Hers is a face recognized around the world, 65 years after her death in one of Hitler’s concentration camps. Because her picture survived, she stands for the faceless millions who were herded, stripped, whipped and forced into the gas chambers. Her personal struggle came to life in the journal she kept while her family hid in a cramped attic from the Nazi patrols.
In Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, novelist Francine Prose aims to rescue Anne Frank from the mythmakers of Broadway and Hollywood, who turned her story into a “universal” one about tolerance and human goodness. She excoriates the play and the film, which portrayed a naïve nitwit and downplayed Anne’s Jewishness.
Prose sends us back instead to Anne’s book, The Diary of a Young Girl, insisting on Anne’s prodigious literary gifts, her religious faith and her understanding of the devils who had taken over Europe. With extensive quotes and paraphrases from the attic chronicle, she calls attention to the teen’s powers of observation. Especially noteworthy are the depiction of her parents and others who shared the closed cramped space, Anne’s blooming puberty—and the fear of discovery, arrest and death.
Still, says Prose, the proof of Frank’s genius is her capacity for revision. Anne reworked her daily entries to sharpen, clarify or set in relief details of the quotidian life under the eaves. Prose writes, “Anne can render a moment in which everyone is talking simultaneously, acting or reacting, an example of barely contained chaos that poses a challenge for even the practiced writer.”
The most compelling chapters of this study are “the afterlife.” Otto Frank, Anne’s father, recovered the diary and saw it into publication, which made him a wealthy man. But the saccharine adaptations from it falsified the profundity of Anne’s work, according to Prose. The book, and only the book, can depict a brilliant young writer’s acute observation of a world gone mad.
Jim Summerville writes from Dickson, Tennessee.