I begin with a question. Having been invited to write a guest blog entry for PBS to coincide with the premiere of a new Masterpiece Classic movie adaptation of the diary of Anne Frank, I think: why a new movie adaptation of the diary of Anne Frank? Why again? Why now? Is it really new? And if so, what makes it so?
O.K. That’s five questions. To be fair, I come to this task from a very particular point of view, one that lends itself to skepticism over the retelling of the already well-told story of Anne Frank. Nearly nineteen years ago, as a researcher for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., I was dispatched to the library to seek out wartime diaries written by teenagers. I was trying to learn more about how young Jewish victims described their own experiences as background for the museum’s exhibition for young visitors, Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story. I re-read Anne Frank’s diary, and then worked my way through the others that could be found in English out-of-print editions: Yitskhok Rudashevski in Vilna ghetto; an anonymous girl and boy in Lodz ghetto; Dawid Rubinowicz in Kielce; and excerpts of the diaries of Hegla Weissova and Helga Kinsky Pollack in Terezin, Dawid Sierakowiak in Lodz ghetto, and others.
Almost immediately, I was troubled by the almost complete obscurity of virtually every young writer’s diary except that of Anne Frank. Many of them were compelling, insightful, lyrical, and poignant, just as hers was. Many of them died tragic deaths, just as she did. And yet while Anne Frank’s diary was said to be outsold only by the Bible, to all but a few scholars, these diaries had been consigned to total oblivion. Why was this so? I was twenty-two at the time, barely older than many of the writers themselves, and I was nagged by a feeling that will surely sound familiar to all who remember being young: it’s not fair.
But there was another feeling that was harder to define, and that took many years to name and address. It was something about the words used to describe Anne Frank’s diary and its importance to the world. I was deep in research about children in the Holocaust at this point, immersed in the most difficult emotional and, indeed, existential information I had ever encountered – systematic humiliation and cruelty, displacement, deprivation, starvation, loss, torture, and death. So why did the words hope, optimism, and goodness keep coming up? Why did writers repeatedly refer to Anne Frank as having “lived on” through her diary when it was plain to see that she was not living but dead, having left nothing but her diary behind to hint at the great complexity of her internal life and the potential she carried within her. Why did people keep bringing up this line in her diary—“…in spite of everything, I still believe that human beings are good at heart”—when it was obvious to anyone paying any attention that while some of us are good at heart, the countless who were complicit, directly or indirectly in the Holocaust, were not? It seemed almost insulting, as if we who had the good fortune not to be born during that dark time were plucking out the one bit that made us look good and throwing it back at her. “See, we are good at heart, you even said so.” Moreover, didn’t the insistence on that one line that miss the larger point? Didn’t it end the conversation before we’d gotten to the difficult questions and painful realities that the Holocaust implies?
It took ten long years to wrestle with these questions and formulate answers to them. During that time, I gathered nearly sixty diaries written by young people throughout Europe during the Holocaust. In the end, I found the language to challenge what I felt was a misleading framework for Anne’s diary and replace it with a different one. For me, these diaries don’t allow their writers to live on, nor does their chance survival absolve humanity for the crime of genocide. Instead, I see these diaries as valuable contributions to the literary and historical record of the Holocaust. Like their adult counterparts, they have much to tell us about what it was like to endure daily life in a particular place and time, under particular circumstances; and like all writers, they worked within the limits of their individual intellects, talents, and abilities.
As a result, my way of thinking about Anne Frank and her diary is remarkably uncomplicated, mostly because I choose to see it as part of this larger body of material in which it both stands out and fits in. On the writerly spectrum, Anne Frank was among the most self-aware, and her literary gift is evident. So is that of Yitskhok Rudashevski, the anonymous boy from Lodz Ghetto, Petr Ginz of Terezin, and Elsa Binder in Stanislawow ghetto, to name a few. Her diary is also rich on detail about what it was like to live in hiding in Holland during the war. Few writers created such a sustained, vivid picture of that particular experience, though the diaries of Clara Kramer in Poland, Moshe Flinker in Belgium, and Otto Wolf in Czechoslovakia are among those that capture the privations and tensions of hiding elsewhere in Europe. Her diary famously reflects her internal struggle to grow up, her feelings about family and love, identity and the pain of adolescence. In this, it echoes the diaries of the anonymous girl in Lodz ghetto, Miriam Korber in Transnistria, Elsa Binder in Stanislawow, Rena Knoll in Cracow, Ruthka Lieblich in Andrichow, Eva Ginzova in Terezin, and many, many others. I love Anne Frank’s diary for all that is in it, and I see its great complexity and richness all the more clearly when I read it in the company of its peers.
But back to the movie. My questions before watching the movie had centered on why? But within minutes of starting the film, it seemed clear to me that the film was not going to ask or seek to answer that question. Because Anne Frank is Anne Frank, that’s why. Because of the place she holds in our imaginations and our culture. Because her story is a long, rich, complex narrative that rises and falls, and carries us with it. Because her voice is intimate, contradictory, youthful, wise, and earnest. That’s why.
