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A Frank Record of Faith

Diary Days: A rare photo of Anne Frank working at her desk

The girl whose diary outlived the Nazis is remembered in a new film

By Richard von Busack

After viewing the new documentary Anne Frank Remembered, I talked with a pal who had also seen the movie and who I hoped would have something, anything, hopeful to say about the tragedy of the girl who recorded her thoughts in a diary while hiding from the Nazis.

He told me an interesting story about a trip he'd taken to Switzerland, during which, as it happened, my friend had gone to the restaurant on the mountain where the locations were shot for the criminal mastermind Blofeld's headquarters in the James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service. In this vaguely sinister locale, he had met an old German man who, not knowing he was talking to somebody Jewish, began reminiscing about his days in the Hitler Youth.

The garrulous old man expanded upon Hitler's rather poor reputation in history, eventually pulling out a wallet and showing off a precious picture of himself at age 7 shaking hands with the Führer. Talk about six degrees of separation--I'd met someone who'd met someone who met Hitler.

All of which I mention because before seeing this fine film about the life and death of Frank, I had begun to fear that she had passed out of living memory.

Thanks to the superiority of Nazi bookkeeping and of more than a dozen people's reminiscences, however, it's possible not only to trace what happened to Frank but to encounter people who knew her in the last few months of her life in 1944 and 1945. It seems almost like a miracle that such a record exists; Frank was, at the time, just another 15-year-old dying of exposure and typhus at Bergen-Belsen.

Moreover, Frank had been switched from camp to camp, from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen, by Nazis busy trying to cover their tracks at the end of the war. One woman interviewed in Anne Frank Remembered, a camp survivor in her 70s, was told by a guard that even if she did survive (and her death was inevitable, the guard said), no one would believe her tale.

Human fallibility is sometimes as much a comfort as a curse: Anne Frank's diaries themselves exist, as we learn here from interviewee Miep Gies, because of a moment's careless greed. The SS officers raiding the attic where the Franks hid out were so intent on looting the rooms that they left behind a terribly incriminating document, the diary of a young old girl.

The Diary of Anne Frank, which tells the story of the Franks' efforts to evade the Nazi occupiers of the Netherlands in 1942-44, is well known through various versions, including films and plays, in dozens of languages and millions of copies in various levels of expurgation, particularly in regard to Anne's sexual curiosity--one more thing, like her temper, that makes her live in print. Anne Frank Remembered fills in a lot of the blanks, ending with something extraordinary: a bit of moving footage in which Frank as a 12-year-old can be glimpsed, the only such film in existence.

The documentary, narrated by Kenneth Branagh (and with somewhat queenly readings from the diaries by Glenn Close--someone younger would have been more appropriate), provides some new information. I didn't know that the Franks were German, for example, and that, in one of those sickening ironies of 20th-century history, father Otto Frank had been a German soldier in World War I.

The family had immigrated to Holland after the Nazis came to power; the Franks' younger daughter, Annalise, or Anna for short, took to her new country well. She was as bright a piece of mischief as the Montessori schools ever produced--"God knows everything, Anna knows everything better," said her parents.

It's apparent the girl would have had a future, but war broke out, and before long the Franks and some other acquaintances were holed up in the top floor of the small business Otto Frank had been running.

Anne Frank Remembered also discusses some of the peripheral characters in the diaries: Peter Pepper, the son of Fritz Pfeffer, the dentist whom Anna disliked and called "Dr. Idiot," here defends his father's memory against the wrath of an adolescent. There are many interviews with Gies, a former employee of Otto Frank's who was their liaison to the outside world, facing down the fury of the Nazis for two years, guarding the family from discovery.

Resistance fighter Jenny Brandes and camp survivor Hanneli Goslar were among the last to see Anne and her sister, Margot; one thing the documentary suggests is how if the two had felt their father was alive, they might have had the strength to hold on for the few weeks longer it took until the camp was liberated by the English.

We're getting less and less proof, it seems, that human memory is some sort of charm against future holocausts. The claims that the Frank diary was just a fraud written by Jewish conspirators is addressed in the documentary, probably not to the satisfaction of anyone who could believe such a thing.

There's enough of that element around. Pat Buchanan (quoted in an older column dug up by Time magazine) has accused Holocaust survivors of having "group fantasies of martyrdom" and praised Hitler as "a soldier's soldier." There's also the continuing renewal of devotion to The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion; not to mention the Nazi radio station just established in Denmark (fueled by the fantasies of American Holocaust revisionists).

For more recent work in the field of genocide, Peter Maas, the New York Times' Bosnia correspondent and the author of Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War, has seen things equal to what went on the camps. Perhaps worse in some respects; in Bosnia, the savagery was less organized by hierarchy, and the captors had more time to think up fun and games.

The virtue of Frank's tale then becomes more specific, more related to the event of the Holocaust than to any hope of "never again"; just as her pretty face becomes something tangible and human that goes along with those huge numbers of the immolated.

If you consider the Holocaust as one of those points in human history that reveals the essential evil of the human species, it's somewhat comforting to have Gies' unassuming courage as a counter-argument.

There is also, for somewhat colder comfort, Frank's conviction, quoted at the end of Anne Frank Remembered, that her book would ensure that her life was not in vain.

And what does one person's doubt that a book can change a suffering world count for when arrayed against Frank's personal faith--justified in many ways--that it could?

Anne Frank Remembered (PG; 122 min.), a documentary by Jon Blair.

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From the Mar. 7-13, 1996 issue of Metro

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