72 Years On: The Fictional Afterlife of Anne Frank

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Anne Frank made her last diary entry on August 1, 1944, seventy-two years ago today. Three days later, on August 4, she and her family were discovered, arrested, and eventually transported to concentration camps. Anne died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in March 1945. In the intervening years, millions of people have read her diary, been enchanted by her writing skills, amazed at her insights, and saddened by her horrific fate at the hands of the Nazis. Even this brief excerpt from her last entry to her beloved Kitty shows the remarkable perceptions of which she was capable:

Dearest Kitty,

“A bundle of contradictions” was the end of my previous letter and is the beginning of this one. Can you please tell me exactly what “a bundle of contradictions” is? What does “contradiction” mean? Like so many words, it can be interpreted in two ways: a contradiction imposed from without and one imposed from within.

The former means not accepting other people’s opinions, always knowing best, having the last word; in short, all those unpleasant traits for which I’m known. The latter, for which I’m not known, is my own secret.

As I’ve told you many times, I’m split in two. One side contains my exuberant cheerfulness, my flippancy, my joy in life and, above all, my ability to appreciate the lighter side of things. By that I mean not finding anything wrong with flirtations, a kiss, an embrace, an off-colour joke. This side of me is usually lying in wait to ambush the other one, which is much purer, deeper and finer.

Her diary is beloved and still read by young people in schools around the world. We all know that. But what is less remarked upon is that she has become a trope for the Holocaust in American fiction.

The publication of her diary introduced many Americans to the Holocaust in the 1950s, but in the decades since, as her diary has been read by succeeding generations, her name has become almost synonymous with the event itself. And so it is in the fiction of second-generation writer Philip Roth and third-generation writers Nathan Englander and Shalom Auslander.

Philip Roth, born in 1933, was not yet a teenager at the end of the war. In his 1979 novel The Ghost Writer, Roth and his doppelganger protagonist Nathan Zuckerman, the aspiring writer, make intriguing use of Anne Frank.

Secluded in the countryside at the home of E. I. Lonoff, Zuckerman is looking for a mentor, a champion, and, some might say, a good father. Not that his own father isn’t good, it’s just that he is too parochial and is disappointed in Zuckerman’s use of their Jewish family in his fiction. In imagining that a beautiful former student of Lonoff’s named Amy Bellette is really Anne Frank, Zuckerman finds an outlet for his erotic fantasies as well as a route to proving himself more Jewish than even his father could want. In the “Femme Fatale“ chapter of the novel, he fantasizes that Anne Frank chooses not to reveal that she is alive in order to remain the martyr because, as Roth imagines she says, “I was the incarnation of the millions of unlived years robbed from the murdered Jews. It was too late to be alive now.”

But Zuckerman wants to use her for his own ends and thinks, “Oh, marry me, Anne Frank, exonerate me before my outraged elders of this idiotic indictment! Heedless of Jewish feeling? Indifferent to Jewish survival?. . .Who dares to accuse of such unthinking crimes the husband of Anne Frank!”

Roth gives us Zuckerman at a remove from the Holocaust, wanting to use the event for his own purpose which is to gain a license to portray the Jews of Newark and his family in a less than favorable light.

Even more removed from the time of the Holocaust are the Anne Frank tropes used by the third generation authors, who had to have read the diary well after its first publication.

Witness Nathan Englander’s 2011 short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk about Anne Frank” and Shalom Auslander’s 2012 novel, Hope: A Tragedy: A Novel.

Englander’s characters have invented “the Anne Frank game” whose major question is “who would hide you if there were another Holocaust.” By making this a game, the characters demonstrate their affective distance from the event, but at the same time Englander illustrates that the Holocaust remains a touchstone for the marijuana-smoking, Orthodox Jews who bring the game to their secular Jewish friends. Some might argue that Englander is trashing religious observance in his characterization of the Orthodox here, and he may be, but he is also playing with seeing the Holocaust from a great distance, distilled into one question and one name and viewed through a mask of game playing.

In a way, Auslander does the same thing by trashing the Anne Frank young girl image. Here, as in Roth’s novel, Anne Frank is alive but certainly not a beautiful object of lust. She is, rather, an old woman hiding in the wittily named Solomon Kugel’s attic in upstate New York. She is an annoying nuisance to her unwilling host. And, in a sense, this is where the Holocaust is relegated for the third generation—somewhere in the attic where we’ve stashed things that are not of everyday use but where we might unearth some meaning if we just go looking through piles of castoffs.

Anne Frank may be alive in contemporary fiction, but she is no longer the girl in hiding who wrote a diary. For contemporary writers (and perhaps others) her name has become the emblem of the Holocaust.