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Reading Anne Frank's Diary as a Writer

Thursday, March 09, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ursula Werner wrote about how her family’s Nazi heritage taught her the importance of taking action in the face of oppression and inspired her novel, The Good at Heart. Ursula is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


Anne Frank’s parents could not have known, when they bought the small, square notebook with its red-and-white checked cover, that this little book would be a present not just for their daughter but for the entire world.

Like many thirteen-year-old girls, Anne eagerly embraced the project of keeping a diary. But unlike so many of them, who abandon the enterprise after a few weeks, she faithfully maintained hers, year after year. Why? Because Anne was a writer:

There is a saying that ‘paper is more patient than man’; it came back to me on one of my slightly melancholy days, while I sat chin in hand, feeling too bored and limp even to make up my mind whether to go out or stay at home. Yes, there is no doubt that paper is patient and as I don’t intend to show this cardboard-covered notebook, bearing the proud name of ‘diary,’ to anyone, unless I find a real friend, boy or girl, probably nobody cares. And now I come to the root of the matter, the reason for my starting a diary: it is that I have no such real friend. (June 20, 1942)

On one hand, Anne’s hope for a “real” friend can be read as a sensitive adolescent’s desire to be seen and heard. Reading this entry with the knowledge of what ultimately happened to Anne and her family imbues it with a great sadness and heartbreaking irony: Anne’s wish to share her innermost thoughts was granted beyond her wildest dreams, as her words have been read by millions of people, over several generations—at the tragic cost of her own premature death.

But there is more to this entry than a teenager’s yearning to be understood. These words also offer us one young girl’s explanation for why she chose to write. They show us a nascent artist’s yearning “to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried deep in my heart,” and they reveal a writer’s faith in pen and paper as the surest medium for expressing the thoughts and feelings of the secret self that she most valued.

Reading Anne Frank’s diary as a kind of “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman” is a poignant enterprise. She proves herself to be a great storyteller, as she recounts life in the Annex, using singular descriptions (“[Father] puts on his potato-peeling face”), wry dialogue (“[Mr. Van Daan announces, ‘When this is all over, I’m going to have myself baptized’”), and amusing metaphors (“An elephant’s tread is heard on the stairway. It’s Dussel”). Time and again, I catch glimpses of her sensitivity—her desperation to lift the curtains and look at the moon, the fact that a dark, rainy evening, a gale, “scudding clouds” can hold her “entirely in their power.”

Anne’s artistic temperament also reveals itself when she feels depressed. Her mother admonishes her and advises, “Think of all the misery in the world and be thankful that you are not sharing in it!’” (March 7, 1944). But Anne rejects that cure for melancholy. She finds that, for herself, the key to joy is to dwell in beauty, not sorrow:

I don’t think then of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains. . . . I don’t see how Mummy’s idea can be right. . . . On the contrary, I’ve found that there is always some beauty left—in nature, sunshine, freedom, in yourself; these can all help you.

Anne’s faith in the redeeming power of beauty, even or perhaps especially in the midst of sadness and defeat, oppression, and tragedy, is, to my mind, quintessentially artistic. While the world around her appears to be going mad, Anne clings to beauty as a pillar. She cannot count on anything else; she has lost her home, bombs are being dropped on her head daily, she is grateful to be able to eat even rotten kale, yet beauty remains. When overwhelming darkness and injustice descend upon the world, creating something beautiful may seem insignificant and pointless—but Anne Frank reminds us that that effort may in fact be the most important one of all.

A lamentable and shameful truth about Anne Frank’s story is that the United States had the opportunity to shelter her: in 1938 and again in 1941, the entire Frank family sought to enter this country as refugees. Ultimately, their efforts were futile, because widespread antisemitism and xenophobia led to drastic restrictions on immigration from war-torn Europe. Had the United States not allowed itself to be ruled by fear and distrust, had it welcomed Anne Frank into its borders, she would surely have continued writing, increasing the measure of beauty in the world with every word.

Ursula Werner is a writer and attorney currently living in Washington, DC, with her family. Born in Germany and raised in South Florida, she is the author of two books of poetry and the novel The Good at Heart.

