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Leave Anne Frank alone!?

Anne Frank ca. 1942

Anne Frank not showing enough gravitas

My work in progress, The Ghosts of Reseda High, is about contemporary teenagers facing their own mortality. What better way to do that, I thought, than to have them read the ultimate book about a teen facing mortality, Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl.

As my characters read this book, they face their own issues about loss. My main character has a mother who escaped the 1990 anti-Armenian pogrom in Baku. He is trying to help his best friend who is suffering from physical and psychological abuse. My main character is also falling in love with a girl who lost an aunt in the Rwandan Genocide. Their teacher still feels regret over the murder of a classmate when she was a high school student in 1976.

I already knew including Anne Frank had problems. For starters, I’m not sure which organization to contact for permission to use quotes from the book.

I then came across this article by Jason Diamond in Flavorwire critiquing other books that used Anne Frank in their stories. (I haven’t read any of those books. Now, I suppose I have to.) He took those books to task because they didn’t “seem to have anything to say about the weighty and loaded topic from which it takes its premise” and they “trivialized, rather than made moving art in tribute to, the real lives of Holocaust victims.”

So, what exactly does it mean to trivialize the Holocaust? How much weight is needed? Does it mean that Anne Frank is off-limits as a subject for fiction?

To answer those questions, let’s go to the source: Anne Frank’s diary. The version I’m reading for my research is The Definitive Edition, edited by Otto H. Frank and Mirjam Pressler, translated by Susan Massotty (Doubleday 1995, ISBN 0-385-47378-8).

When we think about Anne Frank, we remember her profound statements like, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” [332] We forget that her diary contained a lot of writings like this:

We started talking about the fact that Peter says Margot is a “buttinsky.” Suddenly Daddy’s voice was heard from the depths: “Sits on her butt, you mean.” [41]

And:

I’m probably going to have my period soon. I can tell because I keep finding a whitish smear in my panties, and Mother predicted it would start soon. I can hardly wait. It’s such a momentous event. Too bad I can’t use sanitary napkins, but you can’t get them anymore, and Mama’s tampons can be used only by women who’ve had a baby. [60]

Passages like these — as trivial and even offensive to some as they seem — make The Diary of a Young Girl so heartbreaking. They remind us that Anne Frank was an ordinary girl forced into extraordinary suffering. They are why Anne Frank’s diary continues to be read by teenagers, and why teenagers continue to be moved by it. They can read her writing and say “that could have been me.”

Holocaust victims shouldn’t be trivialized, but they also shouldn’t be deified. That would rob them of their humanity as well, and it would separate us from the horror they experienced. We need to see the victims of genocide as people — people who loved, argued, laughed, and complained. We would then see their murders not as statistics or a historical event that can be used as a plot device, but as tragic personal losses.

It’s a realization my main character makes as he watches the Holocaust documentary Night and Fog (a film I recommend over Inglourious Basterds). He describes a scene of the death camps:

Human beings with dreams, and families, and loves stacked in piles like bleached white logs. Their faces agape, eyes staring ahead, as though death itself was too horrifying to behold. And looking in those faces, I saw [my friend’s] Aunt Muteteli…And my grandfather…Brutal inhumane deaths. Lives stolen before their time.

We have to remember the humanity of the victims of the Holocaust — as well as the humanity of the victims in Cambodia, Rwanda, and everywhere bigotry and barbarity rob innocent people of their lives. For that reason, I don’t see anything wrong with “fan fiction” that makes these tragedies real and show their horror to contemporary readers.  We would be trivializing those tragedies if we turned the victims into angels, and if we approach them with such reverence that we can’t hear their anguished cries. We cannot mourn for angels. We mourn for complex, contradictory, and confused people who are just like us.

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