Appropriating Anne Frank

Holocaust fatigue has given way to Holocaust farce.

Like when an extant Anne Frank is found hiding in a modern-day attic in Shalom Auslander’s novel, “Hope: A Tragedy.” But, beware. The bright, wide-eyed heroine we met in a World War II-era diary is now a decrepit, angry old woman. In Auslander’s telling, “She stank like decay, like death.” This Anne Frank has “gnarled bones,” “withered hands,” “sallow and gray skin”; she is “insouciant,” “hideous,” “wiry and unkempt.”

“I don’t know who you are, or how you got up here,” Auslander’s protagonist, Solomon Kugel, says when he finds Frank hiding — and furiously typing — in his attic. “But I’ll tell you what I do know: I know Anne Frank died in Auschwitz … And I know that making light of that, by claiming to be Anne Frank, not only is not funny and abhorrent but it also insults the memory of millions of victims of Nazi brutality.”

Frank doesn’t argue with that. Instead, she retorts: “It was Bergen-Belsen, jackass.”

Frank’s reappearance — or rather, resurrection (“Jesus was a Jew, but I’m the Jewish Jesus,” she says) — in Auslander’s novel is a funny way of dealing with fatigue, as if drizzling on extra chocolate sauce will make you less full. The character looms large in the novel, just as she does in life, sprung from a continuous, cavernous, obsessive preoccupation with the Holocaust that is not so much an effort to remember as an osmotic form of modern Jewish identity. Solomon Kugel’s mother, for instance, is so fixated on the Holocaust she invents for herself a survival story that never actually occurred. “Because you’re Jewish,” Anne Frank moralizes, “you feel guilty for not suffering atrocities.”

Another recent work of fiction, Nathan Englander’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” also channels “Miss Holocaust” (a title Auslander’s Frank ascribes to herself). In Englander’s opening story, two middle-aged Jewish couples, one secular, one ultra-Orthodox and now living in Israel, convene in Miami Beach so that the women, who attended yeshiva together, can reunite. Before long, they start drinking and get high, and then come the hot-button identity issues. Mormon post-mortem conversions of Holocaust victims? The horror!

“And this bothers you?” asks the religious man from Israel. “This is what keeps an American Jew up at night?”

How silly, he thinks. Then he declaims, “You can’t build Judaism only on the foundation of one terrible crime … this obsession with the Holocaust [has become] a necessary sign of identity … your only educational tool …” — conveniently overlooking, of course, how powerfully the Shoah informs Israeli identity. American Jews, he smugly insists, have “nothing Jewish that binds.”

So it becomes very ironic, when, later in the story, what they talk about when they talk about Anne Frank, is who among their gentile friends would hide them in the event of another Holocaust, and when they turn the “game” on one another, it is the Orthodox man who hesitates to say whether he’d hide his own wife.

This strange occupation of imagining who among us are modern Oskar Schindlers also concerns Auslander’s protagonist. Fatigue is indefatigable; these characters (I mean, authors) are annoyed by the persistent prevalence of the Holocaust, yet it obsesses them. 

Has so much Holocaust on the brain led to a hostile dependency?

“What’s the worst possible thing you can find if you were trying to forget about all the horrors of the past?” Auslander posed during a recent phone interview from New York. “Well, it would be a representative of the horrors of the past.”

Enter Anne. “I hated that two-dimensional picture of the wide-eyed smiling girl who dies brutally,” Auslander said. “We tend to do this with young girls; we turn them into Barbie dolls with no genitals and perfect hair. She’s been turned into a cardboard cutout. I wanted to find a way to make her more real.”

But verisimilitude only goes so far. Because while Auslander and Englander are channeling the past, they are not revisiting it — there are no camps, no guards, no cattle cars in their narratives. Rather, they bring vestiges of the past to visit us. As the documentary filmmaker Jon Kean suggested in a 2010 essay for this newspaper, the Holocaust does not always figure as a full-fledged history lesson: “The Holocaust is now a character [emphasis mine] in films and books. A plot point. A figure in the background.” 

In her essay “Holocaust Fatigue,” Simone A. Schweber, the Goodman Professor of Education and Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote, “[M]y students now tend to approach the Holocaust … without a default position of veneration. The Holocaust is, for them, interesting but not awesome.”

The eerie notion that a proliferation of Holocaust narratives in literature, film and the classroom has created a cultural queasiness on the topic is discomfiting, even if it’s true. But to realize “Never Again” actually means, again and again, ad infinitum and everywhere, until a legacy is so ingrained in the collective consciousness, real repetition seems burdensome. The idea seems to be: Let us get so sick of the Holocaust such that the Holocaust makes us sick.

So Auslander and Englander have attempted to make the subject sexy by injecting it with a little bit of fantasy.

“If there’s something about Jewish history and culture that I like,” Auslander, a lapsed Orthodox Jew, said wryly. “It’s the history of s—- stirring, of causing trouble, of asking questions, of rocking the boat.”

It’s how he imagines Anne would have been had she lived to a ripe old age.

“Certainly as a teenager, she was tough and she was a pain in the ass,” he said, “in the best possible way. She saw bulls—- for what it was, because she talks about the religious kids in her class, she talks about the phonies. And she sees through some of her mother’s melodrama and forced sadness. So she’s analytical; she’s not taking everything at face value.

Auslander said he saw in her a Jewish rage — a “difficultness” — that he admires.

“I thought, ‘Boy, if she had survived, and became this woman, and moved to Monsey [N.Y.] near my mother, my mother would have f———hated her. She’d talk about how terrible what Israel is doing to the Palestinians is, and my mother would have wanted to tear her hair out.”