The universalist impulse and Anne Frank

The alliance between her family’s foundation and the New Israel Fund calls to mind the debate over the actual diary and the “non-Jewish” play adapted from it.

Anne Frank. Credit: Collectie Anne Frank Stichting Amsterdam.
Anne Frank. Credit: Collectie Anne Frank Stichting Amsterdam.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

In what must be considered a public-relations coup of epic proportions, the New Israel Fund announced this week that it would be benefiting from the sales of copies of Anne Frank’s diary. The diary is among the most beloved books of the 20th century and the standard introduction to the Holocaust for many people. The foundation created by Anne’s father, Otto Frank—the sole member of the family to survive after being captured by the Nazis and sent to death camps—receives the proceeds from the bestseller and related works, and it will now be sending money to organizations that are supported by the NIF.

Anne Frank Credit: Collectie Anne Frank Stichting Amsterdam.

The timing is particularly good for the NIF since it comes on the heels of a blistering attack on the group by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who last week accused it of sabotaging a deal to deport some of the African migrants who crossed illegally into Israel in search of work. While much of its efforts are centered on promoting somewhat anodyne causes, like protecting the rights of women and the LGBT community inside Israel, the liberal group has also been a source of bitter controversy. Among the beneficiaries of its grants are groups that promote boycotts of Israel and anti-Zionist incitement, in addition to criticizing and attempting to hinder the efforts of the Israel Defense Forces to combat terrorism.

Acquiring the Anne Frank Foundation’s seal of approval would seem to inoculate the organization from the critiques of those who point out that its support of groups that libel the Jewish state and seek its destruction contradict its avowed goal of support for Israel. As such, this places the Frank Foundation squarely in the middle of a political battle. which would seem to be the last place that an institution dedicated to Holocaust education would want to be.

Yet to anyone who knows the post-publication history of the Diary of a Young Girl and the well-known play that was adapted from it, it’s hardly surprising that Otto Frank’s creation would wind up in such a position. The willingness of the foundation to associate itself with the NIF brings to mind the controversy between Anne’s father and Meyer Levin, the journalist and author who did more than anyone to promote the diary’s publication.

Levin, a passionate Zionist, helped get the book an American publisher and wrote a rave review of it for The New York Times in 1952. After helping Otto Frank find contacts in America, and being promised the adaptation rights for stage and screen, Levin was pushed aside. Frank and his advisers rejected Levin’s theatrical version of the diary on the grounds that it was “too Jewish.”

Acting under the direct influence of Stalinist writer Lillian Hellman, Frank and producer Kermit Bloomgarten opted for a less Jewish, more “accessible” Anne for the stage. Infuriating Levin, who felt that both he and Anne’s true legacy were being cheated, they gave the assignment to Hollywood screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, whose most famous movie script was for director Frank Capra’s 1945 classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

With much play doctoring by Hellman and director Garson Kanin, Goodrich and Hackett produced a Holocaust play in which the fate of the Jews was sidelined in order to tell a coming-of-age story about a cockeyed optimist who would have been right at home with Jimmy Stewart in Capra’s mythical small town of Bedford Falls.

The fact that the Franks were Jewish was incidental to their play’s theme. In a famous passage, they even contradicted Anne’s own words. In her book, she chided her friend Peter, one of the other Jews hiding in the annex, for wanting to deny his Jewish identity, saying, “We’re not the only Jews that have had to suffer. Right down through the ages, there have been Jews and they’ve had to suffer.” Astonishingly, Kanin dismissed the passage as “an embarrassing piece of special pleading.”

In the 1955 Goodrich and Hackett play, Anne says nothing of Jews, but speaks instead of minorities through the ages. “The fact that in this play the symbols of persecution and oppression are Jews is incidental,” explained Kanin. Their play ended with a line taken out of context about Anne’s belief in the goodness of people. There was no mention of Anne’s terrible and agonizing death in a Nazi death camp. Her awakening to a sense of Jewish spirituality, which shines out from the complete version of “The Diary,” was erased.

Meyer Levin had seen in the writing of young Anne a voice who could speak for millions of anonymous Jewish victims. But the play and the movie that bore her name wished to tell a different story. As Cynthia Ozick later observed, the version of his daughter that Otto Frank had chosen was “bowdlerized, transmuted, traduced, reduced . . . infantilized, Americanized, homogenized, sentimentalized, falsified, kitschified.”

The silencing of his own play in favor of a less Jewish version became an obsession that tormented Levin to the end of his days. He accused Otto Frank of imposing his own assimilated identity on his daughter, as well as succumbing to the influence of the viciously anti-Zionist Hellman. Foolishly, he engaged in a futile lawsuit against Frank for fraud, as well as the Goodrich/Hackett team for plagiarism. As one of Levin’s friends aptly observed, that was akin to suing the father of Joan of Arc. The rest of his life was wasted tilting against the windmills of a literary and theatrical establishment that was uninterested in his story of the true Jewish Anne.

Some subsequent productions of the play have sought to correct Hellman’s butchery. But the play still remains a banal piece of universalizing that fails to do justice to Anne and the other victims.

It is in that context that the decision of the Anne Frank Foundation to back the New Israel Fund should be understood.

As much as Meyer Levin’s critique of his choices was accurate, Otto Frank’s decisions represented a vision of Jewish identity that exemplified Cynthia Ozick’s famous observation that “universalism is the parochialism of the Jews.” Even though it is regrettable that some of the NIF’s unsavory causes will now bear the imprimatur of the most famous Holocaust martyr, it’s probably in keeping with her father’s outlook (though perhaps not that of his daughter). So while it would be just as futile and counter-productive for contemporary Zionists to do battle with her father’s foundation as it was for Levin, neither should sensible observers be deterred by its endorsement from pointing out what is profoundly wrong with the NIF’s funding decisions.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — the Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

You have read 3 articles this month.
Register to receive full access to JNS.

Just before you scroll on...

Israel is at war. JNS is combating the stream of misinformation on Israel with real, honest and factual reporting. In order to deliver this in-depth, unbiased coverage of Israel and the Jewish world, we rely on readers like you. The support you provide allows our journalists to deliver the truth, free from bias and hidden agendas. Can we count on your support? Every contribution, big or small, helps remain a trusted source of news you can rely on.

Become a part of our mission by donating today
Thank you. You are a loyal JNS Reader.
You have read more than 10 articles this month.
Please register for full access to continue reading and post comments.
Never miss a thing
Get the best stories faster with JNS breaking news updates