ORLANDO — Graphic novels have gone in a lot of interesting and unusual directions in recent years, but one of the most unique is the new Anne Frank graphic novel based on her diary. If a story about the Holocaust doesn’t sound like suitable material for something that seems similar to a comic book, we need only go back to the “Maus,” the harrowing and towering work by cartoonist and writer Art Spiegelman, which uses the postmodernist technique of portraying Jews as mice and Germans as cats.
The book “Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation” is a similarly brilliant work, adapted by Ari Folman with illustrations by David Polonsky, that offers a gripping and deeply moving look at the final years of the young Jewish girl in Holland who hid with her family in the attic of her father’s office building as the Nazis rounded up that country’s Jews.
The book is a powerful addition to ongoing Holocaust literature, and the timing is perfect. It helps to dramatize this painful and shameful chapter in world history at a time of a rising anti-Semitism in the U.S. and Europe, and increasingly vocal Holocaust denials becoming unnervingly louder.
And the book also demonstrates that the graphic novel may be one of the ideal forms for this kind of historic literature.
What is the Anne Frank Graphic Novel Like?<
The novel, published by Pantheon Books in 2018,follows Anne Frank’s diary, but also starts earlier, before the Jewish family was forced into hiding. It begins on Friday, June 12, 1942, with a family celebration — Anne Frank turning 13. As the novel vividly portrays, Anne had what could only be described as a happy and fairly routine childhood until then. We follow her everyday her struggles to find friends she trusts, her interest in the boys at school, her squabbles with her sister and mother. And on that 13th birthday, she got an interesting gift: a diary she dubbed “Kitty.”
And then the book eases into the eerie way their lives changed once the Nazis took over Holland.
“All my Jewish friends in the civil service have been fired,” Anne’s father Otto says. “This will only get worse. It’s time to make a move.”
It gets horrifyingly worse. Nazis burn synagogues and Jewish-owned stores, burn books about Judaism and Jewish culture, and rumors spread of a labor camp in Dachau where Jews are being sent. Eventually the family flees — but not out of Holland, but to the attic in Otto’s office building, which will become their home until August 1944.
Along the way, we vividly follow what it was like to live in that attic, hidden away, always fearful of being discovered. But it also captures the same thing Anne Frank’s diary did: the sense of simply being a child, and being unable to focus away from, well, childish things.
In his Adapter’s Notes, Folman writes that while he was initially reluctant to take on this challenge, he began to see the power in Anne’s writing, and understood how it would work in a graphic novel.
“For Anne’s periods of depression and despair, we chose to depict them as either fantastical scenes … or as dreams,” he wrote. “As the diary progresses, Anne’s talents as a writer grow ever more impressive ..”
The novel fully captures that. For such a tragic and despairing true story, there’s a tremendous amount of humor in the book. Anne Frank was highly opinionated and firmly convinced that she was right about a lot of things that others were wrong about. And she was also very smart. As a result, there’s quite a lot about the book that’s comically entertaining to follow.
How Does This Graphic Novel Differ From the Diary?
An interesting trend in recent years has been to take classic literature and then re-release it with the author’s unabridged version — versions that were often victim of censorship in their day. A good example is Oscar Wilde’s novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” which was released in 1890 in 13 chapters, with a lot of material deleted before publication by the magazine’s editor, J. M. Stoddart, because it dealt with homosexuality and homoerotic themes, a taboo subject at the time. An uncensored version with all of Wilde’s original material intact would get published in 2011 by Harvard University Press.
There are similar “dual versions” of Anne Frank’s diary. The first transcription of the diary was in German by Otto Frank after the war. In May 2018, Frank van Vree, the director of the Niod Institute for War, the Holocaust and Genocide Studies, found unseen excerpts from the diary that Anne had previously covered up with a piece of brown paper. The excerpts talk about sexuality and prostitution.
It’s also known that Otto Frank had removed some references to sexuality from the original, including Anne’s feelings of attraction to other girls. The 50th anniversary version would include passages previously excluded from the original edition that deal with Anne’s emerging sexual desires and unflattering descriptions of her mother. (In 2010, the Culpeper County, Virginia school system banned the book because of complaints about its sexual content and homosexual themes.)
A lot of that material finds its way into “Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation,” in a way that doesn’t feel exploitative but entirely natural. And Anne Frank is not portrayed in this book simply as a victim, but as a full character, warts and all, with acts of kindness balanced out by moments of pettiness. Her characters becomes that much more engaging and interesting to follow as a result.
This novel would be a great option to teach to middle and high school students, but it’s not really a children’s book. In fact, quite a bit of what this graphic novel covers is very adult, and very disturbing and heartbreaking.
But it also demonstrates why Anne Frank’s Diary remains such a powerful piece of autobiographic literature, Holocaust literature, and a testament to the need for every one of us to never, ever forget.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Of Cats And Wolves.” Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.
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