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Anne Frank's Chestnut Tree of Life

Tuesday, June 14, 2016 | Permalink

Following Anne Frank’s birthday over the weekend, The Tree in the Courtyard author Jeff Gottesfeld is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

There is a moment every artist dreams of, when an idea that is at least good gets transformed into something potentially transcendent, if only the artist can only execute it.

In my case, I can’t remember what I read in the summer of 2010 that shared the story of how the 172 year-old horse chestnut tree in the courtyard behind 263 Prinsengracht, Amsterdam, had cracked in half in a storm.

The lede choked me up. I had gazed at that tree on a dreary day in 1981; stared at it as Anne Frank might have though the attic window of the hiding place above the same courtyard—the only window in the annex that had not be covered by improvised curtains that Anne had helped her father to sew. I learned later how Anne wrote about the tree three times in the diary, including an astonishing entry dated 23 February, 1944:

The two of us looked out at the blue sky, the bare chestnut tree glistening with dew, the seagulls and other birds glinting with silver as they swooped through the air, and we were so moved and entranced that we couldn’t speak.

In the decades after the campaign of exterminationist antisemitism roared out of Germany across World War II Europe, the chestnut tree became an etz chaim, a tree of life. After the Franks’s annex became a museum, millions gazed upon this tree as Anne and Peter did. The tree had sickened in the decade before its demise; botanists and tree surgeons had brought their best science to bear, engineers had erected a supporting scaffold for her in all-out effort to save its life. It was no avail. The tree was gone.

I stared at my desktop monitor, sad and bitter all at once. A memory from Schindler’s List blew through my mind. It was the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, seen and heard from afar. So many had perished there, and so few had tried to save them. In Amsterdam, so few had tried to save the girl. Sixty-odd years later, humanity was making its best efforts for a tree. A tree! The contrast rankled. Bile rose. I nearly clicked out of the story.

I’m glad I didn’t. A few moments later, I reached what for me was the most important part; about how other scientists were sprouting healthy baby saplings from the tree’s trunk and her seedpods. These would become new trees to be planted the world over. Eleven of them had been promised to the United States, in locations meaningful in the struggle for human dignity. I have photograph of my book, The Tree in the Courtyard, resting against one of these saplings at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, Michigan. There are others at the September 11th memorial in Manhattan, Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, and more.

Just as Anne Frank’s diary may live on for a hundred generations after we are dust and ashes, these new trees will drop tens, then hundreds, then thousands of seedpods. So will their progeny, and their progeny’s progeny. There could come a time when every school, synagogue, church, mosque, town hall, and courthouse that wanted one might have a tree-from-the-tree-in-the-courtyard growing as a massive etz chaim, a living reminder of mankind’s confounding nature: our potential for good and penchant for evil.

There it was, that golden artistic moment. There was the story. It was one worth telling. Yet good as the idea was, I was left with a massive problem. How could I tell it in a way that would be worth reading? I got the cockamamie idea that I should write this as a picture book for grade school kids—I’ve been fortunate to have a reasonable career as a writer and author, but I’d never written a picture book manuscript in my life.

That problem would occupy me for five weeks. It ended with me giving up. Then, two years later, I got the line that would become the spine of the book: The tree recalled how few had tried to save the girl. It was the seed I needed. I was on my way.

Jeff Gottesfeld is an award-winning writer for page, stage, and screen. He has previously written for adult, teen, and middle-grade audiences; The Tree in the Courtyard is his first picture book.

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Anne Frank Unbound and Justin Bieber

Monday, June 24, 2013 | Permalink

by Nat Bernstein

In honor of the upcoming anniversary of the Frank's entry into hiding (July 6th), Nat Bernstein explores a recent book from Indiana University Press, Anne Frank Unbound: Media, Imagination, Memory, and Justin Bieber's recent visit to the Anne Frank Museum.

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks for Anne Frank.

Amid facing a Michigan parent’s accusations of writing indecent material—in her own diary—and the unveiling of a sapling from her beloved chestnut tree planted in the Boston Common, Frank drew fresh attention when the Anne Frank House’s Facebook account publicized international teenage heartthrob Justin Bieber’s visit to the museum:

Yesterday night Justin Bieber visited the Anne Frank House, together with his friends and guards. Fans were waiting outside to see a glimpse of him. He stayed more than an hour in the museum. In our guestbook he wrote: "Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber."

