The Diary of Anne Frank Cover Image

The Diary of Anne Frank

by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett

Start Free Trial

Narrative Structure

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Upon the initial production of The Diary of Anne Frank, critics commented upon the careful structure of the play. In creating the play, Goodrich and Hackett faced the challenge of adapting a personal diary, which spanned about two years’ time, into narrative shape. Whereas Anne Frank’s diary chronicled the day-to-day life of the families in hiding, all the while touching upon her past and her hopes for the future, the play needed to create a plot with a distinct beginning, middle, and end. Goodrich and Hackett needed to find in Anne’s descriptive words a mechanism for creating a play that depicted the growth of a pre-adolescent girl into a young woman as well as the experience of a group of people who are forced to fear for their lives every day. The fact that Goodrich and Hackett worked on this play for about two years seems to indicate that they were well aware of this challenge. Their completed play, though it can be faulted for not strictly adhering to the diary (while also adhering to some of the moral standards of the 1950s), shows a careful attention to plotting and development.

The play opens in November 1945. Hitler and the Nazis have been defeated, and the concentration camps have been liberated. Otto Frank has made his way back to Amsterdam, to the attic where he, his family, the Van Daans, and Mr. Dussel hid. As Mr. Frank moves around the room, accompanied by Miep, he touches the relics of his former life: a glove, a scarf that Anne knit for him for Hanukkah. Unbeknownst to Mr. Frank, an even more important item remains from those years in hiding—Anne’s diary. As he picks it up and begins to read the first entry aloud, Anne’s voice joins his and then gradually takes over. This scene introduces the key elements of any story—the who, what, where, when, why, and how. The story has been told in an abbreviated form; now it is up to the ensuing scenes to share the emotional resonance that accompanies the bare facts.

Anne’s voice reading her diary and the memories that she recounts jettison the audience back to the day in July 1942 when the families first moved into their attic. Mr. Frank lays down the ground rules of their hiding, assigns everyone to a room, and gives Anne the diary. With the exception of Mr. Dussel, who joins them later, this scene introduces all of the play’s characters. The audience learns that Mr. Frank has invited the Van Daans to go into hiding with them because of the immense help that Mr. Van Daan provided when he first moved to Amsterdam. This is a crucial bit of information, particularly in light of the tensions the Van Daans introduce into the living situation. Scene 2 also explains the amazingly difficult circumstances under which they must live. During the day, they cannot talk above a whisper, let alone move around their attic apartment. In Mr. Frank’s giving Anne the diary (which in real life happened three weeks prior to the move), he is also contributing to the play’s dramatic genesis. As Mr. Van Daan points out in the following scene, ‘‘Don’t you know she puts it all down in that diary?’’ Anne’s diary thus lays claim to its central role in the story.

Scene 3 takes place two months later. Through its depiction of a typical evening in the attic, the playwrights develop important themes and characterizations. After finishing up lessons with her father, the boisterous Anne scuffles with Peter and gets into a fray with Mrs. Van Daan. The ensuing reprimand from her mother gives the play the opportunity to explore the tenuous relationship that exists between Mrs. Frank and Anne. Mrs. Frank is displeased with Anne’s behavior and unable to understand her willfulness. In Mrs. Frank’s mind, Anne suffers by comparison to Margot, who is ‘‘always courteous’’ and dignified. The scene further develops the audience’s understanding of Anne’s perception of herself. Unlike her sister, who is held up to her by her mother and the Van Daans as the exemplar for young ladies, Anne is ‘‘going to be remarkable.’’ Maybe she will be a dancer or singer, but at any rate, she will be ‘‘something wonderful.’’ Anne’s ambitions, settling on becoming a writer, will be fleshed out in later scenes.

The play also introduces the tensions that are developing between the adults. Mrs. Van Daan has begun to act with familiarity toward Mr. Frank, whom she only met a short time ago. ‘‘I don’t know why I didn’t meet you before I met that one there [Mr. Van Daan],’’ she says after kissing Mr. Frank on the mouth. Her actions make Mr. Frank quite uncomfortable and set the foundation for her later gratuitous flirting. Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan also bicker in this scene—as will be their habit. In a rare moment focusing on Mrs. Frank and Margot, Mrs. Frank confides that she ‘‘told your father it wouldn’t work’’ having the Van Daans live with them.

Another important element of the scene is the arrival of Mr. Dussel, which immediately creates more tension. In contrast to Mr. Van Daan, Mr. Frank wholeheartedly agrees to Mr. Dussel’s staying with them for awhile. Mr. Dussel’s arrival is crucial for another reason: he shares with the Franks and the Van Daans news about the deportation of Amsterdam’s Jewish population to the concentration camps.

Scene 4 is a short scene that focuses on Anne’s waking up from a nightmare and being comforted by her father. This scene is most notable for the way it explores Anne’s inner anxieties and confusion and the effect her feelings have on her family. Awakened by Anne’s screams, Mrs. Frank rushes to her daughter’s side, but Anne sends her mother away, asking instead for her father. When Mr. Frank chastises Anne for making her mother cry, Anne responds, ‘‘Oh, Pim, I was horrible, wasn’t I? And the worst of it is, I can stand off and look at myself doing it and know it’s cruel and yet I can’t stop doing it.’’ The truthfulness with which Anne addresses the problem and the raw emotion displayed by Anne and her mother add poignancy to the mother-daughter relationship.

