Image shakers;Book of the week

9th April 1999 at 01:00
Anne Frank would have been 70 this year. The anniversary has fired a publishing explosion of three biographies, with another to come. Reva Klein is alarmed by the re-packaging of a girl seen as the 'acceptable voice of the Holocaust'

ROSES FROM THE EARTH: the biography of Anne Frank. By Carol Ann Lee. Penguin pound;16.99

THE STORY OF ANNE FRANK. By Mirjam Pressler. Translated by Anthea Bell. Macmillan Children's Books pound;9.99

ANNE FRANK: the biography. By Melissa Mueller. Translated by Rita and Robert Kimber. Bloomsbury pound;16.99.

Had she lived, Anne Frank would have been 70 years old on June 12. It's difficult and rather shocking to try and imagine the girl who was immortalised in her youth as an elderly woman with a lifetime behind her. She died three months short of her 16th birthday and only three weeks before the liberation of Bergen Belsen by British troops. The girl who professed, towards the end of her two long years of hiding in Amsterdam, to believe in the essential goodness of human beings was killed by an industrialised genocide machine, the like of which the world had never seen before or since.

I grew up with the image of Anne Frank, admiring her for her optimism, her life force and, most of all, for her startlingly sophisticated and honest writing; but I was also haunted by her, as were many of my generation and background. She died six years before I was born. She was good, clever, tragic; and I, in my self-flagellating, post-war mindset, was none of those things.

Since the publication of her diary in 1947, Anne has become a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit over terrible adversity and evil. Her enduring appeal has spawned an industry of the diary itself as well as plays, films, exhibitions and educational organisations. She is and will always remain the acceptable voice of the Holocaust, who has allowed the world to pick itself up, dust itself off and start all over again. Roberto Benigni's redemptive Oscar-winning film Life is Beautiful has a similar effect for some viewers.

To commemorate the 70th anniversary of Anne Frank's birth, three major publishing houses are coming out with new biographies. Roses from the Earth, by British author Carol Ann Lee, is a rigorously researched book by a self-confessed Anne fan, who first read the diary when she was only six and became obsessed with her soon after.

The level of obsession shows. Lee throws in details about the Franks' forebears that are mind-numbingly banal. (do we really gain anything from learning that Otto's cousin's Uncle Isidor went down with the Titanic?) We don't need con-stant reminders that the family was bourgeois and assimilated; it's all in the diary.

Thankfully, Lee intersperses the story with information about what was going on around the Franks and, in particular, the progressively racist legislation and actions affecting hundreds of thousands of other Jews.

While the publisher flaunts Lee's uncovering of new material, including the identification of the person who possibly betrayed the occupants of the secret annexe in Amsterdam, the revelations are hardly of earth-shattering dimensions. What is far more compelling is the piecing together of surviving friends' and fellow prisoners' accounts of Anne and her family's experiences in three camps after their arrest, ending with the death of Anne and her sister Margot in the most lonely, abject and squalid circumstances imaginable.

Mirjam Pressler's The Story of Anne Frank is marketed as a children's book and is not so much biography as subjective narrative. Unfortunately, it doesn't work. Pressler's unique proximity to the material is probably the book's undoing. She was the translator of the diary from Dutch into German and worked with Anne's father, Otto Frank, to compile the expanded definitive edition of the diary.

Pressler sets her agenda early on. "I cannot really go and ask (the people who knew Anne) 'What was Anne like?' In fact, I don't want to ask them: I don't trust their memories. I know how unreliable memory can be." Instead, she insinuates into the story her own theories of what the girl was like, what she thought when she looked out of a window, what made her want to write. Although she insists that she doesn't "want to rely too heavily on speculation", this is precisely what she does. The end product is a book that is patronising to readers of all ages. Its single saving grace is the moving foreword by the late Rabbi Hugo Gryn, which is informed by his innate intelligence and humanity and by the fact that he, too, was sent to a concentration camp as a teenager.

Anne Frank: the biography by Melissa Mueller, a journalist working in Munich and Vienna, is arguably the best of the bunch, a well-written account, with a strong narrative and a more seamless meshing of biographical and historical detail than Lee's. Although the author obtained exclusive interviews with family and friends, there is little to choose between Lee's and Mueller's books in terms of revelation, except for Mueller's coup in including a specially written note by Miep Gies, one of the people responsible for hiding, feeding and protecting the Franks and the others in the secret annexe.

For me, Miep's few carefully chosen words say volumes about Anne Frank and her times. She writes: "It is often said that Anne symbolises the six million victims of the Holocaust. I consider this statement wrong. Anne's life and death were her own individual fate, an individual fate that happened six million times over. Anne cannot and should not stand for the many individuals whom the Nazis robbed of their lives."

A fourth biography, 'The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank' by Willy Lindwer, will be published byMacmillan on June 11 at pound;12.99, the day before the 70th anniversary of Anne Frank's birthday. The British-based Anne Frank Educational Trust is running a series of activities during Anne Frank Week from June 6-12. As part of the event, and to celebrate the National Year of Reading, the trust is publishing resources for the promotion of good citizenship. For more information, ring: 0181 340 9077 e-mail: website:

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