Guest Critic: David L. Ulin

David L. Ulin
Facebook icon Share via Facebook Twitter icon Share via Twitter

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Anne Frank. No, that’s not true, exactly: I always think a lot about Anne Frank. In this moment, though, with the world in the midst of another catastrophe, Frank’s experience—and her example—takes on a different aura of significance. I don’t mean the Anne of sainted memory, whom Shalom Auslander once referred to as “the Jewish Jesus.” I mean the fifteen-year-old who died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen in February or March of 1945. Franz Kafka’s sisters, all three of them, were also murdered in the camps by the Nazis, and I have long imagined a line of inference or implication connecting them to Frank. There is so much there, so many layers overlapping, which is another reason Frank’s story continues to resonate with me.


Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, the Afterlife—Francine Prose (2009)

One of the most famous lines in Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl—“in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart”—is an expression of hope, or so we have been led to believe. In her fierce reassessment of Frank’s life and influence, Francine Prose gives the statement its teeth back, highlighting how reduced it is. Here is Frank’s passage in its entirety:

It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions, and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.

It’s a more ambiguous read, fatalistic as opposed to idealistic, stripping away Frank the icon to reveal the human underneath. She becomes that fifteen-year-old again; she is not, Prose insists, a symbol of perseverance but a victim of genocide. She did not die for our sins.


The Ghost Writer—Philip Roth (1979)

But what if she had not died at all? What if, instead, she had lived? This is the premise—or one of them—of Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, which introduces the character of Nathan Zuckerman. As a young man, Zuckerman is infatuated with Amy Bellette, a woman he is convinced is actually Anne Frank. And why not? Frank herself, as Prose recognized, has become a figure of fantasy, or better yet, a template for our reveries. What Roth is getting at is a desire to save her, or at least to give her narrative a different outcome. Yet equally important is his intention to reframe her as an adult with a complicated relationship to the world. What would it have meant to Frank’s legacy if she had lived? Part of the power of the Diary is our knowledge of what happened to her; it’s impossible to read it without that overlay. “Who was she pretending to be,” Zuckerman wonders, “but who she would have been anyway if no achterhuis and no death camps had intervened?” By bringing Frank back to life, Roth (or Zuckerman) also means to take her away.


Hope: A Tragedy—Shalom Auslander (2012)

But what if she had not died at all? What if, instead, she had lived? This is the premise—or one of them—of Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy, in which a contemporary homeowner discovers an ancient Holocaust survivor, who claims to be Anne Frank, living in his attic. This Anne is quite different from Amy Bellette; she is a writer, which means she must be a narcissist, obsessed with the success of her Diary and struggling to write a follow-up. She is wrestling with her survival; she is wrestling with her legacy. But mostly she is wrestling with the overwhelming weight of her past success—a success, she understands, that can never be outdone. “Thirty-two million copies…” she exclaims, “that’s nothing to sneeze at! I will leave this attic when I finish this book, and not one moment sooner! Not one moment sooner! I am a writer… do you hear me! A writer!” In the desperation of that declaration, Frank’s presence and her absence both assert themselves.


“What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank”—Nathan Englander (2012)

And yet, Frank did die: lice-afflicted, shivering, in a camp designed expressly to exterminate her. Before her death, she hid for two years in the Secret Annex, dependent on helpers, hoping she would not be betrayed. A similar hope (or maybe its inverse) marks Nathan Englander’s short story “What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank,” which begins as an homage to Raymond Carver and then reaches a darker denouement. “It’s the Anne Frank game,” a character says, describing a “thought experiment” she and her husband have undertaken: “In the event of an American Holocaust, we sometimes talk about which of our Christian friends would hide us.” The Jewish couples at the center of the story—one secular, the other Orthodox—decide to participate. Then it happens: one wife realizes that her own spouse would not protect her, that her betrayer is the person with whom she shares a bed. “What to do?” Englander asks. “What would come of it? And so we stand like that, the four of us trapped in that pantry. Afraid to open the door and let out what we’ve locked inside.”


The Diary of a Young Girl—Anne Frank (1947)

“What we’ve locked inside…” And what is that, really, if not an expression of who we are? We can never know what we will do in a situation until we get there, how we will react or respond. “I’ve asked myself again and again,” Frank writes in the Diary, “whether it wouldn’t have been better if we hadn’t gone into hiding; if we were dead now and didn’t have to go through this misery, especially so that the others could be spared the burden. But we all shrink from this thought.” What she’s describing is perseverance. What she’s describing is the will to exist. What she’s describing is not just fate but also resistance, which is her legacy.

In Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, Francine Prose describes a few frames of film, shot on June 22, 1941, available on YouTube. A newlywed couple leaves a building in Amsterdam. Then the camera pans up, and there is Frank, gazing toward the street. The clip lasts only twenty-one seconds; she is on-screen for six. “It’s less like watching a film clip,” Prose writes, “than like having one of those dreams in which you see a long-lost loved one or friend. In the dream, the person isn’t really dead.” That’s true enough, I suppose, although I think about it in a different way. Frank, after all, isn’t dead for these few seconds; she is young and coltish, turning back in her excitement to speak with someone out of frame. She is twelve years old, a child like any other, looking back from the past. This is the image I maintain of her: she’s not the symbol but the living being. Her suffering is our suffering not because she took it on for us but because of our shared humanity.

More Reads

A Review of Antiquity

Rosa Boshier González

A Review of Crazy Like a Fox and Cloudland Revisited

Daniel Elkind

A Review of Pages of Mourning

Kristen Martin