Frank Talk
10/09/1998
Jewish Week Book Critic
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Next June, Anne Frank would be 70 years old. Public interest in the young Anne Frank and her diary — an account of her 25 months hiding from the Nazis in a secret annex in Amsterdam, which has now been translated into 55 languages, with more than 25 million copies sold — is unceasing, with new editions of the diary, a recent revival of the Broadway play, documentary films, children’s books, dissertations and critical articles, with frequent contention between the people and organizations who claim to represent her interests.

Anne Frank: A Biography” (Holt) is the first full-scale biography, written by a 31-year old German journalist, Melissa Müller. Newsmaking in its revelations, the book presents new information about the person responsible for betraying the family in hiding and also uncovers five additional, previously unknown pages of revisions to the diary. Müller presents evidence, based on police reports and an investigation after the war, implicating a cleaning woman, Lena van Bladeren Hartog, as having leaked information to the Gestapo that there were Jews in a secret annex of Otto Frank’s warehouse. Hartog, whose husband worked at the warehouse illegally (having ignored a summons for labor service), died in 1963, a few months before the case was reopened by the Amsterdam police.

Two years into her research on the biography, Müller was shown the new pages by Cornelius Sujik, international director of the Anne Frank Center U.S.A., who was a close friend of Anne’s father Otto. The pages in Anne’s handwriting — three sides of two blue sheets and both sides of a salmon-colored sheet —include sharp descriptions of Anne’s mother Edith and insights about her parents’ difficult relationship. The salmon sheet, intended as a revision of her planned introduction to the book, tells of Anne’s intention to keep the diary private. Because the Anne Frank Fonds (Foundation) in Basel, holders of the copyright on the diary, refused to grant Müller permission to reprint the pages, their contents appears in the book in a paraphrased form. (A Dutch newspaper printed the actual pages last month and made them available on the Internet.)

According to Müller, Otto Frank did not want the public to see the 74 lines the remarkably perceptive diarist wrote about her parents’ passionless marriage; she viewed their relationship as tragic because Edith loved Otto, and although he respected and valued her, the love wasn’t returned.

The author writes that Frank put these pages (which were a revision of an earlier entry and loose from the main text of the diary) along with the new introduction into an envelope, which he gave to Sujik when a court investigating the authenticity of the diary, in the wake of neo-Nazi claims that it was a falsification, requested all the hand-written documents he had in his possession; Frank died six months later in 1980. Müller suggests that he might have destroyed these pages “as a way out of his dilemma” but that “he could not bring himself to do that.” He instructed Sujik not to release the pages until after his death, “wishing to spare himself and his second wife unwanted questions.”

Müller contends that Otto did a “disservice” to both Anne and Edith, for “this entry is not only a portrait of a problematic marriage but also a record of Anne’s growing sympathy for her mother.”

Along with the headline-making material, the book, written with understated power and clarity, also presents a more textured picture of the Frank family than formerly available. Through interviews with more than 20 contemporaries of Anne and others who knew her father — the only member of the family to survive — after the war, unpublished letters, photographs and handwritten notes, Müller portrays the family’s upper-class background and social life in Frankfurt in the early 1930s and then in Amsterdam before they went into hiding. Anne emerges as a spirited soul even as a young child who “managed to get people’s attention” even before she could speak.

Otto and Edith are portrayed as parents trying to shield their daughters Anne and Margot from knowledge of the Nazi terror, providing some semblance of normalcy with lavish birthday parties and travel. In Amsterdam, although they were no longer well-off as they had been in Frankfurt, they had more than most refugees from Germany, and they never hesitated to share food or to loan money, recognizing that it was unlikely they would be paid back anytime soon. Previously, there has been little information about Edith and here she is seen as a dedicated mother, more quietly attuned to her daughters than demonstrative in her love.

The book opens with a scene not depicted in Anne’s diary. On Aug. 4, 1944, the Gestapo storms the secret annex and arrests Anne and her family and the four others hiding with them. Later that, Miep Gies, a secretary to Otto who worked in the warehouse and brought food and supplies to the family, went upstairs to the annex and found, amid the mess the Nazis left, Anne’s diary and loose pages strewn on the floor, which she gathered and left in her desk drawer. She looked forward to returning the diary to the young girl after the war. Instead, she gave it to Otto. “The Diary of Anne Frank” was first published in Dutch in 1947 and in English in 1952.

Müller writes that the frequently quoted line from the diary, “...in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart,” written in July 1944, expressed a sentiment that “she would have occasion to doubt before long.” Both Anne and Margo died in Bergen-Belsen in February or March 1945; Anne was not yet 16. Edith died in Auschwitz.

Müller was 13 when she first read the diary, the age when Anne went into hiding and began to write to “Kitty.”

“I identified with Anne’s struggle for self-actualization,” the author writes. “And I was deeply affected by the knowledge that the diary had been written by the victim of persecution, by a girl hunted in a reign of terror.”

After reading the definitive edition of the diary published in 1995, which included personal material edited out of the earlier version, she was beset with more questions and inspired to investigate “the person behind the myth.” She intends the biography as a supplement to the diary, connecting the dots in Anne’s brief life.

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