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The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank
By Ellen Feldman
By a mix of fate and youthful talent, Anne Frank was granted immortality after her death, becoming the single most famous Holocaust victim and perhaps the best-known teenager of the 20th century.
But Frank wasn't the only school-age resident of the secret annex in Amsterdam, where her family went into hiding after fleeing Nazi Germany. In addition to her older sister, Margot, Anne found a companion in Peter van Pels, another German Jewish teenager. Though Frank initially found the 16-year-old a "shy, awkward boy whose company won't amount to much," she had fallen in love with him by the time the annex's occupants were caught. Unlike Frank, van Pels left no record of his thoughts or experiences in the secret annex.
Author Ellen Feldman takes great literary license with this fact in The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank, a novel told from the boy's point of view after the war and his immigration to the United States. As she notes in the epilogue, she was inspired to write the novel after being told by a guide at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam that van Pels was the only annex resident whose fate was never recorded.
Feldman's narrative conceit is both compelling and potentially problematic. It takes a high level of presumptuousness to imagine the internal life of a real figure, much less to put those imaginings in print and sell them as entertainment. Given the tragic circumstances, readers can't be blamed if they're initially turned off by the idea.
So it's a relief to report that a reading of this gripping novel casts those misgivings aside. The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank is simply remarkable - a thoughtful, wrenching, beautifully written "memoir" that deals artfully and intelligently with readers' concerns. Feldman more than justifies her literary audacity by the end of the first few chapters - an achievement that is only compounded as the reader progresses through to the end of the book.
"I WAS BORN six years ago in a customs shed on the Hudson River," Feldman's imaginary, 20-something Peter van Pels recalls early in the book. "In place of a past, I have this inexplicable, ill-gotten, entirely remarkable present."
The character's life is indeed remarkable, outwardly a storybook realization of the American dream, contradicted inwardly by a cyclone of guilt and anger. Van Pels is deeply traumatized by his experiences in Europe, a condition made no better by his steadfast refusal to admit - even to himself - that he might somehow have been affected by what he endured.
He's greeted in the US by an anti-Semitic immigration official, who hears his Dutch-sounding last name and confides: "You spend enough time in this place, Mr. van Pels, you begin to think we're nothing but a dumping ground for the world's garbage."
Given the unexpected opportunity by the immigration officer, van Pels reinvents himself by erasing his past. When a business partner assumes that the European-born refugee is Jewish, van Pels denies the idea; even his American wife doesn't know about his Jewish background.
There are, of course, wounds too deep to be forgotten, and Feldman does a moving job imagining the character's fears and crippling sense of guilt for surviving the genocide that killed his parents and teenage love. Returning from work, he imagines that his comfortable suburban home has been destroyed by fire, or that it never existed. He keeps and obsessively monitors a secret stash of money in the upstairs hallway in case he needs to go into hiding with his wife and children. He feels temporary relief that he's prepared for such a situation, but anger because his father didn't foresee the severity of the Nazi threat, and for his own bitter feelings towards his murdered parent.
Feldman writes these passages with a devastating believability, and the poignancy of the character's situation is heightened each time the reader recalls that the real Peter van Pels never had an opportunity to experience such feelings of guilt and anguish.
The book becomes something truly remarkable in its second section, however, incorporating real-life events into the narrative as Anne Frank's famous diary is adapted for stage and screen. While Feldman's imaginary van Pels claims not to be bothered by the diary's publication - "it was only a book" - it isn't as easy for him to ignore the play and film versions of The Diary of Anne Frank, which by their nature alter and distort Frank's (and van Pels's) story.
The remainder of The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank operates on two levels, as both the fictionalized story of Peter van Pels and as a commentary on such fictionalizations. It's an ingenious set-up, allowing Feldman and her protagonist to voice outrage at the Broadway-ization (and subsequent Hollywood-ization) of the miserable period he spent in hiding. Van Pels - whose name was changed in the diary and onstage to Van Daan - is appalled to read that film actress Shelley Winters gained 40 pounds to play his mother: "I did not remember my mother's being overweight, but perhaps that was because by the end we were all starving. But Miss Winters... was a good sport and a true professional. She was eating her way into my mother's character, like a tapeworm."
AS HE learns more about the adaptations of the diary, Van Pels becomes even more consumed by a scene - which appears nowhere in the diary - inserted by the play's producers to add some drama to the second act. The solution: a fabricated scene in which van Pels's murdered father steals bread from the meager annex supply in order to satisfy his own selfish appetite. This addition to the story is slander against a Holocaust victim, of course, but that doesn't prevent the various adaptations from winning an array of prestigious awards.
Through van Pels, the book also takes aim at the cliches and lazy generalizations that have begun to overshadow Anne Frank's diary and the lives it documents. Van Pels's wife informs him that seeing the film version of The Diary of Anne Frank is a "moral obligation," while the audience at the screening sighs at the "triumph of the human spirit" embodied by the film's closing line.
Feldman's reader also learns that the real-life Otto Frank - Anne's father - objected to being called a "saint" in the play, and that Gusti Haber, the actress who played Otto's wife on Broadway and in the film, flourished as a star of the Nazi cinema while the real Franks and van Pels suffered in secrecy.
Of course, Feldman's book is itself a distortion of the life of the boy at its center. As she notes in the acknowledgements, the guide at the Anne Frank House was wrong: the real Peter van Pels's final fate was indeed documented, and came in a manner as unglamorous and heartbreaking as any that can be imagined.
But Feldman should be more than forgiven for the liberties she takes. In imagining an adulthood that never happened, the author highlights the tragedy of a young life brutally cut short. And in an effective conceit that should win over even early skeptics, she issues a convincing and absorbing call for history and its victims to be remembered as they really were, not as we wish they could have been.