of the Holocaust. He unfolds an entire panorama of Holocaust entanglements and confusion. There is the mother who blames her troubles with the world on the fact that she was in a concentration camp, even though she wasn't born until after the war. There is the publisher who wants nothing to do with Anne Frank when she pays him a visit after the war, because only a dead Anne Frank guarantees him success in publishing her diary. And then there is Anne Frank herself, who has been sitting in the attic for years, working on her novel, and is now under immense pressure. "Thirty-two million," she keeps saying. "Do you think it's easy? Thirty-two million copies, Mr. Kugel. And what do I get from you for it? Elie Wiesel. Oprah Winfrey!"
A dark, humorous energy emanates from Auslander, an energy that enables him to write dark, humorous books that one could easily characterize as brilliant, if only Auslander didn't see that characterization as ridiculous. For him, writing is self-defense. "I grew up with the certainty that I would be brutally murdered one day. For my parents, the Holocaust was a sort of disciplinary measure: We're safe as long as we're afraid."
Auslander isn't the first writer to allow Anne Frank to survive. Philip Roth did it in "The Ghost Writer." But what makes Auslander's "Hope" a literary event is the way the culture of mourning is condensed into punch lines that are so much cleverer and truer and more painful than much of what happens on the annual Nov. 9 mourning that takes place at St. Paul's Church in Frankfurt remembering the Kristallnacht pogroms against Jews; the way Anne Frank complains about being "the suffering one," "the dead girl," "Miss Holocaust, 1945" and "the Jewish Jesus"; and how Auslander tries to liberate Anne Frank from the role of victim and give her a life, a character and a personality.
"Anne Frank was everywhere when I was growing up," says Auslander. "I always asked myself what I would do, where I would flee to and who would hide me. That is, after all, the function Israel fulfills for the Jews. I don't know what the Holocaust means for non-Jews; I just know what it means for Jews. And I know that Anne Frank, if she had survived, would have been angry about what we've turned her into."
A Cousin's Outrage
Buddy Elias can only shake his head and look extremely sad. He is somewhat outraged over both books. He is proud of what he says "my cousin achieved." In his mind, there is something just as calculating about a writer publishing a book with the name Anne Frank in the title as a company using the name in a jeans label. He grows suspicious when he sees people profiting off her fate.
And there is certainly a lot of money at stake. The "Diary of Anne Frank" has been translated into about 60 languages, and more than 30 million copies have been sold worldwide. The girl Anne, the photos, puberty, being in love, self-doubt, strength, and everything set against the background of the ultimate crime -- it's so perfect that old and young Nazis alike hit upon the idea that the diary must be a fake.
It's an ugly discussion. All it takes is to read a few pages of the diary, to experience the tone, directness and language, to recognize that this searching text, sometimes self-confident and sometimes doubting, is beautiful and great, and that it is precisely because of its literary quality that the diary is so open and accessible for young people, as it has been for so many years and in so many countries.
The sentences Anne Frank writes are clear, like her thoughts, and they reveal the literary quality of the Frank family's letter-writing tradition. "I see the eight of us with our 'Secret Annex' as if we were a little piece of blue heaven, surrounded by heavy black rain clouds," she writes in November 1943. "We all look down below, where people are fighting each other, we look above, where it is quiet and beautiful, and meanwhile we are cut off by the great dark mass, which will not let us go upwards, but which stands before us as an impenetrable wall."
This first diary had a red-and-white checkered cover and a brass clasp. Elias has a copy in his house, a facsimile. He flips through it gingerly, as if being careful not to hurt Anne. Miep Gies, one of the Dutch citizens who hid Anne, rescued the diary from the annex. There were two versions, because Anne had planned to publish it after the war and was editing the first version. Her father Otto created a third version, one that was more innocent sexually and in which the conflict with her mother was toned down. In a later German translation, anti-German passages were also toned down.
This revised version was published in Dutch in 1947, in German in 1950 and in English in 1952. Many publishing houses had turned down the book, which eventually found its way to the United States through France. But it was only the success of the theater version on Broadway that turned Anne Frank into what she is today: an icon, a beacon of hope and a source of courage.
For those of us who lived through the World War years and have earnestly sought to find the real reason for the same, Anne Frank is one of those Holocaust victims whose horrific experiences and later fate remain an unanswered [...] more...
Stay informed with our free news services:
|All news from SPIEGEL International||Twitter | RSS|
|All news from Zeitgeist section||RSS|
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2013
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH