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Anne Frank


By Dr. Catherine Chatterley, April 17, 2012


[Editor's note: Dr. Catherine Chatterley is the guest speaker at the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba's Annual Woemn's Endowment Fund Luncheon this year on May 10, 2012 at the Fort Gary Hotel. To get our tickets to this event ,see Advertisment on this website in the top right hand caorner of the website or go to .]

After decades of exposure to the Nazi murder of European Jewry, through education in schools and universities, the production of countless Holocaust histories and memoirs, the wide distribution of Holocaust related films, plays, and television programs, and, the construction of Holocaust memorials and museums, including a prominent federal institution in Washington, we are now facing pressure to include all people who suffered under Hitler into what we know as the Holocaust—the deliberate, systematic, state-sponsored annihilation of Jewish Europe.

How do we explain the apparent paradox of a culture that appears to be suffering from “Jewish Holocaust fatigue,”and yet knows very little about the history of this specific event and the pivotal role played by antisemitism in its conception and execution? To answer the question, we must begin to examine the phenomenon of Holocaust education and its universalizing methods, and try to assess what exactly people have learned about the Holocaust and antisemitism over the last several decades.

Part of the answer can be found in the material used to teach the subject. One of the central texts used by teachers, parents, and professors to educate students about the Holocaust is The Diary of Anne Frank. The book has been celebrated for decades but also criticized for its universalization, and not so subtle elision, of the Jewish experience under Nazism. The Diary was first published in Dutch as Het Achterhuis [The House Behind] in 1947, translated into French and German in 1950, and into English in 1952, with a play staged on Broadway only three years later.1

Instead of discussing the long and detailed controversies over the book and its theatrical applications, I will examine several trenchant critiques of the text that deserve our renewed attention. In 1960, Bruno Bettelheim wrote a psychosocial critique of the Broadway play (1955) and Hollywood film (1959) for Harper’s Magazine, in which he focused his attention not so much on Anne’s text but upon our use of it and our reaction to it. For Bettelheim, the larger culture’s “universal and uncritical response” to The Diary reflected “our wish to forget the gas chambers,” and instead take comfort in the false belief that Jews could retreat “into an extremely private, gentle, sensitive world” despite being surrounded “by a maelstrom apt to engulf one at any moment.”2 Even more offensive was our fetishized treatment of her statement, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are good at heart,” to which the story is often reduced, when in fact Anne had written those optimistic words well before the attic had been sold out by a Dutch informant for about a dollar per person, the inhabitants deported to camps, her mother killed, and she and her sister Margot suffered abject death by typhus in Bergen Belsen in April 1945.

This “lesson” about the goodness of people, given the actual history of Anne Frank and her family, is patently false, and Bettelheim believed that it created an equally false sense of optimism, misleading readers to imagine Anne surviving the war. In fact, recent pedagogical studies of The Diary have demonstrated this exact problem. Students have been shown to characterize Anne’s diary as more “hopeful than sad,” as a story of survival, and even a love story. They appear to manifest a deep-seated resistance to the truth of her death in Bergen Belsen, which was described as “ruining” the story for one student in a classroom study.3

Bettelheim also argued that the platitude about human goodness “releases us effectively of the need to cope with the problems Auschwitz presents.”4 Writing in 1960, he did not mention antisemitism specifically, nor did he characterize the specific “problems” Auschwitz presents, but today we know that without antisemitism there would not have been a Birkenau, and yet The Diary allows its readers to disregard this reality entirely. Here, then, is a perfect example of the way students, and the larger culture, are exposed to the Holocaust and yet learn nothing in particular about the problem of antisemitism.

Lawrence Langer makes an important observation about the book in this regard. Instead of providing any actual information about the Holocaust or antisemitism, Langer argues, The Diary “enacts in its very text a designed avoidance of the very experience it is reputed to grant us some exposure to [and] thus her work helps us to transcend what we have not yet encountered, nonetheless leaving behind a film of conviction that we have.”5

In a devastating critique by Cynthia Ozick, The Diary is described as “bowdlerized, distorted, transmuted, traduced, reduced . . . infantilized, Americanized, homogenized, sentimentalized, falsified, kitschified, and, in fact, blatantly and arrogantly denied.”6 Like Bettelheim and Langer, Ozick denies the value of this text as a Holocaust document. To make her point, she proceeds to reconstruct the actual fate of the Frank girls, based upon the testimony of Belsen survivors, including Anne’s schoolmate Hannah Goslar: “[Margot] fell dead to the ground from the wooden slab on which she lay, eaten by lice, and Anne, heartbroken and skeletal, naked under a bit of rag, died a day or two later.”7

Equally important to Ozick’s graphic truth-telling is her revelation of the very real dejudaization of the book, revealed by the publication in 1995 of additional diary material removed by Anne Frank’s father Otto, subsequent publishers, and translators.8 Comparing editions now reveals that Otto Frank removed Anne’s numerous references to Judaism, including those describing Yom Kippur. Additionally, the Zionism of Anne’s sister Margot as well as the Hebrew the family sung at Hanukkah were deleted from the Hackett Broadway script approved by Frank. Additions that distort Anne’s story were invented by producer Lillian Hellman, who inserted lines like “we’re not the only people that’ve had to suffer . . . There’ve always been people that’ve had to . . . sometimes one race . . . sometimes another.”9
Even worse, Otto Frank allowed the translator of the German edition, Anneliese Schütz, to either remove or revise Anne’s passages about Germans. For example, in her list of
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