March 23, 2012

An Open Letter to Philip Roth and Shalom Auslander, Re: Anne Frank

Posted in Judaism at 6:21 am by chavalah

Anne Frank writing

A few months back I was copy-editing a review of Auslander’s new novel, Hope: A Tragedy,which pokes fun at a perceived victim-status obsession among American Jews. The prime example of this is our fixation on the Shoah, so of course he brings up Anne Frank, (or as he dubs her, the Jews’ St. Anne of the Attic.) In his novel it’s discovered that she didn’t actually die at Bergen-Belsen, but the powers that be urge her to keep in hiding because the narrative is more poignant that way.

This is hardly a new angle for Jewish American writers to take with Anne. Back in 1978, Philip Roth basically did the same thing with The Ghost Writer, casting the Shoah victim as romantic fodder for his alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, so that the cynical young man could prove to his old-school family that he was still a good Jew. It was only a slightly less snarky commentary that we put Anne Frank on a pedestal where she doesn’t belong.

Well, gentlemen, I’m here to put a bee in your bonnet. I’m a Jewish American woman and I proudly list Anne Frank as one of my role models for life. No, I don’t quote passages of her book in Holocaust museums to rail against the injustice of Jewish oppression. I don’t read passages while huddled under my blankets waiting for the next Gestapo. Maybe I wouldn’t even say that she’s the voice of the Shoah, though arguably that’s the time period through which she lived, that’s what killed her, and that’s the external world she was reacting to.

I’d say that her messages supersedes one historical tragedy and addresses the human condition as a whole. I’d say that her beautifully crafted prose—written when she was just a teenager—rivals your adult output. I’d say that her optimism and faith in humankind, borne out of her life being stripped away from her in the years before she was killed, is more moving that your cynicism borne out of living in relative comfort, comparatively.

And it’s more than just about her refusal to let go of her faith in the world. This is a girl who was stunningly honest about her personal life. She analyzed her relationship with her family members and neighbors with an insight that some adults will never possess. She fell in love, as a way to keep living even when the Nazis wanted to strip everything from her. She was even open about her sexuality. I remember first reading The Diary of Anne Frank in the seventh grade. When we got to the part where she was exploring her body, most of my classmates professed disgust, or at least discomfort. For me, I found validation. It was okay to be growing up, it was okay that my body was changing. I wasn’t alone. This certainly had nothing to do with the Shoah, or even Judaism. Perhaps I can’t expect you gentlemen to understand. 😛

Not that I don’t agree that there is merit in critically probing the relationship between American Jews and the Shoah, or holding Anne Frank up as the only voice of that event/Judaism as a whole. But don’t dismiss her outright just because you have some beef with the community. That’s as shallow as the behaviors you purport to criticize.

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