Tonight Bieber will give a concert in Arnhem in the Netherlands.

Bieber’s comments instantly went viral, repeated and disseminated in disgust and derision across news sources and social media. Expressions of revulsion at his irreverence ran rampant for days: Bieber’s self-referential reflection on his visit to the Secret Annex hit a serious nerve. His appreciation for Anne Frank’s story whittled down to the loss of a potential, virtually insignificant member of his behemothic fandom is not, perhaps, the reaction one would wish—but why do we expect anything different? Why was the response to Justin Bieber’s musings on Anne Frank such profound disappointment?

Ladies, gentlemen, and teenyboppers: It’s time to crack open Anne Frank Unbound.

Compiled out of the 2005 Mediating Anne Frank symposium organized by the Working Group on Jews, Media, and Religion of the Center for Religion and Media at New York University, Anne Frank Unbound "exemplifies the Working Group’s commitment to innovative, cross-disciplinary approaches to studying phenomena at the intersection of religion and media, broadly defined" in its eclectic critique of the contemporary iconicism of the young writer and Holocaust victim. The volume is a collection of essays presented by a diverse collection of scholastic and artistic figures, addressing the representation and legacy of Anne Frank across cultures, media, and disciplines.

Anne Frank Unbound is an academic read, but a pleasurable one nonetheless. While its contributing authors share many of the same references and critiques, the diversity of writing and perspective renders the collection intriguingly repetitive rather than redundant, varied rather than scattered. Its strength lies as much in its content as in its approach: a truly interdisciplinary examination of Anne Frank’s cultural representation over the last half-century.

The collection’s perusal of subjects extends beyond the cultural outputs beckoning passive engagement with Frank’s personal and writing—plays, films, museums and monuments, educational curricula, the publication of the diary itself—to the representations and tributes created by the intended “audience” in its turn. Liora Gubkin, for example, contributes her exploration of the inclusion of Anne Frank in the American Passover seder as a “personalized Jewish religious practice” endemic to the post-World War II American expectation of “an individualized quest for spiritual meaning” in all religious practice and ritual; Leshu Torchin’s chapter on “Anne Frank’s Moving Images” delves into the burgeoning public library of Frank-inspired homemade video blogs in conversation with feature films and television series; Sally Charnow’s explication of Frank’s work as a true diarist, in which Charnow draws upon the modern gender discourse surrounding the private journals of Victorian women, is not to be missed.

Sarah R. Horowitz’s examination of visitor entries in the guest book placed in in the 2003 “Anne Frank, the Writer: An Unfinished Story” exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is directly relevant to the “Belieber” uproar:

In stark, transparent, and sometimes dramatic terms, the amalgamation of comments encapsulates how the figure of Anne Frank has been interpreted, transformed, or made to signify in the almost three-quarters of a century after her murder.

Visitors’ comments overwhelmingly identify Anne Frank with the Holocaust in its entirety. Frank did not merely endure hardships and finally die as a result of Nazi brutality; she, one of millions, stands—or stands in—for the Holocaust as a whole. To read the diary, then, even to gaze upon it, is to know the Holocaust, to encounter it intimately and personally, even though many scholars object to seeing Anne Frank this way. Lawrence Lanfer, for example, views Anne Frank’s story as a soft version of the Nazi genocide, one that allows an easy identification with the girl who has not yet encountered the concentration camp universe and whose expression of optimism leave one feeling good about humankind and the world generally.

Let us not, however, lose sight of the fact that Justin Bieber’s scribble in the Anne Frank House guest book hardly reflects this complicated commentary zeitgeist. In fact, Bieber’s reaction to touring the Secret Annex expresses a somewhat touching if egotistical connection with Anne Frank as the actual person she was and not as the simplified “stand-in” for the greater historical event that caused her tragedy. As the more nuanced critics of the “Belieber” incident readily admit, it is actually fairly likely that Anne Frank would have been a member of Bieber’s teen fandom given her real-life engrossment with pop icons of her time. Perhaps more troubling, then, is the global incensement over the star’s misguided yet sincere tribute rather than the comment itself: as evinced in each isolated chapter of Anne Frank Unbound, the global beautification of the young writer warps public understanding of both Frank herself and the catastrophe that she has come to represent. It is this very over-idealization of Anne Frank that has caused the current generation to push back against the force-fed martyrship and attempt to reclaim Anne Frank as who she truly was, as a human—rawly human—individual. “So sanctified is Anne Frank,” Edward Portnoy demonstrates in his presentation of Anne Frank in popular humor, “that the actual teenager—who was also mad about boys, movies, and clothes—vanishes, and all that remains is the girl who pondered the epochal events taking place around her.”

