Commentary Magazine

Anne Frank, On and Off Broadway

“Everything that one says about the play, one says about Anne Frank,” wrote the New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson 40 years ago. He was talking about The Diary of Anne Frank, a stilted, sentimental drama by the Hollywood veterans Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett that had a triumphant run on Broadway in 1955-56. Now there is a Broadway revival of the play, enjoying a similar if more muted success, and based on a new and allegedly more faithful edition of Anne’s diary than the one available in the early 50’s.

The new Diary of Anne Frank will surely inspire a rash of fresh productions from coast to coast. This is regrettable; for, contrary to Brooks Atkinson, what one says about the play—whether the play of 1955 or the play of 1997—has little to do with the Anne Frank that emerges from her diary.



Anne Frank began keeping a diary on June 12, 1942, her cheerful thirteenth birthday. Three weeks later, she went into hiding with her parents, Otto and Edith, and her sister, Margot, in a garret above the fruit-pectin and spice factory her father had founded in Amsterdam after fleeing Germany in 193 3. The Franks were joined by Otto’s business partner, Hermann van Pels; his wife and son; and later by an acquaintance, Fritz Pfeffer. They called their hiding place Het Achterhuis: in English translation, the “house behind,” or “secret annex.”

Anne’s diary, originally begun as a record of schoolgirl gossip, became, in hiding, an intellectual and spiritual lifeline—the more so after March 1944, when the Dutch government-in-exile broadcast a call for reports of endurance in wartime. “Of course, everyone [in the secret annex] pounced on my diary,” the fourteen-year-old Anne wrote the next day. With literary precocity she set about reworking her previous entries while simultaneously writing new ones. She created pseudonyms for the eight in hiding, and the five Dutch friends who sustained them. The van Pelses became the “van Daans,” Fritz Pfeffer “Albert Dussel”; so they have been known ever since. She also started to plan a novel based on the diary: “People would find it very amusing to read how we lived, what we ate, and what we talked about as Jews in hiding.”

Anne’s diary came to an abrupt close on August 1, 1944, three days before the eight Jews were betrayed by an unknown person and seized in their hiding place. They were deported to the Westerbork camp in northern Holland, then to Auschwitz and elsewhere. In February or March 1945, Anne died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen, following her sister Margot by just days. Alone of the group, Otto Frank survived the war, was liberated from Auschwitz, and returned to Amsterdam.

Immediately after the eight had been arrested, their devoted helper Miep Gies retrieved Anne’s writings from the annex and hid them, unread, through the war. These she gave to Otto Frank in the summer of 1945, the day they learned Anne Frank was indeed dead. After a time, Otto showed portions of the diary to friends in Amsterdam; stunned by its eloquence, they encouraged him to find a publisher. In 1947, a Dutch edition was brought out, and French and West German versions appeared three years later. In 1952, the New York firm of Doubleday published Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl;1 its unexpected success led to publication in more than twenty countries.



This version of the diary is what was adapted for the stage by the married team of Goodrich and Hackett, their quiet collaborator Lillian Hellman, and the director Garson Kanin. (The Hacketts also produced a film version in 1959.) But the Anne Frank presented on Broadway was a construct. As many critics have since pointed out, missing from the play were Anne’s intellect, her sense of irony, her dark foreboding, her sensuality, and most of all her Jewish consciousness. What was left were, in Brooks Atkinson’s enthusiastic words, “the bloom of her adolescence” and her challenge to “the conscience of the world,” which unfortunately amounted to little more than a pallid universalism.

The sorry tale of the diary’s dramatization has been exposed recently (though to different ends) by Lawrence Graver in An Obsession with Anne Frank (1995) and Ralph Melnick in The Stolen Legacy of Anne Frank (1997). Melnick reserves special scorn for Otto Frank, who had a weakness for people claiming to admire his daughter and, more importantly, who saw Anne, in his own words, as “an adolescent believing in the future,” an ecumenical “symbol for the whole world.” Although late in the process Otto developed misgivings about the play’s fidelity to the diary, by that time the production was no longer legally bound to him, and he was left to defer to the Hacketts’ and Kanin’s theatrical expertise. It was, after all, on the basis of that expertise that Otto had justified his choice of them over the writer Meyer Levin.

