Who would Anne Frank be now, if she’d lived?
In the opening lines of her essay “Who Owns Anne Frank?”, published in The New Yorker, distinguished fiction writer Cynthia Ozick toys with that tempting question.
Had she lived, posits Ozick, Frank would have been a brilliant writer, a household name — perhaps one of the 20th century’s most famous people.
For anyone who grew up with Frank’s story, it’s fun to muse about the what-ifs. Ozick’s article, though, goes deeper, asking another question: What if Anne Frank had died?
Of course, she did die. Anne Frank perished in Bergen-Belsen in 1945. And, as everyone knows, her diary — discovered by Miep Gies on the day of Frank’s arrest — lives on. The diary ended when Frank’s life did — that is to say, before Frank and her family were captured by the Nazis and introduced to a world of subhuman tortures. She left the world on a note of possibility, and though it was never realized, the unfinished work enabled Frank to remain alive in the minds of her audience
Living beyond her death made Frank a cultural icon. And that iconization, argues Ozick, made it possible for the world to overlook what really happened when Frank and millions of others were captured and taken away to concentration camps.
“She and her sister, Margot, were among 3,659 women transported by cattle car from Auschwitz to the merciless conditions of Bergen-Belsen, a barren tract of mud,” Ozick writes. “In a cold, wet autumn, they suffered through nights on flooded straw in overcrowded tents, without light, surrounded by latrine ditches, until a violent hailstorm tore away what had passed for shelter. Weakened by brutality, chaos, and hunger, 50,000 men and women — insufficiently clothed, tormented by lice — succumbed, many to the typhus epidemic.”
The essay further states: “A story may not be said to be a story if the end is missing. And because the end is missing, the story of Anne Frank in the 50 years since The Diary of a Young Girl was first published has been bowdlerized, distorted, transmuted, traduced, reduced; … and in fact, blatantly and arrogantly denied.”
Ozick’s message is loud and clear: Forgetting is a form of mental degradation.
So then, who was Anne Frank? More than just the pages of her diary, surely — but the life behind those pages perished in a concentration camp, and her legend promptly became public domain. The popular play, named for the young diarist, presented her as a symbol of hope and good will, drawing on her famous line, “I think that people are truly good at heart.” But it took a bit of editing to keep the ideals of a girl growing up in a privileged family intact. And there are quite a few other versions of Frank’s diary: Her own father, Otto Frank, suppressed the teenaged anger and sexuality he found there, while Holocaust deniers claimed the diary was a forgery, written entirely by him. And the German version altered any ideas deemed unfavorable to the German people. The Dutch government finally produced a definitive edition — though, recently, 12 previously unpublished pages came to light.
“Everyone wants to know about Anne Frank,” explains Dr. Richard Chess, professor of Jewish studies at UNCA. “Most are deeply moved by Frank’s story and sometimes take comfort from her message of hope. [But] Cynthia Ozick will offer a corrective view of our sentimentalism.”
Primarily, Ozick is concerned about what will happen when there are no more Holocaust survivors or children of survivors to set the record straight. She cites books like Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved (Summit Books, 1988) for far more gruesome, chilling — and accurate — accounts of that era. “Anne Frank’s story is not the equivalent of Jewish history,” stresses Ozick, who believes Frank’s work to be the story of a family she considers “so anomalous, so fortunate.” From her window, Frank watched people being arrested and abused by police, but Frank’s life — at least before Bergen-Belsen — represented an attempt at normalcy.
Somehow, history allowed the easier story to stand in for the harsher reality. And Ozick is working to set the record straight. In her essay, she concludes: “It was Miep Gies — the uncommon heroine of the story, a woman profoundly good, a failed savior — who succeeded in rescuing an irreplaceable masterpiece. It may be shocking to think this (I am shocked as I think it), but one can imagine a still more salvational outcome: Anne Frank’s diary burned, vanished, lost-saved from a world that made it all things, some of them true, while floating lightly over the heavier truth of named and inhabited evil.” It’s a bitter and Swiftian conclusion, but also an important point. Anne Frank was a young girl who died horribly, not allowed to realize her potential.
And if she really was hopeful — if she truly believed that people are good at heart — then that hope died with her.
Cynthia Ozick will present her lecture “Who Owns Anne Frank?” at UNCA’s Owen Conference Center on Thursday, May 11, beginning at 7 p.m. The program is free and open to the public. 251-6576 for details.
Among Ozick’s fiction works is the acclaimed The Puttermesser Papers (Alfred Knopf, 1997); her numerous books of nonfiction include such essay collections as Art & Ardor (Knopf, ’83). Ozick has received the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Distinguished Jewish Letters Award and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Strauss Living Award for her work.