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Trapped in the Annex

Enough with the children’s books about Anne Frank!

Marjorie Ingall
May 31, 2019
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

The year so far has brought us two new picture books about Anne Frank: The Cat Who Lived with Anne Frank by David Lee Miller and Steven Jay Rubin, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley, and Martin & Anne: The Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Anne Frank by Nancy Churnin, illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg.

There’s been a huge boom in Anne Frank kidlit in recent years. Anne is even beating Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the subject of at least seven books for young readers in three years. Last year alone brought us five Anne books, including an entry in the “Little People, Big Dreams” series for very young children by Isabel Sanchez Vegara, as well as the well-reviewed Anne Frank: The Graphic Edition. In the last three years we’ve seen two picture books about Anne from the perspective of a tree. And while there are three Holocaust picture books narrated by felines, The Cat Who Lived with Anne Frank is the only one that is narrated by the cat who lived with Anne Frank.

A few years ago, young adult readers got Annexed by Sharon Dogar, which did not have a talking cat or a tree but did retell the story from Peter’s perspective—not just what happened in the annex, but also afterward, up until Peter’s death in Auschwitz. One of its four starred reviews gushed: “The lines between written record, educated guess, and fictional construct are fascinatingly blurred here.” Such line-blurring is, for some of us, more dismaying than fascinating. Also, Anne Frank’s surviving cousin hated the sex scene.

But Anne Frank fanfic isn’t just for kids! Serious literary dudes love fetishizing Anne, too! Following in the serious literary dude footsteps of Philip Roth and Shalom Auslander, David R. Gillham has also written a novel in which Anne Frank isn’t killed in Bergen-Belsen. His version, published this year, is called Annelies. In it, a postwar, anhedonic Anne, grieving the loss of her mother and sister, is alienated from life until a rabbi teaches her about tikkun olam, which helps her engage with the world again. I have not read it. I have trouble getting past the adult male author using the dead girl as grist. It feels … appropriative. Generations of teenage girls have felt passionate kinship with Anne because her quivering emotions, snarky humor, and poetic style feel familiar to them, and the circumstances of her life are so agonizing yet so relatable—teenage girls understand feeling trapped. They may also yearn for authorial fame, as Anne did, and feel drawn to the operatic tragedy of her death. But it feels exploitative for grown men to slobber over Anne, using her as fodder for their own fantasies. It’s as if these guys are taking advantage of Anne’s history, the weight of the Holocaust, and all the emotional work of young female fans and their love for a real person to go off and do their whole “Guy in Your MFA” thing. As a Jewishly observant editor confided to me, “It feels kinda like a white guy writing a speculative biography of Harriet Tubman.” Of course white guys can write whatever they want. The question is whether they should.

In The Cat Who Lived with Anne Frank, Peter’s cat, Mouschi—who really does appear in the diary—tells us about the “Yellow Star people” like Peter and Anne and the “Black Spider people” who wear arachnidesque scribbles on their red armbands. At night, Mouschi sneaks out to spy on checkpoints and roadblocks. He shares Peter’s fears, sorrows, and joys. “Peter’s heart quickens,” Mouschi says. “Mine does, too. Until our hearts beat as one.” Mouschi fights the Nazis in his own way. “As a warrior, I slash and distract Black Spider Dogs as brave Resistance fighters led by a Red-Haired Girl rescue captive Yellow Star babies and children from a hot, smelly prison, once an elegant Jewish Theater,” he says. (An afterword tells us that this unwieldy sentence is about the exploits of a Dutch Resistance fighter named Jannetje Johanna Schaft.) The book concludes with the image of Mouschi, Peter, and Anne cuddling on the attic floor. “I nap. We nap. Dreaming dreams more powerful than bombs. Dreams of Anne’s kind and gentle spirit … lighting up the world forever.” Unless your kid loves small-print end notes, you’re gonna have to inform them that’s not how the story really ends. (And if you think your kid’s too young to know this, why are you letting them read a book about Anne Frank?)

Martin & Anne opens: “In 1929, two babies were born on opposite sides of the ocean. They never met. They didn’t even speak the same language. But their hearts beat with the same hope.” At first, author Churnin strives for parallelism between her two heroes: They start kindergarten and former friends won’t play with them because of their skin color/religion. They get a bit older and read “Whites Only”/“No Jews Allowed” signs. At 13, Martin wins a speech competition; at 13, Anne starts keeping a diary. But Anne dies at 15, so this literary device falls by the wayside. Martin goes on to become a minister, give speeches, and work to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed. At 39, he, too, is murdered. “But no one could kill the way Martin inspired others,” Churnin writes. “Just as Anne’s words will never die.” The book concludes: “Love is stronger than hate. Kindness can heal the world.”