Act 2 closes with the next scene, which takes place on the first night of Hanukkah. Surprising everyone with gifts, Anne introduces the much-needed holiday spirit. In the midst of this celebration, the families hear the sound of a person in the offices below. In their haste to turn all the lights off so that whoever is below will not hear them, Peter knocks over a chair. The scene remains tense, even after the noises downstairs cease. The families worry that whoever was downstairs heard them and will report them. Only Anne’s singing ‘‘Oh, Hanukkah,’’ which the rest join in on, brings back their courage.

Like scene 2, this scene has multiple purposes. On the level of character development, it shows Anne’s thoughtfulness. It also adds a dramatic note to a play whose ending most of the audience will already know. Further, it ties the two halves of the play together. The thief who breaks into the office is the person who eventually reports the families’ presence to the Nazis. This is a notable departure from reality, since to this day, no one knows who reported the Franks and the others. By using poetic license, the playwrights show their interest in forming the play into a more cohesive body than Anne’s diary.

The final scene of act 1 also sets the tone for act 2, which opens more than a year later. Numerous changes have taken place, but none reflects the familial unit that was seen at the Hanukkah party. Anne, much to her delight, is developing into womanhood. Mr. Kraler’s arrival to tell Mr. Frank of a blackmail attempt by a worker down below sets off another clash between Anne and her mother, who simply ‘‘doesn’t understand.’’ After Anne runs from the room, Peter follows her. The ensuing conversation, in which Anne finally finds someone with whom she can share her conflicting feelings, leads to a friendship between the two teenagers.

By scene 2, Anne and Peter have developed a romantic friendship, much to the consternation of their mothers. The relationship between the teenagers only heightens the tension in the attic, as do the obvious signs of Anne’s development into a woman, such as her wearing Margot’s high heels. Anne and Peter have gotten into the habit of visiting in his room, with the door closed. When Mrs. Frank implores Anne not to ‘‘give Mrs. Van Daan the opportunity to be unpleasant,’’ Anne retorts that Mrs. Van Daan does not need any such opportunity, thus implying that she has never ceased to be unkind since they first moved into the attic. Anne and Peter’s visit that day, ending in a kiss, shows important changes in each: Peter is no longer as shy, and Anne is no longer as lonely. As Anne writes in her diary, the friendship gives her something to look forward to every single day. More tellingly, she also writes of the joy of holding Peter in her arms, thus reveling in the sexual feelings that have accompanied her growing up.

Scene 3 opens with the tensions between Mrs. Frank and the Van Daans finally coming to a head. Mrs. Frank catches Mr. Van Daan stealing food and demands that he leave the attic. No coaxing by her husband can get her to change her mind. It is Miep’s arrival, with the news that the Allies have begun their invasion of Europe, that turns her from this path. The attic inhabitants erupt into happiness, but even the end of the scene alludes to the coming tragedy. Though Anne first writes in her diary, ‘‘We’re all in much better spirits these days,’’ her tone quickly changes:

Wednesday, the second of July, nineteen forty-four. The invasion seems temporarily bogged down.… The Gestapo have found the radio that was stolen. Mr. Dussel says they’ll trace it back and back to the thief, and then it’s just a matter of time ‘til they get to us. Everyone is low.

Scene 4 is the denouement of the play. The families tensely listen to the phone ringing below in the office and argue about answering it. Are the phone calls a message from Miep? In the midst of this fear, Anne, speaking to Peter, asserts what has since become one of the most well-known ideas of the diary:

I know it’s terrible, trying to have any faith … when people are doing such horrible things … but you know what I sometimes think? I think the world may be going through a phase…. I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.

When a police car pulls up in front of the building, everyone in the attic knows their fate.

The play’s final scene brings the drama full circle; the story ends at its beginning, in November 1945. Mr. Frank, the sole survivor among the attic inhabitants, reiterates Anne’s faith in humanity. The play’s final words, ‘‘She puts me to shame,’’ are spoken by Mr. Frank, but they serve to succinctly illustrate Anne Frank’s unique perception, which she was able to hold throughout the ordeal and which her diary allowed her to share with the world.

Source: Rena Korb, Critical Essay on The Diary of Anne Frank, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Korb has a master’s degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers.

The Life and Death of a Document: Lessons from the Strange Career of The Diary of Anne Frank

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

‘‘In spite of everything, I still believe that people are truly good at heart.’’ —Anne Frank [1944]

These lines, written by fifteen-year-old Anne Frank in her ‘‘secret annex’’ in Amsterdam, have become some of the most famous lines uttered from the Holocaust era. They anchor the only version of The Diary of Anne Frank known for forty years, the Broadway play of 1955, the 1959 Hollywood movie, as well as more commonplace interpretations such as the Cliffs Notes version read by countless high school and college students. The lines, which many may remember reading or hearing in their youth, have come to symbolize the meaning of Anne Frank’s life and death. Through these lines, the Holocaust is made endurable by the optimism of a young girl who hid for two years in an Amsterdam warehouse before being taken to Auschwitz. For if she could be optimistic about people (even, it is assumed, Nazis) then there is hope for the world in the aftermath of its greatest horror.

This is the message which countless millions of young people, as well as adults, have heard and learned in the four decades since The Diary of Anne Frank was first published in 1952 and subsequently translated into 56 languages. It is a message, most assumed, which originated from the diary, the ‘‘authentic’’ historical document. But now it is clear that what we know as The Diary of Anne Frank is in fact something altogether different. The diary, as written by Anne Frank, has been radically manipulated and indeed rewritten by virtually everyone who had rights to it.

