Why is Anne Frank's diary so popular? - book review

A new book says Anne Frank’s popularity hinges on her being both hopeful – And dead.

 AN ITALIAN tourist takes a selfie in  front of the Anne Frank House in  Amsterdam, 2017 (photo credit: REUTERS/CRIS TOALA OLIVARES)
AN ITALIAN tourist takes a selfie in front of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, 2017

In the most quoted line from her diary, Anne Frank declared “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” This sentiment, according to Dara Horn, conferred on millions of readers “a gift of grace and absolution.” 

That gift, which “lies at the heart of Christianity,” is far more satisfying to embrace “than the obvious”: three weeks after writing about people’s inherent goodness, the teenage girl was murdered by monsters.

If Anne Frank’s diary had provided graphic details about concentration camps and genocide, Horn contends, it would not have been so widely read. After all, she notes, very few people have read The Czech Transport, Zalmen Gradowski’s harrowing and horrific chronicle of Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz, discovered after he was killed there in 1944.

In People Love Dead Jews, Horn (the author of five novels, including In The Image and The World To Come) argues that an obsession with dead Jews, which so often wears “goodwill on its sleeve,” remains pervasive, perverse, and connected to “people’s unarticulated concepts” of “civilization” and of themselves.

Engaging and informative, People Love Dead Jews seems intentionally provocative. All the more reason to meet Horn’s one-size-fits-all catchy thesis with healthy doses of skepticism.

The essays in the book range across time and space. Horn’s 10-year-old son critiques The Merchant of Venice; Horn deconstructs the myth that officials at Ellis Island changed immigrants’ names; and she examines the “gaslighting” techniques designed by the Soviet Union to destroy Jewish national culture by denigrating Jewish traditions.

In a fascinating chapter, Horn takes us to Harbin, once home to 20,000 Russian Jews who created the town at the turn of the 20th century along the route of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The flourishing Jewish community, we learn, was demolished in the 1930s by Japanese soldiers occupying Manchuria and anti-Communist “White Russians” who had fled there in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. When the Chinese took control in 1949, the 1,000 Jews who remained in the city lost their businesses and livelihoods. In 1962, the last Jewish family left Harbin. Recently, the provincial government invested $30 million to get Harbin officially recognized as a Jewish Heritage Site. Tourists visit buildings on the “Jewish Block,” The New Synagogue Jewish Museum, and what may be the largest Jewish cemetery in the Far East. Neither the sites, the tour guides, nor the “Real Historical Items” (acquired on eBay), Horn points out, explain “why this glorious community no longer exists.”

Horn also tells the little-known story of Varian Fry, the 20-something American journalist, based in Marseilles, who in 1940 and 1941 rescued some two thousand Europeans, including distinguished Jewish intellectuals and artists (Hannah Arendt, Marcel Duchamp, Marc Chagall, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Andre Breton) from the Nazis. Rescue stories aren’t inspirational, Horn guesses, because they imply that righteous people “could do no more than provide, for a tiny number of people, the possibility of remaining alive,” without calling into question “the premise that innocent people were doomed to be murdered.”

Other speculative claims in People Love Dead Jews should be revised or, perhaps, rejected as well. Horn tends to ignore changes over time in attitudes toward Jews and antisemitism. When Anne Frank’s diary was published, for example, Jews and non-Jews in the US were not ready to discuss concentration camps and genocide. These subjects are now staples of non-fiction, novels and movies. And Horn generalizes, much too impressionistically, that generations of American Jews told themselves their adopted country “has never been a place where antisemitism affected anyone’s life.”

Horn’s allegation that “to people who weren’t Jewish, or even to many Jews with little education in the culture,” Jewish identity “was simply a state of non-being” – doesn’t specify who she is blasting. Neither does her characterization of the “demand” of “readers” that Jewish suffering is “only worth examining” if it provides service to mankind, as “hateful.” 

 PEOPLE LOVE DEAD JEWS By Dara Horn (credit: Courtesy)
PEOPLE LOVE DEAD JEWS By Dara Horn (credit: Courtesy)

The aim of learning about the Holocaust is to make sure it doesn’t happen again, Horn acknowledges. But, she maintains, without elaborating, this has come to mean “that anything short of the Holocaust is, well, not the Holocaust. The bar is rather high.” 

Shylock’s rationalization that he is revolting because Christians treat him badly and he responds in kind, prompts Horn to conclude that “for this to satisfy, one must accept that Jews are revolting to begin with.” The “gaslighting,” she adds, went so deep she “felt obligated to make it work, to contort this revolting material into something that excused it.”

Horn brands recent media stories setting the murder of hassidic Jews in New Jersey in the context of tensions surrounding the “gentrification” of a “minority” neighborhood “as not merely disgusting and inhuman, but also a form of the very same hatred that caused the massacre – because the sole motivation for providing such ‘context’ in that moment is to inform the public that those people got what was coming to them.”

People Love Dead Jews, it seems clear, is a response to what Horn believes is a new normal in the US: “shocking and disorienting” antisemitic assaults, exemplified by the murder of 11 congregants at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the largest massacre of Jews in American history.

Convinced, somewhat contradictorily, that the more things change the more they remain the same, Horn leans into what she regards as our “haunted house world.” Jewish history, she emphasizes, does not provide room for optimism. Horn exaggerates the extent to which “the strange and sickening ways in which the world’s affection for dead Jews shapes the present moment.” But we can – and should – join her in hoping that each of us and all of us summon the courage to hear the truth “without hiding, face the fire and begin again.”

The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

PEOPLE LOVE DEAD JEWSBy Dara HornW.W. Norton & Co. 237 pages; $25.95