With that out of the way, I settled in to watch and in spite of my skepticism, I found myself drawn in and moved. For one thing, Anne’s iconic look is captured perfectly, down to the flyaway hair and the famous hat, the large dark eyes and pale face. The cinematography—tight, close camera shots; steep, narrow angles; movement of shadow and light—powerfully evokes the cramped and crowded hiding place. Anne’s diary entries are read in voiceover, anchoring the movie in the actual words of the writer, while the rest is largely imagined context pulled from a variety of historical sources. The characters are full-blooded and complex. Most of all, the remarkable mixture of the diary’s elements—extreme tension and comic adventure, internal reflection, external observation, conflict and love, Nazi threat and budding romance—is preserved in the film. No one angle is overprivileged, and no agenda seems to dominate the screenplay’s choices.
But as I watched, I noticed something, a persistent refrain that echoed and reverberated between Anne and those around her. It is alternately a question, a reproach, an accusation, or a lament: “You didn’t tell me.” Anne says it to her mother when she learns—for the first time—that her parents have been making arrangement to go into hiding. She says it again to Miep when she learns from Mr. Dussel that Jews are being deported from Amsterdam. Margot says it to Anne about her relationship with Peter; Anne says it to Peter when he confides in her about his plans for the future; and, again, to Margot when she finally sees how much her sister has suffered by always having to be the “good” sister. In different forms but always the same, we hear again and again: you didn’t tell me, why didn’t you tell me, you never told me, I wish you’d told me.
For Anne, the reproach is almost always about having been treated like a child; in her struggle to grow up, she is ever on the alert for signs that others are withholding information from her. But the truth is more complex: everyone has secrets, everyone shares, and everyone withholds. Anne’s parents try to protect her from growing up too fast; Miep tries to shield the Jews in hiding from upsetting news; Peter only gradually trusts Anne enough to share his dreams with her; Anne cannot entirely confide in Margot; Margot carries feelings she cannot bring herself to confess to Anne. In the end, the words imply a choice: to tell or not to tell, to entrust or protect, to draw someone in or push them away. Even from inside the Annex, with freedom so profoundly circumscribed, the residents could still exert this most basic element of free will.
For me, this idea of telling was a haunting one. Diaries, and especially those written during the Holocaust, are all about telling—to the self, to an imagined friend, to parents and loved ones far away, to the future historian. They are an expression of choice: how do we record our days, how do we testify to our suffering, how do we wrestle with faith and love and relationships, how do we come face to face with ourselves? As Ruthka Lieblich so beautifully put it, “I, Ruthka Lieblich, am a plain girl, a bit wild, a girl of thirteen. …I came to the conclusion that I must get to know myself. Truthfully, to get to know oneself is a rather dirty business; however, since the decision is mine, I thought that the only way to succeed in such a complicated procedure is to start a diary.”
For Ruthka, and for all the diaries written by those who perished, we rely more or less on their words—their own fragmentary telling—because it is all we have. For Anne Frank, it is different. Biographies, literary criticism, children’s books, and numerous adaptions of the play and film put the diary in a well-researched context, seamlessly filling in the gaps, the untold moments, the ending that we can only imagine. In this way, Anne Frank’s telling of her life is combined with countless tellings about her, each of which make the diary seem a little less like a fragment and more like a whole. And in so doing, they restore to Anne Frank what was in fact taken away—the right to live and tell her own story, to choose how the diary would end, to choose what would come after it. But somehow, to me, that doesn’t seem entirely fair. For the great tragedy of Anne Frank’s life is that she, like all the other diarists who wrote at the time, only chose up to a point what to tell and what to withhold. In the end, most of what we don’t know about Anne Frank can never be known, exactly because she did not have a choice. To blur that reality is to risk losing touch with the very specific nature of her death as part of the genocide we call the Holocaust—the wiping away of lives, communities, memories, contexts; the reduction of the whole to fragments.
There is most certainly a value in supplying context, using historically accurate information, memories of those who survived, and other sources to create a fuller picture that helps us imagine Anne Frank and the life she endured. I believe the PBS Masterpiece Theater version of Anne Frank’s diary does this, and does it beautifully. But I would suggest that we might also sometimes suspend our temptation to fill in the missing bits, to shore up the fragments even with a respectful, accurate, and entirely plausible context. For to refrain from doing so is to honor the memory of the dead as more than a generic gesture but for the specific manner and reason for which they died. In spite of her plans to do much more, Anne Frank left only the pages of the diary which are rich and wonderful and which are fragmentary and limited. This, for me, is always the bottom of the bottom, the irreducible truth to which all the writers must finally succumb: what we can know of their lives was reduced to little more than the pages they struggled to write. For the vast majority of those who died during the Holocaust, not even that much remained—not a document, not a marker in the ground, not a name, not a single relative or loved one to say that they had ever lived. If anything, this is what Holocaust Remembrance Day is about for me: not only to see Anne Frank again and to remember her, but to contemplate the unfathomable missing and all that it implies for us as individuals and for humanity as a whole.