In Amsterdam, on the sunny and otherwise quiet morning of Friday, August 4, 1944, a car pulled up in front of the Opekta warehouse at 263 Prinsengracht.
That is all one needs to write, and already the reader knows who was hiding in the attic and the fate about to befall them.
These might easily have been the opening lines of American novelist Francine Prose’s complex, ferociously affectionate and tough-minded 2009 book Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife.
This non-fiction book is a work of reportage, literary analysis, cultural criticism and biography. It is a work in which Prose details her profound respect for Anne Frank’s brilliance as a writer and delves deeply into the troubled and often troubling history of her diary.
But these lines don’t come until page 63, and, by this point, Prose has already written about Anne Frank’s birth in Frankfort and her Jewish family’s flight to the Netherlands to escape the rise of the Nazis in Germany.
She has written about the decision of Anne’s family and four other Jews to go into hiding in the attic of the warehouse on Prinsengracht. And about how Anne’s diary recorded their daily life in the attic over a period of two years and a month, described their personalities and quirks and pondered her growing sexuality and her attempts to make sense of a world of violence, faith, love, hate, humor and ideals.
And she has written about the fate of the family after being betrayed. And about Anne’s death at the age of 15 from typhus at the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen in early March, 1945, a few weeks before the camp was liberated by British soldiers.
The story of the book
Now, on page 63, Prose is going back to tell the story of the book that Anne Frank wrote, the book that became known to the world as The Diary of a Young Girl.
As Prose explains, there are actually three books. There is “a,” the diary that Anne started keeping on her 13th birthday a month before her family went into hiding. There is “b,” a revision of “a” in which Anne refined and generally approved many of her diary entries and eliminated some others.
And, finally, there is “c,” the version that her father Otto Frank, the only survivor of the eight attic residents, put together using the first two. This final version is The Diary of a Young Girl.
It is not exactly the book Anne would have wanted to publish if she had come out of the death camps alive.
She was already well on her way into revising the diary when the car drove up to the warehouse. Prose makes clear that Anne was — above and beyond all of the details of her tragic biography — a writer of great skill who was preparing a work of high literary value for future readers. But she never got a chance to finish her revisions and put the finishing touches on the work she wanted to call The Annex.
So, for everyone except some academics, historians and devotees, The Diary of a Young Girl has been Anne’s book. It is the book that has touched millions of readers and has kept her voice and heart alive.
It’s also the version that Karl Josef Silberbauer purchased.
“Theater of arrest”
Silberbauer was in the car that drove up to the warehouse that sunny morning in August, 1944.
The 33-year-old Austrian, wearing the uniform of a sergeant in the Jewish Affairs Section of the Gestapo, walked into the warehouse with several Dutch subordinates and knew where he was going. The Gestapo has been tipped off.
Prose writes that, in the attic, Silberbauer noticed a trunk marked as the property of Lt. Otto Frank which meant that, in World War I, when both fought for Germany, Frank had outranked Silberbauer.
Later, Otto Frank would recall that Silberbauer seemed to snap to attention. For the Austrian, the Jew’s former military rank created a troubling disruption in the simultaneously adrenalinized and business-as-usual theater of arrest.
That reference of the “theater of arrest” is one of myriad examples of the way Prose brings her skills as a novelist — her eye, her ear, her sense of setting and character — to bear in her examination of Anne Frank, her book and the world’s reaction to both.
She reports that, nearly two decades later, Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal tracked Silberbauer down in Vienna and spurred an investigation of him as a war criminal. It was an investigation that ran out of steam when Otto Frank issued a statement that the arresting sergeant had been businesslike and “acted correctly.”
“How could he have imagined…”
Even so, during the investigation, Silberbauer suddenly found himself in the public eye and being interviewed by a Dutch reporter.
Silberbauer remembered telling Otto Frank that he had a lovely daughter [Prose writes]. He recalled her as prettier and older than she looked in the photo that, by the time Wiesenthal found him, was known all over the world. Given that Silberbauer went unpunished, it’s mildly satisfying to imagine the moment he found out that the little girl he’d arrested had become a star.