Levin, an ardent Zionist and the author of the best-selling novel Compulsion (about the 1924 Leopold-Loeb murder case in Chicago), had read the diary in French before its American appearance; had promoted it with a rave review in the New York Times; had originated the idea of dramatizing it; had worked to that end as an unpaid literary agent; and had written a stage adaptation that was more faithful, and much more Jewish, than the Hacketts’. When Otto Frank rejected both Levin and his play, the writer entered into a decades-long fixation, of which his protracted lawsuit against Frank was only one expression.

As Lawrence Graver shows in his enlightening literary and psychological study, Levin could be an irrational bully, both destructive and self-destructive. (His own account of the affair, The Obsession, published in 1973, offers ample evidence on both scores.) Essentially, though, the pugnacious Levin attacked Otto Frank on the same grounds as have Frank’s present-day detractors, if with greater heat. He accused Frank, whom he characterized as a timid assimilationist, of “censoring” and “betraying” Anne’s words, and in particular of suppressing both Anne and Levin himself as “too Jewish.” More, Levin constructed an overwrought self-identification with Anne as a fellow persecuted writer. To her he wrote an eighteen-page posthumous letter entitled “Another Way to Kill a Writer”; to Otto, a note stating, “You have been my Hitler.”

Levin, though paranoid, did have enemies, and Melnick, a Levin partisan, demonstrates that he was right to feel aggrieved. For there was a concerted effort, by Hellman and the others, to banish Levin from the dramatization, and also to dilute its Jewish content. Graver attributes the playing-down of Anne’s Jewishness to box-office worries, particularly on the part of the director Garson Kanin. As for Levin’s suspicion that radical left-wing impulses were also at work—he claimed that Lillian Hellman was leading the campaign to “universalize” the play’s message in order to make it into a vehicle of Communist propaganda—this Graver blames on the conspiratorial atmosphere of the McCarthy years. In retrospect, both elements seem to have been present, though Graver passes too easily over Hellman’s indisputably ideological agenda, while Melnick, for his part, assigns it too much weight.

In the Hacketts’ play, at any rate, perhaps the most egregious piece of optimistic “universalizing” occurs in the final scene between Anne and the young Peter van Daan, shortly before the Nazis descend on the group. At Kanin’s insistence, Anne’s repeated reflections on Jewish suffering in the diary were transformed into a gushing sentiment whose crowning thought rings particularly false:

We’re not the only people that’ve had to suffer. There’ve always been people that’ve had to . . . sometimes one race . . . sometimes another. . . . I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.

Here Anne and Peter stand hand in hand until the screeching of the vehicles coming to arrest them is heard outside.



The production now on Broadway, though still the Hacketts’ play, has been adapted by Wendy Kesselman in a manner clearly designed to repair its faults. In fact, the revival was prompted by the publication in 1995 of a definitive edition of the diary that advertised itself as restoring “passages originally withheld by [Anne’s] father.” Drawn by the allure of this once-“censored” text, Kesselman and the play’s director, James Lapine, set out to portray the “unexpurgated” Anne: a more intellectual, more political, more sexual, and more Jewish young woman who (as they told the New York Times) “listened to clandestine radio broadcasts and understood that the Nazis were gassing Jews.” Toward this end, Kesselman has both reworked a number of elements in the Hacketts’ script and inserted excerpts from the new edition of the diary.

The main effect has been to make the play darker. For example, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart” is no longer its ultimate message. Now the line is heard in voiceover as the group is being seized onstage, but it has been restored to its context—an extremely bleak one—in the diary. Kesselman has also deepened the play’s Jewish content. Thus, just before their arrest, Anne reproaches Peter for rejecting his heritage: “I’d never turn back on who I am. . . . Don’t you realize, Peter, you’ll always be Jewish . . . in your soul.” In an episode similarly aimed at intensifying the play’s Jewishness, Albert Dussel makes a brief appearance alone onstage in a prayer shawl to perform his devotions. (Elided is the fact that Anne in her diary wryly mocks Dussel’s piety.)

