Biographer Melissa Müller discusses Anne Frank at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival

Nov 10, 1999 at 4:00 am
"If there were Jewish saints," writes Melissa Müller in the introduction to Anne Frank: The Biography, "someone probably would have long since proposed her beatification." Müller is speaking of the saintly Anne, the pretty ingenue of stage and screen; the girl who responds to the horror of the Holocaust with her enshrined sentence "I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart"; the universalized, de-Judaized Anne.

Müller's book returns Anne to the history in which she lived and died. Anne Frank avoids the romantic, idealized figure and details the life of one girl, her family and friends, among millions who were persecuted and murdered because they were Jews.

Anne Frank begins where The Diary of a Young Girl ends, with the discovery and capture of the eight Jews who had been hiding in the back of an Amsterdam warehouse for two years. Müller then provides the lengthy prologue to that moment, with Anne as the center of many lives -- her parents, relatives and friends -- surrounding her. The book follows those lives until they are snuffed out, with Anne and her sister succumbing to a typhus epidemic in Bergen-Belsen.

"Yes, Anne is a symbol of hope, of optimism," says Müller during a phone interview, "but we have to look beyond the end of the diary and confront ourselves with what she had to go through."

Müller, a journalist who divides her time between Munich and Vienna, spent three years researching Anne Frank, conducting interviews with some 20 survivors who knew the Franks, including Miep Gies, who collaborated in their concealment. It is Gies who discovered Anne's diary and who kept it in a drawer unopened before giving it to Anne's father, Otto, the one member of the family to survive the death camps.

Müller began her project by rereading the diary, her first entry into Anne's world since she had discovered it, as millions have around the world, when she herself was a young girl. "During the years before I read the diary for the second time, I had seen the play, I had sometime in my life seen the movie, and I had met a lot of survivors and spoken to them," she says. "Anne Frank was such a romanticized figure for me. I was more of the opinion of many survivors, "Why is it always her? Why is it she who gets the attention when we had to go through similar horror?'

"I actually wanted to see her as one of many and not as some outstanding hero. When I read the diary again, I was really amazed how much more mature, how much more thoughtful she was than I first thought, how much more skeptical she was. She says the sentence "In spite of everything, I still believe that people are good at heart,' but two lines below she starts wondering about why the ordinary man is always ready to make war. She writes about how the evil must be in the ordinary man, otherwise he wouldn't help governments make war; if the ordinary man doesn't change, the world will never change.

"She's much more critical than we are made to believe. Things are not so simple, as in the play. Her thoughts are not so simple. I was very amazed what an outstanding young writer she really was; especially in the last two or three months she spent in the hiding place, her writing skills really improved. She was a very gifted writer for her age, a very mature writer and thinker for her age. All this I discovered only when I read the diary very carefully a few years ago."

Müller also discovered a girl who was gravely aware of how dangerous her life had become. "I was really astonished how much she knew about the persecution of the Jews. I didn't remember that from my first reading, when I was about 12, 13. She really reminds us with her words -- she knows that Jews are being brought to Poland to be gassed there. She reminds us that people could know if they bothered to know. That's something that you don't learn from the play."

The biography reveals the growing horror throughout Germany, and throughout Central Europe and Holland, where the Franks believed they had escaped to a neutral enclave. Each day there seemed to bring another edict denying Jews the most basic of rights. Each day brought the report of another act of violence. The Franks, in Müller's re-creation, work hard to maintain ordinary lives in very extraordinary circumstances. "We tend to forget that people living through that time couldn't imagine that it would get worse and worse and worse. They were living from hope, and they were thinking, "Now we have this law that forbids us from going to the public parks, or forbids us to have a business. But the Germans are an educated people with a long history of being a very cultivated people.' They tried to believe in the common sense of people. Many of them, until the very end, couldn't imagine what was going to happen to them. People looking back on the time with the full knowledge of how it ended often tend to blame the Jews for not having reacted earlier or having left the country. I wanted to show that they are forgetting what it was really like."

Anne Frank is an act against forgetting, or misremembering, a time and an individual. The Anne whom Müller most admires is not the doe-eyed saint but the girl with strong opinions who was not afraid of voicing them. "This is a very important side of her character, because we live in the world of conformity. The normal population doesn't speak up for its rights. The politicians are conformists and hide themselves behind words like "tolerance' or "liberal,' but actually this is just not having a strong opinion. We are using Anne Frank as a symbol against intolerance and we keep speaking about how important tolerance between people is, but if tolerance is not based on strong opinions, and if it doesn't mean accepting strong opinions that conflict with each other, then it's worth nothing."

Anne Frank still has the remarkable power to affect people's lives. On Müller's current book tour, she is meeting people across generations who have felt influenced by Anne's diary, which remains an international bestseller. Anne has changed Müller's life as well. "I'm very strictly against collective guilt," she explains. "That's a big issue in Germany. I don't think that I, as being from the third generation after the war, have to feel any guilt for what happened. But I do think that I have a big responsibility to always be aware of what happened.

"As you probably know, we had elections in Austria a few weeks ago, and the right-wing party gained enormous power. This is a party using fascist slogans in their campaigns and using fear against foreign workers. I do find the responsibility wherever I go and wherever I speak to make people aware of what's going on and of what happened, and that we are responsible that nothing like this will ever happen again.

"This sounds very teacherlike, but if there is no collective guilt, there should be a collective shame and a collective awareness. Unfortunately, many, many people in my country said, "Why do you have to touch this subject again? Don't you think we have heard enough? We are tired of it.' I feel it's my responsibility to confront those people."

Melissa Müller appears at 11 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 16, as part of the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Dr. Call 432-5700, ext. 3299, for information.