An Evolving Legacy: How Well Do We Know Anne Frank?

By Georg Diez

Anne Frank is a figure of hope whose diary has been read by millions of people around the world. Two new books, an upcoming film and a soon to open museum seek to create a contemporary, complicated -- and more Jewish -- image of the Holocaust victim.

More than 30 million copies of the "Diary of Anne Frank" have been sold around the world, but do we really know her? Zoom
DPA / Anne Frank Fonds Basel

More than 30 million copies of the "Diary of Anne Frank" have been sold around the world, but do we really know her?

For Buddy Elias, she was the girl with the smile, the girl with whom he played hide and seek, the girl who was determined to go ice skating with him; and she was his cousin, who he is still trying to protect to this day.

In her diary, she even drew a picture of the dress she would like to wear if she were to go ice skating with him.

Elias beams when he talks about her, but his eyes reveal a sense of sadness. For years, Elias has been talking about his favorite cousin Anne, speaking to schoolchildren who are amazed that he exists and that Anne Frank was even a real person. Of course, they know she existed, because they've read her diary. The book has transported them to the back house, or Secret Annex. Her words have spoken to them and they have perhaps even trembled as she once did as they read her story. Some people even claim to have seen her, in Manila or Buenos Aires, and they are convinced that Anne Frank survived.

Anne Frank is the face of the Holocaust.

In her room at Prinsengracht 263 in Amsterdam, where she hid with her parents, her sister Margot, the Van Pels family and Fritz Pfeffer, a dentist, from July 6, 1942 to Aug. 4, 1944, she had a photo of Greta Garbo pinned to the wall. Like most teenagers, she dreamed about Hollywood.

Buddy Elias, who is 87 today, went on to become a star in the "Holiday on Ice" review. He was an actor in the theater and on television, and he lived Anne's dream. To this day, it seems to inspire him, although it isn't clear whether he wasn't in fact running away, during all those years spent on tour in Egypt and America, before he assumed the public persona that would be his most significant: Anne Frank's cousin. It's the role of his life.

In the last entry in her diary, written on Aug. 1, 1944 -- three days before she was betrayed and taken first to the Westerbork transit camp in the Netherlands, then to Auschwitz and later to Bergen-Belsen -- Frank described herself as a "bundle of contradictions".

Even today, the rest of the world is still asking who, exactly, was she?

Anne Frank was, of course, a victim who represented the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis. Her story became one, as is often stated, that keeps us from forgetting.

In the countless depictions of her that have carried on this legacy of remembrance, Anne Frank was the friend, the strong one, the difficult one, the girl in love, the girl who fought with her mother and discovered her budding sexuality, and the girl who, despite her death, tells a story of hope.

She was the saint of the Holocaust and its teenage star. But there is one thing she rarely was: herself.

A New Focus on Anne Frank

If the producers and the screenwriter of what is, surprising as it may be, the first German film about Anne Frank, have their way, that could soon change. The film, which is scheduled for cinematic release in 2014, seeks to tell the story of both her life and death. It offers viewers the whole Anne Frank, more than just the girl who lived in an annex in Amsterdam -- the story of both her childhood and her life in a concentration camp.

The Frank Family Center now being built in Frankfurt may also help to change our perceptions of Anne Frank. Scheduled to be opened in 2016, it will tell the story of the deep-seated, 400-year relationship between the Frank family and the city of Frankfurt, a story that long predates the Holocaust.

Finally, the work of the Anne Frank Fund in Basel, which is currently embroiled in a lawsuit with the Anne Frank Foundation in Amsterdam, could also change the way we view her.

The organizations worked in parallel for a long time, the Basel fund, with its Jewish affiliation, and the Amsterdam foundation, which repeatedly stresses that it operates in the way Otto Frank would have wanted -- even though letters from the 1960s and 70s reveal Otto Frank's suspicions about the foundation.

The dispute between the two organizations is symptomatic, reflecting all the things that have been said about Anne Frank and all the things she has been turned into.