This startling realization has spawned a fierce debate in the popular press. Why was the diary so transformed after its author’s murder? What has the ‘‘revised’’ diary meant? How has it been used as a tool for understanding the Holocaust? With a new version of the 1955 play on Broadway, two books on the history of the diary, and numerous articles and reviews in major publications, the question of how the diary has fared since its author was separated from her diary and killed at Bergen-Belsen, has suddenly seemed of great import. Over the past year, The Diary of Anne Frank, the single most widely read document of the Holocaust, has come under new, and in many ways its first, scrutiny. The fate of Anne Frank was sealed in 1944, but the fate of her diary and the historical legacy she left has suddenly exploded as an issue for intense debate.

This debate, which revolves around the interpretations of the meaning of the Holocaust, the manipulation of the past, and how historical documents are made public, poses central issues to all historians but, I would argue, especially to public historians. Why specifically should public historians be interested in this debate? I am not, after all, reviewing an exhibit or a historical documentary, or describing the Anne Frank Foundation and its museum in Amsterdam. I am not describing and critiquing a monument or a textbook or a curriculum plan for teaching the diary. One might consider the recent debate over the diary as the province of academic historians, or a debate about the uses of history in the popular press and culture. I would argue, however, that the questions raised by this debate are, or should be, at the heart of what public historians are discussing.

The issue with the Anne Frank diary is at its core a story of how a document—a primary source—made its way from a girl’s handwritten journal into a best-selling book, a Broadway play, and an Academy Award-winning movie, and how it was manipulated at each stage of its move into the public arena. What the debate over Anne Frank’s diary brings us back to is what is always at the heart of our profession as historians and public historians—the nature of documents of the past. In few cases can we see the perils and pitfalls of abusing the primary pieces of the past left for us as clearly as we can in the debate over this diary. For at every stage of its life in public, the document has been reinvented, by everyone from Anne Frank herself to her father, to translators, playwrights, filmmakers, school teachers, foundations, and reviewers. The Diary of Anne Frank, which virtually all of us read as children, adolescents, or adults, is a radically altered, shortened, and skewed document.

This, then, is a cautionary tale for our profession. It should remind us of the centrality of documents to our work, their remarkable flexibility, and their susceptibility to manipulation by well-wishers or evil-doers. The irony is that all of us who have used the diary for history classes or in the course of public history work have unwittingly perpetuated a mistaken understanding of Anne Frank and her diary. I would argue that despite the most recent revelations about the diary’s manipulation, we still have not addressed the most fundamental question: How do we reclaim the meaning of a cultural icon such as Anne Frank from the forces which have reinvented her in often cynical ways? How can we, especially now, help to return the public for which we work to a fuller confrontation with this—how can I say it?—most awful of documents.

I offer these reflections and pose these dilemmas from a series of involvements in the debate. First, as a professor of a historical methods and philosophy course for new majors, I used the various documents in the debate about Anne Frank’s diary to illustrate and discuss the politics of the past. As a public historian interested in the politics of memory and the manipulations of the past, I was invited to participate in an event in which the two different stage versions of a single scene were presented—one by Meyer Levin (which was never produced) and the 1955 play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Finally, as a public historian and scholar of how Americans have used and misused the past, I have followed this mid-century tale of bringing history to the public with special fascination.

Little of this valuable debate would have taken place without a searing polemic on the subject by one of our foremost essayists, Cynthia Ozick. Indeed, the publication of her 1997 New Yorker article, ‘‘Who Owns Anne Frank?’’ was as much an event as the return of the play version to Broadway. Ozick’s essay was built around the confluence of three new interpretations of The Diary of Anne Frank—the publication of two new books on the history of the diary since it was recovered by Otto Frank from Miep Gies, one of the Dutch protectors of the Frank family, as well as the opening of the revised stage version by Wendy Kesselman.

Ozick jolted readers in part because she brought a much wider reading public the arguments made in the books by Ralph Melnick and Lawrence Graver. The books lay blame in different places and to different degrees, but each reveals the clear and extensive manipulation of the diary towards one ultimate end: the transformation of the diary into a document of consolation and uplift, a salvational historical work, which can help us find optimism in the heart of evil. Melnick is the far more critical and accusatory work (which makes it the favored interpretation by Ozick), suggesting ultimately that the softening of the Jewish themes in the Broadway play version was the product of a conspiracy, with Lillian Hellman at the center. We can dispense with the more bizarre claims—for example, Melnick’s suggestion that Lillian Hellman received direct payments from Moscow to soften the ‘‘Jewishness’’ of the play—without losing the thrust of his findings: that the diary was subject not just to artistic interpretation but to calculated manipulation and censorship. Otto Frank, perhaps understandably, eliminated those passages in which Anne spoke of her sexual yearnings or of her hatred for her mother. The translator who brought the play to Germany chose to eliminate those passages of sheer hatred not only for Hitler but for Germans more generally. Goodrich and Hackett, in consultation with Hellman, eliminated most of the references to the Franks as Jews and focused instead on the story of the stirring of adolescence of Anne and her struggle for love amidst the stresses of war. In reviewing the play for the New York Times in 1955, Brooks Atkinson wrote that Goodrich and Hackett had wonderfully portrayed the ‘‘shining spirit of a young girl.… They have not contrived anything; they have left the tool-kit outside the door of their workroom. They have absorbed the story out of the diary and related it simply.’’ What the history of the diary shows, and what Ozick so fervently argued, was that there is nothing further from the truth. The story they told was a radically altered version of Anne Frank’s life as told in the diary, designed to fit the needs of Broadway producers and Americans in the 1950s. It has continued to serve the needs of hundreds of thousands of teachers worldwide, who have found the diary the perfect answer to their search for an accessible, and perhaps not too depressing, work on the Holocaust.

