Anne Frank: A Writer’s Life

August 13, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


ROGER ROSENBLATT: Anne Frank came to represent hope, love, sympathy for others, and a number of other abstractions that the ignorant belittle as signs of innocence, but she also represented the power of a book.

VOICE: “Everyone is born equal. We will all die and shed our earthly glory.”

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Because of the diary she kept between 1942 and 1944 in the secret upstairs annex of an Amsterdam warehouse, where she and her family hid until the Nazis found them, she became the most memorable figure to emerge from World War II — besides Hitler, of course, who also proclaimed his beliefs in a book. Yet it was Anne’s book that finally prevailed, a beneficent and complicated work outlasting a simple and evil one, and that secured to the world’s embrace the second most famous child in history.

VOICE: “Healing greatness does not lie in wealth or power, but in character and goodness.”

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Now, the United States Holocaust Museum has expanded the appreciation of Anne Frank from the symbolic to the real, or from a mythic entity to a person who was special in a different way. In an exhibit devoted to her writing, the museum has said something both about Anne and about genocide in general.

The exhibit includes three notebooks, several pages from her edited diary, and a photograph album. By displaying the things that represented Anne’s artistic ambitions, the point is made that her murder was also the death of art and hope, since art means hope. What the exhibit says about genocide is that one must remember never to think about people categorically, and that includes victims.

Six million Jews, or gypsies and homosexuals, x-million Cambodians, or God knows how many Sudanese, or Muslims in Bosnia– the vast numbers tend to overwhelm the fact that each life lost was an individual matter. What Anne Frank gave the world initially– that her life was an individual matter– has been enlarged by focusing on her identity as a writer of promise. We return to the book, her instrument of declaration of self. This new evidence changes her from a totemic figure of the modern world into the modern individual artist beset by the machinery of destruction and insisting on the right to live and question and to labor for the future of everyone. It’s not that this exhibit makes her into someone one does not recognize. It simply sharpens her image.

What the exhibit makes clear is not only that was she a writer, but that she intended to be a writer. One of the notebooks is called the “Book of Nice Sentences,” in which she cites as models Shakespeare, Goethe, Oscar Wilde, among others. Anne’s own most recognized “nice” sentence was: “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are still truly good at heart,” a sentence as often put down as applauded. But it is followed in the diary by a writer’s creed: “I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death.” That would have been cheered by the writers she admired. Anne’s life was reduced to hidden rooms. So is the life of most writers.

But writing is an instrument of freedom, a prison key. She wrote: “I want to go on living even after my death.” And so she did. It was interesting that the Franks’ secret annex was concealed by a bookcase that swung away from an opening. For a while, Anne was protected by books, and then the Nazis pushed them aside to get at a young girl. First you kill the books; then you kill the children. But you don’t kill the writer. You can never kill the writer, which is why by the time the Nazis captured her, Anne had already made her escape.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.