There is something about the story of the eight Jews who spent more than two years hiding in the secret annex on Prinsengracht 263 in Amsterdam that is irresistible to readers, as well as audiences for plays and movies. The travails of Otto Frank and his family, who were trapped in an intolerable prison with friends and a few others in an attic where they were forced to spend most of their lives in silence, were immortalized by his younger daughter Anne.
Aptly characterized by Dara Horn as “everyone’s second favorite dead Jew” in her book People Love Dead Jews, Anne has become more than just a famous victim. She is the conduit by which much of the world has been introduced to the Holocaust as well as the mechanism by which many also grant humanity absolution for its crimes and indifference to the fate of the Jews.
Her writing was recovered after the war—subsequently published as The Diary of a Young Girl—and is the most well-known example of Holocaust literature. Rather than just the jottings of a bored teen, it is a genuinely great work of literature. A brilliant writer in the making, Anne’s keen powers of observation and honesty, mixed with the hopes and dreams of a child on the cusp of young womanhood who envisioned a productive life once her ordeal was over, make the Diary an essential book. Its power and evergreen popularity since it was first published in English in 1952 is rooted in the ability of ordinary readers, especially schoolchildren, to identify with Anne and the idea of having to hide to avoid being murdered by totalitarian thugs.
Fodder for entertainment
But for almost as long as it has been a literary bestseller, the story of life in the annex has also been fodder for entertainment in the form of a well-known play and movie. This week, the National Geographic television channel offers us another entry in the list of Anne Frank adaptations in the form of “A Small Light,” an eight-part series that can be streamed on Hulu and Disney+. It retells the tragedy from the point of view of another genuine heroine in this tale: Miep Gies, the non-Jewish woman who, at great risk to herself, helped to hide the Franks.
By focusing on Miep and her husband Jan, who assisted in this great act of compassion and heroic resistance, the creators of the series—Tony Phelan and Joan Rater, who are best known for their work as the former showrunners of the hit medical show “Grey’s Anatomy”—have been able to find both a new twist on a familiar story and to provide viewers with an inspiring lesson in moral courage.
Anyone who ventures into this territory must be judged by harsh standards.
All dramatizations of the Holocaust can be justified as educational. Without popular works, of which the Diary is the most important, the story of the 6 million victims of the Nazis’ genocidal war aimed at exterminating European Jewry would be solely the province of scholarly works that are little read or understood by the public.
Yet such work always runs the risk of trivializing a subject that is too profound and too awful to be adequately depicted on the screen. And that is part of the charm of the Diary since it, as well as the play and movie versions, ends just as the drama in the annex concludes with the capture of the hidden Jews. We are spared the agonizing reality of what follows as the Franks are dragged off to a transit camp and then sent to the death camps to undergo brutality, degradation, starvation, disease and murder. Of the eight in the annex, only Otto survived.
Any dramatic rendition of such events is, almost by definition, inadequate to accurately document a story that defies belief in its awfulness. The horrors of totalitarianism and the depths of Jew-hatred that created the Nazi extermination campaign can be approximated but not faithfully replicated.
If “A Small Light” doesn’t rise to the level of Steven Spielberg’s much-honored 1993 “Schindler’s List” or sink to the level of the kitschy 1997 Oscar-winning “Life Is Beautiful,” it is also more than just an undercover resistance caper that depicts the efforts of Gies and others who helped the Franks stay hidden and fed in German-occupied Holland.
It succeeds because it presents the choices made by the Gieses at a time when most non-Jews preferred to look away from or even assist in the murder of their Jewish neighbors. Miep and Jan chose not to be the bystanders, whose indifference so fascinated and troubled the great Holocaust writer and survivor Elie Wiesel.
Beautifully shot on locations in Prague and Amsterdam, it boasts a cast of talented actors, led by Bel Powley, who plays Miep; and Liev Schreiber (not his first performance in a Holocaust drama), who portrays Otto Frank, Miep’s employer and friend.