Where to start with how misguided this is? Like the luminous, radiant washes of color in illustrator Nayberg’s lovely illustrations, Martin & Anne avoids all true harshness. You’d never know that two years before King’s death, two-thirds of all Americans had an unfavorable view of him and the FBI considered him the most dangerous man in America. Two years before Anne’s death (see, I can do parallelism, too) the United States was in its 12th year of restrictive quotas on Jewish refugees and took in only 10% of the number it could have in accordance with U.S. law. Another parallel? When Martin was 10, the future-president of the United States was still regularly using the N-word. When Anne was 10, 53% of the country agreed with the statement, “Jews are different and should be restricted,” and refused to take in 20,000 Jewish refugee children. (At a cocktail party, the immigration commissioner’s wife pointed out that “20,000 children would all too soon grow up to be 20,000 ugly adults.”)

The book reaffirms white people’s fantasy of King as the least threatening black leader ever. “White Americans love to paint Dr. King as a passive, nonviolent Christian who had a dream and believed racial unity was possible if everyone worked together,” Candice Benbow wrote in Essence last year. “This King makes them feel good about their levels of inaction. He assumes whatever guilt they might have about not doing enough to hold their own family members and colleagues accountable for their bigotry because he calls for those with less power to do as much work as the powerful. Their version of Dr. King does not mind when his words are intentionally taken out of context to justify reconciliation without accountability.”

What words of King’s do white people most love to quote? “I have a dream,” which conveniently allows reality to remain forever somewhere in a misty nebulous future. Their second fave? “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” How utterly comforting to anxious white people, a black leader seeming to prize saintliness over anger.

But King also said, “What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic.” In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he wrote that he had “almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom” was not the KKK member but the white moderate: “who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’” King added pointedly, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”

And what’s everyone’s fave Anne Frank quote? “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” How comforting! How saccharine! But Anne also said, “There’s a destructive urge in people, the urge to rage, murder, and kill.” She added, “I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us, too, I can feel the sufferings of millions, and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty, too, will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.” Anne was an emo teen before we knew the word, and it makes sense that her worldview whiplashed between illogical hope and profound despair. King was an adult; he understood reality better. They ended up equally murdered.

In her famous 1997 New Yorker essay, Cynthia Ozick wrote that Anne Frank’s story had been “bowdlerized, distorted, transmuted, traduced, reduced; it has been infantilized, Americanized, homogenized, sentimentalized; falsified, kitschified, and, in fact, blatantly and arrogantly denied.” Even Anne’s fans deliberately fudged the truth. The playwrights of the stage adaptation of the diary de-Jewified her; the German translator of the 1950 edition left out or deliberately mistranslated Anne’s negative statements about Germany; Anne’s own father removed her references to her sexuality and her loathing of her mother. “A deeply truth-telling work has been turned into an instrument of partial truth, surrogate truth, or anti-truth,” Ozick wrote. “Almost every hand that has approached the diary with the well-meaning intention of publicizing it has contributed to the subversion of history.”

I have no doubt that Churnin’s intentions are good. But I’m not sure Martin and Anne have a lot in common beyond their birth year. Anne was a boy-crazy, movie-star-loving, privileged child who was a victim of genocide and became known years after her death. Martin was a famous leader who didn’t hide from the enemy; he deliberately engaged in battle. I worry that the act of eliding the two of them is an example of white liberal Jews’ fondness for reminding themselves and African Americans that we’re on the same team. Please appreciate us, black people! We’ve suffered, too! Holocaust! Rabbi Heschel marched with Martin! Those nice Jewish boys murdered during Freedom Summer! But 1963 was a long time ago, and African Americans might be excused for raising a sardonic eyebrow at the way many of us cling to it.

Not long ago I pleaded with children’s publishers to lay off the Coco Chanel books, what with her being a lying, Nazi-sympathizing, Jew-loathing harpy. Can I request an Anne Frank timeout, too? Not because she was a bad person, but because she’s already told her own story, and told it beautifully. Rather than simplifying, defanging, or reworking her story yet again, why not read the book she actually wrote? And why not also look for less familiar stories to share with kids?

And as I keep asking, can we please think hard about whether we need more Holocaust picture books at all? Instead, let’s focus on chapter books for older readers who are better able to deal with the complexity and ugliness of history. Granted, I’d prefer to read new Jewish books that aren’t about the Holocaust, but if we must keep cranking them out, give me new stories of Jewish fighters and activists rather than cowering victims. We have Jennifer Nielsen’s Resistance, but why aren’t there a slew of propulsively written, well-researched chapter books focused on the Warsaw Ghetto resistance? Or maybe profile some unheralded LGBT heroes of WWII? I’ve mentioned lesbian Jewish orchestra conductor-slash-Nazi resistance activist Frieda Belinfante and lesbian artist-slash-Nazi resistance activist Gertrude Sandmann (who survived the Holocaust in hiding in plain sight in Berlin!), but surely there are people I don’t know anything about. Or how about a book on Franceska Mann, the beautiful Polish Jewish dancer who grabbed an SS officer’s pistol while he was ogling her and shot him, leading to an uprising of women in Auschwitz? (Their revolt was quickly snuffed out by guards with machine guns, but still.)

Upshot: Wishful thinking, divorced from historical reality, is not helpful to adults or children. Trees can’t talk. Love is not always stronger than hate. Kindness cannot always heal the world. Books that insist on the inspirational triumph of the human spirit—in the face of the reality that even small children see on TV of kids being put in cages and police shooting unarmed black boys—are lying.


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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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