During the newspaper interview, the reporter asked Silberbauer if he’d read the book. To which, the former Nazi replied that he’d bought the bestseller to see if he was mentioned in it. (It was, of course, an illogical but perhaps understandable reaction for an unsophisticated former soldier. After all, there was no way that, during the arrest and later in the camps, Anne would have had an opportunity to add to her diary. Silberbauer didn’t seem to have thought that far.)
In fact, as the Dutch reporter suggested to him, Silberbauer could have been the first outside reader of the diary.
And it’s true. Looking for some convenient method of carrying away the jewels and other valuables in the attic as booty for him and his helpers, Silberbauer spied a briefcase. He dumped out the papers and notebooks he found inside, and then filled it with cash and gems.
Those papers and notebooks were Anne’s diary and her revisions.
They were picked up off the floor and saved (unread) by one of the family’s Dutch helpers until Otto Frank returned home from the camps. It was, Prose writes, as if Silberbauer had “filled the briefcase with pasteboard and scattered rubies across the attic floor.” And she goes on:
But how could he have imagined that what he had discarded — loose sheets of paper, exercise books — was not only a work of literary genius, not only a fortune in disguise, not only a record of the times in which he and its author lived, but a piece of evidence that would lead to the exposure of his role in the Nazis’ war against the Jews…?
… How could anyone have suspected that a masterpiece existed between the checked cloth covers of a young girl’s diary?
“Silly and shallow”
In this second section, Prose writes with great admiration about how Anne grew as a writer during her two years and a month of composing and revising the diary. She started off with great skills, but her talents grew rapidly as her confinement forced her to focus on this writing. The process was also accelerated by the Nazi threat constantly hanging over the heads of everyone in the attic.
By contrast, in her third and final section, Prose is highly critical about much of what happened after the book’s publication — the efforts to transpose it onto the stage and screen (and make a tidy buck) and to bring it into American classrooms.
The book has been turned into three plays, none of which lived up to Anne and her story, Prose asserts.
The first and most successful one was adapted by the husband-and-wife screenwriting team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and ran on Broadway for nearly two years. Yet, Prose writes, it turned Anne
into a silly and shallow version of herself. Seriousness and humor were equally important to Anne, who by all accounts was a funny girl. But one can’t quite imagine her being arch and kittenish, as she so often is in the drama.
And the movie was just as bad, if not worse.
The use of the book in American classrooms is also problematic for Prose because teachers often steer away from the specific reality of Anne Frank’s story and instead use the book as a jumping off point for teens to talk about their own adolescent angst or the problems of hatred and oppression down history and throughout the world.
While not as incensed as some critics, Prose also finds fault with the frequent attempts to soften Anne’s complex personality and world view and turn her story into one of belief in the goodness of all people (despite a Nazi regime which killed millions of Jews and other “undesirables”).
Nonetheless, Prose is honest and her writing is balanced enough for her to acknowledge that, when she attended the original Broadway play at the age of ten or a little younger, she was so moved to see the book she loved brought to life that she wept.
I remember that the audience was weeping, and that I felt…that a private and personal experience had become a communal one. I could not have been more grateful to have found a theater full of people who shared my admiration and pity for this remarkable girl, and my passion, however, childish for her work.
A few pages later, after describing a revival and reinterpretation of the Goodrich-Hackett version nearly as vapid as the original, Prose writes that, as bad as these versions and the movie are, they are also paradoxically good.
We cannot estimate how many readers the play has created for the diary, how many people would never has sought out the book had they not seen the drama first, how many students would never had heard of the diary had the theatrical versions not brought it to wider acclaim ….
Regardless of how the play and the film distorted Anne Frank into a bubble-headed messenger of redemption, regardless of how she was stripped of her religion and ethnicity, robbed of her genius, removed from history and recast as a ditsy teen, the play and the film steered millions of readers back to the diary, which would always remain the diary, no matter how it was misrepresented.
Anyone looking for Anne, Prose writes, can find her.
In the words of essayist Molly Magid Hoagland: “Anyone who has a mind to can still turn to the work that Miep Gies rescued and that Otto Frank, despite misgivings, and to his everlasting credit, brought into the light of day. In its pages, in whatever edition, his daughter has always spoken for herself.”
Patrick T. Reardon