Views from Anne Frank's father; Fresh light on upcoming 'Diary' production
New York — "all the flowers of tomorrow are in the seeds of today," was the message embroidered on a pillow on a worn sofa in the Birsfaden, Switzerland, home of Otto Frank, father of Anne frank.
The 91-year-old survivor of the famous "secret annex" in Amsterdam and the Auschwitz concentration camp, has since passed on, in August at his home in a suburb of Basel, two years after our visit in Switzerland. I had asked him what was the most important message he felt the world could learn from reading his daughter, Anne's, diary.
He pointed to the pillow. "this was sent to me by one of Anna's admirers. I never forget what it says, and nobody should ever forget what it means." The words neatly sewed onto the pillow: "All the flowers of tomorrow are in the seeds of today."
After two days of conversaion with the then-octogenarian Otto Frank and his second wife, now his widow, Fritzi, also a concentration camp survivor, it was clear to me what the gentle Otto was saying. Even after two years of confinement in the cramped quarters above the shop on Presingracht Canal, Otto Frank revealed to me that he had still not known his 13-15-year-old daughter very well. It was not until he read the diaries, short stories, and letters salvaged from the garret apartment where the family had lived for two years before an informer turned them into to the Dutch Green Police that he learned about the "real" Anne Frank. The police and the Gestapo had searched only for jewels and money -- the papers seemed to them worthless.
But among the papers were Annehs writings -- what now seems to the world like the work of an extraordinarily talented, sensitive young writer, a girl who might in womanhood have proved to be a literary figure. Her musings about the life she observed in the attic, about the world and universe in general, about her own process of maturing, revealed an astoundingly unique human being to Mr. Frank and eventually to the world.
"I never expected that my Anna was thinking about such serious things," he said.
Since it was published in 1947, "The Diary of a Young Girl" has sold more than 15 million copies in just about every country in the world. It has been produced as a play, as a movie, as a TV show. Now, once again, "They Diary of Anne Frank" (NBC, Monday, 9-11 p.m., check local listings) is being done on television with a script by the writers of the original play, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, directed by Boris Sagal and starring Melissa Gilbert (of "Little House on the Prairie" and "The Miracle Worker" fame) as Anne.
Maximilian Schell play Otto with firm sensitivity, and Joan Plowright plays Anne's mother with unexpected depth. The whole production is meticulously correct, skillfully done, but just a bit bloodless. The facts are there -- what is lacking is the sense of enormous tragedy, the full realization that not just a small group of human beings has been suffering but that something important in mankind has been somehow indelibly soiled while a few Jews his away in cramped quarters. This version is a charming, intellectualized view of "The Diary" -- done with respect and restraint. It simply lacks fire and fury. And most important, the essential overwhelmingly sorrowful sense of loss.
But lack of Otto Frank, a man who confided in me that in a certain way he had been lucky -- how many fathers get to spend so much time with their adolescent daughters, after all?
Did he believe that Anna (he always called her that rather than Anne) would have been a great writer had she survived?
"I try never to answer such questions," he said sadly. "Would she have been a great writer, would she have gone to Israel, would she have married Peter? You can't know. What's the use of it? She might have gone to Israel to fight with the Jews, after all the experiences with bigotry she had. But she might have gone to America first to study. I think probably she would have been a big , great writer but maybe a journalist first. The fact that she developed as a writer so quickly -- that was due to the circumstances.
"In the two years of confinement she grew from girl to woman. Before that she went skating and played with other littel girls, never thinking very much . . . I thought." Mr. Frank wants all parents to understand that they must not underestimate the capabilities of their own children.
One night the occupants of the annex talked about the importance of personal diaries in history, and Anne rewrote some of her old diary and started a new one. That fact and the fact that, as Otto freely admitted to me, he had edited the diaries before he had them privately published originally, probably accounts for the current sensationalist "revisionist" theories making the rounds of Germany, which claim that the diaires are a forgery, since there are ball-point pen markings on them -- and ball-point pen were not invented until after the war.
As an example, Otto told me that Anne, in a moment of anger, had made some harsh statements about all Germans and he was sure she would have wanted to excise such all-encompassing condemnations, since she had a good German friend herself. So he did it.
In addition, Mr. Frank revealed to me somthing I had never read anywhere else: Most of the names used in the book were fictitious, chosen by Anne herself , although in speaking about them he had come to call them by Anne's pseudonyms, rather than their real names. Anne wished to call herself Anne Robin, but Mr. Frank could not envision himself as Otto Robin, so he changed the family name back to Frank in his published version.
Now that he is gone, however, the original diaries as well as all other Anne Frank writings recovered from the annex repose in a safe deposit box in a bank in Basel. Historians will be poring over them for years to come.
When I read of Mr. Frank's recent demise, I retrieved my tapes of our conversation and listed again to the words of this wise old man, who spent the rest of his life daughter, advising parents not to underestimate the depth of emotion in their children, teaching the world to hate less, love more, and most important, trying to forgive.