By Sue W. Ransohoff
Anne Frank, Anne Frank: what an icon she is, and has always been! We know a fragment of her life, and that fragment has embedded itself in our minds: the two plus years she spent in the Annex, her diary, and her horrific death.
What do we not know?
Francine Prose, author and in this case historian, has looked at her life, and has expanded and enriched what we know about this unique individual.
We learn that Anne Frank was no angel; she was subject to the same friction with her mother that 98% of teenaged girls are; as well as to ill-advised crushes on whatever boy is available – and in her case, there was only one.
Prose devotes the first part of her book to The Diary of Anne Frank, which had three existences: the first, written by the quite young Anne Frank; the second, her revision of the first and the third, the compilation by her father. Although Prose never loses sight of the basic horror of the event, this segment is a fascinating lesson in creative writing, melded with the apparently built-in genius of Anne Frank. Prose points out that Frank knew, young as she was, how to develop a character, how to thread into her narrative here and there aspects and characteristics of the residents of the Annex: Peter, the Van Pels couple, until we know these people – neither lovable nor evil – but very real, very three dimensional individuals. Prose asserts that a fourteen-year old girl could not have carried this out. A two-years-older, more mature writer, could only have done the revision. Two years made a notable difference.
She next approaches the whole story of the publishing of The Diary. It’s a fascinating narrative. Looking back, we wonder how there could ever have been any doubt that this was a unique and memorable work. But it was, as we know, turned down by a number of editors and publishers. Some called it “dull,” “a dreary record of family bickering.” But at Doubleday, an assistant named Judith Jones, found the book at the bottom of a slush pile, “I couldn’t stop reading,” she reports, and went to Frank Price, a senior staffer at Doubleday, to insist that the book be published. It would be easy to say “the rest is history,” and, of course, it is, but one of triumph that is also sullied by conflicts of interest, greed and pettiness.
Otto Frank, Anne’s father, has been both lauded and criticized for his part in the publishing of the Diary: he edited, partly for a worthy written style, and partly to protect his daughter’s name from any connection with the sexuality of a teenager, whose growing maturity was surely enhanced by the strictures of captivity.
When the book was published, it was reviewed in The New York Times by Meyer Levin, a rave review that contributed to its instant success. But this was not a purely written review; Levin was interested in producing the play, a clear conflict of interest.
Then, however, we retrace time to the life after the Annex for Anne Frank… It is known that she died in Bergen-Belsen… of starvation, typhus, and all the ills that beset concentration camp victims. Her life, her memoir, and her death have focused our attention on the Holocaust perhaps as much as that of any victim, because she was young, because she was so unusually gifted, because she worked hard to utilize her gift – and because she left it to us. We will always wonder: if she, like her father, had survived, what might she not have accomplished? How many other “Anne Franks” were there whose records did not survive, nor did they? The answers to these questions are unknowable.
Francine Prose takes us to the horrific details of her end of life days, and her death. At one point she threw away all her clothes because they were infested with lice, she was, despite the cold, wrapped only in a blanket. Life was hell. She was not yet sixteen when she died.
The writer, Francine Prose, covers in great detail and as a result of admirable research, the making of the play about Anne Frank, and finally the film. Regrettably, both were mired in dissention, ambition, money-grubbing. The writer Meyer Levin became obsessed with the subject, and was increasingly both seriously troubled and a troublemaker. Lawsuits between him and Otto Frank ensued. His New York Times rave book review, helped in making the book a great critical and popular success, but by the end of this sordid chapter he believed, incredibly, that he had more rights to Anne Frank’s legacy than did her father. He felt that he should be the play-write; others involved in the project increasingly wished he would just go away.
Both the play and the film were successes; one must believe that the inherent meaning of the diary somehow shone through the attendant disputes.
Finally, Prose tackles Holocaust Denial, and Anne Frank Denial, and does a great deal to refute them. Unfortunately, those who are deniers are unlikely to change their erroneous beliefs.
At the very end, she talks of teaching the Diary and of the identification of teenagers with Anne… deeper and more intensely than she had anticipated.
It is clear that Francine Prose has uncovered numerous facets of the Anne Frank Diary in all its aspects; she has served to bring together expert research, professional writing, and, yes, deep emotion. There seems no end to our interest in this unusual girl and her tragic end; with a book like this we know just about all that we need to know about her and her impact upon our knowledge of that tragic chapter of history.