Another change affecting the play’s tone occurs at the beginning and end. Gone is the framing device, in which Otto Frank finds comfort in reading the diary. Now the play opens with the Franks’ arrival in the annex and closes with Otto relating the deaths of Anne and the others to the audience. His shocking description of Anne, gleaned from surviving witnesses—“naked, her head shaved, covered with lice”—offers a bitter, almost exploitative contrast to the rosy final image of her in the Hacketts’ script, bathed in “a soft, reassuring smile . . . with courage to meet whatever lies ahead.”

But the whole of Kesselman’s revision amounts to far less than the sum of its parts. Despite the changes, this is still the same sentimental play about a luminous, flirtatious, idealistic Anne Frank that made the critics swoon 40 years ago. Ben Brantley, in his Times review, dubbed this Anne a Proustian “girl in flower,” a “rosebud,” an “exquisite fawn,” her skin aglow “with the promise of miraculous transformations.” In the same language Susan Strasberg, the Broadway Anne of 1955, was hailed as a “flowering . . . youngster . . . pure in heart,” with the “shining spirit of a young girl.” And as if the established image of Anne as a frolicsome teenage saint were not already so potent, it was sealed definitively by the casting of the sixteen-year-old starlet Natalie Portman in the leading role. Pictures in the Playbill given to theatergoers, using soft-focus close-ups, capitalize on Portman’s jarringly precocious, Lolita-like beauty as, lips parted, she gazes soulfully outward.

Actually, Portman onstage fails to convey Anne’s budding sexuality, to say nothing of her budding intellect. Skipping and twirling about, parading in too-big red high heels and trying on Mrs. van Daan’s mink coat, Portman succeeds only in enacting Anne as she was before going into hiding, the “terrible flirt, coquettish and amusing” (in Anne’s own later description of herself). Whereas Anne in her diary often observes that her experiences in hiding have transformed her (she has “grown wise within these walls”), in the second act Portman merely furrows her brow and wears a ragged sweater.

Absent from this portrait is the girl who in the annex studied French, English, geography, biology, and art history; who read Greek mythology, biographies of Galileo, Liszt, Charles V, and a book called Palestine at the Crossroads. No less absent is the Anne Frank who, on one occasion in January 1943, recorded in her diary:

I’m seething with rage, yet I can’t show it. . . . I’d like to scream, . . . “Leave me alone, let me have at least one night when I don’t cry myself to sleep with my eyes burning and my head pounding. . . .” But . . . I can’t let them see . . . the wounds they’ve inflicted on me.

And absent above all is the Anne Frank whom Miep Gies would later recall coming upon bent over her diary, writing:

I’d seen Anne, like a chameleon, go from mood to mood, but always with friendliness. . . . But I saw a look on her face at this moment that I’d never seen before. It was a look of dark concentration, as if she had a throbbing headache.

This look pierced me, and I was speechless. She was suddenly another person there writing at the table.

These sides of Anne are nowhere to be seen in Portman’s portrayal, and are only glancingly alluded to in the revised text of the play.



It may seem curious that a team in possession of the definitive edition of the diary, and determined to use it to thwart the putative will of Otto Frank by presenting the “unexpurgated” Anne, should fail so starkly at the task. But the truth is that editions of the diary have nothing to do with the matter; Anne’s complexity was every bit as evident in the “expurgated” edition of 1952 as it is in the full-dress edition of 1995. The failure is Broadway’s alone.

This, indeed, may be as good a place as any to attempt, perhaps futilely, a measure of retroactive justice to the much-maligned man who brought Anne Frank to the world’s attention. After his death in 1980, Otto Frank’s second wife recalled that upon reading Anne’s diary, he “discovered that he had not really known his daughter . . . [that] he had never known anything about her innermost thoughts, her high ideals, her belief in God and her progressive ideas.” It is perhaps not surprising that Otto Frank was never able fully to fathom his murdered daughter; his own statements about her oversimplified her concerns and her ideals. Nevertheless, in the diary he edited and allowed to be published, he most assuredly allowed her to speak for herself.

Now that the diary is a world-historical document, it may be difficult to remember that it began as a private sheaf of papers that Frank was not obligated to make public at all, let alone in its raw form. In fact, some editing was essential if only because Anne had two working drafts. But the unabridged text, in its entirety, Otto Frank willed to the Netherlands State Institute for War Documentation, thus providing for the publication that would follow his death.