Ozick catalogued these abuses of the document and focused especially on the elimination of ‘‘Anne’s consciousness of Jewish fate or faith.’’ To popularize the diary as an uplifting story of courage and youthful love required, Ozick argued, the removal of the specifically Jewish story that is integral to the diary. The diary was, Ozick wrote sharply, subject to ‘‘evisceration’’: ‘‘Evisceration, an elegy for the murdered. Evisceration by blurb and stage, by shrewdness and naiveté, by cowardice and spirituality, by forgiveness and indifference, by success and money, by vanity and rage, by principle and passion, by surrogacy and affinity. Evisceration by fame, by shame, by blame. By uplift and transcendence. By usurpation.’’

Ozick did not end here and thereby offer readers an opportunity to shake their heads in dismay and then quickly move on. She resisted making the simplistic call for a better, fuller interpretation of the diary. Instead, Ozick posed what is sacrilege for historians of all stripes: she suggested that Anne Frank’s diary has been so manipulated that one must wonder if Miep Gies should have saved it at all. Might it have been better had the diary disappeared, or been burned, as Anne would have been had she not succumbed to typhus? As Ozick puts it, more pungently: ‘‘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 of it all things, some of them true, while floating lightly over the heavier truth of named and inhabited evil.’’

The thought is astonishing, and infuriating to a historian as well as to the general public. At first, this conclusion to the article seems like a form of absurd rhetorical pyrotechnic. As a historian, there is an almost visceral resistance to Ozick’s suggestion: if there is anything that historians can all agree to, it is that documents of the past should be preserved so that over time society can interpret and reinterpret them. The building blocks of our endeavor are the documents from the past. But Ozick’s suggestion is not lightly offered—indeed, she is shocked herself to suggest it—but seriously proposed in order to awaken us to the immensity of the diary’s cynical transformation. Considering how far the manipulation of the diary has gone, and how its interpretation has been shaped by the censors and translators and playwrights and Hollywood producers, it is worth at least wondering how an important document can make its way through the minefields of popularization.

Consider one widely read ‘‘spin-off’’ of Anne Frank’s diary: the Cliffs Notes to the diary, first published in 1984. The bulk of the booklet is a detailed summary of the diary, recounting the daily developments in the annex much like a soap opera digest. The main thrust of the interpretive sections of the notes follows those of the Broadway play and Hollywood movie precisely: ‘‘Above all else, Anne’s feelings are ordinary and so akin to those experienced by any teenager growing up and being confronted by situations and with individuals which he or she is not yet capable of dealing with in a detached or adult way. One of the most striking features that emerges from Anne’s diary is the sense of the intensity of the emotions that she experiences as an adolescent.’’ ‘‘Essay Topics’’ are proposed for students: ‘‘Try to keep a diary for a week. Can you make it interesting and varied?’’ ‘‘What do you think makes Anne’s diary interesting?’’ ‘‘Pretend that Anne survived the concentration camps. Write an account of what she did when she grew up.’’ The Cliffs Notes version is hardly more offensive than other volumes in this plentiful series of cheat sheets. But it speaks authoritatively about a very different diary than the one we know to be Anne Frank’s actual words.

Ozick wrote her article before the new Broadway play version returned to the stage but she anticipated not liking this version much more than the original play and its Academy Award-winning movie of 1959. She was not mistaken.

The common attitude in the press has been that the new play version of the diary is an improvement because it adds in some lines about Anne’s sexual awakening and her conflicts with her mother and because it reintroduces the Jewish aspects in the diary. Others, such as Ben Brantley of The New York Times, offered greater praise. With an ‘‘uncompromising steadiness of gaze, embedded in a bleak sense of historical context,’’ he wrote, the play is ‘‘undeniably moving.’’ Indeed, Kesselman has gone to great lengths to make the Judaism more prominent, to make the Nazi threat seem much closer and more ominous. She has also added extensive voice-overs of lengthy passages from the diary.

But this is merely window-dressing. The 1998 play on Broadway maintains the basic structure of the earlier version and develops the same themes of adolescent awakening amidst the stresses of wartime. Those who praise the play version focus still on the progress of Anne from ‘‘self-centered girlishness to the cusp of self-aware womanhood.’’ And the reaction remains the expected ‘‘snuffles and sobs from the audience.’’ (The critic Vincent Canby reports on a different reaction: at the end of the play, a woman in the row in front of him exclaimed to her companion, in shock: ‘‘You mean, she dies?’’) The Nazi evil is felt in booming sounds of Hitler over the radio, shadows coming in through the windows, and frightening noises in the building below as inspections bring the Franks closer to capture. The ending is pure 1950s melodrama: the SS, with very classy handguns and cocked hats, burst in while the group is enjoying a rare treat of strawberries.

