The Diary Takes on a Life of Its Own

“I am told that every night when the sun goes down, somewhere in the world the curtain is going up on the stage play made from Anne’s diary,” wrote Miep Gies, who helped hide Anne Frank’s family during the war, in her 1980s memoir. The play, The Diary of Anne Frank, has been an international theater phenomenon since it opened on Broadway in 1955.

But the theatrical version of Anne Frank is only one of the countless ways that for the past 60 years people all over the world have connected with Anne Frank and her diary — the subject of the collection of essays, Anne Frank Unbound: Media, Imagination, Memory (Indiana University Press, $29) edited by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Jeffrey Shandler. Fifteen years ago, when the Broadway production starring Natalie Portman was being reviewed, Cynthia Ozick, in the pages of The New Yorker, lamented the distortion and destruction of the diary in its contemporary incarnations — a misreading captured by the actress’s interpretation of her character: “It’s funny, it’s hopeful, and she’s a happy person,” Portman said of Anne Frank. “Whence came this uplifting and genial characterization of the diary?” Ozick asked, musing, “Who owns Anne Frank?”

Anne Frank Unbound shows how far readers and artists have moved from Ozick’s desire for what she saw as authentic readings of the diary. The more time elapses, the less readers feel constrained in how they respond to the diary. Otto Frank’s control of the dramatic rights to his daughter’s diary allowed him to request the removal, from the 1955 play, of a line in the diary where Peter Van Daan asserts that he wants to change his name and deny his Jewishness if he survives the war. It was not fair to the boy, Otto Frank felt, for his memory to be marred by such a juvenile comment.

The current panoply of cultural production surrounding Anne Frank knows no such limits in its manipulations of the diary. Take, for instance, jokes about Anne Frank. They may seem in poor taste, but they are a product of our anxieties, Eddie Portnoy explains in his essay, “Anne Frank on Crank: Comic Anxieties.” It is Frank’s iconic stature and the public’s familiarity with the intimate details of her life that make Anne Frank such an easy target of deflationary humor, according to Portnoy. Sara Horowitz’s “Literary Afterlives of Anne Frank” traces the ways that Anne Frank continues to attract writers and serve as the subject of fiction and poetry. The unfinished nature of the story, the obliqueness of its treatment of the Holocaust, and the decades of reading Anne’s experience as paradigmatic of all suffering have made it a natural text for exploring new meanings. Passover is never mentioned in Anne’s diary, but she has been integrated into several hagadot, according to Liora Gubkin’s “Anne Frank, a Guest at the Seder” chapter. Frank’s discussion of her sexuality and maturation inspires contemporary scholarship that treats the diary as a coming-of-age narrative, as Sally Charnow shows, replacing the older scholarly focus on the diary as a document of Jewish resistance to Nazi persecution. Jeffrey Shandler and Edna Nahshon’s chapters helpfully treat the diary’s transformation to book and then to the stage.

Ozick, in 1997, decried the misnomer of the diary as a Holocaust document (the crimes of the Holocaust are largely not described in this diary), or even calling it “the story of Anne Frank,” because its end was missing; but current literary, visual, artistic, and musical engagements with the text are so multifarious, Shandler and Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s volume reveals, precisely because the diary is unfinished. One wishes for a more finished volume than this one; after 60 years, readers justly feel the time is ripe for a more cohesive thesis about the diary’s significance to Jewish culture. The last year alone has seen two works of fiction based on Anne Frank, by two of America’s leading Jewish novelists, Nathan Englander and Shalom Auslander. More than ever, this diary of a young girl seems not so much “unbound” as completely bound up in our current cultural moment. It may be that we wait another 60 years for a volume that reflects back on why that is so.

Rachel Gordan received her Ph.D. in American religious history from Harvard in 2012. She is a postdoctoral fellow in American Judaism at Northwestern.