In 1989, the Institute brought out a 700-page English-language Critical Edition that systematically compares Anne’s original diary, her own revised version, and The Diary of a Young Girl published in 1952. (The edition also contains rich background material and authenticates the diary against the claims of Holocaust “revisionists.”) The more manageable paperback Definitive Edition of 1995, upon which Kesselman drew for the new play, makes a complete version of the diary easily available to all, in an improved translation.

Technically speaking, the 1995 edition contains 30-percent more material than the 1952 one. But—here is the odd thing—the only discernible differences between the two are, by and large, differences in translation. Aside from these, the Anne Frank of the new edition is the same intellectually precocious, self-absorbed, sexually curious, Jewishly engaged girl to be found in the edition of 1952.

Of course, Otto Frank did make cuts in the manuscripts he had in his possession. Thus, for example, he removed a few “unflattering passages” about his wife Edith and the others; he did so, he said, “out of respect for the dead.” But innumerable bitter complaints about Edith Frank, the van Daan parents, and the persnickety Dussel (with whom Anne had to share a room) were retained. Anne’s dissatisfaction with her mother remained a major theme of the 1952 edition, though from her self-reproach about it later in the diary it seems quite likely that she herself, had she lived, might have cut the harshest passages.

Some sexual content was also cut in the early editions—less, however, on Otto Frank’s initiative than on that of the diary’s first international publishers. Mention of menstruation or female breasts was not permitted by the Dutch publisher, though such material appeared in both the German and English editions, as in this passage absent from the 1955 play but added to Kesselman’s new script as if to restore material supposedly “suppressed” by Otto Frank:

Sometimes, when I lie in bed at night, I have a terrible desire to feel my breasts and to listen to the quiet rhythmic beat of my heart. . . . I remember that once when I slept with a girlfriend I had a strong desire to kiss her, and that I did do so. . . . I asked her whether . . . we should feel one another’s breasts, but she refused.

When Anne fell passionately in love with the young Peter van Daan in early 1944, her sexual inquisitiveness increased. Much of their courtship consisted of bashful questions concerning the facts of life. While the 1952 edition did remove explicit references to genitals, contraceptives, virginity, castration, and the like, it is left quite obvious what sorts of things the two adolescents were discussing in their long talks together. More to the point, Anne’s introspective account of the actual romance, which appears in all its turbulence in the 1952 edition, is in sharp contrast to the saccharine relationship we are offered in both versions of the play.

If Anne’s sexual feelings were on display in 1952, what about her Jewish feelings? Ralph Melnick charges that in editing the diary, Otto Frank “carefully molded . . . an Anne reflective of his own background—secular, uneducated in Judaism, and anti-Zionist.” Like Meyer Levin before him, he accuses Frank of retroactively squelching not only Anne’s evolving religiosity and concern with Jewish matters but even her awareness of the degree to which European Jews were imperiled. These accusations have been echoed by Cynthia Ozick, who in the New Yorker last October cited Melnick’s examples and referred bitterly to Otto’s “deracinated temperament.”

Otto Frank can indeed be faulted for allowing the German translator of the diary to temper Anne’s anti-German sentiments; his excuse was that Anne “by no means measured all Germans by the same yardstick.” But it cannot be said that Frank censored those sentiments altogether, since they appeared in full in the English and other editions. One example among many:

Nice people, the Germans! To think that I was once one of them too! No, Hitler took away our nationality long ago. In fact, Germans and Jews are the greatest enemies in the world.

The German question aside, the charge that Otto Frank distorted the religious and Jewish content of the diary is simply false. Melnick cites brief references to Jewish holidays and to God that were deleted in the 1952 version, but he ignores long passages of equal or much greater import that were left intact, including a mention of Otto’s and Anne’s nightly ritual of praying together. An examination of the 1989 comparative edition suggests, indeed, that the cuts were made purely for reasons of narrative continuity and not out of animus toward Judaism. The most damning of the supposed omissions adduced by Melnick, about other “Jews who are not in hiding,” in fact appears in the entry for May 1, 1943.

Similarly, while Otto Frank could not or would not see that Anne’s Jewish consciousness was more assertive than his own, it is untrue that he suppressed it in the diary. The first edition is imbued not only with that consciousness but also with her angry, anguished knowledge of Jewish persecution. This passage was written in October 1942:

Our many Jewish friends are being taken away by the dozen. . . . If it is as bad as this in Holland, whatever will it be like in the distant and barbarous regions they are sent to? We assume that most of them are murdered. The English radio speaks of their being gassed.

