Books: Anne Frank tributes that steer clear of what is needed

Ben Barkow disputes the premises of two books on Anne Frank


Why re-tell Anne Frank’s Diary? And why in the form of a cartoon strip (especially when something similar has already been done)? To appeal to the young? That might have been a clever idea 30 years ago, when Art Spiegelman produced his brilliant Holocaust graphic novel Maus, in a pre-internet world. Today, it’s a cliché. Folman and Polonsky’s Anne Frank’s Diary, The Graphic Adaptation manages to be mawkish, boring and irrelevant. If you want to read the Diary, read the Diary. Young people might conceivably respond to an Anne Frank app, but this book is probably as remote to them as a gramophone record.

Gillian Walnes Perry’s book is more interesting. It surveys — though not in a scholarly way — how Anne Frank’s memory has been put to use in the decades since her murder. It could perhaps more accurately be described as a long list of places, groups and individuals who have encountered the work of the Anne Frank Trust (set up by Ms Walnes Perry) and a variety of Anne Frank exhibitions and activities. Mixed in are personal recollections and anecdotes, many relating to famous people. 

The book has no real organising principle: the chapters could be read in pretty much any order. The chapter headings boast large claims: Anne had a role in the transition from Communism; she sustained Nelson Mandela so he could end apartheid; she helped to bring peace to Northern Ireland and comfort to the children of Bosnia. In most cases, the claim is somewhat exaggerated. Sceptics will need more convincing as to how small travelling exhibitions can drive such major political and moral changes. 

The Legacy is a completely uncritical history written under the assumption that just about anything associated with Anne Frank’s memory brings healing to a wounded world. This may be true or it may not. For the author, it seems to be an article of faith. 

The pity is that a scholarly and critical examination of Anne Frank’s legacy would be really valuable. This would necessarily address the whole issue of teaching the Holocaust on the basis of an individual’s experiences. It would lay bare the strengths and the considerable weaknesses of this approach. 

It is unrealistic that any individual could encompass or embody the loss that the Jewish people sustained in the Shoah. In fact, it is a paradox: what was destroyed was much of the biological, cultural and religious diversity of Jewry. And diversity is necessarily a function of populations rather than individuals. 

The unending attention on Anne Frank and her tragic story reduces the vast complexity of the persecution and murder played out in numerous countries (each with its own, distinctive political reality) across millions of square miles over the course of the war. 
In my view, there is a quasi-religious, almost cultish quality to our obsession with Anne Frank. I cannot admire this. Cults are never a good thing. To equip the young to grapple with the monstrosity of the Holocaust, we need to teach them critical thinking and the necessity of engaging with complexity. Unfortunately, neither of these books helps us to do this.

Ben Barkow is the director of the Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide


Anne Frank’s Diary

Graphic adaptation by Ari Folman,

illustrated by David Polonsky 
Viking, £14.99


The Legacy of Anne Frank

By Gillian Walnes Perry

Pen & Sword, £14.99


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