Anne Frank in his attic

A young American Jewish writer tackles the Holocaust's legacy with piercing dark humor.

ANNE FRANK CARTOON521 (photo credit: Avi Katz)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
Quite a number of years ago, I went to a gallery in New York that was exhibiting never-before seen black and white photos of Anne Frank and her family, all taken by her father Otto Frank.
They were of a very young Anne, the one who lived happily and safely before going into hiding from the Nazis. There I stood, feeling at once discombobulated and more than a little intrusive. I wanted to see the Anne Frank who came before the war, because I, like everyone else, knew that there is no Anne Frank who lived after it.
Shalom Auslander, author of the 2007 memoir, “Foreskin’s Lament,” knew this too, but he did not let this historical fact get in the way of the main conceit of his absurdist debut novel, “Hope: A Tragedy.”
In it, not only is Anne Frank alive (though not entirely well), but she is also an exceedingly cranky and nasty old woman, squatting in a farmhouse attic in rural upstate New York.
The farmhouse newly belongs to protagonist Solomon Kugel, who has moved in with his Jewish wife and young son.
Stockton, a town of no historical importance whatsoever, seemed to Kugel the perfect place to get away from life in the city and more, importantly, to escape the burdens of both his own and the collective Jewish past. However, with Anne in his attic, it would seem that Kugel isn’t going to have much luck in achieving his goal.
And, indeed, he doesn’t.
The rudely demanding, stinking, wretched, matza-eating old Anne is a force to be reckoned with. The uninvited house guest, who has numbers tattooed on her arm, contends that she survived Bergen-Belsen and has been hidden by guilt-ridden gentiles every since. She’s been working on a novel all these decades – a never-ending, highly daunting task, given that she couldn’t possibly allow herself to publish a work, unless it were good enough to guarantee sales in excess of the 32 million copies of her diary that have been sold worldwide. “It’s a tough act to follow,” Kugel agrees with her.
And, as if Anne Frank in his attic were not enough for Kugel to endure, he also has to deal with his elderly, demented mother who has moved in with him and his family, as well as with an arsonist on the loose in Stockton who is targeting farmhouses like Kugel’s.
Is suffering inherent?
There is a lot for the neuroses-prone Kugel to worry about – and worry he does. Once Auslander reveals that Anne is physically up in the attic, the rest of the book is about her being figuratively there. Is there really any use in holding on to hope, Kugel wonders? Is suffering an inherent part of being Jewish? Has the time come for us to put suffering behind us, or must we sanctify suffering as the thing that makes us worthy of this life? “The prize is a crown of thorns and eternal victimhood. Jesus was a Jew, Mr. Kugel, but I’m the Jewish Jesus,” Anne tells him.
We get stuck inside Kugel’s head, which is a confining place to be. Kugel spends the entire novel trying to figure out if he really does want to get rid of Anne, and the plot becomes repetitive and stuck as existential angst and the weight of the Holocaust icon and all she represents bear down on him, eventually coming to a conclusion that is less than satisfactory.
Therein lies the pitfall of the book, for it is more a meditation and exposition on the place of hope and suffering in 21st century Jewish identity than it is a full-blown novel. With everything portrayed from Kugel’s vantage point, all the other characters come off as flat. We never really do get to know his wife Bree or beloved son Jonah, nor do his sister Hannah and her husband get fully fleshed out. The cynical real estate agent Eve and Kugel’s off-stage psychotherapist Professor Jove – both apparently there to quash any shred of hope in Kugel – seem more voices in the protagonist’s head than real people.
Fake survivor
The one exception is Kugel’s mother, who has claimed (ever since her husband left her and her children decades earlier) to be a Holocaust survivor, when she is really the product of a happy and comfortable middle-class American upbringing.
“Mother had never been in a war. She’d never been anywhere near a war, unless you count the holiday sales at Bamberger’s the morning after Thanksgiving,” Kugel says. Still, she insists she sees the faces of relatives in photos in Holocaust history books, and that the shade on her bedside lamp is Kugel’s grandfather… or grandmother… or uncle. Never mind that it is stamped “Made in Taiwan” (“Well, do you really expect them to put ‘Made in Auschwitz’ on it?”).
Kugel’s mother, who has a large portrait of Alan Dershowitz over her bed, is overjoyed by the fact that none other than Anne Frank is up in the attic. She dresses up every time she goes up to see her, and she makes up a bed for her Holocaust heroine, complete with a child’s bedspread, a teddy bear, one-piece pajamas and a Hello Kitty alarm clock that she imagines the Anne Frank forever frozen in time would have liked. It’s “a childscape… a won’t-letit- go tableau,” as Kugel describes it. When Kugel considers calling the police to get rid of Anne, his mother snaps, “What’s the matter, you didn’t have Dr. Mengele’s number?”
It is for these kinds of absurdist details and iconoclastic, caustic quips that “Hope: A Tragedy” is worth reading. While it is lacking as a novel (many would prefer Philip Roth’s imagined young, sexy Anne in “The Ghostwriter”) and traverses already familiar philosophical ground, no other young American Jewish writer today can tackle the Holocaust’s legacy with quite such piercing dark humor.
In Auslander’s hands, Anne Frank is no longer that famous, talented and tragic girl in the attic yearning for freedom and writing about her faith in mankind in spite of it all: she is what we have turned her into.
“Me, I’m the sufferer. I’m the dead girl. I’m Miss Holocaust, 1945,” Anne Frank tells Kugel, and by extension all of us who have made of her someone and something other than who she really was or was probably ever meant to be.