I was unexpectedly moved when, 18 months ago, the chestnut tree outside Anne Frank’s hiding place in Amsterdam fell over. Rotting and ancient, the tree collapsed along with its support structure.
This tree has suddenly re-appeared in my office in the form of Jason Lazarus’ video loop “The top of the tree gazed upon by Anne Frank while in hiding (Amsterdam).” Playing continuously downstairs in the gallery of the new exhibition “Do Not Destroy: Trees, Art and Jewish Thought” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, this meditative 2008 film is nothing more than a 15-minute view of leaves rustling in the wind, re-creating what the young Anne Frank would have seen out the window of her hiding place.
This act of imaginative empathy stands in for our culture’s odd and intense obsession with Anne Frank, and offers a view into how a new generation of American artists sees Anne Frank — or “Anne Frank” — as a giving tree of inspiration, angst, satire and sadness.
We have now officially entered a third generation of artists, writers and critics deconstructing our most potent Holocaust symbol. In the first generation, represented by those who published the diary and created the 1955 Broadway show, the holiness of Frank as a symbol of Jewish continuity was paramount. This was part of the gospel of American Jewish exceptionalism, in which we created our own narrative of optimism, with a sentimental attachment to the Old World (think “Fiddler on the Roof”).
Twenty-five years later, Philip Roth’s novel “The Ghost Writer” presented Anne Frank as a young woman who may have survived the war, and now lived in New Jersey as a struggling writer. Roth’s character imagines dating this ghost, bringing her home to his parents to prove he is a good Jewish boy.
Artist Rachel Schreiber kicked off the next iteration of American artistic commentary on Anne Frank in 2001with “Anne in New York.” Schreiber stenciled the famous silhouette of Anne Frank’s quiet, elegant face onto utility poles, brick walls, movie posters and other urban surfaces to remind us of how ubiquitous she is, and how we have already wrenched her out of her tragic, European context in order to make her — literally — into an American icon.
And just this month, two of our smartest and more provocative writers — Nathan Englander and Shalom Auslander — took us even further into our fantasies of Anne Frank and the Holocaust.
Englander, whose Holocaust-themed stories from his first collection, “For The Relief of Unbearable Urges,” may be this generation’s best, reveals the way the Holocaust looms over us in the title story of his new collection, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.” In the story, two Jewish couples in Florida play the Anne Frank Game, in which they attempt to discover which of the four of them would turn in the others if the Nazis came to their door. One of the characters, a newly Orthodox Jew named Mark, visiting from Israel, condemns this Holocaust obsession, since “you can’t build Judaism only on the foundation of one terrible crime … as your only educational tool. Because for the children, there is no connection otherwise. Nothing Jewish that binds.”
Asked at a book reading how the story connects with Raymond Carver’s famous story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” which inspired Englander’s title, he responded: “Love and the Holocaust are conflated for me.”
Englander reminds us, as Philip Roth did, that we have endured a half-century love affair with Anne Frank — a love affair that can easily morph into unhealthy obsession.
Shalom Auslander, in his profane and hilarious novel “Hope: A Tragedy,” imagines Anne Frank having survived the war, found her way to America, and then holed herself up in Solomon Kugel’s attic in rural New York. Far from an object of desire, Anne Frank is ancient, ugly, and angry. Not just that, but she refuses to die until she finishes her second book. Unfortunately, as Auslander remarked in a recent conversation, Anne Frank is decades into her “sophomore slump,” and Kugel has no choice but to hide her — not just from the authorities, but also from his family and neighbors. His guilty, ambivalent response to Anne Frank stands in for his authenticity as a Jew.
Auslander’s cranky Anne Frank, a failed novelist desperately trying to get the world to hear her real voice, reminds us of how the teenage Dutch diarist is still rattling around our communal imaginative attic.
In every generation, perhaps we get the Anne Frank that we deserve.
So what do we talk about when we talk about Anne Frank?
Daniel Schifrin is writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.