Portnoy cites satirical New Yorker publications, internet memes, and episodes of animated contemporary crank comedies South Park and Robot Chicken to illustrate his point, locating in each example the catalytic discomfort with the idyllic, emblematic portrayal of Anne Frank that the writers and comedians share with their audience:

What might at first appear to be a comic assault on Anne Frank’s life and work is, rather, an attack on works of contemporary mass media targeting a teenage demographic. The moral integrity of Anne Frank is a foil for vacuous American teen culture, which is characterized as ignorant, self-involved, and superficial, obsessed with fashionable trends in clothing and music, and incapable of imagining history without recourse to the clichés of popular film genres. The comedy and its incisive cultural critique rely on an audience fluent in the popular culture that is under attack as well as sufficiently aware of Anne’s life and work to recognize the disparity between this icon of morality and their own frivolity.

[...] Unlike humor that arises during or just after a tragedy, jokes about Anne Frank have appeared decades after her murder. They do not respond to her tragedy, or the Holocaust itself, but rather to the popularization of Anne Frank through the publication of her diary, performance of her life story on stage and screen, and opening of the Anne Frank House. A generation raised on official presentations of Anne’s story and reverential way in which one is supposed to respond to it pushes back with irreverence. Apparently “immune to ethical judgment,” art and humor find their moral center in an irreverence that reenergizes fatigued icons for a new generation.

Consider the backlash triggered by Bieber’s comment—celebrities and comedians coming forward in a mix of outrage and bemusement, defending Anne Frank against Bieber’s narcissism through use of vaguely crude Holocaust humor: “If I could make one birthday wish,” tweeted Patrick Carney, drummer for the Black Keys, “it would be that all children who were killed at death camps could hear #believeacoustic. :(“; “I agree with Justin Bieber,” added British comedian Ricky Gervais, “Anne Frank would’ve loved his stuff. It’s perfect for being played really really quietly so no one can hear it.” Comedian Jenn Dodd quickly posted a video of herself as Anne Frank responding to Justin Bieber on her sketch comedy site, JeneralAssembly.com: “I wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt and listen to your album,” Dodd addresses the camera in a thick Heidi accent and black wig. “I mean hey, maybe if I hadn’t been locked in an attic with seven other people, mice, and two cats with fleas for over two years without seeing the light of day, while constantly fearing for my life, I would have enjoyed the depths and complexities of your lyrics...” She continues to recite the words to Bieber’s hit single “Boyfriend,” pausing to ask blankly, “What’s ‘swag’?”

The message from Dodd and her fellow critics is clear: not only do they find Bieber and his music overstated and soulless, but they want to make the world aware of the fact that between the two figures, Frank is the genuine talent. As Portnoy points out, however, such responses are as much a rebellion against the culture generated around the young writer as they are poking fun at the living teenage celebrity. They, too, use Anne Frank as the symbol for the entire tragedy of the Holocaust, but in self-aware defiance of the generally accepted sanctity necessary in the invocation of her name. If you’re going to ignore the taboo, they seem to say, at least do it outright.

“The greatest challenge for readers of the diary today,” declares Briggite Sion’s submission on Anne Frank as the paradigmatic icon of human rights, “may not be defending Anne’s life and work from attack; rather, it may be engaging her individual history and personal vision free of the redemptive values with which she has been burdened by others.” The Mediating Anne Frank colloquium serves perhaps as the start of a recognized movement to reclaim Frank from the shrine, from the pedestal, from the cross. In Anne Frank Unbound, the critiques and interpretations of contemporary writers, comedians, artists, scholars, and laypeople are brought forward and appraised with equal legitimacy. It is a brief and worthwhile anthology, a provocative turning point in the discourse surrounding Holocaust representation worldwide, and an excellent resource in moments of cultural controversy—the current Bieber fiasco proving no exception.

