Anne Frank: the Difficulty of Presentation

Anne Frank – written by Yona Zeldis McDonough, illustrated by Malcah Zeldis
Henry Holt and Company, 1997

The novelist Dara Horn has a new collection of essays called People Love Dead Jews: Report from a Haunted Present (and she wrote these even before an educator in Texas said that if teachers had a book in the classroom that condemned the Holocaust, they needed to add a book showing the opposing view). Among other examples of her provocative, and valid, argument, is the exploitation of Anne Frank as a universal example of optimistic humanism. Horn asserts that the quote from the diary about the young Anne believing that people are “truly good at heart” was obviously written before she learned the bitter truth that they sometimes are not.  (Another resource, for adults, is Francine Prose’s Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, the Afterlife.). I decided to revisit the picture book collaboration between daughter and mother, Yona Zeldis McDonough (author of The Doll Shop Downstairs and The Woodcarver’s Daughter) and Malcah Zeldis, a thoughtful and artistically unusual approach to Frank’s tragically short life.

Malcah Zeldis’s pictures draw on folk art traditions; these images of a terrible period in history are not meant to be literally accurate renditions of a time and place. Instead, they evoke a child’s experiences: first of a warm and loving home, and later, of terror. We see Edith and Otto Frank seated on a couch with their two daughters looking almost like dolls, and also recalling Renaissance paintings of religious figures.  Later, Anne sits in her bedroom in hiding, surrounded by pictures of movies stars, while she writes in her diary. This image presents the normality that Anne tried to create under conditions of unbearable pressure. So far, these depictions of Anne may be familiar to young readers who know anything about her. However, towards the end of the book, Zeldis portrays Anne, her mother, and sister, trapped behind barbed wire, their heads shaved and wearing concentration camp uniforms.  It is crucially important that this image is included in the book. Otherwise, readers cannot imagine what happened after the brave attempted rescuers of the Frank family were unable to save them from an informer and arrest by the Nazis.

Each page of text has a great deal of information, phrased appropriately for older picture book readers.  Anne receives her diary as a gift, she and her family go into hiding.  As the Nazi regime closes in on Jews of the Netherlands, tensions and fear threaten her emotional well-being.  Anne envisions her future, and, as she and her family try to maintain optimism that the war will soon end with victory by the Allies, she writes her famous phrase about human goodness.  McDonough does not negate the statement, but it is followed by the arrest of the Secret Annex residents and their imprisonment in the notorious system of death camps. 

An “Author’s Note” tries to strike a balance between universalism and the specific fate of Jews.  McDonough reports that the total number of Jews killed was approximately six million, but she adds that many other groups were targeted for persecution. While this is true, the Nazis did not succeed in committing genocide against them.  Fully two-thirds of the Jews of Europe were killed; in some countries as many as ninety percent.  It is important and appropriate for the author to put Anne Frank’s life, and death, in a worldwide perspective, but the particularity of her murder should also be clear.  There is one error: McDonough suggests that Anne and Margot Frank were sent from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen, where they died, because they were judged to be “young and strong enough to continue working.” The truth is that, by the time they were sent to Bergen-Belsen, the Nazis realized they were losing the war and were beginning to close Auschwitz, trying to destroy the evidence of the mass murder committed there.  These points do not lessen the value of this brave book, for older picture book readers.  Anne Frank leaves a strong impression of a gifted young woman, her destruction by murderous antisemitism, and her legacy to all of humanity.

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