Its goal is to depict Miep as she was, an ordinary person, who never thought of herself as a heroine either during the terrible years of the war, or later, when she was showered with awards and adulation after her story became widely known.
Gies was an impoverished Austrian who had been adopted as a child by a Dutch working-class family. In “A Small Light,” she is just an average young person who likes to drink and party at bars, and develops into responsible maturity after going to work for Frank. Amid the humiliations of the German occupation, which grows increasingly harsh and focused on eliminating the Jews, she is faced with the choice of what to do when Frank asks her to help him hide his family.
Her affirmative answer is followed by other acts of decency and courage as she helps to shelter others in similar peril.
While we know of Gies because of her role as a supporting character in Anne’s story, in this version, it is Anne who is the sidebar—a talkative, sensitive and dramatic teenager around whose moods the other inhabitants of the annex must navigate.
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What would you do?
But it is Miep’s journey to heroism that is the focus. Her decision to save Anne’s diary after the family’s arrest is an important act without whom the entire tale would never be known, but still subsidiary to her daily struggle to keep the Franks alive from July 1942 until the fateful day in August 1944 when they were discovered and taken away.
Miep’s inspiring tale allows the series’ authors to pose a silent question to their viewers. Would you be as brave or as decent if saving friends might lead to your own death?
We would all hope to be like Miep, rather than most of her fellow citizens of Amsterdam, who silently watched—whether in active collaboration or apathetic resentment—when the country’s Jews were rounded up and sent to their deaths. But the truth is that none of us know for sure. And given the evidence about the way most people react in much the same way as Holocaust bystanders when confronted with other, subsequent acts of genocide that have taken place since World War II, there’s little reason to believe all the education programs and well-intended movies and television shows will change that.
So, while we can enjoy “A Small Light” for its skillful dramaturgy, we shouldn’t be lulled into thinking that this show or even many more like it can really ensure that, when push comes to shove, we can all be heroes.
Where most Holocaust education fails is that it focuses far too much on the universalist idea that genocide starts with small acts of prejudice and hate. The Jew-hatred that produced the Holocaust wasn’t a massive act of unkindness or merely the fruits of prejudice. And its antidote doesn’t necessarily involve turning Anne Frank or even Miep Gies into icons.
Antisemitism is at its core an act of politics that mobilizes hate on behalf of a particular ideological program. This is something viewers glimpse, if only between the lines at times, in “A Small Light,” as the people living and working in Amsterdam choose between morality and turning away from criminal behavior out of fear or the impulse to conform.
The struggle about what to do in response to the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands was largely political. As we learn of subsidiary characters or those they know either joining the Dutch Nazi Party or choosing to profit from the subjugation of their country, it must be understood that what happened to the Jews wasn’t merely a function of prejudice; it was the way Jew-hatred was marshaled to enact the Nazi program about the future of humanity that its adherents actually thought was good since they had been educated to hate the Jews.
Miep’s decision may come across as just a strong sense of personal morality. But resistance was a political rather than a social choice in which those who risked their lives and those of their families were doing so to register a protest against an evil vision for society.
“A Small Light” is riveting entertainment, but it should not make us forget that—contrary to Otto Frank’s desire—the story of his family can’t be universalized without it losing its meaning. What happened to the Jews of Amsterdam is not a stand-in for contemporary causes or crimes. Nor should our admiration of Miep’s actions and Anne’s writing gull us into believing the oft-quoted line from the diary about “people being really good at heart.”
As Miep had already learned (and Anne would tragically come to understand as she watched her family die in the camps), a lot of people are not good. And what separates the good from the bad isn’t just a lack of morals but their susceptibility to political programs that wind up justifying genocide. Anne’s goodness and Miep’s bravery shouldn’t be allowed to serve as an excuse or a justification for an unwillingness to fight efforts to delegitimize Jews, even when, as they often do nowadays, come clothed in the language of human rights.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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