The Diary of Anne Frank: Compelling, Controversial, Essential

Pages of the original red checkered diary of Anne Frank                                                                                         © Anne Frank House / Photographer: Cris Toala Olivares

By Arthur Hirsch
for Chesapeake Shakespeare Company

Through the pages of her diary written in hiding in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, Anne Frank made a powerful first impression on Shelly Mintz. The mere existence of a book about a Jewish girl like herself was striking to Mintz, at a time when characters who shared her background were hard to find in literature, movies, and theater. Across decades and miles, a girl in Paramus, N.J., connected with a girl who experienced the Holocaust.

That was in the mid-1960s, as Anne Frank posthumously was emerging as a global pop culture phenomenon. After The Diary of a Young Girl first appeared in English translation in 1952 – eventually becoming one of the most widely read books ever published – there followed a Broadway play, a movie, a museum in Amsterdam, TV productions, an array of Anne Frank-inspired musical compositions, fiction, biography, poems, dance performances, a Broadway revival with a revised script starring Natalie Portman, and who knows how many other theatrical productions.

In Spring 2019, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company will perform the revised script of the play, The Diary of Anne Frank. Mintz, who is president of B’Nai Israel Congregation in Baltimore, will be there. She has revisited the diary many times since her first encounter, and the more she has learned, the more compelling Anne Frank seems. The more time that passes since World War II and the Holocaust, the more urgent seems the need for people to hear Frank’s words.

“It’s an eternal story that never stops being relevant,” said Mintz. “These days it seems more relevant than ever. There’s been such a rise in xenophobia, there’s been a rise in anti-Semitism. There’s so much happening in the world that seems to be separating people and sorting them into groups.”

The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company production will run from April 26 through May 26, 2019, ending just a few weeks before Anne Frank would have turned 90 years old. She died at age 15, in the late winter or early spring of 1945, at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany. Her father Otto Frank was the sole Holocaust survivor among the eight people who hid in the rooms above his spice business between late spring 1942 and their arrest in August 1944. He arranged the publishing of her diary. He died at age 90 in 1980.

Visitors view copies of the book from around the world.                                                © Anne Frank House / Photographer: Cris Toala Olivares

Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s Founder and Artistic Director Ian Gallanar said he chose The Diary of Anne Frank for a few reasons, one being the theatre company’s mission to stage at least one classic work each season that is not just for adults.

“I’m very interested in theatre that families can see together, multigenerational theatre,” Gallanar said.

He also said that the story of the Holocaust “is maybe the most important 20th century historical story to keep alive. I take it to heart when people say how important it is to keep this story alive so people don’t forget.”

Indeed, members of B’Nai Israel and some who have taught the Holocaust say The Diary of Anne Frank only gains significance with the passing of time. A generation of survivors, military servicemen who liberated the camps, and other witnesses is passing on.

“If we don’t expose people to this, we are risking greater and greater chances for it to happen again,” said Louise Geczy, Senior Project Coordinator at the John Carroll School, a Catholic high school in Bel Air, Md., where she organizes a Holocaust education program.

Those concerned about fading historical memory could point to the results of a survey released this spring by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. The sample of 1,350 American adults recruited by telephone and online found that two-thirds of millennials and 41 percent of respondents overall could not correctly identify Auschwitz as either a concentration camp or an extermination camp.

The merits of The Diary of Anne Frank as a way to tell part of the story of the Holocaust, and as a work of dramatic literature, have been debated since it first appeared on Broadway in 1955. The play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett was a commercial and critical success at the time, winning a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

First print of “The Diary of Anne Frank” in Dutch, 1947 © Anne Frank House

Over the years, though, the original play has been much maligned. Critics have called it sentimental, its title character idealized from the complex person who emerges in the diary, its characters’ Jewish identity nearly removed. The play’s uplifting closing note of belief in humanity’s decency has been called unsuited to a story of people hiding from a genocidal campaign that slaughtered millions.

“One might wish that a happy ending could emerge from the Holocaust,” said Samuel Spinner, the Zelda and Myer Tandetnik Assistant Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture at Johns Hopkins University, who recently taught a course on the Holocaust in literature and film. Given the magnitude of the calamity, however, and the deeply disturbing revelations about the human spirit that emerge from this history, Spinner said there is the point of view that “telling a story with a happy ending is not telling a Holocaust story.”

Jeanette Parmigiani, who directs Holocaust programs for the Baltimore Jewish Council, said she’s aware of the many critiques of The Diary of Anne Frank, but she still thinks it’s an effective way to introduce the subject to young people who might not be ready to confront the most horrifying aspects of the Nazi extermination program that targeted Jews and other minorities. Historians estimate that between 4.5 million and 6 million Jews were murdered.

“The students can identify with this girl,” said Parmigiani, adding that the book and the play are usually taught in middle school. “It doesn’t get into the graphics.”

The version of the play Chesapeake Shakespeare Company will perform is given credit for improving on the original in several ways. In her 1997 adaptation of the Goodrich and Hackett play, playwright Wendy Kesselman put more stress on the fact that the characters are Jewish, including scenes in which they sing or pray in Hebrew. Kesselman also included a passage that does not appear in the original play, in which Anne Frank talks directly to the audience about her sexual curiosity about another girl.

The uplifting line from the diary that appears as the original play’s next to last line –“In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart”–appears in the adaptation, but not at the very end.

Instead, the new version ends with Otto Frank telling the audience what happened after the arrests, the deaths of the other seven people at several concentration camps, Anne Frank last seen by a friend at Bergen-Belsen “through the barbed wire, naked, her head shaved, covered with lice. ‘I don’t have anyone anymore,’ she weeps.”

The adaptation is one of several darker and more complex versions that have emerged after the diary was first published in Europe in 1947 under the direction of Otto Frank, who insisted that his daughter’s sexual thoughts and critical musings on other characters be edited out.

These complexities, said Mintz, makes Anne Frank, and the play, more interesting.

“Over the years she’s become less the icon and more real,” said Mintz. “Not just more Jewish, but more of a real girl.”

Museum presentation with photos of Anne Frank                                                                                                        © Anne Frank House / Photographer: Cris Toala Olivares

Arthur Hirsch is a writer, teacher, and editor based in Baltimore. He is an adjunct faculty member at Goucher College, and formerly worked as a writer for The Baltimore Sun and in media relations at Johns Hopkins University.  All images are © Anne Frank House, Netherlands, Photographs by Cris Toala Olivares, used by permission.

Click here for info about CSC’s production of the The Diary of Anne Frank.