The comparison that immediately came to mind was the Civil War television series by Ken and Ric Burns. This series was praised profusely for its powerful use of images from the Civil War, its stunning voice-overs by some of our finest actors, and its attempt to incorporate more than previous movies and popular Civil War histories the experience of slaves, of women, of common men on both sides. It remains, however, deeply deficient as a work of public history. For despite these efforts, there is also a nostalgic overtone to each of the thirteen episodes. The maddening repetition of the theme song, the opening sunsets over cannons, the framing of each series with military battles, and the setting of the whole series as a battle of brother against brother (white, of course), as a painful but necessary episode, now all neatly, resolved—all contribute to giving the viewer a message of nostalgia. That was a great time, the Burns brothers suggest, a time of noble fights over ideals, which is now (sadly) all gone, in the distant past. Similarly, in the play version of The Diary of Anne Frank, all the tweaking of scripts, the cutting and pasting, does little to restore the power of the diary or even to begin to undo the half century of manipulation.

Ozick, with the aid of Ralph Melnick’s book, lines up behind the other play which was written to bring the diary to stage. Ralph Melnick most vociferously argues that had Meyer Levin, the journalist, photographer, and playwright who first urged Otto Frank to bring the diary to a wider audience, been given the job, the play version of the diary would have risen above the aspartame lessons of Hollywood’s Goodrich and Hackett. In many ways, Melnick is continuing the battle Levin waged from the moment it became clear that he was to be removed from the Broadway team bringing the play to the stage. Originally favored by Otto Frank as the most able to bring Anne Frank’s story to the stage, Levin was removed in favor of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett by the producers, Garson Kanin and Kermit Bloomgarten. Levin countered with lawsuits, editorials, and an autobiography to defend his version and lambaste what he saw as the desecration of the diary.

Because of the success of the play and movie, Levin’s version quickly slipped into oblivion. But because of Melnick’s championing of Levin’s cause, the Hatikvah Center in Springfield, Massachusetts sponsored a reading of two identical scenes—between Anne and Peter, the son of the other family in the annex—from the 1955 Broadway version and Levin’s own rarely produced version. It was a fascinating afternoon and deeply troubling, for it showed how the diary was so effectively sapped of some of its most tragic and powerful meaning as it made its journey from private journal to public entertainment. The Goodrich and Hackett version, no one would now deny, goes as far as it can to erase the Jewish aspects of the diary and to promote a universalist message of faith and hope. ‘‘I wish you had a religion,’’ Anne says to Peter. ‘‘I just mean some religion … it doesn’t matter what. Just to believe in something!’’ Levin’s version of the same scenes is substantially different. Anne is suddenly not a Levittown teenager of the 1950s but a young Jewish girl with a far darker view of the world. In Levin’s version, Peter longs for the time after the war when he can leave behind his Jewish heritage and just ‘‘be one of them.’’ Anne retorts: ‘‘But Peter. It wouldn’t be honest.… We can never be just Netherlanders, or just English, or just French. We will always remain Jews.’’ Whereas Goodrich and Hackett end with Anne’s hopeful lines (taken out of their context in the diary) about the goodness of people, Levin’s play ends with Anne gloomily reflecting (with words directly from her diary) on a world ‘‘turning into a wilderness.’’

The tone of Levin’s play as a whole is markedly different than that of the Goodrich and Hackett version, and his script courageously addresses the Jewish themes head on. But Levin’s version has its own spin, which has less to do with the diary than with his own political beliefs. Many of these speeches about being true to one’s Jewish roots are based not on the diary but on Levin’s own political beliefs. Although I would happily substitute Levin’s version for Goodrich and Hackett’s—an exaggeration of Anne’s clear moral code and identification with Jewish persistence seems a lesser fault than the ethnic cleansing of Goodrich and Hackett—it hardly answers the need for truer public adaptation of the diary.

Most disturbing in all three of the play versions is that so much of them is invented. Voice-overs in the new Broadway version (horribly amplified in the theater) lead the audience to believe that the play is largely an enactment of the diary, which it could never be. The ending scene so crucial to our emotional reaction (the sobs from the audience some critics crowed about in the updated Broadway version) is, of course, not in the diary. Indeed, Anne’s diary ends, on August 1, 1944, with a long entry in which she ruminates on ‘‘trying to find a way to become what I’d like to be and what I could be if … if only there were no other people in the world.’’ Numerous scenes are only briefly noted in the diary, and there is virtually no dialogue. Departing from the document is necessary, of course, for transposing a historical document into another medium. But I wondered, by the end of the new Broadway play, after all that has happened to the diary, if a stage version were worth undertaking. Indeed, I wondered if a stage version, necessitating dialogue and action that is not in the diary at all, contributes to the diary’s continued manipulation. For what the play version offers is a revised, perhaps improved and more honest, reflection of the diary. But Anne still becomes a symbol, mostly of an adolescent girl growing up in difficult circumstances, and less so of a Jew who will become a victim of the Holocaust.