Most unforgettable is a recurring dream Anne had in 1943 and 1944, in which she envisions a deported Jewish girlfriend, “clothed in rags,” “a symbol . . . of the sufferings of . . . all Jews. When I pray for her, I pray for all Jews.” Although this friend, Hannah Goslar, who later saw Anne in Bergen-Belsen, was in fact fated to survive the war, Anne is tormented by guilt over her fate—“Why should I be chosen to live and she probably to die?”



What is more, the 1952 edition makes it crystal clear that Anne’s belief in people being “truly good at heart” was the sentiment not of a naive idealist but of one who, amid teeming violence and uncertainty, held on to this “cherished hope”—and that is all it was—literally for dear life. Prizing her ideals, Anne also recognized the irony of “rattling on” about them in her desperate circumstances. Her emotions careering between terror and hope, she sought comfort in Jewish faith and Jewish identity:

If we bear all this suffering and if there are still Jews left, when it is over, then Jews, instead of being doomed, will be held up as an example. Who knows, it might even be our religion from which the world and all peoples learn good. . . . God has never deserted our people.

But one must also be careful. Although Anne was unambivalently loyal to the Jews, her own personal aspirations were not centrally bound up with the issue of Jewish identity. She was, among other things, a young patriot of her adopted country (“My first wish after the war is to become a Dutch citizen. I love the Dutch, I love this country, I love the language”). And whereas her sister hoped to “nurse newborns in Palestine,” at fourteen and fifteen Anne craved sophistication and glamor. She wanted to study art history in Paris, and yearned to grow into self-reliant womanhood: “If only I can be myself, I’ll be satisfied. . . . If God lets me live . . . I’ll make my voice heard.”

Finally, it cannot be stressed enough that Anne’s “greatest wish,” her burning ambition, was to be a “famous writer.” She was right to think that her copious talents ran in this direction. Considered simply as a piece of writing, her diary is extraordinary, depicting with precision and lucidity the highest and lowest moments of a life in hiding, and creating indelible portraits of the seven people who shared it with her. A ten-page account of a theft that almost led to the group’s discovery in April 1944 is masterful in its pacing and characterization, as are many other passages. The conversations she records are vivid and spontaneous.

Anne’s small collection of other writings, published as Tales from the Secret Annex, is more childlike than the diary, but some of her stories—they include nature fables, autobiographical allegories, reminiscences of school pranks, teachers, friendships, and of the time “when we still were part of ordinary, everyday life”—have an almost modernist sparseness that contrasts refreshingly with the density of the diary. There can be little question that, had she lived, this talented, self-conscious, and fiercely ambitious girl would have set out to make her way in the world as a writer, there to succeed or to fail.



Anne Frank saw her personality as a “bundle of contradictions.” The phrase is trite, but faithful—more faithful than any of the trite uses to which that personality has been put over the decades at the hands of playwrights and propagandists of one stripe or another. Her diary has been represented as the quintessential coming-of-age story, a tale of first love and moist adolescent idealism; as epitomizing (in the words of George Stevens, who directed the 1959 film) the “triumph of the human spirit” over evil; or, in today’s less optimistic but no less falsifying terms, as symbolizing the betrayed hopes and courage, the destroyed humanity, of six million victims. Outraged by the real and alleged distortions perpetrated on Anne’s spirit, Cynthia Ozick has gone so far as to suggest that it would be better had her diary simply “burned, vanished.”

It was, however, precisely against the sure prospect of oblivion that in August 1944 Miep Gies went up to the secret annex on the heels of the SS and hid the document, intact and unburned. There is no need to rely on Broadway, or any intermediary, for a true sense of the brilliant bundle of contradictions that was Anne Frank. Anyone who has a mind to can still turn to the work that Miep Gies rescued and that Otto Frank, despite misgivings, and to his everlasting credit, brought into the light of day. In its pages, in whatever edition, his daughter has always spoken for herself.



1 Prior to the book’s publication, two excerpts from the diary appeared in COMMENTARY (May and June 1952).


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