Folks, let’s all give Justin Bieber a break. Think about it this way: a pampered teenage superstar has two days in Amsterdam, one of them completely consumed by the concert he carries out for his international audience under what must be a tremendous amount of pressure. He spends his one free day in a cosmopolitan city with endless attractions visiting the Anne Frank House. Troubling as some facets of the culture around Anne Frank undoubtedly are, clearly that culture got something really, really right.

Pick up a copy of Anne Frank Unbound: Media, Imagination, Memory here.

Nat Bernstein is a Jewish Book Council intern and a graduate of Hampshire College


Photography and Remembrance

Thursday, June 14, 2012 | Permalink

In honor of Anne Frank's birthday this week, Jewish Book Council Intern Nat Bernstein shares her essay "Photography and Remembrance." Nat is a graduate of Hampshire College.

I hold before me two pictures of schoolchildren taken within twenty years of each other, black and white. The first is a wide shot of a wooden schoolhouse with its doors flung open, out of which pours a posed assembly of teachers, surrounded by rows upon rows of young children—the students. The second is of a single girl smiling comfortably from behind her desk, a pen poised in her hand atop an open book. 


Courtesy of the Tarrow Family

Aside from the ages of their juvenile subjects and the scholastic setting, these two pictures do not seem to have much in common. Indeed, the differences between the images not only increase the more one examines them but deepen as soon as the similarities they share are discovered. The school uniform worn by the lone girl at her desk, for example, matches that of the girls standing outside the schoolhouse: a white collar jutting out of a dark sweater, a dark skirt—even the hairstyles of most of the clustered schoolgirls are in a similar fashion to hers. But once one focuses on this commonality between the girls, the differences become immeasurably starker. One suddenly notices the bare legs sprawled on the ground in contrast to the stockings planted firmly under the desk, the primitive structure of the wooden schoolhouse in comparison to the immaculate angles of urban modernity in the girl’s classroom.

The very format of the two depictions—group picture versus individual portrait—increases in significance and distinction upon a closer comparative reading of the images. While the picture of the classroom displays its impressive design and assets, the subject of the image is the girl centered within it. She appears as though intended to seem caught in a semi-candid moment, yet her orderly composure and the positioning of her desk in that strange corner of the room suggest that the portrait is staged. The photograph of the group outside the schoolhouse, by contrast, has the reverse effect: the organized rows of students swerve and stagger out of their intended linear grid, postures and poses vary, here and there a child looks away from the camera—the picture transforms from a staged assembly into a semi-candid group portrait. The subject of this photograph is not any of the individual students in the crowd but rather the crowd itself together with the building behind it: it is a picture of the school as a whole, of the institution. This latter picture was clearly intended as a civic document, a public image; the former to be kept in the privacy of the home.

And yet, the picture of the schoolhouse assembly is a private photograph, and the girl sitting at her desk is a public image. Continue reading here.

Anne Frank at 80…Image and New Book

Wednesday, June 10, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Had Anne Frank survived the Holocaust she would have been 80 this week and to honor her memory an “age progression” image was created for the Anne Frank Trust UK. The Telegraph reports:

Created for the Anne Frank Trust UK to mark her birthday on Friday – using the same techniques developed to artificially age missing people such as toddler Madeleine McCann – it is hoped the picture will help inspire Britain’s school children to think about the kind of lives they would like to lead, and to remember the loss of six million people in the Holocaust…

The aged image was produced by a Michigan firm called Phojoe which has worked with US police on dozens of missing persons cases.

To view the image and read the complete article, please visit here.

And, this October Francine Prose will publish a new book on Anne Frank called Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife (published by Harper), in which she argues that the diary of Anne Frank is as much a work of art as a historical record. Through close reading, Prose examines Frank’s ability to “turn living people into characters” and discusses Frank’s narrative voice. She also investigates the afterlife of the published diary: obstacles, criticism, and conspiracy. Ultimately Prose aims to tell the exceptional story of the book and establish Frank as as a writer of outstanding merit.