She has been used to preach humanism, and she has been transformed into a universalistic icon, a cautionary tale of what humans do to humans, one meant to keep us alert so that we won't turn our backs on contemporary atrocities like the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda. At times, the cost of this is that the specifically Jewish part of Anne Frank's life, her suffering and her thoughts are minimized or suppressed.

She has been used to explain the Holocaust, even though it isn't mentioned in her diary and its horrors only play a marginal role in her story from the annex in Amsterdam. But perhaps this is what made her story such a success, because it was the story of the crime of the century without actually focusing on that crime, the tale of a dark fate without the mention of death, but with the constant belief in survival, one that persisted, contrary to all reason.

Frank Talk About Anne

The contradictions that Anne Frank discovered in herself shape her story. "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank" is not only the perpetual question that pops into the mind when thinking about her legacy, but also the title of a volume of short stories by Nathan Englander, one of two recent works of fiction by American Jews now coming out in German on the subject of Anne Frank, works that are funny, political, bitter and brilliant, two books that show what a vital part of post-Holocaust Jewish identity Anne Frank has become.

Englander's stories are clear-sighted and humorous, full of fear and violence, revenge and dogmatism. His characters include settlers and their tragedy, a top lawyer at a peepshow, two Auschwitz survivors and schoolchildren in a summer camp.

Englander is constantly redefining morality. An eternal question -- Who am I? -- addresses how this is done, and how moral decisions shape an identity. In Englander's Jewish world, the question is constantly connected to another one: Who was I?

"The entire book is about the question of who owns identity, who owns history and what memory is," says Englander, 42, on a morning in Berlin, where he is on a book tour. He likes Berlin. In fact, the book took shape at the American Academy on Wannsee lake, the very site where the Nazis discussed the "final solution of the Jewish question." Englander sat there, expressing his surprise over how obsessed he was with the Holocaust. It made him feel uncomfortable, he says. "I didn't know why I am the way I am," he says.

As a child growing up in New York, he was convinced that there would be a second Holocaust. "It was pathological and ridiculous. America is the best country the Jews have ever had. On the other, things have never ended well for the Jews, have they?"

As a child, he and his sister invented a game, one that revolved around an outrageous, dangerous morality: Who would hide us, and who would betray us if there were another Holocaust? Would it be a neighbor, a son or a husband who turned us in?

Englander describes this game in the central story of his latest book. "We Jews talk about ourselves, about our fear and about this very Jewish feeling," he says, "that nothing in the world is safe." "For many people, the Holocaust is Anne Frank. What do you see when you think about the Holocaust: A mountain of dead bodies or this girl?"

In his book, Englander describes how memory becomes policy and how policy influences our memory of the individual. It's also a reflection on the role and importance of the Holocaust today in discussing the question of identity, including the identity of nations. In a Germany that is powerful once again -- this question arises with each new film about Hitler or Rommel. In Israel, on the other hand, the question is posed very differently: Was this country born out of the Zionist dream or the nightmare of the Holocaust?

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1. Manipulations cause damage
Inglenda2 01/05/2013
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 Dilemma. There is no doubt whatsoever, that the Nazi regime was responsible for many atrocities, but these were not only against the Jews, although they were particularly disliked. However, there is a problem, when we start to observe the past only through the eyes of one group of such victims, or accept unexamined statements, rather than delving down to the known facts of such matters. How much of this diary was really written by Anne Frank, how much was added at a later date? Were parts of the published manuscripts (as it has often been implied), written originally with an ink not available to her at the time of hiding? It would be most damaging to the image of Anne Frank and to democracy as a whole, if at a future date, her suffering were found to have been misused for political, or financial reasons. The book “Memories of a Wartime childhood” also said to be written by a Holocaust victim, was later found to be nothing more than an invention of the author Benjamin Wilkomirski. Such deviations from the truth, however well written, do more harm than good, when the real facts are brought to light. Worst of all, they can be used as arguments by those who still praise fascism and have learnt nothing from the horrors of the last century.
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