But even this debate over what would be the true artistic rendition of the diary is somewhat misleading. What is implied is that there is a single understanding of the diary and its writer. In fact, what is striking as one rereads the diary and also the histories of the diary’s life after Anne’s murder, is the repeated rewriting of this document called The Diary of Anne Frank. It begins with Anne herself, the Jew, the adolescent girl, the German, and also, the writer. When scholars now speak of the diary they must speak about the versions: A, B, C, Definitive. Diary A is what Anne wrote in two years in hiding. Diary B is the diary with parts that she herself had begun to rewrite. One must remember that the diary—or, more accurately, its rewriting—was inspired, in part, by a 1944 radio message from Gerritt Bolkestein, a member of the Dutch government in exile, urging that Dutch citizens maintain records of war-time occupation so that evidence would be available after the war was over. Anne hoped to publish her diary—she titled this supposedly private journal ‘‘The House Behind’’—and planned to go to Hollywood and become a screenwriter. In her revisions to her diary, Anne changed the names—she was Anne Aulis and, in a further revision, Anne Robin. Thus, the diary was almost a draft in progress for her, not a running series of events and observations. Diary C is what was known as The Diary of a Young Girl for nearly forty years; it was the edition approved by 0tto Frank and it became the basis for the millions of editions published in dozens of languages, as well as the play and movie versions. The ‘‘official’’ version, however, is approximately one-third shorter than the diary, or diaries, that Anne had written in those two years. Only after forty years was the ‘‘definitive edition’’ published in 1991 that restored much of what was removed from versions A and B. (It still is, however, titled The Diary of a Young Girl, which was never Anne’s title for it.) But even the diary we now mistakenly call the definitive version fails to show how Anne herself edited her writing—it does not show the pseudonyms she invented, nor does it show where she edited (although it includes a few passages added or edited by Anne herself). Although the definitive edition brings back into public light Anne Frank’s words, in a way it is the least honest of the versions since it suggests ‘‘definitiveness’’ while it simply creates a new text altogether. Publishing a composite of drafts of The Great Gatsby as the definitive novel, for example, would hardly have pleased F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I use the analogy of a novel intentionally. What few have reckoned with in trying to come to terms with the meaning of the diary is that Anne Frank was a writer. Cynthia Ozick began her New Yorker piece with the surprising line that ‘‘even if she had not kept the extraordinary diary through which we know her it is likely that we would number her among the famous of this century.… She was born to be a writer.’’ To convey to the public the meaning of Anne Frank’s diary, we must also understand that it was itself a work of public history. What we fail to understand about this document, and probably so many documents that we as public historians try to interpret, is that the documents themselves were meant to be secondary sources, works of history for the public themselves. Anne’s diary was written not simply as a private journal (although she did, as any writer might, jealously protect her drafts from prying outsiders) to be kept under lock and key. She always expected that this work would be a crucial journal of the war, not just an unconscious document (I believe there are few of these, at least in the textual realm), but a conscious interpretation of the meaning of hiding, as a Jew, from Nazi Germany.

All efforts to understand Anne Frank and her unique work must contend with this fact. Indeed, by ignoring Anne’s conscious development of the diary as a work of literature, we misconstrue the diary, misrepresent its author, and take inaccurate lessons that we perceive to be offered by an unconscious author.

So, how might we then, as public historians, attempt to bring The Diary of Anne Frank out of its textual covers and into the realm of public history? The irony of Ozick’s position is that through her writing (and the publication of her writing in a prestigious magazine), the revelatory history of the diary is making its way into public light. It is difficult now for a broad segment of the reading public not to be aware that the diary has been altered repeatedly. Perhaps the complete diary can now begin to have a new career as a document of the war and of the Holocaust.

A public interpretation of Anne Frank should make one think again; it should challenge people, not just make them weep for a moment. A growing group of artists of Holocaust memorials in Germany, Israel, and the United States have recognized a simple fact of memorials: they often do as much to aid forgetting as promote active remembering. By offering readily accessible narrative forms (soldiers with guns, obelisks, grand archways), traditional memorials universalize particular tragedies in the service of advancing the politically useful feelings of nationalism, jingoism, and individual heroism. ‘‘Counter monuments’’ avoid these simple forms and their suspect purposes; they offer new ways of considering the costs of war and genocide. One barely glances at the American Legion-inspired Vietnam memorial of three soldiers, while one heads to the stunning black granite monument by Maya Lin. It is a monument which makes one stop and think, weep but also honor the dead, consider and remember.

But in the case of a public presentation of The Diary of Anne Frank, which is based on an actual historical document, a recognition of the full complexity of that document would return us to the essence of what the diary is, a continuing, writerly record of hiding by a Jewish girl who knew evil and sensed its invasion into her ‘‘Secret Annex’’ and who eventually was murdered by it. The philosopher Karsten Harries has written that the ‘‘ethical function’’ of architecture is to ‘‘represent’’ the act of building, that is, to make people think again about the very notion of building and the existential experience of dwelling. Just so, a public historical interpretation of The Diary of Anne Frank should differ from the versions presented in the entertainment venues by promoting remembering of Anne Frank’s particularity, rather than her universality, as a Jew, a young girl, a victim. A public historical interpretation may also focus on the document’s life itself, its strange career since 1944, which says so much about the manipulation of history over the past half century.

One can imagine a public reading of the diary, with entries read on the anniversaries of Anne’s writing of them. Or perhaps there could be parallel readings of different versions of this document, from Anne’s versions A, B, and C to the Goodrich and Hackett script to Levin’s version. One can also imagine a play written about the successive rewritings of the play—a play about the diary’s career. In some ways, the play’s life since Anne Frank was murdered could be its most lasting meaning. The diary itself has, for too long and for too many, been asked to hold the weight of meaning for the entire Holocaust. Ozick argues that the diary is ‘‘not a Holocaust document.’’ Indeed, it has been used as the primary document for students to learn about the Holocaust precisely because the actual extermination of the Jews of Europe is, due to the nature of the document, never detailed.

Source: Max Page, ‘‘The Life and Death of a Document: Lessons from the Strange Career of The Diary of Anne Frank,’’ in Public Historian, Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter 1999, pp. 87–97.

