Anne Frank—A Girl for All Times: Would She Have Become Our Elie Wiesel?

June 12, 1999, would have been Anne Frank’s 70th birthday. I always felt connected to Anne, and realized, as I matured, that I was hardly unique in this. Anne’s diary emerges from one of the most significant events of the century, and endures as one of its most potent records. So I expected 1999 to bring at least some public commentary on the significance of Anne Frank.

What might Anne have become had her secret annex not been discovered, had she not contracted typhus at Bergen-Belsen and had she survived? Would the diary she was so determined to publish merely join the vast libraries of Holocaust literature? Or was she, who so desired to “be useful and give pleasure to people… .to go on living after [her] death,” destined for fame? Would she have been satisfied with being a wife, a mother, a journalist? Or would she have become our female Elie Wiesel?

It is difficult to imagine an aged Anne, for she is frozen as a girl, beaming childishly in the famous photo that graces her diary’s cover. In fact, she has become the quintessential adolescent girl. Anne is a self-described “bundle of contradictions”: childlike in her exuberance, but mature in her thoughts; amiable and warm but too honest to feign affection; both excited and confused by her budding sexuality. Extremely sociable, she also yearns to become “what I could be…[if] only there were no other people in the world.” Yes, Anne “still believe[d] that people are really good at heart,” but she remained disappointed by humanity. And Anne was equally self-critical, despite her conviction that she was special.

While the 70th anniversary of her birth was not officially commemorated, the centui7 did close with renewed interest in Anne. In 1995, Doubleday published the definitive edition of her diary, with new details about Anne’s sexuality and critical comments about her mother. “Anne Frank Remembered,” which won the 1996 Oscar for Best Documentary, offered new insight into the real Anne. An adaptation of the original, Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, incorporating these new elements, was brought to Broadway in 1997. The first full biography of Anne, by Melissa Muller, in 1998 added dimension to a girl who has become part of our mythology. (Muller captured headlines with her discovery of who betrayed the Franks to the Nazis and her finding the final pages of Anne’s diary.) Time magazine selected Anne as one of its 20 “icons of the century” in its millennial windup. And this January saw the release of Anne Frank: Reflections on Her Life and Legacy (University of Illinois Press), an anthology exploring the many historical interpretations (and sometimes distortions) of Anne’s life.

Also this January, the diary was taken on by the New York Youth Theater, a company that produces plays relevant to young people. According to director Lawrence Axmith, one of the troupe’s main selection criteria is that the play must “hold a universal truth” and “say something about kids to kids.”

Ronete Levenson, a student at the Solomon Schechter High School in Manhattan who shone as Anne in the NYYT production, relished the opportunity to play a dream role. The granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Levenson first read the diary when she was 12 and always felt a connection to Anne who was “just incredible, but also just a girl.”

Levenson is not the only Jewish actress to connect to Anne. Natalie Portman, who played Anne in the Broadway revival, wrote in Seventeen magazine; “[The diary] made me feel as if someone understood me.” Winona Ryder, who has recorded an audio version of the diary, identified Anne as the tragic historical heroine she would “love to have played” in a recent issue of Allure. Millions of copies of the diary have been printed in over 50 languages, making it, after the Bible, the second-most read book. Her impact on adolescents, girls, Jewish girls, is particularly great.

Anne’s diary made her an icon, but it’s neither her iconic stature nor her world-wide fame that draw us to her. Through her diary’s rich and quotidian details she remains one very real girl, connecting to us personally from generation to generation. Perhaps we’ll appropriately honor the world’s most famous adolescent on her 75th.