Review: Anne Frank: The Life, The Book, The Afterlife by Francine Prose
(Atlantic Books, £16.99)
Published 07/08/2010 | 05:00
Can there be anything new to say about Anne Frank? No, and there is nothing really new here. On the other hand, the Anne Frank industry is so huge that there's a lot the ordinary reader doesn't know.
We know the name of Miep Gies, for example (who died only this year, at 100). But I didn't know the full extent of her courage: that she helped not only the Franks, but other Jews as well; and that she not only risked her life for the two years they were in hiding, but even more afterwards, when she tried to bribe the arresting officer to release them.
Not all we learn is so positive. The fame of Anne Frank's story has left the impression that Holland was like Denmark, a small sturdy country that stood up for its Jews. Many people did: so many in her neighbourhood wore yellow stars in solidarity, Miep Gies wrote, that it was dubbed the Milky Way.
But many more did not. More than three-quarters of Dutch Jews perished, a percentage second only to Poland's. The Danish king donned a yellow star himself; by contrast, when a resettlement camp for Jews was built in Holland, the Dutch queen objected "because it was too near her estate".
I hadn't known that dismal detail; nor the scarcely less shameful history of the first Broadway play of the Diary, which left Meyer Levin -- who had made it famous -- completely mad. It only failed to drive Otto Frank mad as well because he was immeasurably kind, and because it is hard to upset a man who has survived Auschwitz and the loss of his whole family.
All this is worth reading: especially Prose's spirited defence of Otto. Otto Frank has been accused of everything, from having failed to foresee the Nazi threat to his family (like almost everyone in Europe) to having bowdlerised his daughter's diary and turned it into a kitsch shadow of the feisty original.
In fact, he was unusually prescient, moving the family to Holland five years before Kristallnacht in 1938, and failing to emigrate from there to America not through any fault of his own -- he applied constantly -- but because of the obduracy of US policy.
As editor of the Diary, Prose argues, he did none of the things he was accused of; these are the responsibility of the play and film. Prose restores Otto Frank to Anne's heroic figure, the rescuer of her short life, and after it of her diary.
When we're not sentimental we're cynical, and people may more easily believe in the bad father than in this almost saintly one. But a few brave and good people do exist, even in wartime; and it is one of the best things about this book that it reminds us of that, in its portrait of Miep, the other helpers, and Otto.
Carole Angiers The Double Bond: Primo Levi is published by Penguin