Meyer Levin’s Obsession

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Before his recent death at age 75, Meyer Levin—author of such books as Compulsion, The Settlers, In Search—left the world a copy of his Ethical Will, a document that aspired to pass on to humanity ‘‘the moral values learned in a lifetime,’’ which Levin deemed to be ‘‘as vital as worldly goods.’’ Levin’s true concern, however, turned out to be recounting the story surrounding his long ‘‘suppressed’’ stage version of The Diary of Anne Frank—a story that had obsessed him through the last thirty years of his life. And yet, despite Meyer’s last literary testament, basic questions about the true authorship of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play based on Frank’s diary remained unresolved at the time of his death.

Levin’s association with the diary began in 1950, when he came upon the book in a French translation and was immediately convinced that he had heard ‘‘the voice from the mass graves’’ for which he’d been searching impatiently ever since covering the Holocaust as a war correspondent. After contacting Otto Frank and discovering that the book had still not found an American publisher, Levin volunteered his assistance on one condition: that he be allowed first crack at adapting the diary for stage and film, even though he could boast little experience in either field. Otto Frank consented to this demand (even while claiming he ‘‘couldn’t see’’ his daughter’s work as a play), and Levin went on to use his influence by helping persuade Doubleday to publish the diary, as well as by writing a glowing front-page review in The New York Times Book Review.

Levin’s motive in all this seems not to have been greed—early on, he announced an intention of donating his proceeds to charity—but rather deeply personal and ideological, a combination of the genuine horror he felt having witnessed the liberation of Auschwitz and other death camps, and an awareness of the impact the diary could have as an indictment of Hitler and anti-Semitism. He had already written in his autobiographical memoir, In Search (1948), that he conceived of his artistic role as that of a link between the two great Jewish cultural centers of New York and Israel, and what better unifying force could there be than that youthfully heroic figure, Anne Frank? So it came as a blow to Levin when his adaptation of the book was rejected, first by Cheryl Crawford (owner of the original rights) and then by Kermit Bloomgarden (who had picked up her option). Soon Otto Frank himself was asking Levin to step aside in favor of a ‘‘world-famous dramatist’’ (Carson McCullers? Arthur Miller?); in the end Levin found himself replaced by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, a non-Jewish husband-and-wife screenwriting team, who were friends of Levin’s great enemy, Lillian Hellman. As if that weren’t galling enough, he found their adaptation to be ‘‘the ghost of my own play,’’ containing certain key scenes not in the book, along with whole sections of his dialogue, while omitting most of the references to Jewish issues.

Levin promptly sued Bloomgarden, the Hacketts, and Otto Frank for ‘‘plagiarism and appropriation of ideas,’’ with the jury returning a verdict in Levin’s favor, awarding him 25 percent of the royalties, or half of what the Hacketts were getting. Despite this apparent triumph, however, everything went downhill for Levin from there on. First, the amount he was supposed to receive (stipulated at $50,000) was held up in appeals for so long that he eventually settled for the payment of his $15,000 legal expenses. Then his lawsuit against Anne Frank’s father earned him the very damaging reputation of ‘‘litigious Levin’’ that would follow him throughout his career. And finally, the rights to his own adaptation—which were at the heart of the issue—were entirely removed from his possession by Otto Frank’s lawyers, who threatened Levin with a countersuit if he even discussed his diary play. Levin challenged this again and again, finally going so far as to help stage a production of his play at the Israeli Soldiers Theater in 1966, which was soon shut down by Otto Frank’s lawyers. This was the point at which Levin and Otto Frank were stalemated until 1981, when both men died, apparently putting an end to the issue … except for the legacy of doubts and questions they left behind.

Such as: did plagiary on such a bold scale really occur? Why was there so little publicity about the jury’s decision? When the trial took place, the Broadway version of the diary had already enjoyed quite a long run, winning the Critics Circle Award, the Tony Award, and the Pulitzer Prize, becoming a very successful box-office hit, and making Otto Frank into a saint overnight. And yet, as Levin never tired of pointing out later on, ‘‘not a single publication commented on the fact that for the first time in history, a Pulitzer Prize work had been judged largely the work of another.’’ Why was this so? Why were so few people interested in what was potentially a major scandal in American letters? Why wasn’t Levin’s version produced as proof that it was so poor it could not be performed, and that it bore no resemblance at all to the Broadway play? And why has there been so little clarification of the issues in the years since?

One reason, of course, is the tremendous popularity that the Hackett version has enjoyed over the years, among audiences of all ages, Jews and Gentiles alike. Another reason is the extreme reverence accorded Otto Frank, whom Levin found to be as ‘‘sacrosanct’’ as the Broadway diary when he went on his campaign to have his own play performed. Jews especially were unreceptive to Levin, feeling that the success of the Hackett play and the subsequent veneration of Otto Frank were both marks of cultural acceptance that should not be slighted. And then there was Levin himself, whose aggressively defiant behavior could alienate even those who believed him, as he insisted on finding ‘‘conspiracies’’ wherever he looked. ‘‘Was I being pushed out because of my closeness to Judaism and Zionism?’’ he asked in the preface to his self-published play. ‘‘Was I on some peculiar form of blacklist, a McCarthyism of its own, for my Jewish views?’’ These charges were the more startling for being aimed at people like Hellman and Bloomgarden, themselves the victims of blacklisting—all of which earned Levin the reputation of being a Red-baiter, on top of everything else. Even worse, they distracted people’s attention from the real issues: were there enough similarities between the two plays to substantiate the plagiary charge? And was Levin’s version really as good as he claimed, or was it as poor as the producers insisted—that is, did it deserve a production?

After studying the two diary scripts and comparing them with Anne Frank’s book, my conclusion is that Levin has a strong case: there appears to be ample evidence that the Hacketts had access to Levin’s play, either directly or through someone who was familiar with its style and emphases. Both chronicle the experiences of two Jewish families, the Franks and the van Daans, during the more than two years they spend together in a warehouse attic, hiding out from the Nazis. Both employ the same basic dramatic structure for relating that story: starting out with the families moving into the hiding place, then tracing the development of the characters through their interaction in a chronological series of episodes or scenes. Furthermore, the selection of scenes that both plays choose to present from the wealth of anecdotal material to be found in the diary is almost identical. Finally, both plays call for substantially the same stage design and performance technique: the four rooms of the hiding place are to be visible at all times, so that incidents in separate rooms can occur simultaneously, the actors’ lines counterpointing each other.

Of course, all of this could be simply the result of similar creative processes at work on the same source. But this becomes harder to justify when the Hacketts start using scenes and conversations that exist in Levin’s play but not in the diary. For instance, when the Jews unwittingly make their presence known to the thieves in Levin’s play, it is through the singing of a Hanukkah song; an almost identical device is used in the Hackett version, yet this is not taken from Anne Frank’s description. Of course, the moment is very theatrical, very effective, but why should it occur at the same point in both plays when there were so many other possibilities? There are several other uses of almost identical quotes in both plays that appear nowhere in the diary.

Certainly, though, such similarities are not like copying out a whole speech word for word, or duplicating a long scene exactly; yet they recur often enough throughout the Hackett play to make an impression. Equally striking is the pattern of differences and variations between the two plays. Levin often liked to characterize these differences by comparing two passages from the same moment in each of the works, when Anne is in Peter’s room toward the end of the play, trying to convince him not to lose heart, to keep up his faith. In Levin’s play, she tells him, quoting directly from Anne’s words in the diary:

Who knows, perhaps the whole world will learn from the good that is in us, and perhaps for that reason the Jews have to suffer now. Right through the ages there have been Jews, through all the ages they have had to suffer, and it has made us strong, too.

In the Hackett version, however, this same speech comes out as: ‘‘We [Jews] are not the only people that’ve had to suffer. There’ve always been people that’ve had to … sometimes one race … sometimes another.’’

Dramatic license like this made Levin furious, for it seemed to violate the playwright’s duty to the original material, changing the diary from a specifically Jewish document to something else, which the Broadway producers called ‘‘universal.’’ This also had the effect of assimilating Anne Frank into the general culture, a process which Levin thought responsible for creating the climate in which a Nazi Holocaust could take place. His diary play is all about the erosion of Jewish identity through anti-Semitism; his two families live in exile within their own country, no longer German or Dutch, yet not Jewish enough to be anything else—a problem that each of the three adolescents vows to deal with in his or her own way, according to what we’ve been told about them in Anne’s diary. Margot, Anne’s sister, is determined to become a nurse in Palestine after the war so she can look after ‘‘her own people’’; Peter van Daan yearns to run away to the West Indies, where he can make lots of money and forget that he was ever a Jew; while Anne steers a middle course between them, vowing to become a Dutch journalist when the war is over, even though ‘‘we can never be just Netherlanders, or just English, or just French. We will always remain Jews.’’

The Broadway diary, in contrast, completely overlooks Margot Frank’s Zionist tendencies, while minimizing the Jewish issue for both Peter and Anne. It concentrates instead on what it sees as the general breakdown of civilized values which gave rise to the Holocaust, viewing the Jews as unlucky scapegoats and the Nazis as representatives of man’s vilest instincts. Thus, the diary comes to symbolize the generation that was wiped out in the death camps, but whose belief in mankind survived in the diary to give the Otto Franks of the world the will to go on.

This interpretation is certainly valid; it preserves the general outlines of Anne Frank’s story (as well as much of its essence), and it shouldn’t be too difficult to see the appeal this would have both for the Broadway producers and for Otto Frank. First of all, it condensed the horrifying and overwhelming events of the Holocaust into the easily understandable story of two loving families fighting for survival and destroyed through no fault of their own. Second, here were two non-Jewish writers, treating the Jewish characters with dignity and respect, showing them as human beings who also happened to be Jewish, thus allowing them to transcend their specific condition and become emblematic of all the people who died in the world tragedy of World War II. This was very important for Otto Frank, who wanted to spread his daughter’s message of hope and belief to as many people as possible, and who wanted to provide an outlet for all the grief and suffering that Hitler had caused.

And yet this sacrificed an aspect of his daughter’s spirit which was very much a part of the diary, and which persisted in asking the question: ‘‘Why the Jews? Why always the Jews?’’ These sections of Anne’s ruminations look at the Holocaust as just one in a series of persecutions aimed against the Jewish people, and it was this side of Anne Frank that Meyer Levin was particularly interested in, since its concerns corresponded with what Levin considered to be his own ‘‘true task,’’ his own ‘‘destiny.’’

Ultimately, though, Levin’s enemy was not the Broadway play, it was Anne Frank’s father. Otto Frank’s decision to go with the Hackett play over Levin’s version is understandable in both commercial and personal terms, yet why forbid performances of Levin’s play altogether? Why shouldn’t there be more than one interpretation of Anne Frank’s diary?

Source: Stephen Fife, ‘‘Meyer Levin’s Obsession,’’ in New Republic, Vol. 187, No. 3524, August 2, 1982, pp. 26–30.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Critical Overview